Saturday, June 14, 2014

About one week out from Winter Solstice

I wouldn’t, nay couldn’t, have forgotten you dear readers, even had I wanted to.  I hope you’ve not been too forlorn without my updates.  Sadly, this is the last blog I will be posting via Blogger, and the last that’s less public.  You see, we shall be releasing our brand new website soon and while there will be a blog contained within, it will be for public consumption, including our guests so it will be more commercial in nature and less… conversational.  My god he’s wordy that one!

Months and months and months.  There has never been a less busy time at Block Eight which is strange, really, because the crops have entered their winter hibernation.  What has kept us so busy is everything else.  

Facebook followers will have seen Jeff’s updates regarding the bottling of our first ever wine.  This truly was a momentous occasion and felt rather full circle.  Jeff went to the factory to see it happening and was amazed by the efficiency of it all (I was in Sydney working).  You have no idea the steps involved in getting everything ready for the bottling – working constantly with the design team at Pixel Eight to get the label right, working with the label printers, the bottling company, the winemaker… the list goes on.  Every tiny decision needed to be made and we’re ecstatic at our branding and the finished outcome.  Enough about the design, I hear you yell, tell us about the taste.  The first thing is – it’s practically impossible to be objective.  The second is that the wine is outstanding.  A beauty of a traditional Hunter Semillon.  Jeff grabbed a few bottles off the production line and we guzzled them immediately and I have to say, it’s a very very drinkable drop.  It’s difficult to imagine just how good it will be after cellaring for five years, which is what the Reserve is intended to be.  Naturally we couldn’t help ourselves with those first few bottles and anyone we came into contact with in the ensuing two weeks got to sample some.  You were all very encouraging in your responses so we can only hope you weren’t merely being polite.  I’m immensely proud of what we have achieved.  It’s a proper wine, you know?  I know that may sound like the bleeding obvious but one always has the sneaking suspicion that we’re merely playing grown ups but with our experts – and in the incredibly talented hands of Daniel Binet – our wine is delicious.  And another weird thing – it doesn’t feel like it’s alcoholic.  You know, it’s just juice from those vines up there, it can’t also have an alcoholic kick – but that it does.  So when can you get your hands on it?

baby that was years ago

It will come as a surprise to few that bureaucratic red tape provides a not insignificant number of hurdles for us to jump through in order for you to sample our wares.  To sell wine to any of you means we first need an alcohol license.  I was told this would take six weeks… well twelve weeks later and I am still waiting.  No, they cannot give me an estimate.  No, they cannot give me an update.  No, there is no way I can sell without one.  Indeed.  But the real kicker was that we also needed to do a responsible service of alcohol course (RSA) in order to sell wine over the internet.  Yep.  Well that was six hours of my life I will never get back.  I can’t say I learnt much but thankfully Jeff was there to dull the pain.  Clearly it’s just another grab for funds.  But I shall remain apolitical.  Naturally I was the first person to volunteer to play a drunk person – yes people, some of you act like a drunk while others pretend to refuse you service – and you pay hundreds of dollars to do the course – and found myself rather hilarious asking for a double bourbon and coke (get refused), single bourbon and coke (get refused), straight bourbon (get refused), a nip of bourbon then… (get refused) so I say, ‘well I haven’t been refused the previous twelve times I’ve ordered today’ and much stifled laughter ensues.  Contrast this with Jeff’s drunk character who tried to pick up the bar lady ‘you’re very pretty’, ‘have you got a boyfriend’, ‘do you want a boyfriend’ and then after repeated refusals announces ‘well then I’ll just go get a prostitute.’  Yes people, in front of the whole class.  I was mortified – where does that come from?  Anyway, while I can legally serve you alcohol, I can’t legally sell you alcohol so at this point in time, no one is any the wiser.  Keep your enthusiasm boiling, thank you friends.

