I have always dreamed of owning my own vineyard and launching my own wine label. The only thing that has stopped me is not having the money, the land, not knowing anything about wine production, or any desire to deal with the trauma of bad weather and poor harvests… Therefore I was very excited to discover Shiraz Republic’s Rent-A-Row scheme: All the fun of owning a vineyard without the hard work.
Things I had no eyed deer about before I started my winemaking journey:
- I would have a wine cellar in the middle of my hotel room
- I would be serenaded whilst stomping my grapes
- Stomping grapes feels like squashing thousands of caterpillars (not that I’ve ever done that)
- I’d be giving a lot of thought to designing my wine label and creating a name
Based in Victoria’s Heathcote region, Shiraz Republic is a vineyard with a difference – a democracy of wine, as they say on their website – “Wine of the people, by the people, for the people.”
In addition to producing their own wine and beer, Shiraz Republic specialise in supplying grapes to home winemakers & small producers so that their “citizens” can make excellent wines. Winemakers have lots of options, they can come and pick their own grapes, get them delivered via the Milk Run, or like me, opt to go through the whole wine growing experience by renting a row of vines. The Rent-A-Row experience not only allows you to pick, crush, press, maintain, bottle, and of course drink your wine, but a whole load of other benefits – the first being a sample of bottles of the estate’s own wines:
A hotel room with a personal wine cellar
After a long drive from Sydney, I arrive in Toolleen the afternoon before my wine experience and check into the nearby Heathcote II Cellars. About 6km over the hill from Shiraz Republic, situated in a vineyard, surrounded by sheep, olive trees and vines, “The Cellars” villas look like they are straight out of a design magazine, with the added bonus of a fully stocked walk-in wine cellar in the middle of the room. After getting my bearings I venture out to the Toolleen hotel 2km down the road where I get to meet the friendly locals including a great character known as Tumbleweed.
Welcome to the Shiraz Republic
The next morning, I drive out through the olive groves to the Shiraz Republic, the site of the original post office of Cornella. The place has a real rustic feel, surrounded by old tractors, a classic old Bedford truck and great old buildings. As they say themselves, what makes it great is not what they have done to the place, but what they haven’t. When I get there it is a hive of activity, with people picking up grapes for their own wine making, and several Rent-A-Row groups for the day. Whilst we wait to get started I get to know some of the other Rent-A-Rowers, it is a real social occasion and many have brought their families for the day, so they range from a baby to grandparents.
Picking our grapes
After meeting Brian – President, and Spencer – President Elect, we grab a bucket and snippers and go out to the vines to start picking our grapes. Brian gives us advice on how to cut the grapes, the most important being don’t snip your own fingers, and if picking on the opposite side of a vine to someone else, don’t snip their fingers either! There is one early casualty and I do get told that my snipping is a little delicate and I too may become a casualty. I confess that the reason for this delicacy is that at this precise moment my hand is in an awkward position in a large spider web and I don’t see where the spider is lurking. It’s now the irony strikes me that as a backpacker in the 1990s I would be paid to pick fruit, but now I am actually paying to pick grapes. (Although admittedly I do get an awful lot more than that for my money and it is worth every penny!)
There is a bit of healthy competition between families on who is filling the most bucket loads of grapes. It reminds me of going strawberry picking with my family when I was younger, except I’m not getting told off for eating more than I pick. Time really flies and soon we have filled all of the boxes we need to and head back to the yard, followed by Brian in the tractor carrying our plunder. I try one of the grapes on the way back, they are a beautiful blue colour and wonderfully sweet. I’m also surprised how small they are compared to grapes you see the store. Brian explains that it is the skins that give the wine the colour and therefore it is the surface area that is important.
Snags and beer break
When we get back to the yard it is time for a lunch break and snags and burgers laid on by volunteers from the local Colbinabbin Primary school. I also try some of the Amber Ale from Shiraz Republic’s nano-brewery Cornella Real and it is really good.
While my group have lunch we watch a group of Rent-A-Rowers that have come back from the previous week to press off their wine. I knew I wouldn’t be able to come back down next week for this part, but Shiraz Republic would do it for me, so I watched to see what I would be missing. Ideally I would like to take part in the whole process, but the good thing is you can be as hands on or as hands off as you want to be through the whole experience. The partially fermented grapes from the previous week are pressed through the basket press, (which looked quite hard work), and then put in the demijohns. What was left looked like a wine cake slab – but I’m guessing it would not be very appetising!
Crushing and de-stemming our grapes
Next it is down to crushing our own grapes. We each get a container to collect our grapes after they are crushed, making sure we sterilise them first and hose them down. We take it in turns to hand-crank the grapes through the machine, either standing on the step-ladder loading from the top, turning the wheel, or standing at the messy end steadying the machine and getting covered as stems shoot out of the end. Apparently the local sheep like these stalks, so nothing is wasted. Loading the grapes is not as simple as it looks, as trying to get ahead by pouring more of the box of grapes in just jams the rollers. Everybody helps everybody else as we learn what we are doing and at the end of the day it really does feel like a group of strangers did turn into a real community of winemakers.
And more crushing the traditional way
After collecting the containers from under the crusher we can’t resist a bit of traditional pressing by getting into the container and stomping. It’s a very slimy squishy feeling. A fantastic family help out my potentially British wine and sing for me as I stomp to give a bit of an Italian touch to it. Next, we label our containers and drag them into the store ready for the next seven days and pressing off, but, not before Brian takes a glass and demonstrates how the colour has seeped out of the skins so quickly already. It is already past Rosé!
Dreaming of my own wine label
Then it is time to say goodbye, but not before I make a few purchases to stock up my wine at home and check out last year’s Rent-A-Rowers’ wine labels.
Then I’m off back to my accommodation at “The Cellars” before the long journey home on Sunday. I go to bed dreaming about what I’m going to call my wine and start designing labels in my head…
This blog is my own personal opinion and all activities were done at my own expense.