Behind the cellar door

From cosy and rustic to modern and sophisticated, Hunter Valley winemakers have created a world class palette of experiences to suit every taste.

The Hunter Valley cellar door experience has changed a great deal over the last fifty years. On any given weekend in the 1970s, bus loads of thirsty travellers would be disgorged into winery car parks to wreak havoc on the poor locals. They might have tolerated a taste of sweaty Hunter Burgundy (shiraz) or dark yellow Hunter Riesling (semillon), but were more likely to demand a sweet red (port) or some nice Ben Ean Moselle. They would stand cheek by jowl at the wooden tasting bench, waggling tiny tulip-shaped tasting glasses at winery staff in an attempt to down as much free wine as possible before they got back on the coach to Sydney Jump forward in time and the scene is very different.

There are still coach groups, but these days they are discretely managed in special areas with targeted tours and tastings. Venues are slick, often shiningly modern. Staff are trained and articulate. Visitors are wine literate and eager to learn. The Hunter is now full to the brim with polished, well-run operations that entertain, educate and enchant an astonishing 1.5 million visitors each year, with wine tourism contributing over $500 million annually to the local economy.

The evolution of Australia’s most visited wine region has been constant, though admittedly a little slow at times. But things are on the march. A recent and significant shift is the move to paid cellar door tastings. This practice was wide spread in the USA’s Napa Valley as far back as the 1990s, but Australia has been nervous to follow suit.

I never really understood the continuation of the Guzzle For Free policy, with so many punters sucking up valuable time, wine and bench space, then slinking off without buying so much as a cork screw. In the past it had a place as a marketing tool, promoting brands and educating Australians about wine. It was essential for regional wine tourism, providing an activity to attract visitors to the area. And while all this is still in play to some extent, the industry has matured. The majority of Hunter Valley cellar doors now charge a small fee for cellar door tastings, which they say has hardly raised an eyebrow amongst visitors. In fact it seems many of them quite like it.

In 2019, most Hunter cellar doors have great staff and facilities. Many have a wine club, a shop or a café. Several sell a nice cheese and charcuterie platter to go with your tasting. That’s all terrific. But the some cellar doors offer that special something extra that makes a visit to their place just that much more of an experience.

Read more in issue 94 of Hunter &Coastal Lifestyle Magazine

Story by Sally Evans, photos courtesy of cellar doors.