I'm 500km north of New York City sipping a tasting flight from the Adelaide Hills. It would be a surprise to find this in NYC – where you can find just about anything – so to come upon it in Rochester, NY, is all the more unexpected.
I owe the bright, slightly savoury barbera I’m drinking to Sebastian Hardy – of the South Australian wine dynasty – and wife Colleen, a born-and-raised Rochesterian. Under their label Living Roots (livingrootswine.com), the couple makes wine in both Adelaide and Rochester. This intercontinental business – unique, unprecedented, and stunningly ambitious – is borne of love: of wine, their home towns and families, and each other.
Sebastian and Colleen walk me through their urban winery, an industrial yet inviting space in a 100-year-old warehouse in a hip downtown neighbourhood. It’s early January and barely 2° Celsius outside; flurries of snowflakes dust the city. Inside it’s warm and cosy; white light pours in through the tall former factory windows, bathing the hardwood floors, brick walls and many racks of gleaming wine bottles.
“Here in the tasting room, you might never imagine there are people just behind here crushing grapes,” Colleen says, opening a door to the production facility at the back of the building. During harvest, Colleen, Sebastian or another member of the team will truck small batches of grapes here – riesling, pinot gris and cabernet franc – from vineyards in the Finger Lakes, a cool-climate wine region an hour’s drive away.
“The wines we serve here are all made by us, either right across the hall, or in Australia,” Colleen says. “It’s a lot for people to wrap their heads around; an urban winery is uncommon and making wine in two different countries is unusual.”
Their story begins more than 16,000km from Rochester, in Adelaide. Colleen arrived in 2014 to work a vintage as a cellar hand at Hardys Tintara in McLaren Vale, taking a break from her marketing career in Chicago.
Sebastian, a sixth-generation winemaker and son of Geoff Hardy, was selling alternative varieties for his family’s brand after studying winemaking in Adelaide and California, and working stints in wineries and vineyards in Italy, Austria, and France, as well as back home.
“I only planned to stay in Australia five months,” Colleen says as we settle into a quiet corner of the tasting room. “But by the time harvest came to an end, Sebastian and I had a connection, and really wanted to make it work.”
As Sebastian and Colleen got serious, an exciting future together began to form. Both passionate about working with varieties suited to a region and its climate, her business acumen could make his ideas a reality. The question was where: Adelaide or Rochester?
“I was always interested in the idea of an urban winery,” Sebastian says. “I had envisioned doing it in Adelaide, but once we met that complicated things.”
Colleen says Sebastian was blown away by the Finger Lakes. “Not just the beauty, but the potential for making different sparklings, rieslings, aromatic whites – it’s such a different climate to where we are in Australia.”
Out of many long-haul flights and late-night conversations grew a radical idea: why not Adelaide and Rochester? They made the bold decision to split the business over both places and Living Roots was born. They began to make wine in others’ facilities while they set up their own in downtown Rochester and a shed on Sebastian’s family’s vineyard in the Adelaide Hills. Ultimately, it made the most sense to open the urban winery in Rochester, says Colleen.
“With the Finger Lakes being at least an hour’s drive away, we saw a huge opportunity to bring this wine making and tasting experience to the city.”
And so in November 2017, the Hardys opened Living Roots’ Rochester tasting room, selling both locally made and Australian wines, the latter shipped over, bottled and labelled.
They take advantage of the strengths of both regions to make varietals that are supremely elegant and finessed, aiming to showcase terroir.
“The Finger Lakes is so strong in aromatic whites, particularly rieslings and sparklings, so we focus on reds in Australia. But we mix it up,” Sebastian says.
Exemplifying Living Roots’ style is the 2019 Finger Lakes Pét-Nat made from organic Cayuga grapes, a hybrid well-suited to the climate and one of the only varieties grown organically in the region. Their 2018 Adelaide Hills teroldego is made without the more typical influence of oak, retaining its high natural acidity.
Customers in Rochester embrace the Australian wines with enthusiasm.
“It’s cool to show people different styles of Australian wine and introduce our customers to something they probably wouldn’t be able to try otherwise,” Colleen says. “We’ve got an Adelaide Hills shiraz and a McLaren Vale shiraz. With the McLaren Vale being bigger and bolder, we assumed it would be more popular, but from the get-go, our Adelaide Hills had the biggest following.”
As Living Roots’ US distribution grows (they’re on wine lists in New York City, including the acclaimed restaurant Gramercy Tavern) they are inevitably educating Americans about the nuances of Australian wine.
“We have a fortified muscat, which most Australian consumers would be familiar with, but this is the first that a lot of our customers have tasted,” Sebastian says. “In our first year, we did a riesling and chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills. It was cool to show Americans you can do more than make big reds in Australia.”
Rochester is home base for the Hardys, but they spend at least a few months each year in Adelaide making their wines.
“At the end of vintage here in November, we do a short trip to Adelaide to work with our associate winemaker Anthony Nielsen to look at blends for the current year,” Sebastian says. “We’ll also talk about the grapes for the following vintage that we want to purchase. Then we can start putting together those blends, and planning and printing the labels.
“We return to Rochester for the busy holiday season, but by about the end of January, when ideally the wines are ready to bottle, we’ll go back and be there through harvest until the end of April.”
Under normal circumstances, the Hardys are in Rochester for the Northern Hemisphere summer, and do it all over again when harvest begins in the Finger Lakes in September.
Two harvests a year. Thirty hours in the air between Rochester and Adelaide. The complexities of running a business across two continents. What Colleen and Sebastian do is not for the faint of heart – or for the needers of lots of sleep.
But clearly, not even 16,000km is enough distance to stop the Hardys from staying rooted in both of their countries, communities and families. A tasting room in the Finger Lakes is coming soon, and there are plans for more of a presence in Australia – wider distribution and eventually a tasting room in the Adelaide Hills.
“Being a complicated little business, and being perfectionists, it’s a work in progress,” Sebastian says, smiling at Colleen, who smiles right back. “But we’re getting there.”
2016 Finger Lakes Traditional Method Blanc de Blancs, A$60
100% chardonnay picked early, whole-bunch pressed and barrel fermented, with secondary ferment in bottle and aged 2.5 years on lees. Citrus, biscotti and toast characters, a creamy palate, and elegant acidity.
2017 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling, A$34
Riesling with perfumed lemon and lime aromas and complex fruit characters from a gradual ripening period, finishing with high acidity from the cool climate of the Finger Lakes.
2018 Finger Lakes Pinot Gris, A$36
Bright aromatics, texture and spice. With a relatively wet vintage, selective picking and hand-sorting ensured clean fruit, with a bit of ‘noble rot’ botrytis contributing to the body and rich flavours into the orange marmalade spectrum.
2018 Adelaide Hills Shiraz, A$36
Shiraz with spicy and savoury notes that open up to vibrant strawberry and black cherry with time in the glass or decanter. The 2018 vintage was warmer and as such, this wine has a good balance of palate weight, bright fruits and peppery spice. Majority wild ferment and whole-berry fermentation.
2018 Adelaide Hills Teroldego, A$38
Originally a northern Italian variety but produced from grapes grown by Sebastian’s father, Geoff, in Kuitpo in this case. Made without oak to showcase the variety’s bright aromatics, slight savoury edge, fine tannins and racy acidity.
2018 Adelaide Depths of the Earth Red Blend, A$30
A blend of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, teroldego and pinot noir. Like a good soil profile, these diverse varieties and regions of South Australia come together to form a complementary whole. Bright fruit and spice from the Adelaide Hills, balanced with body and tannin from McLaren Vale.