John Francis Brown was the founder of Brown Brothers Milawa Vineyard. Born in 1867, he was the second son of George Harry and Rebecca Brown. In 1885 John Francis talked his father into a partnership – they planted 10 acres. With no experience in winemaking, it was his ambitious nature that saw him succeed.
John Francis Brown was an ambitious and imaginative young man who was born at Hurdle Creek on 18th June 1867. In the 1880’s wine was the talk of the North East. Rutherglen was surging forward to become Victoria’s premier wine-growing district. By 1885 the number of acres planted in Victoria had swelled from 700 to 3144. This was clearly the way to go.
John Francis had no experience in winemaking. There were no schools, no agricultural colleges and no TAFEs, the only form of education and assistance was by way of advisors. John Francis was very ambitious and after successfully managing his first 10 acres was keen to plant more. There was a theory that the future of exporting wine was unlimited so in 1890 the Government offered £2 an acre to anyone who would plant approved grapevines. The offer lasted 3 years and John Francis and his father planted another 10 acres.
1896 was also the year that the effects of Phylloxera became known. In 1890-1891 there was a bank crash and the greatest depression Victoria has ever known. The £2 subsidy had caused a vast over-production and this country was not one to drink table wine; beer was still the preferred drink. Despite the odds John Francis courageously battled on. As the battle went on many producers went out of business, selling their casks and other equipment to a keen John Francis.
In 1898 he built a new winery and cellar. The modern sales room we see today is part of the continuing gable to a second stage of the cellar building that was added in 1904. Even more enterprising was that he built a small brick edifice and filled it with a 60-gallon wood fired pot still – the results were amazing. The production of fortifieds – Muscat and Port were where the money was to be made. Between 1902 & 1914 John Francis put through 54,000 gallons.
Along side of his business interests John Francis also had a family of his own. He married Ida Peady in Wangaratta in 1899. Together they had four children Bertha Ethel, Clarice Aileen, Ida Madge and John Charles. John Charles later carried on with his father’s enthusiasm to become Life President of the Company.
In 1909 John Francis had 40 acres under vines growing Shiraz, Malbec, Pedro Ximines, Brown Muscat, Riesling, Tokay and Golden Chasselas. Simple bush vines were common but John Francis had his trellised in rows- he was a pioneer in many respects.
By the end of 1896 he had bought out his father’s partnership and leased both the vineyard and barn to produce his own wine. He called the vineyard Brown Bros. hoping that his brothers Austin, George and Charles would join him, but they never did.
Milawa had its honeymoon towards the end of the war with a number of very good years. 1916 was a notable year for a number of reasons. John Francis purchased his own model T-ford; automobiles were a rare sight back then. However, the most unwanted and memorable thing that occurred during that year was the outbreak of Phylloxera in Milawa. While most growers ripped up their vines, John Francis chose to follow some advice from the saviour of the Victorian wine industry, Francois de Castella. De Castella or ‘Cas’ as he was known was the State Government Viticulturist. He advised John Francis to graft vines onto American rootstock.
John Francis wasn’t about to give up. He ripped up his beloved vineyard, chose another part of the property that was clean and replaced the entire 35 acres with American rootstock. In hindsight this was one of the most important decisions he made. From his close association with Francois de Castella came the Brown Brothers fascination with varietal wines.
In 1943 John Francis passed away at the ripe old age of 76. For a man whose education never went beyond primary school his achievements were remarkable. Not only had he been the shire secretary, but he had run almost everything in the district from Treasurer of the Cemetery Trust through to the Patriotic Fund in two world wars.
Then of course he had been the pioneer winemaker, the man who started Brown Brothers Vineyard in 1889, and survived not only the economic ills of the great 1890s depression but Phylloxera as well. One must wonder if he had the opportunity to look down, say 50 years after his death, if he would be amused by the fact that his picture has appeared on every Brown Brothers label from the 1970s, reproduced millions of times fronting up on tables from Dublin to London and indeed almost every corner of the globe.