The story begins in 1973 when Graeme Leith and Sue Mackinnon, great friends and partners, decided that they wanted even more challenges in life than were possible for them in their careers as an electrical contractor and a journalist. They wanted to brave the elements, face the challenges of the land, and like so many before them pursue the holy grail of ‘the best wine in the world’.
They chose a site in a dry area north west of Bendigo on old gold diggings, where the soil had been dug over a hundred and twenty years before by goldminers. There they planted their vines, initially Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, to make a classic Aussie blend.
They were successful, and the first wine they showed at the Melbourne Wine Show, the 1982 Shiraz Cabernet won Gold. Since then they have won additional acclaim for their straight Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noirs. As one wine writer said: “I have a lot of sample bottles on my table at the end of the day, but whenever there’s Passing Clouds, it’s the one we drink with dinner”.
Working on the principle that enthusiasm triumphs over professionalism, the first vines were planted at Kingower by Sue Mackinnon, Graeme Leith, Anne and David Brown (who then wisely took up cheese making) in November 1973 by the headlights of the van in which they had driven from Melbourne after work. They laid out the wires, measured the distance between the vines, dug the holes with shovels and planted 150 vines, Cabernet, Shiraz and Riesling that Tom Lazar had left over from his last plantings at Virgin Hills, and which he had kindly donated. They then had some supper and drove the 200kms back to Melbourne. They were younger, then.
1974 saw a more structured approach but as it didn't stop raining the vines were all planted in mud in scenes reminiscent of rice paddies in the East. Of course when the rain stopped there was a drought, and the vines, 7,000 or so by then, had to be watered one at a time out of a Furphy tank. That took a while.
Sue and Graeme were convinced that things grown organically would be better for you, so when the weeds grew Graeme chipped them out with a hand chipping tool, or three; they tended to wear out on the pieces of quartz the miners had left behind.
In 1975 the rest of the vineyard having had its gum trees, box thorn, chinese scrub and tree of heaven removed, was planted to Shiraz and Cabernet to fulfill the aim of a 60% Shiraz 40% Cabernet blend. That year was assisted by the use of a ‘silly plough' designed to be pulled by a horse. It consisted of a blade attached to a pair of handles that were then attached to an idiot who would try to weave in and out between the vines, turning over the grass at its root zone. The amazing thing is that it worked tolerably well attached to the faithful Ferguson tractor, although the lack of communication between the tractor driver Sue, and the idiot Graeme, led to occasional altercations.
And so the dream persisted, and the vines grew completely organically until it became apparent that the silly ploughing and the subsequent cleaning up of 11 kilometers of vine rows was too much for Graeme, who at the age of 36 was ageing noticeably. So a spray unit was bought (demo model - reduced price, of course) and Round Up (glyphosate) was then used to control the weeds.
Graeme first became acquainted with wine, as did so many other Melbournians, with the odd bottle of Rutherglen red purchased from Jimmy Watson’s in Lygon Street Carlton. However, Graeme really became fascinated by the product of the grape in Perugia, in 1960, where he was attending the University for Foreigners doing a three month course in Italian language.
Every Thursday evening he and his friends would eat at a little trattoria, the food was good and the wine was sublime; but one night the wine was very ordinary. "Where’s the good wine?" they asked, to be told that the barrel had run out, this wine was from the vineyard next door. How could they be so different?
A short trip on the Lambretta established that it was so: neighbouring vineyards, one producing good wine, and one bad.
The question was why? And so the first seed was sown, and the first step of a journey into the alchemy of wine; turning bunches of grapes into that magical, constantly changing and always fascinating beverage, wine.
When the chance came, he and partner Sue Mackinnon seized it, planted their vines at Kingower, and the journey continued in earnest. They complemented their winemaking with the growing of organic vegetables and the intention was to make a Shiraz Cabernet blend, with as little chemical input as possible, along with a few small batches of whites. Working a vintage at the Laira vineyard at Coonawarra convinced Graeme that good fruit goes obligingly through the process of turning itself into wine; all you’ve got to do is hold its hand or in the case of Pinot Noir assist it with clean feet!