Now we are only four weeks out from bottling our standard Semillon so the juggernaut has sailed (does a juggernaut sail?) and we repeat the whole process all over – labels, printing, bottles, caps etc.  The wine still isn’t finished yet so we are cutting this one down to the wire.  All reports from the Valley point to 2014 being one of the most amazing crops in living memory.  ABC Newcastle interviewed McGuigan who said it’s the best year since the 1960s and we can all expect some pretty amazing 2014 Semillons over the coming years as they are released from / for cellaring.  They also interviewed me about feeling the luckiest debut wine producer ever and that, frankly, we both do.  Unfortunately for you guys the interview is not available on the internet.

lookin' for the love getaway

We finally got funding from a bank to continue our build.  This, as I may have hinted previously (barely just scratched at the issue surely) caused us untold stress.  We were not in debt but simply unable to proceed.  Well that has all changed.  When we decided to start renting out our house to tourists we had no idea just how popular it would be.  Basically, we have had a guest every weekend since we opened, give or take.  This income is imperative in getting us ever closer to opening more cabins.  The shed conversion is literally weeks away from completion and opening and we’ve been spending our weekends in there (without toilet, running water or kitchen – the joys) edging closer to completion while guests enjoy the house.  I must say the space has far exceeded both of our expectations.  The beautiful high cathedral ceiling makes it feel rather grand and Jeff’s design has really come together to add both class and character.  Okay I admit that when he told me about the paneling (officially known as wainscoting - see I do listen though I think I went to school with him) on the walls I was nervous but over the years I have learnt to subdue this uncertainty and just go with his flow.  Foolish, really, to have doubted a single thing.  The complete effect is astonishing and it’s just impossible to imagine that you’re inside a shed.  We would happily live there (well moreso once the water is running).
by the butcher shop with the sawdust strewn

The cabins now continue in leaps and other proverbs.   The builders have been in erecting the frames and installing the cladding and finally our property no longer looks like a building site.  Hard to believe that for six long months it has.  We now have a real sense of what the finished effect will be like, and just how generously proportioned the internal dimensions are.   We can now stand on the balconies to admire the outlook that our guests will soon enjoy.  It’s that exciting phase of the project when things start coming together nicely.   We should be able to scrape together enough funds to open one of them within about two months which means we will have the house, the shed conversion and one cabin up for rental (we will bunk in an unfinished cabin – the joys) as the funds from letting will then be injected back into the remaining cabins to get them done.  Slightly behind schedule, it’s our hope to have all four cabins operating by the middle of next year.  The renting of the house has been a good trial run for us and we have ironed out some of the finer details of offering one of the best experiences in the Hunter.  Where do you get home-baked goodies to have with your tea and coffee?  At Block Eight of course.

shooting stars never stop when they reach the top

The vegetable garden is in the middle of an overdrive.  We’re going sweet potato mad and just about to reach pea, beetroot and Brussels sprouts fever pitch.  I’ve made one batch of marmalade from the orange tree but am holding off picking more until the fruit is really sweet and the lime tree has burst out another crop which will be put to good use over coming weeks.  I must admit that the gypsy type lifestyle we are currently leading means my time in the kitchen is at a minimum at present.  It doesn’t seem to make sense to do a messy batch of jam when guests will be arriving in the next few hours. 

Barry is rasping like a three pack a day-er.  It does break one’s heart.  But I think she has just learnt to get on with life and her affliction does not seem to get in her way.  We spent three days building the girls their five star luxury pen-house (oh that’s clever – and for those playing along at home we shall call this Sean Penn) and were quite proud of our achievements.  It’s sturdy and big and bold and designer all in one.  And all the girls want to do is escape.  They still prefer to be free range which given Leroy’s adeptness at keeping foxes away seems to be working well for all concerned.

the neighbours complain about the noises above

Poor Leroy is the one suffering the most in this whole rental situation.  Given his propensity for unpredictability with humans he has to be locked away in the main shed for forty eight hours.  We let him out and in with us for some of it but we were worried he’d go stir crazy in there instead of out hunting like he prefers.  In actual fact, however, he appears to enjoy calling the larger space his own, enjoys the peace and quiet and most times is itching to get back in there when we let him out.  Sure, sometimes we get a dirty look but that’s what you expect from cats.  He’s being very grown up about it all and acknowledges that we all have to do our bit to make this business a success.

The ducks have decided they are petrified of anyone wearing black or red.  Any other colour is acceptable and they will eat in close proximity.  But black or red sends them scurrying off and onto the dam as though you’re there to pluck and barbecue.   They are still a lovely sight from a distance, floating atop the water without a worry in the world.

And while all this craziness babbles along, I did manage to find the time to complete my novel.  I'm very happy with the finished product and with all appendages crossed am hoping you will get a chance to get your copy from a store soon.  I've asked one of Australia's best literary agents to represent me... and you'll hear more on this subject if there is positivity to share.

