It was just minutes from closing time when we pulled into the car park at Yeates Wines. The slick cellar door had been vacated by all but two staff members who, despite their proximity to knock-off, greeted us with genuine warmth.
We soon discovered we were talking with Vicki and Edwina, wife and daughter of vigneron Sandy Yeates. Soon after that, we discovered my husband went to school with Sandy and Vicki’s son, who also happens to be good mates with the husband of one of my good mates. Are you following? Such is the nature of down-to-earth conversation.
“Vicki’s notorious for sniffing out details about people because she just asks questions,” laughs Yeates. “She’s incredible at sussing out links. And she enjoys all that, as we all do. The people that we meet at the cellar door … it’s not just about slurping their way through a hat-full of wines. It’s about sitting in the sun or under a nice umbrella, enjoying the moment and savouring the rural atmosphere.”
yeateswines.com.au) is family owned and family run, which is typical of wineries in Mudgee, a picturesque region in the Central West of NSW. But it wasn’t always this way. Rather, the trend is the result of a dramatic slump in the 2000s, during which most big players, such as Treasury Wine Estate (then Foster’s), Constellation and Pernod-Ricard, moved out of town. They had arrived to reap the rewards of the region’s wine boom, which kicked off in the 1990s after a smaller peak in the 1970s. Instead, they soon faced a Global Financial Crisis in tandem with what was dubbed a ‘wine glut’, the result of generous government incentives that led to unbridled vineyard plantings and wine production.
Now, many survivors see the current model – which is to say, almost every cellar door in Mudgee is family owned and run – as crucial to the region’s continued success.
“It’s absolutely critical,” says Yeates. “Keeping things to a moderate size means it’s very easy to manage and we are not diluting skills or expertise across larger areas of grapevine. The families that are still left in Mudgee are pretty rock-solid. They’ve got their area of grape under control in relation to their ability to sell.”
Today, there are close to 2,000ha under vine in Mudgee, just one per cent of the nation’s vineyards. Says David Lowe, CEO and chief winemaker at Lowe Wines (
lowefamilywineco.com.au): “I think where it sits [now is] about right. It’s about the same size as Sancerre in France, and that’s a pretty famous wine region. So, it doesn’t need to be big to be famous. It just needs to consolidate and protect its reputation.”
Mudgee is certainly doing something right. Despite the more recent ravages of Covid-19 and its impact on tourism, plus the 2019-2020 bushfires and resulting smoke taint, the region’s cellar doors are enjoying strong visitor numbers.
Anecdotally, visitation has been “pretty unbelievable” in the past few years, according to fifth-generation winemaker Simon Gilbert. The Cellar by Gilbert (
gilbertfamilywines.com.au) closed for two months in 2020, in accordance with lockdown orders, before reopening in June “with a bang”. “I’ve never seen trade like it,” Gilbert says.
Official figures back him up. Prior to the pandemic, overnight visitor numbers were already tracking a 30 per cent increase. In 2020-21, numbers increased a further 30 per cent after restrictions eased. Forty per cent of those people were new visitors. The next step is converting those first-timers into loyal customers.
“That’s our biggest challenge and it’s bloody doable. It really is,” says Lowe. “I’m highly critical of what we’re doing now, because I think we can be better and I think people are taking [success] for granted. But it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us.”
Having grown up in Mudgee, Lowe feels particularly invested in his hometown’s future. His wine journey started at 15 when he landed a casual job at Craigmoor Estate. He was “at the bottom of the food chain” but was quickly taken by the industry.
“I absolutely adored the job, I couldn’t wait to get to work,” he recalls. “You would have drinks on Wednesday afternoons with all the staff, so I was playing with the grown-ups. These were wine people and I got to meet them … and their conversation was interesting. They weren’t snobbish ... they were different from the farming folk I would run into with my parents. That was a really interesting, innovating age for someone as starry-eyed as me at the time.”
Decades later, Lowe believes tapping into the younger market should be a key strategy for Mudgee.
“People need to understand what customer expectations and customer experiences are all about,” he says. “The customers are not people who listen to [the wine critics]. They’re young people who are highly mobile, they’re computer literate, digitally alive and active, and they’ve got high discretionary income or want to reward themselves with interesting experiences.”
Already behind one of the region’s top restaurants, Zin House, plus boutique on-site accommodation and an artisan bakery in Mudgee proper, Lowe Wines has another 43 projects in the works, all aimed at keeping the business relevant. “We’re building a business around authenticity,” says Lowe. “I believe that people’s long-term views come from the subliminal things – from sight, smell and taste, which is lined up completely with wine and food. That’s our backbone.”
Back at Gilbert, similar thinking is shaping the family business. This magazine’s 2021 Young Winemaker of the Year, Will Gilbert, who joined his dad at the family estate in 2016, has brought with him a fresh approach, which complements his dad’s bright, elegant, clean wines. At 32, Gilbert also brings a more intimate insight into the younger generation of wine tourists.
“I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to [travel overseas] and bring back some fresh ideas and bit of the old-world way of doing things,” says Gilbert. “And then there’s a mindset of accessibility for that younger generation [that is] very much drinking the styles of wine that we’re making.” He refers to the winery’s alternative styles such as pétillant-naturel and piquette, skin contacts, and lighter-style pinot noirs. Mediterranean varieties will also be integral to Mudgee’s future, a reality facing the entire Australian wine industry as it attempts to predict and prepare for the effects of climate change.
At Yeates Wines, albariño is the alternative of choice. The thick-skinned white grape has a proven track record flourishing under the Spanish and Portuguese sunshine. From our balcony overlooking Sandy Yeates’ handiwork (the winery has recently unveiled two on-site accommodation options, both beautifully designed and positioned), we watch the former Angus cattle breeder put his agricultural expertise to use among the vines. Before long, Sandy and my husband cross paths. School days, rural life and grape-growing are among the subjects on the agenda. Such is the nature of down-to-earth conversation. And such is the experience at a Mudgee cellar door.