'People told us we were mad, that it would never work'
It would the easiest thing in the world to while away the afternoon with Ken Helm. He’s opened a riesling, the sun is shining and there’s a cool breeze blowing between the old-school house that serves as his cellar door and the back sheds.
To our left are the vines he first planted in 1973. On the right are ones he planted last November - “the last I’ll plant in my lifetime”, he says.
But at 73, he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Helm admits to being easily distracted, and the conversion jumps from his time at the CSIRO, to the early days of the wine industry in the Canberra region, to how he wants to learn Cantonese so he can talk to his grandchildren when they come home for Christmas.
He can talk. And he can make wine.
When he first came to Canberra from Albury in 1967, he was working at the CSIRO with the likes of Edgar Riek and John Kirk. The three scientists went on to become pioneers of the Canberra wine industry.
“I was working at CSIRO doing research into insect pest management. The people there liked wine and food and so a few of us decided to grow grapes,” he says.
“I was the only one who had any kind of experience … my great-great-grandparents planted the first vines in Rutherglen. I grew up as a kid pruning the grapes vines around the house in Albury where we lived … and my work with pest management helped.
“People told us we were mad, that it would never work, that it was too cold, that grapes were only grown in the Hunter Valley or the Barossa, you didn’t grow grapes near Canberra.
“But I knew that Robert Campbell had grown grapes at Duntroon House, that Hamilton Hume was making wine near Yass in the 1850s.
“I knew it could be done.”
In the early 1970s he started discussions with the Yass Shire Council, hoping to purchase five acres to build a house and plant some vines. They told him he had to buy 200 acres.
“I said I only want 25 acres all up, what I am going to do with the other 175 acres, and they said ‘run sheep’ and I laughed," he says.
Helm owns 30 acres now. There’s 11 acres of vines, and a few sheep. There are dedicated processing sheds for the riesling and the cabernet, and a house where he and his wife Judith raised their three children - Matthew, Natalie and Stephanie - after they moved to the vineyard in 1978.
He remembers the first time someone outside the family tasted his wine. Somewhat fittingly, I think as I’m enjoying the second sample of riesling, it was a Canberra Times journalist, Jan Hodgkinson, who lived near him in Murrumbateman at the time.
“Jan came over for a visit and I said 'I’ve just made our first riesling, did you want a taste?’" he says.
“I liked it, but I was scared about what she might think, wondering if she’d like it.
“She took a sip and said, ‘I can drink that’.
“We entered that wine in the Forbes wine show and it won a trophy. There were only five wineries in the show mind you, but it was our first win.”
In the 2019 edition of the Halliday Wine Companion, James Halliday had this to say of Helm:
“Over the years he has achieved many things, through dogged persistence on the one hand, vision on the other. Riesling has been an all-consuming interest, evidenced by his rieslings of consistently high quality. He has also given much to the wine community, extending from the narrow focus of the Canberra District to the broad canvas of the world of riesling: in 2000 he established the Canberra International Riesling Challenge.”
Helm attributes a lot of his success to his early days at the CSIRO.
“I worked there for 20 years - it was the halcyon days when the CSIRO was there to break down the barriers of knowledge," he says.
“We would sit around at morning tea, we would question everything about our research, ask 'why?' about everything we were doing.
“Even now I question everything. I want answers to all sorts of things: where did the word trivia come from? Why is it called Antarctica?
"I count steps when I walk up them, I can name every Australian prime minister and their birth date [and he can, I note, when John Gorton (September 9, 1911) randomly comes up in conversation later].
“That probably sums up my attitude towards things, ask lots of questions.
“I look at the CSIRO now, three-year programs funded by industry. We were there in the days when it was fully federally funded and it was 15- to 20-year programs. You had time to think about things and ask questions.”
In 1988 he took an early retirement and made the “stupid decision” to work full-time on the winery. He was distracted again, over the years, by the local council, on which he served for 12 years including two terms as mayor. He also lobbied government to make changes in the wine industry and helped establish the Independent Wineries Association to help smaller winemakers have a say.
He can’t choose his best or worst years.
“Stephanie was born in 1986, the year Halley’s Comet came by. We opened some wines at her wedding [to Ben Osborne, Helm’s vineyard manager] and they were fantastic.
“But it hasn’t always been easy. I’m an optimist, but it was a big struggle early on.
“There were some pretty tough times, we were living pretty close hand to mouth at times. I don’t think many other people would have persisted but I had this faith in it, in what we were doing, how the district would go.
“Judith and I have been married for 50 years next year. She’s been a patient woman, bringing up the three children with me running around the countryside.
“But we take great pride in this district and what people have achieved. We sit up on the deck up at the house on a summer’s evening and look out over the vineyard.
"People talk about million-dollar views from Sydney Harbour and things, but we look out across the vines, down to the creek - we could be in Tuscany. It’s beautiful and we’re very lucky.”