Well I do hope the long wait was worth it.  I have enjoyed writing this one but hope you can understand that time is not, at present, a luxury. will be live by end of June - see youse there!

don't let affection stray away

Saturday, March 29, 2014

10,000 bottles... sitting on a wall

It’s been such a long time.  I feel like we’ve had a falling out of sorts – have we?  Is it me or you?  Actually, we have been up to nothing and everything and yet meanwhile all of your lives are continuing as the struggles and rewards at Block Eight sometimes feel somewhat trivial.  Some of you are changing careers, having babies, planning trips, celebrating birthday milestones – what have we done?  Well I guess that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?

Where to start.

I suppose it’s accurate to say that the mojo of the Block Eight founders has faltered throughout the first months of 2014.  This has, as eluded to, in most part been the result of significant financial pressures on us.  Oh, you don’t want to know all the gory details but suffice to say that we had been barrelling along investing in the business when it finally dawned on us that these investments were just that, and no income was in sight.  We’d expected that accommodation would have at least started by now, and this would have covered some of the additional wine making costs.  But eighteen months in and still there is not even a sniff of income while the bills mount.  This prompted some not insignificant soul-searching and many sleepless nights that resulted in less of the more physical chores getting completed.  But that was up until about three weeks ago and the major wake-up call landed heavily and we have made amends.  We’re back after a brief lull!

First up, thanks to the tenacity of a wonderful man (who shall one day have a pig named in his honour – his choice not ours – and Rodney the Pig does have a certain charm), we look to have secured some additional financing that will keep us motoring toward income in a much less stressful way.  It literally was months of uncertainty and for any of you who run your own business you can all-too-well appreciate what that must have been like for us but Rod delivered, beyond all hope, and would not rest until we got what we needed to bring back that kick in our steps.

it would be so nice

On the wine front we are breath-takingly close to final production.  We spent several hours today at the bottling company and our winemaker’s.  We’ve nearly decided on the shape, form and colour of our bottles and screw caps.  We have the perfect crew at Pixel Eight working on our wine labels and it looks as though our first bottling will occur in mid-May for our Reserve Semillon.  Unfortunately for you fine folk the reserve is exactly that, and not designed for instant quaffing.  However, our standard Semillon will follow in June and that, fellow tipplers, is when the party can really start.  We tasted all three wines today and to say we were blown away is somewhat of an understatement.  I forgot to take photos, sorry!  The Semillon is limey and zesty and will cellar particularly well and we will enhance the natural sugars in some of it to deliver you your instant drink.  The Chardonnay, our precious hand-held drop was a knock-out, even though it has a long way to go to mature properly.  But the Shiraz.  My oh my.  It really was something else – a shame we have twelve months to wait before we can share it but our only thought was – if it’s this good now, how great is it gonna be then?  Dan is very happy with the results and we now, finally, can see that all the stresses (every single one I have shared with you, and then some) have faded into insignificance.
think of me babe whenever

The build draws closer.  The shed conversion is within weeks of completion.  Jeff has done nothing short of a miraculous job guiding our wonderful builders.  The plaster is up, the windows and doors are in, the floors are down, the painting is done, the architectural detailing is magnificent, the outside deck is luxurious and all that remains is some trim painting, the electrics and the plumbing.  It’s a wonderful space and, I think, our joint favourite.  For those who saw it as merely a shed, you have no idea of the transformation that has taken place.  The remainder of the cabins, subject to final bank transfers, should be at lock-up within a month or so, and we should have enough to get one to complete fit-out, and open for hire, a while after that.  The others will be finished as income finances their completion.

bringing back sweet memories

The financial stress also made us re-evaluate our current situation.  Our house is for hire.  It’s been staring us in the face this whole time – three bedrooms with capacity to bring more income than two standalone cabins.  Teaching ourselves the intricacies of each of the systems of Stayz, Booking, AirBnB etc has been a slight challenge and a number of false starts with enquiries that went nowhere culminated today in our first deposit, with first potential guests coming at Easter.  Another memorable milestone for us (we will relocate to the shed when we have bookings).

Jeff also eased our burden significantly by getting himself a part-time job.  He’s doing what he does best by helping a not-for-profit refine its systems and processes and assisting the CEO with these.  I won’t speak on his behalf but I think he’s relishing the challenge and this comes at a perfect time when the crops are less demanding.

