Helm’s Winery, Canberra

For a local wine maker turning out less wine in a year than a good-average retailer sells in a week, Ken Helm captures an astonishing amount of radio, television and newspaper attention. And like anyone who dares speak up, Ken cops as much flak as he does praise, usually from fellow wine makers too mean minded to give credit where it’s due.

Industry folk still scratch their heads wondering how an outspoken bloke from an obscure winery in Murrumbateman managed to shift the limelight away from the captains of industry during last year’s wine sales tax debacle. As Ken recalls, when he raised his hand to be heard, convinced that very small wine makers had been dealt out of negotiations, one professional lobbyist remarked, “Ken, even if you win, don’t expect to make any friends out of this.”

The lobbyist was only partly correct. If Ken alienated some within the industry, others viewed him as a saviour. And, more importantly, he won the hearts of thousands of consumers unaware, until Ken stuck his big moustache in front of national TV cameras, that Canberra had a wine industry.

Ken was a founder of that industry, setting up at Murrumbateman in 1974, at about the same time Harvey Smith planted what is now Lady Janet Murray’s Doonkuna Estate, and three years after CSIRO colleagues Drs John Kirk and Edgar Riek established vines at Murrumbateman and Lake George respectively.

Ken grabbed the promoters mantle early in the piece, my first recollection of him being in 1979 when he presented a paper — on the local wine-making experience, written by himself, Dr J.Kirk and Mr G. Bond — at an ANU Wine Symposium.

At the time, Ken had made few wines. But he was five years into a commitment destined take him from the CSIRO into full time wine making and spruiking.

Some of the very early Helm vintages won medals. My own recollections of those formative years are of generally decent wines with the odd peculiarity or failure. But Ken moved up the learning curve quickly and by the mid eighties had established a reputation for making good wine always and one or two outstanding wines every year.

Quality has been good enought for Ken to earn 7 Trophies as well as 10 gold, 5 silver, and 76 bronze medals for his efforts.

In common with other local makers, Helm makes wine on a tiny scale, battling always for the capital to plant and grow grapes, make, hold and package wine, and provision the winery with the right equipment.

Where larger wineries provide wine makers with all the latest bells and whistles, Ken works with comparatively rustic equipment, making his quality achievements all the more remarkable.

I visited Helm in late October gathering information for this gradual series on local makers (the individual stories to appear over the next six months or so). How’s this for Ken’s opening remark, “The district will make reds as good or better than Coonawarra”, backed up with a press release crowing over his 1990 Cabernet Merlot’s outpointing Penfolds Bin 707 at the National Wine Show in Canberra.

That’s Ken. It matters nought to him that the world sees Coonawarra as our best red area, nor that the judges may have erred that year (I mean what committee makes good decisions, anyway). Simply, Ken believes in the district and in his own wines and never misses a promotional opportunity.

Ken’s current releases include a rich, lush unoaked Cowra-Murrumbateman Chardonnay 1994; a yummy blended dry white, very rich on traminer aroma and flavour; a terrific Murrumbateman Rhine Riesling 1994; a full-bodied but soft and easy drinking Murrumbateman/Lake George Cabernet Shiraz 1993; and the house specialty, Cabernet Merlot 1993 (Murrumbateman and Hall), a most appealing, fragrant, deeply flavoured red.

Ken and Judy generously put on a tasting of four Rhine Rieslings and five Cabernet Merlot vintages. They’d all aged well and should give us all the confidence to stash a bottle or two of Helm’s wine in the cellar. But I found the 1991 Cabernet Merlot particularly appealing. (Ken tells me this wine subsequently went down well with Len Evans and others at an industry gathering in Canberra on the eve of the National Wine Show presentations.)

Better, a taste is worth a thousand words. Take a drive out to Murrumbateman, turn right at the Helms sign, and enjoy not only the wine and the company of the wine maker but also the gentle, green countryside.