Mike Hayes left school at 15 with his heart set on a career in wine, but not in his wildest dreams did he think he would one day be named Winemaker of the Year by the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology (ASVO).
Mind you, he probably would have been even more surprised to hear that he would earn a Masters degree, be named the University of Southern Queensland’s Professional Alumnus of the Year, and be appointed an Adjunct Professor in the University of Southern Queensland’s School of Agriculture Computational Sciences and Environmental Studies.
He’s certainly come a long way since the early days sitting on a chipping hoe in what was then very much the back blocks of the Australian wine sector.
Mike is proud to be the first Queenslander to win the ASVO’s highest winemaking award. As he quipped to the local media: ‘At last we have stepped out of the dark ages and achieved some of the recognition we deserve’.
Now 53 and chief winemaker at Symphony Hill winery near Stanthorpe (which has won no less than 20 gold medals and 16 trophies at metropolitan and rural wine shows this year alone), Mike has played a key role in the growth, innovation and success that has earned Queensland that recognition.
He admits that some of the early wines (including some of his own) weren’t great, but says he never doubted the state’s potential to make its mark.
‘I knew right from the early days’, he said. ‘Even back in 1981 I remember some of the encouraging results we got from the Royal Brisbane Wine Show when we put in a couple of wines. A Shiraz Cab blend got gold but the real encouragement was that this was a really cool climate wine.
‘I realised we had to learn to appreciate our sense of place and find the right varieties and know how to grow them professionally, which flows on to winemaking. The other really important aspect was making the Queensland people proud of their sector, which is happening at the moment but took quite a while.’
Mike started discovering what he calls emerging varieties back in 1979 when he worked on a small patch of Malbec with his father. He’d never heard of it, so he went down to the local library in Stanthorpe (this was before the days of computers) to do some reading.
He’s been exploring and learning ever since, including planting a trial plot of 60 new varieties at Symphony Hill, and in 2012 was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to investigate autochthonous (indigenous) European varieties that might help combat the impact of climate change. He chased the vintage from Portugal to Germany, picking up ideas he believed would work at home.
This in turn led to his Masters degree and to his leading role developing the Vineyard of the Future at the Queensland College of Wine Tourism, with support from Wine Australia’s Regional Program, which currently has 80 emerging varieties planted. All are clonal selected, DNA tested and virus tested and have been put in on their own roots to host a mother vine plantation. As a collection, it’s of international significance and value.
And Mike certainly puts his knowledge to good use in his own winery. Symphony Hill has won gold medals for 23 different varieties.
The chair of the ASVO’s judging committee for the award, Louisa Rose, said Mike’s dedication, curiosity and drive, combined with his generous spirit in wanting to give back and teach others, made him a clear winner of this year’s award.
‘Mike has achieved a lot and made many great wines for many people,’ she said. ‘What is less obvious to many is what he has given to others and his region, through sharing his knowledge, teaching and mentoring.’
This hasn’t gone totally unnoticed in Queensland. In 2014 Mike was awarded Samuel Basset Award for the most significant contribution by a Queenslander to the wine sector.