The very early signs that the Mornington Peninsula held distinct promise as a winemaking region came in 1886, when the first commercial winery established in Dromana won an honourable mention in the Intercontinental Exhibition in 1886.
Vines had been planted on the Mornington Peninsula since the 1850s, when the Balcombe family produced wine from their small vineyard at The Briars in Mount Martha (one of the original vines still exists on the estate, which is managed by the National Trust and Mornington Peninsula Shire and is open to the public).
However, while patriarch William Balcombe had gained fame both for hosting Napoleon Bonaparte at his family home on the island of St Helena and later as the Treasurer of the colony of NSW, his achievements did not extend to wine, which was dubbed ‘Briars Vinegar’ by the locals.
In the 1870s and 80s, Simon ‘the Frenchman’, who lived in the hollow of a tree on Arthur's Seat and was the first European to settle for any length of time on the Mornington Peninsula’s highest hill (305m), also dabbled in winemaking. His abode might have been humble, but he managed to make drinkable wines from small plantings to accompany his meals.
The Dromana winery’s modest success in the Intercontinental Exhibition inspired other would-be winemakers, and in 1891 fourteen Peninsula grape growers were mentioned in a Royal Commission into the Fruit and Vegetable Industry.
But by the 1920s many vineyards had been abandoned or uprooted, and the region’s winemaking future seemed doomed when a fire destroyed the Seppelt and Seabrook vineyard in Dromana in 1967.
However, as grape growing requires equal parts of optimism and vision, it was only five years later that some aspiring vignerons recognised the potential of the Mornington Peninsula’s maritime climate for producing high quality cool climate varieties similar to those of the great wine producing areas of France.
In 1972 Baillieu Myer established Elgee Park vineyard in Merricks North, while Nat and Rosalie White planted their first vineyards at Main Ridge Estate in 1975. These contemporary pioneers were rapidly followed by others in the 1970s and 1980s, and vineyard developments quickly gathered pace throughout the 1990s and 2000s.