13 October 2023

Ken still at the Helm after 50 years, but taking it just a little drop easier

| Sally Hopman
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Man with glass of wine

Here’s cheers: Murrumbateman vigneron Ken Helm AM toasts a remarkable – and ongoing career. Photo: Irene Dowdy.

It’s just gone 50 years to the day that a young Ken Helm staked out some land at Murrumbateman and started planting grapes. It was August 15, 1973, he will tell you, with 2023 marking his 47th vintage.

Recognised for putting Canberra region wines on the cool climate map, in Australia and internationally, Ken, 78, said his family had been asking him for 15 years when he would retire. The closest this vigneron has come to taking it a little slower was this week when he announced that he was to resign from the Canberra International Riesling Challenge, the largest event of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere – and his baby since he founded it in 2000.

“I stood down as chair about five years ago to be deputy,” he said, “hoping that someone younger would take over, but now is the time for me to go. I would like to see someone with youth and enthusiasm take over – and not have me looking over their shoulder.

“I want to spend more time with my family now, my wife, children and grandchildren – and the winery.”

But that’s about as far as he’s prepared to go. The word “retirement” doesn’t appear in the vocabulary for this former Mayor of Yass, foundation member of the Canberra Wine Industry Association and inaugural member of the Canberra Licensing Board back in the days of the first ACT Assembly.

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“I look at people my age and what they’re doing – I couldn’t imagine anything worse than getting into a caravan and taking off. Then I thought about cruise ships – I bet I’d be swimming ashore before it had even left Sydney Harbour.”

Originally from Albury, Ken’s passion for wine was as strong as the German stock it came from – his great grandparents came out from the mother country in the 1850s and planted the first grapes in that region.

Although that proved successful, the wine industry went into decline during his father’s time, hit by war, the Depression and widespread drought.

Meanwhile, the young Ken had joined CSIRO as an insect ecologist, working in the Snowy Mountains before being told he had to go to Canberra.

“You know what they say about Canberra,” he said. “If you stay for a year or two, you never leave.”

Three people walking through vineyard with dog

Ken Helm with his daughter Stephanie, her husband Ben Osborne, and their dog Matilda at the Murrumbateman winery. Stephanie has followed in her father’s footsteps, running the Vintner’s Daughter winery. Photo: Irene Dowdy.

And he didn’t. Using his scientific know-how from his years at CSIRO, along with two of the best friends he made at CSIRO, John Kirk (now of Clonakilla fame) and Edgar Reik (late of Lake George), were all drawn into wine-making. Ken took early retirement from CSIRO in 1988 to pursue his passion for making wine full-time.

“Everyone said we were mad at the time,” Ken recalls. “But being researchers, we investigated whether we could grow grapes here – and as it turned out, Canberra had one of the best climates for them. We have these warm days in the summer and the cool nights – perfect for growing grapes.

“It was a boom time for wine in the 70s, influenced by the immigration scheme where so many people had come out here from Europe, people with that traditional love of wine.”

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So how does this vintage vigneron himself see the future of the wine industry?

Nationally, he said, it was battling, with the loss of the Chinese market and New Zealand taking over much of what was once healthy Australian sales.

But for the cool climate wine region in the ACT, according to Ken, it’s a different picture.

“What we produce here is premium wine. Our wine can go from $25 to $100 a bottle because it is a premium product … people will always want that special bottle of wine for a special occasion. So we’ll be fine.”

He said Canberra’s location also played an important role – being only a couple of hours’ drive from the country’s top wine-drinking state – NSW. “About 70 per cent of our cellar door sales come from Sydney,” he said. “But the wine industry here is bigger than that. Yes, people come for the wine but they also stay in accommodation, they go to our galleries, they go to our shops – that’s why wine is such an important industry here.”

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