Bob’s Bolg: THE COMMUNITY IS KEY TO GOOD WINE MAKING AND WINE TOURISM

We live in “interesting times” is a quote often mentioned to explain the challenges we face today. Yet it seems to me we live in a time when communities are breaking down and the support that comes with often evaporating. So how lucky are we in the Hunter wine and tourism industry to have a positive and supportive environment in which to work and live.
It is sad today that many people living in big cities don’t know their neighbours, don’t often see them and don’t interact with them, all of which means a loss of opportunity and an emptiness in their social experience. In our winemaking community, there is a great deal of interaction from the basic viticulture to the making and bottling of the wine, the wine shows, the marketing and selling off our precious product.
We have a community of winemakers who over the years have become very supportive of each other. If something breaks down, as it is prone to do, a quick phone call will bring help or a lend of equipment till it gets fixed. Stuck ferments, blending opinions, just ran out of tartaric acid and its Sunday morning… we have a wonderful group of people brought together with the aim of making first-class wine and a critical mass to make it work.
We also have the challenging task of selling our wines in a very crowded market, this again benefits from community support as well as the key individual efforts.
Along with this, of course, we have morphed into a wine-tourism destination and our community has grown to include all those in accommodation and food as well as all the myriad of support services. With this growth has come some growing pains, but, by and large, we recognize the benefits and share the overall trajectory of our region.
The Hunter Food and Wine Festival coming up now, a descendant of the Vintage Festival that started in 1966, is a great example of how we all get together and show off our best to the many visitors that come to the Hunter. Organised by the Hunter Valley Wine Tourism Association (HVWTA) this is an important event but only one aspect of the activities including the Legend Awards that occur.
In the lower Hunter area, human nature has in some ways determined that smaller communities have also gathered together. Groups such as the Around Hermitage community, the Lovedale region, Mount View, Central Pokolbin, Broke, Wollombi and we even have a group of parishioners in part of the old Parish of Pokolbin who get together (not sure if they meet on Sundays still).
These are important groups that understand their areas, support each other, promote their wine and tourism elements with strong personal input and provide a social backbone to living in their areas.
By the 1990’s it was apparent the growing interest in wine tourism, as opposed to just wine tasting, was occurring. Being just over 2 hours from Sydney a pilgrimage to Australia’s oldest wine region, along with a short stay break, an opportunity to enjoy some outstanding food in the newly developed restaurants along with the local fine wines was occurring. However, the investment in the valley needed mid-week as well as weekend visitors and the need to “work together to thrive and survive”, as Ian Napier once put it, became obvious-fortunately most people could see this and the various precincts got to work.
As they say in their promotion, the Lovedale Long Lunch is a “decadent lineup of the Hunter Valleys leading chefs with seven of Lovedale’s finest wineries”, and helps promote the area (decadent or not!). This year marks the 25th anniversary of this May event.
The Around Hermitage group has been active since the mid-1990’s starting life as the “Brokenback Wine Trail” and promoting short breaks in the picturesque setting of the vineyards with views of the Brokenback mountain range. Discussions followed about the name with some feeling “broken back” was a negative to those unaware of the local geography.
So using the existing and historical street name “Hermitage” with its obvious wine connotations seemed a good idea.
But wanting to be inclusive of our area that had Deasys Road, parts of Broke Road and Old North Road we called it “ Around Hermitage”. We also wanted to continue the theme of a wine trail and include the marrying of food and wine, ensuring our visitors could “relax and enjoy the very best accommodation, wining and dining with great views”, as one of our promotions said.
The Hermitage Road cycleway has certainly brought renewed life to the area, a $17m investment that was the result of strong representation by the Around Hermitage group under the leadership of Vicci Lashmore-Smith of Misty Glen Vineyard and Cottages. We are currently working on upgrading Old North Road. Another role has been to protect the rural nature of the area and ensure tourism and viticulture are protected.
Important to our community was the development of a social programme to help bring us together – those who play together stay together as it were. Many of our members had come from Sydney and the opportunity to mix socially and share experiences was ingrained in the development of our group. New members were encouraged to take an active role and become
part of the development of a collaborative, supportive and positive community. Our regular bus trip to the Scone Races is always a sparkling (wine) affair and our Hunters and Gatherers dinner along with a Bonfire soup night, Pizza night and Christmas gathering are all opportunities to interact and build relationships.
Like other precincts (hate that word but it seems to have meaning and is used by the HVWTA to describe us – rather bureaucratic!) we have grown over the last 20 years and taken on new activities. Vicci Lashmore-Smith developed the idea of a film festival about 4 years ago with our committee and, with Richard Friend and Neal Crisford, led the way to our first festival held at individual vineyards over a two week period. Subsequently, we have linked in with Flickerfest and even gone into local production with Neal producing the “Life of Brian” promoting the history of Wyndham Estate and the McGuigan family’s contribution to the Hunter. Peter Drayton has made available his new Brewhouse to host the Film nights.
This year Neal is writing/producing/directing/filming a food and wine epic based on Australia’s first cookbook “Cookery for the Many and the Upper 10,000” which includes a myriad of local Hunter wineries, restaurants and people. It’s our Around Hermitage group promoting the Hunter. We think it is important that while getting together locally we should not lose sight of the bigger Hunter wine-tourism picture.
The recent HVWTA initiative to raise $300,000 to be matched by the state government Destination NSW, has had our strong support as have all the “precinct ” members. For us to survive as a wine-tourism destination we have to promote what we do best.
The combination of all the local groups working towards promoting our beloved Hunter is much stronger than the individual parts but original ideas will often flow from the smaller groups adding depth and strength to our endeavours.
All these groups rely on voluntary contributions and it is a great sign of the strength and character of the members of our Hunter wine-tourism community that so much activity is going on. We are certainly not living in isolated compartments as some in the cities do, but rather we are fortunate to have a purpose in our lives and to share the journey with like-minded people.
Author: Robert Lusby AM
©Around Hermitage Association
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