The Record Keepers
Some stories are so large, it is difficult to know how to even begin to do it justice. I have had to make peace with the fact that these words will only gloss over the story of a family that has been of immense importance to the McLaren Vale region for generations. The Kay family have been incredibly diligent record keepers for their entire 124 years on the ‘Amery’ property in McLaren Vale. The family records are voluminous to say the least. Even a book being written for release early next year to commemorate their 125th anniversary has had to concentrate only on just the Kays with links to Amery, to ensure it wasn’t an encyclopaedic tome of epic proportions.
The Kay Brothers archives take the form of a daily diary, recording all the momentous occasions such as taking possession of the property on Feb 2nd 1891, through the planting of vineyards, and the building of the winery throughout the late 1890’s. The diary entries also detail rainfall and importantly, the daily egg haul from the resident chickens! The day-to-day toil of the brothers in the early days was recorded in detail, showing the hard work involved in establishing a vineyard and winery, in a relatively new colony.
These diaries have been an amazing resource, enabling South Australian historians to learn valuable information about early days in the region. My own family, the Oliver’s were (and still are) close neighbours to the Kay family, and supplied them with grapes. From the Kay’s diaries and harvest records, we can learn the picking dates, tonnages, varieties and prices paid for the grapes supplied. Something it seems my family was more than a little lax in recording over the years!
The rainfall history of the region has been produced from the Kay’s records, offering a valuable local insight into the climate and the changes over 120 plus years. As dry as some of the recent years have seemed to be, the Kays records show that in fact 1914 was the driest year since the records began. Back then, there wasn’t any irrigation to assist growing vines when the skies failed to provide.
Colin Kay took over the winery operations from his father Cud Kay, Herbert’s son, in the early 1970’s. The third generation of his family to farm, Colin completed his technical training in Agriculture and Oenology at Roseworthy in 1963. After some time working at the Barossa co-op, Colin headed overseas and travelled the America’s and Europe for three years. Adventure sated, he headed back to the family property, meeting his wife, Ruth, on the boat back to Australia. The family business slowly changed from one that was focused on bulk wine for export and domestic consumption, to one that became more about branded wines in the 1980’s. However, at the same time, the cyclical nature of fortunes that is the Australian wine industry entered another deep recession. The ‘vine-pull’ scheme came into full effect in 1987, and the wine business got altogether harder.
But the Kays toughed it out. Not much has changed in the way that they make wine today compared to the original Kay brothers in the 1890’s. The grape press is hydraulic now, the concrete open fermenters are lined in stainless steel rather than beeswax, and the pumps are electric, but the original 1895 gravity winery still functions as per its original design. A refresh of their cellar door that first opened in 1956 is currently underway, and I am sure will continue to welcome cellar door visitors into the foreseeable future.
As a young girl, the first smells of a winery are those that I associate with Kays, and that pretty much sealed my future career path! My Dad, Colin Rayment, was General Manager for Kays for 28 years, so the cellars and grounds were pretty much my second home. I grew up with Colin’s daughters, Helen and Elspeth, and what adventures we had. Nothing better as a kid than having a mate with a grand red-roofed castle filled with many maze-like rooms for a house! The Amery Homestead has stood sentinel over the valley since 1850.
I asked Colin why he thinks that their family business has been able to stand the test of time. He thinks that there are a couple of important elements. An intense, in-built passion for place, the Amery property, that has been passed down from generation to generation is one important factor. One that is still strong in Colin’s daughter, 4th generation Elspeth. Even though she is working outside of the family business, she still sits on the board and has been very involved in the ‘future-proofing’ of the Kays Amery brand. She remains devoted to the property, as will her two small sons I am sure. Colin’s siblings, Alice & Bill, have also been drawn back to the family property after stellar careers in other diverse industries such as Marine Biology and Architecture.
The other fundamental factor to the Kays family business surviving 125 years and still going strong? A somewhat single-minded “dogged determination”, says Colin.
In loving memory of Helen Marie Kay 1973-1999
First published in Fleurieu Living Magazine Summer 2015