I felt compelled to write to you today after attending McLaren Vale grapegrower Helen Hardy’s funeral. Helen passed away peacefully last week, aged 92.
A gathering of her family and closest friends farewelled her at her Blewitt Springs home.
It is a gorgeous spot overlooking the vineyards she loved so much. It was a fitting tribute to a woman who described her vines (including some of the oldest Sauvignon Blanc in the world) as her “friends”.
You could fill pages with Helen’s memories and life achievements – I did exactly that after interviewing her last year for a feature story in SAWeekend Magazine.
It was, as many interviews are, a snapshot into a long life – captured over many cups of coffee.
In just a few hours, she touched me deeply.
Helen was softly spoken but strong, and her eyes shone with kindness, determination and the occasional cheeky glimmer (she took quite a fancy to the handsome photographer’s “lovely blue eyes”).
Helen told me about restoring the old vines with her late son Paul. Their gnarly, outstretched arms inspired the paintings that filled the little studio next to her home.
Oh, what a talent.
Brushstroke-by-brushstroke she captured the old vines saved during the Government of South Australia’s vine pull in the 1980s.
Helen wasn’t born into the wine game. She fell into it after marrying her former husband David Hardy, a descendant of Thomas Hardy who founded iconic wine brand Hardys in 1853.
Back then, the Hardy, Kay and Osborn families, plus Tatachilla and Penfolds were the big players.
“The Hardys and Penfolds officials would meet on the golf course and decide on how much they’d pay for grapes,” she said.
She witnessed many industry changes, including the shift from fortifieds to table wines.
“The wineries changed the sort of grapes they wanted because at first they were making sherry and brandy but then developed more interest in red wines.”
She also saw the rise and fall in fruit prices.
“They got so low that the growers couldn’t change their varieties and could barely maintain their vineyards.”
She also observed many wine trends.
In 1968 Helen and David started McLaren Vale’s The Barn restaurant. They were also the inaugural McLaren Vale Wine Show Bushing King and Queen in 1973.
In the early 1980s, she and David purchased Middlebrook winery with Helen’s inheritance.
It was one of the first wineries in Australia to have a restaurant (eventually run by their son John).
The pair parted ways in 1984 and, after the divorce, Helen took on some of the vines.
“Once I started working with them (because I needed the money), I really loved the work. I used to pick every season.”
Helen took part in the vine pull program. It allowed her to redevelop the property but she was firm in her resolve not to remove the sauvignon blanc and some grenache. Her decision to buck the trend saved some of the oldest examples of Sauvignon Blanc in the world.
“They were 100 years old. People thought I was nuts but it’s a variety that has become popular in the last 30 years.”
She loved her 18 hectares of vines dearly but told me that her children Paul, John, Jan and Chris were her proudest achievement.
Helen’s warmth moved me deeply in just a few hours. I can only imagine the loss they are feeling.
I’ll leave you with some sound advice she passed on that day.
“I don’t think you should be worried what people think of you,” she said.
“Also, I am an Earth worshipper. My theory is that the planet is God. I can remember Mum dragging us off to church and I’d gaze out the window at the trees thinking ‘God’s not in here listening to this awful singing, I reckon he’s out there’. The sooner we really understand that it was the Earth that made us, the better.”
Please raise a glass of bubbly (her favourite) to Helen tonight.
Warm, genuine, salt of the earth people like her are the reason I enjoy writing about this industry.
Vale sweet grape whisperer.
Photographs: Ben MacMahon.