Through generations and waves of change, the family behind Darling Estate wines has seen a lot in a century of life and agriculture in the King Valley.
John Darling reflects on the foresight and innovation of those before him who grew apples, tobacco and grapes. Now, he’s looking to the future: the fifth and sixth generations of the family’s farm life.
It’s been a century since John Darling’s great-grandparents made the fortuitous
decision to buy land in the King Valley. It’s a decision that built a family legacy which
is now stronger than ever.
John says, “My grandfather, Frederick Darling, returned from World War I with only
one leg, and decided to become a King Valley farmer. He moved straight onto the
land that his parents had bought for him, starting the Warrawee Apple Orchard in
With the clear intention of taking on a challenge and building a future, Frederick soon
bought another property on the King River for growing tobacco, like many other
families around the valley. This industry was very successful, but the next in line to
the Darling family business wanted to have a shot at some other interests, too.
“When my father, Guy, took over, he set his sights on grapes,” John says. “While a
few of the local Italian families had their own small, domestic vines, Dad’s plan was
to jump into the unknown of growing grapes on a commercial basis; the first in the
Upper King Valley to do so. He said, ‘Let’s try this and see what happens’.”
This was back in 1970, and the property that Guy chose was Koombahla, the
Whitfield estate where the family’s vineyard, winery and home remain to this day.
“To start, he planted a hectare each of Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon,” John
recalls. “Dad was great friends with John Brown Snr, so they had an agreement in
place to sell all the grapes to Brown Brothers. They went on to make many award-
winning wines with Dad’s fruit.”
“He very quickly moved to other varieties, planting every year until he’d added
Shiraz, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir into the mix,” says John. “It was these that were
still being grown when I came back to join Dad on the vineyard in the early 1990s
and we started our own label, Darling Estate.”
When John joined the business, he and Guy made Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon,
Chardonnay, Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir: a strong range of varieties that proved to be
But it was only when his father passed away in 2008 that John took over the family
business full-time, ready to roll his sleeves up and put his own innovations into
The latest of those innovations is a variety that’s new to many Australians. “We’re
only the second vineyard in Australia to make Aligoté,” says John. “It’s a French
variety, a white from the Burgundy region where Chardonnay originates. It’s more
delicate in flavour than Chardonnay, with more citrus and pear notes, and it holds its
acidity very well.
“It’s a great variety, a bit novel and exciting, and I think it’s going to work really well in
the King Valley. We’ve just released the first vintage, and it’s been very well
It’s true, then, that John Darling continues the legacy of those who came before him,
not only by farming in the King Valley, but by innovating. “I guess I carry that family
trait that my grandfather and my Dad had: to get up and have a go,” he says, before
adding that this trait certainly doesn’t stop with him. “I think we’ve passed it down to
my two daughters. Sophie helps out the winery from her home in Melbourne, and
comes up to the property a lot, and Grace has just moved here with her partner,
Luke, and their three children.
“That’s the fifth and sixth generations now here in the King Valley, passionately
working to take Darling Estate into the future.”
The future of the family business isn’t something that John wants to try and predict,
however, preferring to let the next generations have the freedom he’s had to try out
their dreams. “What that future brings is up to them; they’ll make those decisions
themselves. I’ll let the next generations steer the Darling Estate ship to wherever
they want it to sail.”
The only certainty is that, when it comes to life on the land, anything could happen.
“In 100 years of agriculture, my family has seen a lot of ups and downs and a lot of
cycles,” John reflects. “It can be a fickle business. There have been times we’ve all
questioned what we’d let ourselves in for. But here we are, a century in, planting and
making new varieties, and the business growing. The wine industry is doing well and
we’re going to take advantage of that while the sun shines.
“We’re looking forward to at least another 100 years in the King Valley.”