When Sydney won the right to host the 2000 Olympics, John King thought he would make the most of the opportunity to drive his career in a new direction.
The Cessnock fitter went out and obtained his bus licence, with the hope of transporting tourists or athletes around Sydney for the Games.While John did eventually find work at the Olympics, it wasn’t behind the wheel of a bus, securing a role in logistics at the Sydney Olympic Park Tennis Centre instead.
But that didn’t put the brakes on John’s transportation dreams, and 12 years down the track he finally made the switch from the tools and into the driver’s seat after buying the well-recognised Cheers Bus winery tour company in the Hunter Valley.
“Just after the Olympics I answered a local ad and worked with Bradley Garret, who had Bell bird Vine Link. I did a dozen or so tours, weekend tours, with him and I sort of learnt how to do the wine tours with him.“
Then it was like 10 or 12 years later when I actually bought the (Cheers Bus) business.
“Originally I wanted to start my own company, but then it was all too hard to try and think of a good name, and being a tradesman, it was a bit safer to get back into mechanical fitting and that sort of thing.
“I was working in mining and maintenance jobs, being a fitter, so that wasn’t the most exciting career, but being a local, I’d see the buses around and thought that would be a good lifestyle.
“A neighbour of mine owned the Cheers Bus and (when I found out they were selling it) I went straight up there and said I wanted to buy it.“
Having driven for someone else in the past I knew what to do with the driving and the organising, so when the bus company did come along, I sort of knew most of what I had to do. It made it less daunting rather than starting something for myself.
”The Cheers Bus wine tour company has been around in the Hunter for about 20 years, with John taking over the reins in 2012. The company has two buses, and a chauffeured hire car service, offering a range of set packages, including half day and full day tours, as well as the ability to customise a trip to suit the passengers’ interests, budget and time."
A typical full day tour lasts around seven hours and visits three or four cellar doors, while also stopping for a private cheese and chocolate tasting and visiting the Hunter Distillery to sample their range of organic vodkas, gins and schnapps.
Aside from driving the bus, John also provides a running commentary for the tour group, offering an insight into the wineries they are visiting and some information about the region in general.
John said aside from having a great name that sticks in a person’s head, the key to a successful wine tour company is its ability to connect with the passengers.“
Getting that right name and delivering a good tour that people enjoy is the difference between being able to succeed (and fail) I think,”he said.
“Organising and being friendly and flexible with the groups makes a big difference between being just another driver or a tour operator.“
I usually let them know the history of the winery that we’re about to go to, or anything unique to that winery. For example, one winery might have a popular sparkling Semillon, or I might talk about how some of the wines are named, different things like that, just some general banter to break the ice with them on the way through.
For the smaller groups I also ask what they prefer to drink and then I try to customise the tour around that, or if there are any suggestions or preferences, I’ll try to add that into their day, so they get what they want.
”From major label wineries to boutique operations tucked away down country roads, Australia’s oldest wine region has more than 150 cellar doors operating within Pokolbin, Lovedale and surrounding areas.
With such a wide selection on offer, it can be easy for tourists to feel overwhelmed when it comes to planning their visits to the vineyards,which according to John is one of the main benefits of booking a trip with a tour operator like the Cheers Bus.
“People will just go off recommendations from someone else, but no-one can really say this wine's better than this one or that one,” hes aid.
“I think the people also don't know where they're going a lot of the time because the wineries are so spread out..
“A wine tour is about having the local knowledge of those places that only sell their wines at their cellar doors, and being able to give the more personalised presentation; these are the things you just can't find by looking through a book.“
"I can plan which wineries are the best in what order so you’re basically just travelling in a straight line; you're not backtracking. That way you can fit more in, and you can sit back and look at the scenery rather than looking at a map.”John said
While he regularly varies the mix of wineries he will visit on any given tour, he does have a core selection of mainly family-run and boutique cellar doors that he comes back to time and time again, including Ivanhoe Wines, Ernest Hill Wines, Mistletoe Winery, Tintilla Estate Wines, Iron Gate Estate and Blueberry Hill Wines.
The success of the tour often comes down to the tasting presentation given by the staff at the various cellar doors, with John quick to praise the quality of the family-owned wineries.
"People look at what the presentation was like,” he said.
“If it was average wine or great wine, they don't mention that, but they’ll talk about the presenter. So, it'll be 60 per cent the presentation, and then 20 per cent the wine and 20 per cent the location that impresses them.“
Nearly all the cellar door presenters in the Hunter are passionate, but you just seem to get that extra customer service from the family owned wineries.
“You get the passion coming out more for the wine industry as a whole, rather than just trying to sell their product, so it’s often a nicer, informed presentation going to the small family-owned wineries.”
As both a proud local and a wine lover himself, John is passionate about what he does. While running a business always entails some time spent in the office organising the logistics or completing paperwork, John is happiest when he is behind the wheel of one of his buses, creating connections and passing on his love of the Hunter vineyard region to others.
“If I don't go out for a couple of days I miss it,” he said.
“I like introducing people to new friends. They’re swapping email addresses and catching up on their holidays, or they might know other family members in other parts of Sydney or somewhere, so it's just about connecting people with other travellers, hearing their stories, and showing them the premium wines we have on offer in the Hunter.“
"I love what I do, I wish I was doing it 20 years ago, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”■