Most musicians would baulk at the idea of running their own festival with its implied imperatives of food, wine and bottom line. Not so cellist Chris Howlett who, with Jodi Marsh of Sanguine Estate, had the crazy idea of puttin’ on a show at the Hunter family’s vineyard just outside Heathcote. That was in 2011. The first Sanguine Estate Music Festival was held in February 2012.

Morning tea at Sanguine Estate Music Festival. Photograph © Elizabeth Quinn

Eight years on, Howlett’s ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy has paid off, with a full house at this year’s festival, which ran from May 3 – 5. Even before the finale, farewell concert, all the tickets for next year’s event had been sold. Loyalty to brand Sanguine has earned regular festival-goers the first option to tickets and their own collective name. The Sanguinistas are a faithful bunch of well-informed music lovers whose willingness to explore uncharted musical territory broadens the programmatic options for festival directors Howlett and fellow cellist Howard Penny.

“The trust people have in Howard and I is something we never take for granted,” says Howlett. This year’s program included works by lesser known Czech composers Joseph Miroslav Weber and Eduard Nápravník, and J.C.F. Bach, the ninth and – according to his father – most talented son of Johann Sebastian.

Jonathan Kelly and Sara Macliver. Photograph © Elizabeth Quinn

This trust is what leads the Sanguinistas to invest one year in advance in tickets for a festival whose program and featured guests are entirely unknown at the time of purchase. Those details are planned more than a year ahead by festival directors Howlett and Penny in a military-style operation involving a white board, a cheese platter and bottle of Sanguine d’Orsa Reserve Shiraz.

“We strive for international artists who are at the top of their field,” says Howlett. He also likes to introduce them to an Australian audience for the first time. This year’s featured artist, Jonathan Kelly, ticks both boxes. He holds the coveted first oboe position at the Berlin Philharmonic, and made his Australian debut last weekend under a tin roof, surrounded by wine barrels and the gently rolling hills around Heathcote.

Meet the Makers with Benjamin Baker, Jonathan Kelly, Steven Wright and Chris Howlett. Photograph © Elizabeth Quinn

A youthful 50-year-old with a “wicked sense of humour” according to Sanguine regular Sara Macliver, Kelly jumped at the chance of coming to Australia. Sociability is key to the role of guest artist. “It wouldn’t work if the musicians weren’t happy to mix with the audience over the weekend, eat with them and drink with them,” says Howlett.

Rubbing shoulders with internationally-renowned performers is the sort of thing you can only do at a festival like this, where everything takes place in a single venue and is kept to a limited number of festival-goers. With Huntington Estate about to retire from the music festival business, such opportunities are becoming rarer. Music by the Springs – held at Peppers’ Hotel in Hepburn Springs – just celebrated its second year and the signs are good for lovers of single venue boutique chamber music festivals.

Jodi Marsh and guests at the Gala Dinner. Photograph © Max Wang

The Sanguine Estate Music Festival is extended every year to include a Bendigo weekend (with this year’s running May 10 – 12). This gives the local community an opportunity to experience fine music, world class performances and a glass of Sanguine Estate wine in iconic Bendigo venues like the Art Gallery and the Capital Theatre.

From an audience of 75 in its first year, tickets are now capped at 140 and – a bit like MCC membership – you’ll have to wait for someone to die to earn yourself a golden ticket. Those early days must seem a lifetime away for Howlett, who has since become Chairman of community classical radio program 3MBS, Artistic Director of the Music in the Round festival at Abbotsford Convent and – his greatest production thus far – the father of a newborn son. In combination with gifted cellist and music educator Howard Penny, he has pulled off another a magical weekend of chamber music, gourmet delights and bonhomie for 140 lucky lottery winners.