The first wine, a glorious concentrated red, had too little chemical input, no sulphur was added as a preservative and the wine had a very short life span. From then on all wines have had minimal sulphur additions to keep them alive and well, as Graeme accepted that the Romans had it right two thousand years ago when they burned sulphur in their amphorae. Unirrigated, ripe fruit, traditional methods of hand plunging in small stainless steel fermenters and hand presses cranking down the ‘cake’ into the night was the formula for the next twenty years, and many superb wines have been produced.
Some more sophisticated wine making equipment was introduced in 2004, including an air bag press. They knew they were making wines as good as, or better than the 1982 Shiraz Cabernet, the first wine Passing Clouds showed which was awarded a gold medal at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show. It is a wine that is still alive though wearying after over 30 years.
In 2009 after battling muscular dystrophy and out living several doctors’ predictions cancer took hold and took Sue from us. In the words of Graeme in her eulogy ‘Sue Mackinnon, a woman who amongst other qualities had those of courage, determination, a capacity for love; intelligence of a rare kind and a generosity and unselfishness that can only be imagined by people who didn’t know her. She had wit and humour too, as we know, and despite her constant battle with her muscular disease a remarkable lack of self pity…. Perhaps she’s joined with Ondine, Robin Hardiman, Hugh Flockhart, John Sendy, her brother Malcolm and other departed friends. It would be nice to think that somewhere up above in that place we don’t understand where all our forebears, all the deities of all the religions, all the lost golf balls, ball point pens and odd socks, all the whole skeins of the memories of fascinating lives, that they are all together having an afterwork sherry or a glass of Angel Blend.’
As a close friend Roger Dunn wrote to Sue days before she passed away:
‘It looks like farewell to an exemplar of courage for a great spread of friends
(R.H is going to beat you to the exit though!)
How well I remember your amazing, searching eyes, and the beauty that has not left your face; for a magnitude of years and physical distress never did erase it.
Thank you for all your caring and witty friendship over so many years.
We are losing a unique and treasured spirit.
I hope that Sweet Sister Morphine lays a cool, cool hand on you (as the Stones once sang).
Goodbye, dear person,
Love Roger Dunn.’
Sue was the glue that held Passing Clouds together for so many years and she is sorely missed.
2010 brought further challenges for Passing Clouds – yields had been down significantly for several years due to drought, climate change or a combination of the two. The soil was right with good organic matter, but the vineyard was always un-irrigated, the dams too small and the bore water too salty. Graeme had been sourcing fruit from local growers, and the quality of wine was as good as it ever was. However the growers’ fruit was being put on trucks and brought to the winery as was the ever increasing yields from his new venture at Musk, where Graeme had planted a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyard in 1998, which had plentiful water and was close to the popular tourist town of Daylesford in the Macedon Ranges.
After many a debate and much soul searching he and son Cameron decided to move the winemaking and cellar door operations there. 16 semi-trailer loads, several sleepless nights and a lot of organisation later the job was done, and we were ready for the next 35 years of Passing Clouds.
At Present, Graeme’s son Cameron is the winemaker since taking over in 2008 and continues to makes wines true to the Passing Clouds class. In 2010 he completed his Master in Wine Technology and Viticulture and at this point started up a contract winemaking business making wine for smaller wine brands in the Macedon Ranges and beyond, in addition to his roles at Passing Clouds.
Passing Clouds still makes all of their acclaimed Bendigo reds, but now also has an emphasis on cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sourced form their new home in the Macedon Ranges.
The site at Musk is slowly being added to as the years progress. The new cellar door was built and opened in 2012, which gives us the opportunity to showcase our wines and tell our story to the numerous visitors to the Daylesford and Macedon Ranges region.
The Musk vineyard has reached maturity now and is producing fruit of excellent balance and flavour. Although it’s a very challenging site to manage, the rewards out weigh the work and stress (most of the time!).