Speaking of, our olives have taken a battering.  Finances and time meant they were the lowest on the pecking order and have simply not been maintained.  They’ve been attacked by bugs, drought, malnutrition and neglect and look a sorry state at the moment but still we got some fruit off them and we know they will bounce back as soon as they get some TLC.  We’ve been pickling the fruit for the past few weeks so have our very first produce close to finished and will share with some of you over coming weeks.  To go from disgustingly bitter and indigestible to that salty squishy yumminess has been quite the transformation and it’s this crop (after the wine, naturally) that I feel most excited by.  Perhaps next year they will return to proper yield and we may get some oil and other products out of them but frankly, this is so far out of our focus right now that it bears not much deeper thought.
and you used to be so sweet

I had surgery on my hand for the carpal tunnel.  Started with the right hand which put me out of action for a number of weeks (and helped exacerbate my relatively sombre mojo) but the surgeon did a quite astounding job and the entire procedure was flawless, the staff at the hospital brilliant and my recovery fast and relatively painless.  I get the odd ache in my wrist now as part of the healing but this is normal and should subside… just in time for the July 4th prune-off.  Please get back to me with your RSVP if you’re keen for that.

My girls are much the same.  Lizzie Birdsworth and Bee Smith are more or less keeping to themselves and have yet to start laying though it does seem they have colluded to avoid being picked on.  Strangely, this also appears to have gotten Barry off the hook whose tail feathers painstakingly try for a comeback and whose demeanour appears considerably less downtrodden.  Though this may just be wishful thinking on my part.  The ducks have become one of my favourite chores, waddling towards us at dawn yapping loudly for food, genuinely pleased to see us and say hello for the day.  One day we thought one had been taken by the menacing fox and I cannot begin to tell you how pleased I was when she resurfaced later that afternoon.  They own the dam on which they sit and command respect from their wilder cousins.  A surreal sight was having a whopping big pelican land on the dam a few weeks back – so far inland – and see him again a few days later on the neighour’s dam trawling for something to eat.

The veggie patch has been revitalized with a new load of soil and autumn seed plantings.  Beetroot, carrots, Brussels sprouts, eggplant etc have all sprouted nicely, no doubt spurred on by the constant fall of rain which we’ve had over the last week or two.  Everything is heavy with dampness (but no longer are our spirits!)  The sweet potato is abundant, the watermelons bigger than bowling balls this year, pumpkin and chillis a lovely combination and the spinach simply will not let up.  I was thrilled to see the passionfruit vines bear fruit and they, along with the oranges and limes at the front of the house await ripening.
collar me, don't collar me

The Hunter Expressway – that much much much longed-for saviour finally opened last weekend.  I was so excited to drive it for the first time, anticipating a ten to twenty minute shave off our various commutes.  It’s undeniable that the road itself is a pleasure to drive but after years and years of planning and building and a $1.7B investment it was dismaying to realise that actually it shaves… not even a whisker off my drive to Sydney.  If anything it is one or two minutes’ longer.  Still, for those of you who loathe the crawl through Cessnock, you can now avoid it all together and can approach our road instead from the north, a mere six or so minutes from the Branxton / Wine Country Drive turn-off.  I hope you all enjoy that for every minute I thought I was going to save.

Our website is very close to completion too.  We have a holding page at the moment and you can keep checking it over coming weeks for the finished product:

One of the more exciting events to take place these last weeks was a near-crash landing of one of the hot air balloons that regularly float over our way, though mostly at the end of Sweetwater Drive.  It was quite low over our house and then next thing started coming down, landing a hundred metres or two beyond our boundary into the next door neighbour’s, stuck in a small clearing surrounded by trees so retrieving the balloon and its passengers was a delicate mission.  Everyone made it out alive so it did not exactly make the local news but it’s not a sight many of you would see any day, nor us, so still got us running out of the house to investigate the scene.

We can sing a song and sail along the silver sky

Another reason for my tardiness has been my investment in getting the novel done.  Avoiding outside chores did have its rewards and I am well on the way to getting the first draft done.  It’s 70,000 words so far and coming along nicely and I am happy with the content.  Of course, I need to have the best luck in the world (along with a modicum of talent) to get it published but I am investing a lot of my energy into this one and hope it will get me the cut-through I’ve craved since the release of the first one eight whole years ago – would you believe?

Perhaps the number eight is the omen here, a positive one.  All those months ago when I wrote that first blog and ended it (and many others) in the search for some Block Eight wine and now here we are, my faithful friends, a hair’s breadth away from ending every one with “have you bought a bottle yet?”  You’ll soon tire of me and this blog, I’ve no doubt.

Dirty dog, cool cat, and chicky baby are the puppet band


Friday, February 14, 2014

A Hallmark Occasion

Thank you to the many of you who have contributed to the avalanche of requests for a blog update.  Never fear, we are still here and things are bounding along.

