The Browns

David Anderson hooks up with Ross and Judy Brown in Victoria’s King Valley

In 1885, just as the first immigrant brown trout were finding homes in Victoria, an adventurous 18-year-old John Francis Brown planted 10 acres of mixed wine grapes on the family property at Milawa, in the King River Valley, starting one of Australia’s largest and longest standing privately owned wine companies. 132 years later the vines, like the trout, have flourished and so has the Brown family. Ross Brown is a fifth-generation wine man at Brown Brothers and Judy Brown is a retired occupational therapist and self-confessed trout addict. The two of them ooze King Valley, and reflect a lifelong love affair with the land and the environment around them. In the twilight of his career, Ross is clearly relaxed about the generational succession that is already in motion. His daughters Katherine and Caroline purposefully go about their day around us at the winery, Katherine on her second vintage as a wine maker and Caroline managing marketing and public relations. Emma, their youngest is in the US at Penfolds, doing her mandatory five-year stint outside the family business, as did her father and her sisters. Besides his director responsibilities, Ross describes his contribution to the business these days as a “projects role”, taking on initiatives that others don’t have time to focus on. His latest venture is brought to our table at lunch, a chilled bottle of Prosecco. Ross suggests that wine has fads and fashions. The fads come and go, but the fashions are rare, and clearly Ross is passionate about Prosecco’s potential to be the next fashion. “You don’t need a celebration to drink Prosecco, it’s the other refreshing white you have whenever you want.” Prosecco, on first introduction to my untrained and beer-stained palate, tastes like being tickled on the tongue and back-handed at the same time. It’s somewhere between a crisp Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc without the paddock aftertaste and a solid Australian Riesling that doesn’t lose its front with food. It’s electric. The King Valley is often described as ‘the Mediterranean of Victoria’ because of its strong Italian heritage and similarities in climate, food and wine culture. Ross calls it the Prosecco Road and at our first fishing stop on the lower King River we are greeted by Fred Pizzini’s bold Italian hand-gestures and big smile among the lush Prosecco vines dripping with one of the best crops in a long time. Ross describes the season as “copy book”, with extensive rains in spring and a dry hot summer, totally contrasting to the last 15 years when local wine makers were starting to wonder if they’d have anywhere left to hide from the increasing climate extremes. Judy joins us for our fishing expedition, quick to point out that Ross is the wine man. Judy on the other hand is a firecracker and her passion for fly fishing is immediately evident. I ask her if there is any competition between them on the water. At first she says no, but soon follows up with “maybe a little.” Judy started fishing bait and lures at the age of three, taught by her father, and later fell in love with fly fishing in Canada where she worked for a while. On returning to Australia she moved to Wangaratta and promptly met Ross. They shared a passion for the outdoors and fishing, with Judy eventually tutoring Ross in the delights of fly fishing. The two of them are inseparable on the river. It is clear they have fished together for a long time and love the sport — Ross with his calculated focus and Judy with her stalking, hunter’s instincts. They have fly fished together all over the world, from salmon runs in Alaska and giant threadfin in the Tiwis to winter rainbows in Jackson Hole Wyoming. But they concur that their favourite water is their backyard, right here in the King River, and Victoria’s wider North East region where they have fished and camped all their lives. The fishing at Pizzini’s on the lower King is challenging, with the water warm after several weeks of soaring temperatures and no rain. Ross and Judy harmoniously take turns calling each other to leapfrog into the next section of river. They meticulously search every run, current seam and undercut by the willow roots, but the trout that clearly live here have their minds on other things, like surviving the heat. We decide to move above the dam where the water is likely to be cooler in the higher freestone section of the stream. I ask Ross on the way up if the river has changed much in his life and he tells a story of Judy losing her wedding ring while swimming just near their home. Ross’s brother promptly brought down his skin-diving gear and found the ring on the bottom of the river, “that’s how clear it was.” We are pleasantly greeted with rising trout in the first pool we approach further up the river. Ross and Judy know this water like the back of their hands, describing every pool and run ahead as we draw near. “Yes, Ross caught a nice rainbow just behind that log on Friday and I caught a lovely brown out of this next pool,” says Judy with such energy that you would swear it was the first time she had ever fished here. I ask Judy how often they fish the river and she reflects that when their girls were younger, they used to hire a babysitter so she and Ross could go fishing. “Most people go to the movies, but Ross and I just love being up here. Catching a fish is just a bonus really.” After a couple of sulky fish and a missed take (we won’t say who), Ross gets first strike and lands a lovely, buttery King River brown. The boyish delight shines through as he brings the fish to Judy with the net. Judy is delighted for Ross, but it’s clear after a slow start to the afternoon that Judy is keen to level the score. It doesn’t take long before she finesses a cast into a run under an overhanging bush and cracks a nice little rainbow, leaving her more than satisfied. In the car ride on the way back to the winery, Judy, still keen to talk fishing, asks about Murray cod, having seen my recent article on Lake Mulwala (FL#86) and we talk flies, rods and reels for a while. Knowing them as I do now, I suspect that by the time you read this article, the Browns will be as well acquainted with the cod of the King River as I intend to be with its wines.

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