AS a young shearer, Doug Balnaves could never have guessed that it would be a tally of a different kind that his family would become recognised for.
But more than 40 years on, the family's former sheep paddocks are now in the heart of the Coonawarra wine region, producing premium Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as cabernet franc, shiraz, merlot, chardonnay and petit verdot.
The ultimate achievement of Balnaves of Coonawarra has been its Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Tally wine, which is only produced in years of super premium fruit but is an acclaimed top drop.
Doug - the general manager and his children Kirsty (the business manager) and Pete (the viticulturist) have built a very successful brand selling wine across Australia and the globe.
They also manage about 1011 hectares of vines in the Coonawarra and Wrattonbully wine regions, including their own.
Balnaves of Coonawarra is one of the most picturesque cellar doors along the Coonawarra strip, especially when the more than 1000 roses are in full bloom.
But it is their wine that has put them on the map, with respected reviewer James Halliday awarding their winery a five-star rating for a remarkable 20 years in a row.
The tight-knit family are passionate about wine but acknowledge a big part of their success has come from never losing sight that they are running a business.
Kirsty says in the early 1990s, when wine was booming, their parents gave them some sage advice.
"Mum and Dad said to Pete and I - 'don't get too carried away, don't forget wool and wine are both four letter words' - because Dad had been through the boom and bust of the wool industry," she said.
The Balnaves family has worked hard but also know they have been fortunate to have some fantastic long-term relationships with suppliers, distributors and many loyal staff who have been with them for 25 to 30 years.
"One of the people we planted vineyards for in 1990 is still with us and it was all done on a hand shake," Pete said.
Doug is quick to acknowledge luck has also been on their side.
"You need a bit of luck sometimes to be in the right place at the right time," he said.
THE Balnaves family's history in Penola can be traced back to 1855 when their Scottish forebears emigrated from Paisley, near Glasgow.
At the time Scotland was in economic hardship with the clearing of the Highlands and thousands out of work due to the industrial revolution.
Many Scots who settled in the South East region became shepherds on pastoral runs but Doug's enterprising great great grandmother Jane Balnaves opened a general store in the early 1860s.
Subsequent generations grew it into a bustling store in the main street, which employed up to 17 people just prior to World War II, but after coming home from the war, Doug's father Ian took a different path.
"He realised that working with his father and two or three brothers in the store may not be a good thing so he jumped across the street and went with DeGaris the stock agents," Doug said.
In 1948 Ian and his wife Gwen bought their first farming land and soon after added the land where Balnaves cellar door and winery is today.
Doug left school at 15 years of age in 1953 and for the next decade or so divided his time between helping on the farm and shearing.
After the disappointment of missing out on several blocks, in 1966 they finally acquired another 162ha - opposite where Katnook is now located.
It would cement the family's future in Coonawarra's wine industry.
"They backed me into this and it was a horrific cost, but Coonawarra was expanding and we always thought we would sell the 50 acres (20ha) out the front to a wine company and keep the rest," Doug said.
"Would you believe it? In 1970 a NSW company (Hungerford Hill) turned up and bought the lot."
Doug - who had married Annette a few years earlier - stayed on as the manager to transition the grazing land to vineyards.
At the time, only about 3600 hectares of Coonawarra had been developed - about half of the area it is now.
The following year Hungerford Hill planted 250 acres of vines with overhead irrigation- the biggest single development that Coonawarra had seen at the time.
"I didn't know much about vineyards and I didn't like red wine all that much either," Doug said.
"We put in Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Riesling and it all grew strangely enough."
Doug recalls it being a huge change from running sheep and is hugely grateful to many in the local wine industry who shared their knowledge.
Throughout the years Doug and his employees developed more bare land into vineyards for Hungerford Hill, which also had extensive areas of vineyards in NSW, as well as Reynella.
The company was one of the early adopters of mechanical harvesting and multi-row spraying in Coonawarra.
In 1975 Doug and Annette planted 2.5ha each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz of their own and began selling their grapes to Hungerford Hill.
"It was a weekend hobby that got out of hand," Doug said.
Eventually in 1988 Doug resigned from Hungerford Hill to focus on their own vineyard.
