From hobby to heavyweight: Sally Evans on the past and the present of one of the Hunter’s most prestigious wineries.

My earliest memory of James Halliday is from so long ago that he still had hair. He is in stubbies and gumboots, sitting on a concrete floor surrounded by empty wine bottles, into which he is siphoning wine with a garden hose. It was the early 1970s, the infancy of hobby winery Brokenwood, and I was there with my dad, Len Evans, who had not long opened another, slightly more fancy, operation just down the road – Rothbury Estate. They were heady days for these young enthusiasts, who would go on to become the grandfathers of the Australian wine industry. And for Halliday, it was the start of a business that would grow to become a thriving industry fixture, still going strong over 40 years later.

James had started Brokenwood as a weekend escapade with his lawyer pals John Beeston and Tony Albert on a 10- acre, overgrown cricket pitch situated in the shadow of the Brokenback Range in central Pokolbin. The friends were joined on Saturday mornings by a roster of enthusiastic volunteers who came to help plant, prune, pick, cook and carouse. They worked hard all day in pretty primitive conditions. At night they were rewarded with quarts of bacchanalian fun, with everyone dossing down in one large bunk room. Enough said. It was the 70s. In 1973 they made their first wine. Just 75 dozen of Hunter Hermitage Cabernet Sauvignon was produced, Hermitage being the old name for Australian Shiraz. Over the next few years, the enterprise grew. The wines won awards, new partners were added and the winery was extended. In 1978 the Graveyard vineyard next door was purchased, and in 1982 a “real” winemaker joined the team, one Iain Leslie Riggs, and Hunter Semillon was added to the portfolio. The tiny hobby winery was well on its way to becoming one of the cornerstones of the Australian wine industry. Jump forward 45 years and Brokenwood is one of Australia’s premier fine wine producers with an output of more than 100,000 dozen cases a year. The circa 1975 Brokenwood cellar door was a must-visit destination in the Hunter for decades, with the cellar-door crew earning accolades year after year, despite the somewhat retro décor and shabby-chic style of the facilities.

All this changed in December last year, with the opening of a very swanky new $8M cellar door and restaurant complex, which shoots Brokenwood to the forefront of cellar-door experiences in the Hunter Valley, if not the country. Designed by Sydney architects Villa + Villa, with a mixed palette of natural woods and rustic materials, this is a building bursting with brilliant design and smart thinking.

Two impressive dining venues are part of the new complex, overseen by the very experienced and talented Andrew and Janet Wright from The Cellar Restaurant at Hunter Valley Gardens. There’s the more casual bistro Cru Bar & Pantry, and The Wood Restaurant, a modern, slightly more formal, dining room. Two private dining areas, the Beeston and Halliday Rooms, join the existing Albert Room in the winery block. Other fun and innovative features include a concierge who directs and guides each visitor’s experience on entry, and a snazzy self-serve wine dispenser offering a selection of premium and rare wines not ordinarily available for tasting. Picnic packs are available for those who want to kick back on the front lawn.

Read more in Edition 93 of Hunter&Coastal Lifestyle Magazine.
Story: Sally Evans
Photography: Courtesy of Brokenwood Wines