Floods and reigns
Floods and reigns
When Frank Potts first set eyes on the Langhorne Creek landscape he knew there was a future to be made in its fertile plains. Over 160 years later, Bleasdale is testimony to his vision.
Published Selector Winter 2011
Having watched the footage of this year’s devastating floods in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales, it’s hard to imagine anyone rejoicing at the idea of being inundated by water.
But joy is exactly what the vignerons of South Australia’s Langhorne Creek feel in winter when the Bremer River, filled with rainfall from up in the Mount Lofty Ranges, swamps the region. Its silt-rich waters provide the vineyards with sufficient moisture and nutrients to see them through the parched summer.
Robbie Potts, fifth generation vigneron from the region’s first winery, Bleasdale, suspects that the flood was one of the factors that drew his great-great grandfather, Frank Potts I, to Langhorne Creek over 170 years ago.
“He was passing through the area in the early 1840s, heading down to Wellington to be the ferry master. He would have seen the river red gums plastered across the land. Then there was the rich, alluvial, loamy soil (rumoured to have been exposed by wombat burrows) and we think the place could well have been flooded at the time. So the red gums, the irrigation and the soil are what probably drove him to be the first one to purchase 120 acres in 1850, on either side of the Bremer River.”
Full of innovation and practical skills, Frank got to work building a house and preparing his land for farming. The initial Potts planting was wheat, which he farmed successfully until the late 1850s when he turned his hand to viticulture.
It’s thought a good deal of credit for Frank’s vinous know-how can be given to the Reverend John Ignatius Bleasdale, a well-known viticulturist and frequent visitor to South Australia, after whom Frank named his property. While the denominating may have risen out of great admiration for Bleasdale’s teachings, the winery today promotes a more jocose reason, claiming “Frank liked the preaching of Reverend Bleasdale who advocated a ‘sober, wine drinking community in South Australia which excluded ardent spirits.’ An anti-temperance priest seemed to suit Frank’s sense of humour.”
To get his vineyard of Verdelho and Shiraz underway, Frank set about harnessing the local water supply. Having excavated a water channel on either side of the Bremer’s banks, he built, from red gum, a water-pumping mill that was operated by a team of bullocks. He erected an aqueduct across the Bremer and later constructed floodgates to regulate the deluge.
Frank also utilised the local red gum to build his winery equipment including twin presses, wine pumps, casks and vats. But Frank’s most impressive red gum erection would have to be the massive basket press that was finished in 1892 and still stands in the winery today. With its 10 metre, 3.5 tonne red gum lever, the press was said to give a slower, gentler crushing of the grapes.
Given the limited resources of the time, Frank’s achievements were incredible and prompted an acquaintance, Inspector Tolmer, to say of him, “In appearance a stranger would take him to be a poor labourer, with a thin, spare figure and long unkempt hair. Altogether a most uncouth-looking person and yet this man is a perfect genius! There is not a single thing undertaken by him which he does not succeed in accomplishing.”
Prolific in all things practical, Frank also achieved great things in the bedroom. With his first wife Augusta he had 10 children and after Augusta tragically died during the birth of their last child, he remarried and had another two sons.
Therefore, at the time of his death in 1890 (for which he’d prepared by building his own red gum coffin) there were plenty of able hands to take over. However, it was Frank Potts II, third son of Frank I and Augusta, who took control. By 1892 he was producing 12,000 gallons of wine and in 1904 he planted another 100 acres, followed by a further 20 in 1913.
Given Frank II and his wife Alice had 11 children, outside help was essential and Bleasdale became a hub of activity. This bustling atmosphere was ideal for Frank II who, according to his granddaughter, June Scutchings, was “a very genial man” who welcomed the frequent visitors to the family table saying, ‘there’s always room for one more!’”
When Frank II died in 1917 Bleasdale was left to Alice who with the help of her children, particularly eldest son Arthur (A.B.), expanded the estate and replanted some of the old vineyards.
At the time of Frank II’s passing, A.B. had started his own family and when she was 15, his daughter June started work in the Bleasdale office. Then when Alice died in 1935, A.B., his wife and children including June, Dorothy (Oodzie), Leila (Mickie) and John moved to their newly inherited home.
Like his industrious forebears, A.B. set about making improvements to the property. A steel weir, built in the creek, made it possible to flood the whole vineyard and a solid red gum bridge was constructed above the weir. He also doubled the fermenting and storage cellars and installed a modern still.
June recollects that her parents “carried on the hospitable atmosphere and entertained friends and business people frequently.” They were also there throughout WWII, during which time, June writes, “Many of the Forces were welcomed by the Potts family, bringing some pleasure to them during the long, hard years to the end of the war.”
A.B. was obviously greatly admired by not only his visitors, but also by his employees who presented him with a miniature cup inscribed with ‘world’s greatest boss’ on his 50th birthday.
A.B.’s death in 1962 saw Bleasdale divided, for the first time, between all four of his children, with John inheriting the largest share. The 60s also saw great changes to winemaking, with fortified production surpassed by the new demand for table wines. Given John was a fortified expert, he looked to external winemakers and Iain Riggs, now of Brokenwood fame, was their first fully qualified winemaker, starting with Bleasdale in the late 70s and remaining until the early 80s.
Around the time Iain left, Robbie Potts, one of John and Elva’s six children, was finishing school and contemplating a career with Bleasdale. However, Robbie recalls that a job in the family business couldn’t be taken for granted. “I still remember Dad saying I had to actually ask for a job.”
As it happened, with his brother Michael stepping into the position of winemaker, there was an opening in the vineyard where Robbie remained for 28 enjoyable years.
John, who passed away in 1987, is survived by his wife Elva, who retains his share of the estate and only retired from the cellar door last year at the age of 79. The remaining shares are held by John’s nieces and nephews, one of whom, Teresa Tanner, works full time in the Bleasdale office like her aunt June before her.
While Michael has moved on, his siblings remain, with Trevor still cellarhand after 30-plus years and Tammy working in the bottling and labelling facility. Robbie has opened a new chapter on his Bleasdale career, working in sales and marketing where, he says, the fact he’s a family member holds great sway. “Overseas in Canada and the States they really appreciate you making the effort to go all the way over there and when you walk into a retailer and say, ‘I’m Robbie Potts from Bleasdale’, they know you’re a family member and they really appreciate it, rather than being a paid rep from a store with not a lot of heart behind it.”
While the fifth generation is still going strong, there’s always the question of whether the Potts dynasty will continue into the sixth. Although Robbie and his brothers don’t have any children, their sisters do and while they don’t carry the Potts name, they’re proud descendents of the Bleasdale tradition. In terms of winemaking, one of Robbie’s second cousin’s sons, Ben Potts, does some part-time winemaking at Bleasdale while also putting out his own label.
However Bleasdale’s future pans out, it seems that as sure as the Bremer River keeps flowing through the estate, so too will the Potts lineage in one form or another.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.