All of the grapes are harvested.   No, this does not mean that Jeff’s duties in the vines are now complete, but it does mean he no longer has to worry about the various threats to producing fruit that makes our wine.  It now all sits with Dan, our winemaker who’s been very generous taking the time to explain how he turns the juice to nectar of the gods, giving us regular tastes and even spoiling Mervy to a backstage tour with multiple tipples at the winery.  We got less Shiraz than we thought but this is apparently a low yield season though the quality of the wine should be something quite spectacular – shame we have to wait up to eighteen months for it to be ready.  Our tenderly harvested Chardonnay made just over 350L juice, which now sits in one of our brand new European oak barrels fermenting away.  The Semillon, which we will definitely split into two types – one for sooner drinking, one that will cellar better – was on the down side of fermenting last we visited (yeast was nearly all dead, alcohol was making its appearance).  So all up, we’re looking at around 10,000 bottles of wine across the three varietals.  2013 has been hailed as a one in ten year season and we have been incredibly fortunate that this was our first.

thinking of the fear i've had so long

While finances have still yet to be sorted, we are operating on an oily rag and have made some steps forward in the shed conversion.  It is now completely plastered (as Jeff was on final harvest night), and Jeff has laboriously applied not one, not two, nay not three nor even four but five meticulous coats of paint including his perfectly tinted topcoat.  His vision really is coming together – choosing light fixtures, architectural features etc that I have decided I am moving in there as soon as it is finished.  Though it’s always been designated the council-demanded mobility cabin… we are fast coming to the conclusion that it is going to be the loveliest space.  Now, where did we plant that money tree?

Facebook followers will have seen our continuing bird dramas.  We went to Branxton a few weeks back and separated to completed different chores, which (as fate would have it) led me past the pet shop that was boldly advertising chickens and… turkeys.  I thought grabbing a couple of gobble-gobbles would be a great additional to our menagerie but upon investigation was told that they should not share a space with chickens as makes the latter susceptible to disease.  A diversion to the miniature pigs almost resulted in their purchase but common sense prevailed and rather than leave empty handed we decided to grab a couple of chooks.  I asked a staff member if all the birds in one shed were layers and he said yes, then tended to another customer, then when he returned we’d moved onto another shed and asked to purchase the two most striking birds.  Now our girls were not all that impressed when these fancy intruders joined them.  Olivia was named after her rather dapper leg warmers that continued right down to her feet, and Martha seemed befitting the posh bird with the grey bouffant.  Both Kellie and Vicky commented on Facebook that Olivia appeared not quite as she seemed and two days later her first cock-a-doodle-do confirmed their suspicions.  Old bird-softie Jeff could not bear the thought of returning Olivia, however, who’d submitted deed poll documents to change her name to the more suitable “Bruno”.  But then, closer inspection of Martha’s tailfeathers suggested that perhaps she did not know whether she was indeed, Arthur or Martha.  (boom-tish).  Much deliberation ensued but sanity prevailed – while country it is to wake to the sound of a rooster (or two), I doubted that our paying guests would feel the same when they’d been promised peace and tranquility.  Not to mention the aggression that was sure to emerge between the two he-shes.  A return was called for.  Friendly shop staff agreed as to our gender identification (the birds, not ours) and offered an exchange for “guaranteed hens” and we proudly welcomed Lizzie Birdsworth and Bea Smith into the fold.  Interestingly, as yet, there has been no challenge to the role of top dog (firmly belongs to Brooke) and neither has Barry taken the opportunity to emerge from the bottom of the heap.  Like the most racist racist in Racistville, the brown birds have been living under apartheid but thankfully there has been no squabbling or cockfighting and we are hoping assimilation will eventuate.  Barry was mightily disappointed at missing out on the chance of winning herself a heart down at the band club (as nan used to say) and is waiting with baited beak to see what the future holds for her status.  (Though I have spied her looking into the mirror more frequently, as though imagining what her exposed flesh would look like adorned anew with black feather).

a place where nobody dared to go

last night i dreamed we were together

you're everything i hope for

In other bird news, thankfully the ever-chatty crows have begun moving off the property now that they can no longer gorge themselves on our fruit.  The ducks have certainly found their voices and courage and can regularly be heard calling up to the house to be fed (what did I say about tranquility) and now run towards any person, including Jeff while he is on the tractor, forcing him to stop, get off and satiate their hunger.  They are extremely pretty to watch and their little personalities are shining through increasingly.  My what scrumptious eating they would make… if only they lived on a farm where real farmers lived.
try floating as the ships roll by

The return to work has been intense.  Busy and under pressure in the office and the commute has taken some time to readjust to.  I know on the second trip that my desire to rip apart with my bare hands the man sitting next to me, because his nose made a whistle as he breathed, probably exposed me as a country person way too used to seclusion.  But honestly, how can you not hear that whistle yourself?  It’d be like having a miniature kettle inside your head and never turning it off. 

