Michelle Heagney – Cassegrain Winemaker

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From flying guts and gizzards to the delicate art of processing grapes for fine wine production – rural jobs cover a broad field, Susie Boswell learns.

My guest at the table today is slim and petite-boned with fine features that all together give the impression she’s perhaps fragile, or at least a little delicate. We’re dining on duck (her) and rice-crusted fish on a pancake of prawn, corn and coriander (me) … and what she says next could well cause the squeamish – excuse my indelicacy – to pretty much lose their lunch.

“I worked on the slaughter floor at Guyra abattoirs, ripping out the kidneys and taking the fat off them,” she tells me matter-of-factly, taking a sip of wine and barely concealing her amusement at my reaction. “On the gutting table, taking out the stomachs: the contents go down a tube and get rinsed out for sausage skins; pulling out the gall bladders: they go into another tube to be used in makeup and medicines.

“I got $50 a day bonus – for the SMELL!

“It was really good money, especially for a young person [working in uni vacations], although not so much fun when you had a hangover. I’d get covered in gunk” – she makes a yukky face and gestures as if removing some especially repulsive slime from her long hair – “and I’d have bits of fat and gristle hanging off me”. The foul odours of a day spent squishing around in the blood and guts of hundreds of animal carcases, their necks and bellies slashed open, would cling to her clothes and body.  Oblivious, she would get home to her uni share-house and just want to sit down with a rum and Coke. But her housemates would always demand: “Go and have a shower!”

She was highly valued for her slaughterhouse skills and got along well with the boofy, knife-wielding guys on the floor who thought it a novelty to have a young woman working among them, so she was invited back every uni vacation and at Christmases. It was a buoyant time at the abattoir (closed in 1995) with killing meat for Muslim markets then at a peak. She wasn’t entirely impervious to it all, however: “While I was there I could never eat meat [notice – she’s chosen poultry today]. And I still peel the skins off sausages.”

You’d think, though, that her nose wasn’t all that sensitive, at least – but you’d be wrong. Today, Michelle Heagney’s superior olfactory senses and fine palate have made her one of the country’s leading oenologists – senior winemaker at our own local domaine, Cassegrain, 2i-c to chief winemaker John Cassegrain. Heagney (pronounced Heeney) has a classic rural agricultural background with eight years of tertiary study, two degrees and a c.v. littered with the names of some of Australia’s leading vineyards.

The second of four daughters (“poor Dad!”) raised on Rosewood, a cattle, fine wool and prime lamb property in the freezing basalt country of Black Mountain, just south of Guyra in the NSW Northern Tablelands, she was schooled at PLC and O’Connor Catholic School in Armidale, flipped burgers for pocket money at 15 at Black Mountain Roadhouse truck-stop and moved on to UNE for a degree in Rural Science. (Later, she took her second degree, Bachelor of Wine Science). She’s the only daughter with a profession related to the land: her sisters are a teacher, a journalist and a doctor. Her parents withdrew to a smaller property and also ran a newsagency. Heagney had wanted to be a vet but “I wasn’t committed to studying: I wanted to enjoy life and only pulled my socks up just enough to get through”. With vague thoughts, then, of teaching ag science and despite majoring in agronomy she found there weren’t many jobs around for a new graduate, so she worked in the family shop while casting about for something – until her father sacked her (amicably, it seems) and she was forced to find a real occupation. Fate took over: a uni friend was unable to resume a job at Rosemount winery.

Heagney fell into the role at Rosemount, at Denman in the upper Hunter, and hasn’t looked back. Schooled under the esteemed Philip Shaw, her aptitude and attention to detail soon saw her promoted to the barrel cellar with its premium reserve wines. She realised she could become a winemaker. Her ever-upward trajectory – moving next to a boutique winery on Victoria’s picturesque Mornington Peninsula – has since encompassed making wines for some of Australia’s household names in some of our best-known wine districts – among them, various Rosemount-owned vineyards for 10 years in all, Mildara Blass, de Bortoli and Penfolds, at Griffith and in South Australia’s McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra.

So, I seize the chance to learn about wine and Heagney begins to explain the process: pressing fruit, cold settling, racking – pumping clear juice off the pulp, adding yeast for fermentation, moderating temperature, removing harsh tannins, making the palate elegant, etc … It’s far too scientific for me: I thought you stomped the grapes, stuck them in vat, filtered the dregs and bottled it! In Heagney’s attempts at helping me gain a knowledge of wine appreciation, too, I turn out like the restaurant (a stunned mullet), a pleb unable to grasp the point of discerning whether wine smells like mown hay or mouldy old boots. Not a big drinker, I think I’m happy to leave it all to the winemakers.

For Heagney, her first Cassegrain crop, establishing her local reputation, will be the now-emerging 2010 vintages, which should also cement her roots in Port, home to her and children Jack, 7, and Tahlia, 5, since she joined Cassegrain last July. She’s delighted to be back close to family after years living far away; all her sisters have already visited. So, with lovely kids and a great job in a nice town, maybe she has it all? Certainly she enjoys working with John Cassegrain, but, apparently, her son thinks the hours are too long. (Harvest time, I learn, runs pretty much 24/7: “Grapes won’t wait once they’re harvested,” Heagney cautions). So perhaps it’s understandable that, as harvest wound up recently, Jack had some future career advice for his mother: “You could be a bus driver, Mum! Then you could be home more often!”

Like good wine, good winemakers perhaps take little boys a few more years of maturity to appreciate fully.

> Out To Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.

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