Five minutes with a Legend: Ron Laughton

Published on 28 January 2021

Photo: Ron Laughton, at home in the vineyard.

Ron Laughton established Jasper Hill winery in Heathcote with his wife Elva in 1975; today, the estate continues to produce some of Australia’s most compelling and sought-after winesRon’s background, however, is not that of a traditional vigneron. 

He was raised on a farm on Melbourne's suburban fringe, surrounded by sheep, men who drank beer, and hard work, and from there he became a leading food technologist with one of the nation's largest dairy co-operatives. Travelling to the big milk factories in Victoria's north, he noticed something different in the landscape around Heathcote, with great potential for making wine: a strip of deep red soil, which we now know as the Cambrian soil of Heathcote.

The thought of growing grapes and making wine had been in the back of Ron’s mind for a while and so he pounced when he saw a ‘for sale’ sign on an eight-acre shiraz vineyard while he was driving through the area. That land became what is now referred to as Emily’s Paddock, named after Ron and Elva’s eldest daughter. More than 45 years on, Ron is widely acknowledged for establishing and shaping Heathcote wine region and as one of the pioneers of the biodynamic movement and use of organic techniques in Australian viticulture. In 2006, Ron was inducted into the MFWF Legends Hall of Fame, and this year, celebrates 40 vintages at Jasper Hill.

The proudest moment in my career was being made a Melbourne Food & Wine Festival Legend by my peers in 2006.

The mistake that taught me the most was when you’re dealing with natural processes like fermentation, nature is in control, not you. Things don’t always work to your plan. I almost cried in my early days of winemaking when one of only five new oak barrels of Emily’s Paddock shiraz had to be poured down the drain with oak-induced cork taint.

My first job in hospitality was selling broken Swallow and Ariell biscuits from the tin as a pre-teen in my uncle’s milk bar in suburban Melbourne.

The reason I got into this industry was because I like messing about and making things. After a childhood on a farm, training in science and spending my early career in the food industry, grape-growing, winemaking, and building and operating your own small business was a great fit for me; it required a combination of these many skills. Maybe it's in the genes as well. My maternal forebears were Scottish horticulturalists and raspberry growers in the Yarra Valley.

The reason I stayed was because every vintage is another new experience, particularly looking ahead with the challenges of climate change.

My mentors are the early Victorian pioneering viticulturists in lieutenant-governor Charles La Trobe’s time, the mid-1800s, like the Swiss-born De Castella and Deschamps families. I admire their tenacity and conviction.

If there’s one positive thing to come out of this lockdown experience, I think it’s our humanity,  the knowledge that we are all in it together and here to help each other out.

If I could return to any moment in the Victorian wine industry of the last 50 years, I’d choose to say sorry, while reminiscing is good, I don’t look back, only forwards.

But the most exciting development in the Victorian wine industry in the last five years is the growing public acceptance of the need for and benefits of clean and minimal impact production. I’m heartened to see the passing of the baton to the next generation of grape growers, winemakers, restaurateurs and food producers who can carry on this work. For example, in the Heathcote wine region alone, my vigneron daughter Emily is good friends with Simon Osicka of Osicka Wines and Liam Anderson of Wild Duck Creek Estate. Each of these three families have a daughter in the same class at Heathcote Primary School, which could well produce the next generation of family winemakers.

Jasper Hill wines are available for purchase online, with delivery Australia-wide. Keep up with their latest releases and what’s happening in their vineyard by following Jasper Hill on Instagram @jasperhillwines.

You might also like