Grapes have not been the only harvest.   Figgy has produced an enormous bounty this summer so I’ve made countless batches of fig jam – experimenting a bit with one batch to try to emulate Maggie Beer’s burnt / bitter taste.  I got pretty close.  Tomatoes threaten to take over the planet once again and one hit from my new little scotch bonnet chilli tree would have cleared out my whistle-friend’s nose for eternity.  Olives blacken on just a handful of trees though I don’t think they will be suitable for pickling – we shall all have to wait until 2015.  Facebook followers would also have seen my almighty growth and boy did that make some tasty eating.

that much hotter than a jalapeno

Both Jeff and I have been fighting man-flus over the past weeks.  This has diminished outside time somewhat as sleep demanded more share of the day.  But the downtime did send me back to the computer and I’ve invested a significant amount of time on the new novel that I hope to finish in the next few months. 

I had a visit from a cousin and his family the other week and we got talking about our history.  I mentioned that one of my last memories of my grandmother (which I’m sure I mentioned on a blog months back) was of us kids elbow deep in sugar and fruit for her jam-making.  I said how full circle life feels to have come, and I think of her often as I boil my own fruit away.  (Another friend recommended a book called Mr Wigg, a really understated and infectious novel if you’re keen to understand more about what our life is like).  Anyway, I digress – my cousin John said he has the same memories of my grandmother and as he spoke more about her, he mentioned that he had a handful of hand-written original recipes of hers.  In an act of humbling generosity he has decided to pass these to me, and that, my dear readers, is the perfect note to end on.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

After the Australia Day long weekend of 2014

Two-thirds of the way through harvesting the grapes, thanks this time to a small, passionate, dedicated and extremely generous group of friends who helped with the hand-picking of the Chardonnay grapes over the weekend.  We got up at 5 am and started by 6 and went pretty solidly throughout the day to finish just after 6 pm.  Yes, you read that correctly, we picked for twelve hours!  It was intense work and not without its casualties – cuts for me, Meredith and Lis; wasp stings for Jeff and Lachlan; bad back for Jesus but Merv, Ron, Mel, Tom, Bec, Jim, Lachy and Nick all managed to make it out without injury.  The Chardonnay has been a very personal product as you will recall very slowly hand-pruned by Jeff, Ron & Merv and very tenderly cared for throughout the season by Jeff.  Due to its sketchy history, this year it produced just under two tonnes of fruit which should make around 1200 very exclusive bottles.  A real pet project if ever there was one.  With the vines now getting back to health it’s amazing to think that in two years, weather permitting, they same amount of vines could produce anywhere between ten and twenty tonnes of fruit.

Special mention also needs to be made of three others.  First and foremost, our in-house catering staff of one who undoubtedly spent two hours in the kitchen for every one hour we spent in the vines.  Hunger was satiated not with the standard communal fare of devon and tomato sauce sandwiches, but with gourmet feasts of multiple courses.  Cheryl’s blood sweat and tears (would you please get out of my kitchen!) also went into making the very special 2014 Chardonnay.  And last but certainly not least, two wonderful, beautiful and impeccably behaved children, the lovely Sophia and Jack who innately understood that their parents’ time with plants was of the utmost importance.  It was a wonderful weekend with lots of laughs, lively conversation and yes it should also be noted that the new overly sensitive forty year old me once again shed a tear to be on the receiving end of such unquestioning and relentless generosity.

Show them all the beauty they possess inside

Wine making progresses in leaps and bounds.  We visited Dan at his winery through the week and got our first taste of the Semillon juice.  Nectar of the gods if ever there was one.  We also caught a glimpse of our brand spanking new oak barrels that smelled so fresh and woody (for aging the Chardonnay and Shiraz) and it was incredibly awe-inspiring to see a 6500 litre steel vat full of our lovely juice.  When I returned a week later to collect the bins for the Chardonnay, Dan gave me another taste – this time the yeast had been added and had begun fermenting the juice and breaking down the sugars.  Which tasted even more incredible.  He thinks our Semillon will be limey and zesty and we need to decide whether we produce one type or two – some could be coaxed into a more subdued Semillon type taste.  We are as yet undecided. 