At the same time Doug and Annette started Balnaves Vineyard Services developing 690ha of vineyards for other growers in the next decade.
BOTHT Kirsty and Pete say there was never a plan for them to join the family business but after they had spread their wings in their 20s, they found their way home.
"We were actively discouraged and both came back because we wanted to, I think that is part of the reason why it has worked," Kirsty said.
Pete was the first to return full-time after coming back and forth between working vintages in Mildura, Vic, and the off-season as a lacky for the movie industry at Broken Hill, NSW.
"Growing up, when we used to live over at Hungerford Hill during vintage there would be trucks coming and going and bins banging all night, it was quite exciting," he said.
Soon after Kirsty, who had spent time working in hospitality and tourism in Tasmania, also ended up home soon after completing a business management and marketing degree.
"I was at uni in Adelaide but I had finished when my house got broken into. Because nothing was taken, the police said it wasn't safe to be there," she said.
"So I went home for the weekend and never went back."
The Balnaves family insist they never had any plans to make their own wine but by chance in 1990 they "got caught" with 20 tonnes of top quality Cabernet Sauvignon that Hungerford Hill was unable to crush due to the big vintage.
"We had them made off premise and said we would sell it as bulk, then people said to us that it was a bloody good wine so we had to bottle it," Doug said.
The wine won a trophy in the Adelaide Wine Show that year and from there Walkerville Cellars became their first stockists.
More sales eventuated and in 1991 they opened the cellar door, which is perched over a natural pond that attracts an abundance of birdlife .
Kirsty and Annette worked there for the first year until they started employing staff.
In the early years of Balnaves of Coonawarra, their wine was being crushed at a neighbouring winery but in 1995 they decided to build their own winery, enlisting Chapman Herbert architects to design the exterior - a curved roof building with a distinctive tower.
It was completed just in time for the 1996 vintage.
"We always said we would never have a cellar door, we would never have a winery and we were never going to employ a winemaker but we have done all of it," Kirsty said.
"The only thing we said we'd never do and we haven't is open a restaurant," Pete added.
Kirsty says Doug and Annette showed an enormous amount of faith in them having to borrow much of the money for the 1000t winery when interest rates were 22 per cent.
But Pete and Kirsty were also signatories to the loan, which gave them "skin in the game".
"Dad's father always used to have a saying that you want to be in debt enough to get out of bed in the morning but not enough to keep you awake at night," Pete said.
Senior winemaker Pete Bissell - who the Balnaves family enticed from Wynns - oversaw the design and construction phase of the winery.
It was the start of a very successful 25-year association, which would result in Balnaves of Coonawarra wine winning many accolades, including Winery of the Year in 2008.
The Balnaves family say Pete Bissell made sure they never took any shortcuts in their quest to produce top quality wine.
They recall a good example of this when he wanted them to handpick their Chardonnay blocks, despite the fact they owned two mechanical harvesters at the time.
Doug says Pete Bissell was one to never lose an argument so he did a trial, making one batch from hand picked grapes and another that had been mechanically harvested from the same area.
"If we could pick the difference it was big and Mum immediately said 'oh I like that' so the next year it was all hand picked," Pete Balnaves said.
He says a big advantage of having the vertically integrated business has been the valuable feedback they receive from the winery on the quality of the fruit.
This has allowed them to hone their viticultural techniques from pruning to irrigation scheduling and even trialling new varieties.
"We had to make a conscious decision whether we spent more time and money on sharpening the pyramid, so either putting a little bit of fruit up as a very high grade, or making the triangle a little bit fatter and putting a lot of effort in pushing the middle up," he said.
"We spent a lot of time and effort in really flattening the triangle and I think that shows in the range of high quality wines we have been able to produce."
Peter says the model has changed from the early days, when a portion of the fruit from each vineyard they managed was processed through the winery, to now focusing more on their own label.
"We only use about 30 per cent of what we grow, with the rest of the fruit sold on," he said.
In 2020 Pete Bissell retired and Jacinta Jenkins - who had been Pete's protege for two years previously - stepped up as the senior winemaker. She has continued to produce wines of a very similar style.
