Historic Hunter Valley winery Drayton's comes to end of an era

Bellevue winery visitors get a feel for the old lever-principle log press grape crusher.
Bellevue winery visitors get a feel for the old lever-principle log press grape crusher.

A remarkable saga of backbreaking labour, initiative and resilience in the face of hardship and tragedy now comes to light as the Drayton family's history in Hunter winemaking over almost 170 years draws to a close.

In July last year Drayton's, unique with Tyrrell's in remaining in the hands of its founding family, shocked the Hunter wine community in announcing it was shutting up shop.

The Hunter wine dynasty began after Lincolnshire farm labourer Joseph Drayton, the fourth son in a family of 11 children, decided to quit England and migrate to Australia with his wife Hannah and three children.

Old-time pickers collect harvested Drayton grapes by horse-drawn cart.

Old-time pickers collect harvested Drayton grapes by horse-drawn cart.

They set sail in 1852 on board a two-decked vessel, the Beejapore, which was chartered by the UK Government to save costs by packing more migrants on a single ship.

The experiment had disastrous results as the windjammer lacked adequate ventilation and in the cramped conditions measles, typhus and scarlet fever spread unchecked, ultimately killing 55 people on the 85-day voyage to Australia and a further 62 at the Sydney Quarantine Station.

One of the deaths at sea was two-year-old Charles Drayton and, while in quarantine, Hannah gave birth to another baby daughter, but then she and her elder daughter Emily joined the Beejapore death list.

It was by no means the last time Draytons have had to face deep tragedy: In 1977 gifted winemaker Barrie Drayton was suffocated by fumes as he was cleaning out a tank at his Hillside vineyard in Marrowbone Rd.

Drayton patriarch Joseph Drayton and his wife Mary Ann

Drayton patriarch Joseph Drayton and his wife Mary Ann

Other black chapters came in 1994 as Reg Drayton and his wife Pam died with seven others when a Seaview aircraft crashed on its way to Lord Howe Island and in 2008 brilliant wine technician Trevor Drayton and a contractor died in an explosion at the Bellevue winery.

As did 20th century descendants, Joseph Drayton in 1853 met tragedy with courage and, on being cleared from Sydney quarantine, he set out with his newborn daughter and four-year-old son Frederick for Lochinvar to work as a farmhand.

After a time he took up 16 hectares of land in Oakey Creek Rd, Pokolbin, built a slab hut, planted wine grape vines and grew wheat, fruit and vegetables and called the property Bellevue.

In 1855 Joseph remarried and he and his second wife, Mary Ann Chick, had eight children and of these the second-eldest son William and his wife Susanne inherited the business on Joseph and Mary Ann's deaths.

The original Drayton homestead at Bellevue.

The original Drayton homestead at Bellevue.

William and Susanne had nine sons and one daughter and the family expanded its Pokolbin land holdings and earned a living with cropping, dairying and grape growing. To turn his grapes into wine, William built the Bellevue winery and also supplemented the family income by working on the roads for the magnificent sum of four shillings and six pence a day.

Over the years a progression of Draytons worked in the family firm and sustained themselves through tough times, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s when the wine trade faltered and the family relied on dairying and market gardening to pay the bills.

The Great Depression brought some particularly bitter experiences: in 1929 the Draytons contracted to sell a big shipment of wine to a Sydney merchant for what was then an excellent price of five shillings a gallon. The merchant, however, reneged on delivery and payment as the Depression knocked the bottom out of the market. The Draytons were stuck with the wine, which ultimately had to be sold for nine pence a gallon or distilled into spirit.

HARD LABOUR: A vintage worker shovels the residue of crushed grape skins and seeds from the log press.

HARD LABOUR: A vintage worker shovels the residue of crushed grape skins and seeds from the log press.

When William Drayton retired in 1938, four of his sons, Harry, Walter, George and Len, went into the Bellevue-based family business, which in 1947 was formed into W. Drayton and Sons Pty Ltd.

Over the next 42 years the shareholding evolved into four 25% parcels held by Draytons - Max (son of Walter), Reg (son of George), Ron and Jock (sons of Harry) and Bill (son of Len).

In 1989 the company was bought by fourth-generation Max Drayton and three of his four sons, John, Trevor and Greg and restructured into Drayton's Family Wines.

Now, with the 2008 loss of Trevor and Max's 2017 death at the age of 86, John and Greg remain as the operation winds up.

That leaves the Drayton wine heritage to be carried on by Stephen Drayton, son of Reg and Pam, at his Marrowbone Rd, Pokolbin, Ivanhoe vineyard and civil engineer-cum-vigneron Peter Drayton, the youngest of Max and Caroline Drayton's four sons, at his eponymous wine venture at Hermitage Rd, Pokolbin.

This story After almost 170 years, leading winemaker shuts up shop first appeared on Newcastle Herald.