Murders of crows have invaded Belford Block 8.  They have their keen eyes firmly trained on the luscious purple berries of the Shiraz.  All day you hear their calls and watch them argue and swoop, harassing Barry and the girls for fun when they’re not gauging on the fruit.  We figure we have enough to spare (grapes, not chooks - the vines are laden) and besides all man-made deterrents do not seem to work particularly well.  These grapes will be harvested within about two weeks or so and that will conclude this part of the season.  ABC Newcastle did quite an outstanding job on their Belford Block 8 tree change story, we thought so I will share the link when they put it on their website.  With our thanks to Paul and Nat from ABC for making us at least sound knowledgeable enough! 

Many of you will be pant-wettingly excited to hear that the figs have reached ripeness.  I made my first batch of jam last night and it’s thick, luscious and mouth-watering, just like the last.  Unlike Maggie Beer’s, which is ‘burnt’ until it reaches bitterness, mine is more delicately tarnished (I sound a little Nigella-esque) so I’ve christened this year’s batch 'caramelised' fig jam.  This and the shiraz and vanilla sauce remain my two crowning achievements to date.  Belford Block 8 produce is now available for purchase.  

Financial conversations continue around completing the accommodation.  It now appears unlikely that we will receive the full finance that we require to complete everything but things look quite promise to receive enough money to get us open – probably with two cabins to begin.  This will allow us to ramp the next phase of our business which may not be an altogether bad thing – let us get used to exceeding four guests’ expectations before we open it up to eight.  Another celebration will be in order for the day all cabins reach completion.

You may have noticed that on this blog and our Facebook page I have updated the logo.  The wonderful Chris Muscat whipped us up some tailor-made ones and I know you will agree they capture the brand so perfectly.  We are in the process of getting the website drafted – another exciting development over the coming months.

We have had a complete and utter turn around with the ducks - and this all in the few weeks since last I wrote.  From being petrified of the hand that feeds them they now - literally - eat out of the hand that feeds them.  It's so lovely to get down close to them again and marvel at how big they have grown, how crisp white their feathers are and to begin to get to know their individual little personalities.  No doubt before long they will be featuring more prominently in the blog.  Kevin with his deformed foot is the only one we recognize at this point - but I think Jeff changes his name every week.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

During the heat wave of mid January...

Starts and stops.  I’ve only realised this week that this is what most of you must think of our time at Belford Block 8.  We begin so many things; we abandon so many others.  So many ideas, so many concepts.  But this week, quite humbly, all of that seems to have changed.  As if heralding something more significant than a mere fruit harvest, tonight after the sun went down, a full moon rose over the main dam, orange at first and then a giant peach high in the sky.  This is life, it whispered, this is the cycle to which you have subscribed, and with it, we celebrate an overwhelmingly emotional occasion – our very first harvest.  Sure, for all other famers it means naught, other than the beginning of moneymaking.  But to us, those two little city dwellers who have shovelled (I can’t begin to even fathom) so many hours, so much sweat, so much anxiety and of course so much cash into the successful harvesting of our grapes… well I suppose the only word that springs to mind is validation.  We feared the worst – hail, freak swarm of locusts, bushfire, theft, drought, bird or bug invasion, unusable crop… but all that negativity, though completely natural for novices I suppose, was in vain.  Surprisingly, I didn’t cry as the fruit spat out of the harvester (would probably have resulted in punches from the crew here to help!) but what got me a tad emotional was the reward for all of Jeff’s commitment.  We… oh you’ve heard it all before… it ain’t we at all… he… has singlehandedly transformed these crops from a passable producer of reasonable fruit to a bona fide vineyard of incredible promise.  And my, what a journey it has been!  The epic that has come to be known as The Grapes of Ross.