ABOUT 70pc of the wines Balnaves of Coonawarra bottle each year are consumed in Australia with about 60 percent of these sales through the cellar door.
Kirsty says it has been interesting throughout the years to see their customers' interests change from selling wine based on the winemaker on the label to consumers having a more grassroots interest.
"In the 1990s when we opened, winemakers were like rock stars - everyone wanted to know who made your wine - whereas now people are more interested in how the grapes are grown and where it has grown," she said.
Kirsty says they are fortunate they did not have a large exposure to China with their overseas sales focused on South Korea, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States.
Cabernet sauvignon remains their biggest seller, which they see continuing with Coonawarra known the world over for its cabernet.
"It performs well in our cool climate environment, especially in the more challenging years," Pete said.
GETTING involved in community and industry organisations is something that Pete and Kirsty inherited from their parents.
Doug has been on many boards during his career, including the Limestone Coast Wine Industry Council, the Phylloxera Board and the Coonawarra Vignerons Association, serving as the inaugural president of the latter.
He is also a life member of the Penola Pipe Band, and for a few years was even the chairman of the Coonawarra Guinea Pig Racing Association- a fun event put on by the vignerons in the 1980s.
Prior to her passing, Annette was heavily involved in the Stand Like Stone Foundation, and was chair of the Limestone Coast Tourism Association.
Pete is the present Coonawarra Vignerons Association president and a long-time representative on the Limestone Coast Wine Industry Water Resources Committee.
Kirsty is the deputy chairperson of the SA Wine Industry Association and has been on the board since 2013 and is an active member of the CVA.
"We have given back but we have also got a lot out of it too in the relationships we have built," Kirsty said.
"It has given us a great grasp of the industry - nothing much has happened that has been a shock to us, other than maybe China."
THERE have been many achievements along the way but Doug, Kirsty and Pete all agree their biggest has been harmoniously working side-by side for more than 30 years.
During this time, Pete and Kirsty have both raised their own families and made other investments outside the business.
"It is the business of the family, rather than the family business and that is how we work together," she said.
The biggest challenge for the family came with the passing of Annette in July 2018, who they acknowledged was "the glue holding everything together" in the business.
"Her philosophy was do it right, do it well, do it regardless, which we have always remembered," Kirsty said.
Pete says it is fantastic to see his sons Hugo and Ned and nieces Ellie and Annie getting involved in the family business, from driving grape harvesters to working in the cellar door but he says there is no pressure for a third generation in Balnaves of Coonawarra.
"I would be surprised if one or more of them don't come back to the area - whether they come back to the business I have no idea," he said.
Doug says everything has worked out brilliantly in the family's transition from wool to wine.
He is still very involved but also now spends plenty of hours each week tending to his Angus cattle herd.
"When I got out of Hungerford Hill, most of the money went to paying debts," he said.
"My ambition, because I was a sheep farmer, was to buy a bigger sheep farm.
"Lucky it didn't happen because Kirsty and Pete wouldn't be working with me on a sheep farm.
"The grandchildren have grown up all amongst us- you can't get much luckier than that."
THE Balnaves family acknowledge there are some "headwinds" facing Australia's wine industry but they are optimistic about their future, being a well-recognised brand and having a diversity of markets.
Pete is excited about how quickly ag technology is evolving and the gains this is bringing to their vineyards.
Recently Balnaves installed a GIS platform across all 18 sites that it owns or manages to allow them to overlay EM38 mapping and Green Seeker data with yield maps.
"It will allow us to do non-destructive sampling across each site to take out the top 15 per cent or take the bottom 15pc out and really hone where the fruit is coming from in a batch," he said.
"Buying more land or buying more vineyards is a significant cost but if you can get 10pc or 20pc more productivity of what you have got regardless of the industry you are in that is a big thing."
Pete is hopeful the industry will have the maturity to rationalise tonnages for the next few years and help balance supply and demand.
"Everyone has got something they can do, we all have part of our vineyards that are not as productive as they could be, they are expensive to run because of their short rows or angle rows, or the varieties are not best for the region," he said.
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