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In the name of Oliver
Story by Esther Thorn. Photograph by Angela Lisman
From the generous windows of Don Oliver’s home at McLaren Vale, the view stretches as far as the eye can see; a patchwork of green and brown. This is Oliver land. It has been worked by Don’s forebears for five generations. When Don walks through the vines the memories rise up to meet him, as real as sights and smells. In the block where the old Clydesdales stable once stood, Don remembers the horses’ warm breath and their strong, gentle presence. ‘When I was a little tacker we had two Clydies left,’ Don tells me. ‘We’d get off the school bus and race down to the vineyard and there the horses would be pulling the burner.’ Back then, vine cuttings were burned. It wasn’t environmentally friendly but it meant no disease. ‘Dad would grab us and throw us on top of the Clydies and we’d ride them home to the stable and then slide off down the back of them.’ Don is sitting across from me as he tells this story, backlit by the late autumn afternoon sun. He’s wearing work clothes and has an air of comfort and ease about him. This is a man who belongs on his land, who is as much a part of it as the vines and the trees.
At sixty-six-years-old, Don knows instinctively when the vines need water and when they should be starved. ‘It’s Don’s controlled neglect,’ he says. ‘I treat ‘em hard and treat ‘em mean and hope for the best.’ It’s a winning formula, the vineyard closest to the house has been selected eleven times to go into Penfolds’ Grange. ‘They’re the most broken down, old stressed vines we have but they’re the ones that make the cut,’ says Don. ‘I know exactly how the vines should look (for Grange), they need small berries, old canopy, leaves to drop off.’
But Don doesn’t only rely on his senses, he is also a man of science. He describes with great pride that high tech watering systems have been rolled out across the vineyard. At the swipe of his smart phone, Don can see the water levels two metres deep in the soil, and change the flow of the drippers accordingly.
Don holds great appreciation for technology and how it has facilitated the growing of grapes. He has his ancestors’ records of grape harvests dating back to 1900, which show wildly varying yields and point to a life of uncertainty and heartbreak.
Don has also experienced first-hand how hard life on the land can be. The image of his father ripping out hundred-year-old vines during the grape pull of the 70s will be forever etched in his mind. ‘My dad didn’t actually like grapes because back then there wasn’t any money in them,’ remembers Don. ‘At one stage we had three years’ pay owing to us. Three years of vintages that the winery hadn’t paid … it was terrible.’
Despite the hard work and lack of money, Don’s childhood was full of love, warmth and a strong sense of family pride. For as long as Don can remember, he has understood that the name Oliver comes with it a sense of obligation to this rich, fertile earth on the north western side of McLaren Vale.
In 1839 Don’s great, great, great, great-grandfather William Oliver made the bold decision to buy land in newly colonized South Australia. He was still in Scotland at the time, and bought the property off an inaccurate map. It is the same parcel of land on which Don’s house
is built; where I’m now sitting and drinking a glass of wine made
from Oliver grapes. William, and his wife Elizabeth, came out to Australia a couple of years after their initial land purchase. Soon after their arrival, they rapidly went about buying up more and more land across South Australia. Where their money came from, or how William was able to buy so much land is a mystery. ‘He ended up with lots of land in a very short time and all we can think is that he bought land in other people’s names while he was still in Scotland and then claimed it all when he got out here.’ There is also little known about the Indigenous people whose land he was acquiring. Don believes that the Taranga name, which is now synonymous with Oliver’s wine, may have come from the Kaurna word Tarangk meaning middle.
In addition to the McLaren Vale land, William Oliver bought blocks in the centre of Adelaide and also in Port Pirie and Crystal Brook. He sent three of his four sons off to manage the mid-north properties but, when it was discovered that they were drinking, smoking and gambling instead of farming, he disinherited them. The Oliver family history is checkered with stories of family disputes and land divisions. It’s a tradition this generation is keen to break and Don is determined to keep Olivers on Oliver land. ‘The plan is never to lose our Taranga land,’ he says.
Currently Don and his brother own one hundred hectares of vines in McLaren Vale, as well as three properties in the South East. They also own the Oliver’s Taranga cellar door on Seaview Road at McLaren Vale, which is managed by their niece Corrina Wright and Don’s
daughter Brioni. All Oliver’s Taranga wines are made using Don and Corrina’s grapes. Creating the wine label in 1994 and converting an old workers’ cottage into the now renowned cellar door, marked a significant turning point in the Oliver family fortunes. Until then they had been only grape growers, at the mercy of the wineries who bought their fruit. Although, Don tells me, this isn’t entirely true. He’s found a reference to William Oliver entering a bottle of wine in the Willunga Agricultural Show of 1857. There are also the remnants of an old slate fermenter that can still be seen on Oliver land. Stories of the past are woven into the Oliver’s Taranga label. There’s ‘The Banished Fortified Grenache’ which acknowledges the fact the three scurrilous brothers mentioned earlier were written out of the will. And there’s the Ruthless Ruth Liqueur Muscat which recognises Ruth, the wife of their other brother who inherited the land. She kept the farm going when her husband died young, after pursuing ways as dissolute as his brothers. Happy times and recent accomplishments are also infused into the branding. The 2016 Mencia bottles are proudly inscribed with the fact Brioni got her heavy rigid truck licence that same year. As our interview draws to a close, it becomes clear to me that despite the impressive history of the Oliver family, Don’s focus is on the future. His daughter Brioni is pregnant with her first child, a little boy. Two of Don’s other grandchildren have been playing around us throughout my visit. They live nearby and will grow up with the same sense of belonging to the land that Don has. ‘My goal is to constantly improve the land,’ he says. ‘To make sure it’s in better condition for the next generation than it was when it was handed to us.’ Because of this desire, Don’s farming practises are softening … just a little bit. ‘I am doing a few nice things for the vines; giving them a bit of compost and such. But if you do too much you’ll blow it.’ After a recent heart operation, Don has scaled back his physical work on the property, although he remains heavily involved in the business.
‘My day’s a dream really,’ he says. ‘I go and check on the vines and then I go over to the cellar door and see what’s happening there. People say when are you going to retire? Well I don’t ever want to retire, I love what I do.’