meet me on the highway meet me on the road

Harvest day began with a four o’clock alarm and a quick refresh before the crew arrived.  Two to drive the tractors to catch the fruit, one to drive the harvester to pull the fruit from the vines, one to oversee and our dear friend Merv here to share in the momentous experience.  The crew were incredibly professional – Mary-Ann the senior tractor driver and most experienced, Beryl the chain smoking quintessential Aussie the other tractor driver and Greg the harvester driver who was more used to harvesting wheat and canola.  In the darkness of the early morning it began, the harvester went over the top of each vine and shook the bejesus out of them, white ‘fingers’ inside the machine also massaging off the fruit which was collected onto an internal conveyor belt then spat out the top to fall into the bins behind the tractors.  It’s almost a high and a low to watch – all those months of effort and within seconds every vine is stripped of that precious fruit.  The day was not without its dramas – a fear that the fork lift would not be able to handle the one tonne bins (it could); running out of bins part way through (a few phone calls and some generous locals and that was solved easily enough), a fork not configured to load this particular type of bin  (solved by the legendary truck driver Bluey) but everyone pulled together as a team and after about seven hours the second truck load of grapes was on its way to Dan the winemaker to be pressed that very afternoon.

gonna jump down spin around

Our 36 rows of Semillon (about 4,000 vines) produced close to ten tonnes of fruit which when pressed resulted in about 7,500 litres of juice.  Now it’s over to the magic (and science) of Dan to see if he can turn that juice into something delicious that you all want more… and more… and more of.  Can you believe that when I first blogged in October of 2012, I used to sign off seeking that Brokenwood Block 8 Semillon and now here we are folks, not Brokenwood at all but our very own Block 8 varietal just months away from bottling.  We both have to pinch ourselves regularly.  I still remember the first day we saw the property with the real estate agent and we drove down the middle of all those (then-dormant) vines, back when creating our own label was not even a vague consideration.  The fact that so many of you have also participated in its production makes it all the more special.

trouble seemed so far away

Of course, grapes were not all that was harvested.  Barry and the girls will very much be looking forward to the harvesting of the Shiraz in a few weeks as with each full bin, a healthy number of fat juicy spiders and crunchy green grasshoppers was also delivered and the chooks had a feast of Elizabethan proportions and Barry flexed her muscle and ensured she got her fair share of them.  Later that day we were interviewed by ABC radio about our tree change and all the challenges we have faced – another first for Block 8, our first media.  This was also Jeff’s first time being interviewed.  It was a surreal but, I suppose, befitting end to an exhausting morning and I must confess that early that evening as the full moon rose, Jeff and I sat with a bottle of wine looking out over the property feeling proud of what we have achieved – something we don’t indulge all too often (pride, not the wine).  Now we have a matter of days before we hand pick the Chardonnay and then a few days after that we will do another machine harvest for the red.  We anticipate that then there will be an even bigger sigh of relief.

As if in competition, the veggie patch has been quite insistent for equal amounts of attention.  The tomatoes just keep rolling off the production line (eaten every day, they’ve also ended as bottled passata, tomato chutney, dried tomatoes, tomato soup, tomato sauce and I continue to look for more solutions); 34 random Shiraz vines among the Semillon needed to be picked before harvest (thanks to Jane, Vicky and the kids) and this created another large batch of the world famous Belford Block 8 Shiraz & Vanilla Sauce.  Details for purchasing will be in the next blog.  My butternut pumpkins are also bounding off the vine and while I have yet to dig for them, the sweet potato vine has gone into overdrive.  Figs and oranges are excruciatingly close to harvest so more jam and marmalade will also result in the next couple of weeks.
collar me don't collar me

The kids were here for ten days over the school holidays and it was great to get them more involved in the farm.  Aside from their favourite activity of yabbying, we also took them out on the boat, let them race each other on the ride on mower (oh don’t panic it was all safe and very well supervised), picked grapes, made jam, cleaned out the chook house, taught them how to drive a car (on my lap) and gave them a whole host of other memories to cherish.  Hunter Valley Gardens was a personal highlight for me – so beautiful, and I also enjoyed the modest Hunter Valley Zoo.  They also made their own horror film (GEW!) that was a lot of fun to edit.

Forty-degree days have been a challenge as we continue to have to mow, cut grass around the crops, tidy the veggie patch and orchard, weed gardens, water the grape vines so they do not stress in the heat… not helped at all by our (yet again) bad oversight in running out of water for the house which prompted an emergency call to the local haulage company who amazingly obliged by delivering the very next day.  Lucky for us.   The ground has gone back to its crispy brown and khaki, the trees long for relief and poor Leroy ventures out only when he needs to.  The air conditioner has been getting quite the workout and the dams are at their lowest point since we arrived.  Some rain is predicted for next week which will be a relief for all concerned, but may impact the enjoyment levels of our Chardonnay hand pickers this coming Friday or Saturday – if that sounds like a piece of fun you must get your hands on, we’re still eagerly embracing volunteers.  

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