The Amery property was purchased by Herbert and Frederick Kay in October 1890 and they officially came into possession on February 2nd 1891, as is noted in the diary commenced that day:
"Entered into possession at Amery.
Sections 514, 515, 516 & 740.
Rose, Bert,and Fred arrived about 6.30 (Rose was their sister)
Stock - Brown Horse "Darkie"
Roan Horse "Roanie"
4 swarms of bees
Furniture per M. Webers wagon 9.45".
There is a meticulously kept diary for every year that the Kay Family has been at Amery. They give not only detailed vintage records and weather information, but also a host of day-to-day insights into the tremendous physical effort people put into working and living in those early days.
Within a week of arriving Bert and Fred measured their land a few months later started to organise vine cuttings for planting.
Thursday 23rd July: "Carted 3 dray loads of vine cuttings from Tintara; 25,800 Shiraz, 5,000 Riesling, 10,000 Carbenet."
Friday 24th July: "Began planting in fallow paddock - planted 452 Shiraz.".
The vineyard development continued the following year and on Friday 15th July 1892 they recorded:
"W.H. Craven offered to supply Carbenet and Malbec cuttings at 10/- per thousand."
Tuesday 19th July - "T. Hardy called - agreed to buy 900 white Hermitage vines from him."
A copy of the original planting map - Block 6 is bottom left
From all this hardwork family finally started to produce wine and the Diary notes on 8th March 1895:
"Finished picking in windmill paddock 4-3/4 cwt Shiraz and3/4 cwt Carbenet
Began picking blocks 25 & 8 - 1 cwt Shiraz; 1cwt Carbenet, 7-1/2 cwt Mataro.
Crushed first cask of grapes."
In just 7 years the Kay Brothers had planted over 90 acres of vines, built a winery and produced their first 9,100 litres of wine - quite an achievement in such a short space of time especially when the amount of physical effort required is considered. Their first vintages were crushed with a hand crusher (a wooden roller with protruding spikes), and then by horse power, with a horse walking around a capstan which turned a crusher.
Their first thoughts of exporting were in 1897, when it is recorded in the diary on 29th April,
"H. Kay took samples of Amery No.1 (1896 Carbenet) and Amery No.2 (1896 Blend) to J.G. Kelly to take to England".
The first Amery bottlings took place in November 1898, with twenty-six dozen bottles of an 1896 wine. In August the following year they sent six bottles of 1897 Frontignac to the Adelaide Show. In August 1900 they bottled four dozen pints of the 1896 Burgundy under an Amery label.
The Kay brothers continued to thrive and by 1920 were averaging a vintage harvest of 150 tons of wine grapes. Most of the wines made at this time were dry red blends destined to be sold in bulk and for export. They also made sweet fortified reds and a small quantity of dry whites. The dry red style was very typical of the area generally – full bodied, dry, deep colours and heavy in tannin.
As well as building the business the Kays were also building their family. Fred never married but he did act as best man for Herbert when he married in 1913. Bert and his new wife lived in the Homestead at Amery, a building which over the years had been greatly extended from the original 6 room 1850’s era cottage. In June 1914 the family celebrated the arrival of the first of the next generation – Cuthbert (“Cud”) Kay.
As well as working hard to make a success of Amery the Kay family also helped in many local community projects and were active in many organisations. Fred was a prominent and long serving member of the Phylloxera Board and Bert was Chairman of the Australian Wine Board for twelve years from 1933. They were also both very active in projects such as the building of the McLaren Vale Institute and the Willunga railway.
Over the 1920’s Government strategy to support returning World War 1 services men encouraged the decline of table wines and a switch to fortified wines and by the 1930’s over 70% of the Amery production was sweet fortified red, mainly for export. This trend changed back and by the late 1940’s bulk red wine was again the main output of the Kay Brothers winery.
Cud Kay became more and more involved in running the business and in January 1939 took over writing the daily diary. Other than a stint in the army when Fred and Bert returned to the business, this event marked the handing over to the next generation of the family. Bert died in 1948 one year after Fred. The Kay Brothers had been partners in business for fifty-seven years, which is a remarkable record on the Australian winemaking scene.
In the 1960's changes occurred in the British market and that, coupled with uneconomic prices, led to the development of Australian markets for the winery output. Initially for Kay Brothers this was in bulk blends to other winemakers but progressively more and more wine was packaged as a single variety wines or limited blends such as Shiraz Cabernet. The use of oak to add complexity and character was also introduced with Cud installing unlined oak vats for maturation. This change allowed winemakers to express a level of individuality in their finished wine and also encouraged direct sales to the public.
The Kays opened the Cellar Door in 1956 with wine having to be purchased, due to regulations, in four-flagon (2 gallon) minimum. All the Kay family were inevitably involved in this process as well as the normal winery and vineyard jobs. Over the 1960’s the demand for packaged wine continued to grow into the industry familiar to many today. Over the same time Colin Kay, the eldest of the next generation, completed his oenology training before returning to work at Amery in 1969.
Vineyards became more mechanised and more modern grape receiving equipment was installed in the winery along with modern pumping equipment and vineyard irrigation.
Kays no longer sells bulk wines and instead sells all its output, including fortified wines, under the Kay Brothers label. It has a vision to protect the values of it forebears and to continue to produce sustainable wines of exemplary quality as it has done for 3 generations.