For the footy-loving Schiller family, the adrenalin rush of finishing a hectic vintage isn’t too different from playing a Grand Final.
Robert and his sons, Tom and Ben have each donned the boots for Tanunda over the years and whilst they are fiercely proud of their long association with the Magpies; off-field, it’s the land their ancestors developed through the generations that deeply connects this trio.
Wagon wheels mark the start of a long driveway through Johanns Find, the name given to the Schiller vineyards where the original homestead overlooks the North Para River.
Robert is the fifth generation to reside within the home, he’s only ever spent 7 years away in the early days of his marriage to Wendy.
“There is vineyard behind our house here that dates back to 1880 and those vines are still there and doing well…that’s where it all started,” says Robert.
He speaks of two men named Johann, hence the property’s name, one a Grocke the other a Schiller who were integral to the original 16 acre vineyard’s history.
“Originally, my great-grandfather leased this land off a Grocke for about 5-6 years, then he bought it,” Robert explains.
“That’s how it started off and we’re still here. We’ve expanded across the Para and we’ve got about 160 acres now. Each generation has just bought a bit more…There’s about 65 acres of vines now and the rest is cropping with a bit of grazing land.”
Robert, who has just completed his 51st vintage, has fond memories of working in the vineyard alongside his parents, Rex and Adeline and grandpa, Ben (Bernhard).
“My grandma, Sophie died very young so grandpa was a widow in his early thirties and never remarried. He actually lived with us, I grew up with him, he was part of the family.
“Between him and Dad and also my uncle who worked here in those earlier days, I had three mentors.”
Robert now mentors his own sons who both agree working on the property is “definitely in the blood”.
“It was probably in the back of my mind, eventually wanting to come back here full time,” says 36 year old Tom.
“I enjoyed working with plants and farming interested me and it just followed through…I did viticultural science at Adelaide University, then came back here and worked for Lincoln Grocke for awhile – half for him, half for Dad. The wine industry dipped away for a time there, then came good and now dad and I have worked together full time since 2012.”
Tom also continues what his mother, Wendy began, planting native trees and removing exotics from the property and doing what he says is “giving back” to the land that has given generations of Schillers their livelihoods.
“Johanns Find” came about when Ben too was showing interest in coming home to work on the farm, with a view to growing a sustainable business to include vineyard management and contracting services as well as looking after their own vineyards and those they lease – a total area that today covers more than 300 acres.
Ben, 29 says “When I was coming out of high school it would have been in that era when stuff wasn’t going all that flash… I remember Mum and Dad encouraging me to explore, to go out and get a trade. So I left school, did a vintage at Peter Lehmann’s mid-way through that year and started my apprenticeship as a fitter and turner in
After spending a “gap year” travelling and working a vintage in New Zealand, Ben soon discovered a passion for the winemaking process and continues to make a batch each year for the family with quiet aspirations of one day having his own label.
But it was the sights and sounds of the mechanical grape harvester that first captured Ben’s imagination.
“I’ve always been a machinery guy,” he says. “Machine harvesting was the thing I was into when I was a kid.”
Robert knows it’s true, he remembers the eager 10 year old being a little obsessed.
“Wendy often comments, back in the early days when we didn’t have our own harvester and had a contractor coming in, Ben was always keen to see this thing working. We used to keep everything quiet so he didn’t wake up. But, he would set an alarm clock and put it under his pillow and sneak out! No sooner would he turn up, he got a seat inside the tractor cab on the harvester and was quite happy to sit there for hours.”
All three share memories of backpackers grape-picking and the fun-filled banter that resulted in life-long friendships.
Then there are the vintages they can’t forget.
“I remember back in the 70s, when we had some really wet vintages and you’d have to work your way through the mud and bog with your tractors to get everything picked,” Robert said.
“And 1983 when the flood came through. The Para was right up to the front of the house. That was quite a nightmare at the time…it was pretty devastating. Plus, it took so long to clean everything up.”
Ben and Tom have to smile when they realise it’s always the bad vintages that come to mind first.
“September 30, 2018, I remember waking up and seeing the place had been done in by frost,” says Ben.
“It was AFL Grand Final day,” adds Tom. “We probably lost half our income that year in one day…. It’s farming I guess, you know you are going to have your good and your bad
Whilst there’s been major developments in machinery over the years, there’s a return to traditional vine pruning methods, something Robert finds a little amusing.
“It’s gone back to rod and spur now, that’s all I was doing when I started!” Robert says.
“And almost half of our blocks are hand picked now, it’s gentler on the old vines. But we machine harvest the younger vineyards – there’s a place for both,” adds Tom.
With Tom’s love of nature, building nutrient levels in soils and finding ways to conserve water; and Ben’s passion for engines and machinery, Robert says he’s quite happy to be “the lacky in between.”
“They each have different skills,” he says.
The trio speak of the impact biscay, clay, loam and sandy soils found on their property have on fruit quality; and the grape varieties they’ve re-worked, pulled out and planted over the years.
“Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro, that’s your staple diet in terms of grapes,” smiles Tom.
But talk inevitably returns to footy. After all, Robert has played close to 180 games for the ’Pies; Tom’s clocked up around 190 A-Grade matches and Ben’s still going, with a tally of 160 to date.
Then there’s the Premierships. Robert’s won “a few” in B-Grade and the brothers have won four A-Grade flags each, as well as having the honour of captaining their side over the years.
It seems that same triumphant feeling of premiership glory returns after each successful vintage, with all its frenzy, night shifts and tight winery schedules.
“It’s a bit of an adrenalin rush as well,” says Tom.
“You get the job done, then you can relax…just like a Grand Final.”