When Bill and Vicki Widin bought Brokenback Vineyard in 2007 with plans to create their own wine label, they knew they wanted to give the site a distinctive entrance. But the two sets of antique iron gates they sourced from a dealer in Ballina didn’t just make a striking welcoming statement – they set the tone for the entire property.
From providing the estate’s new name and logo to creating a sense of grandeur and opulence that would eventually be reflected in the various venues built on the site, the gates became a source of inspiration as the Tamworth cattle farmers put their mark on the historic Hunter Valley property.
More than a decade later that dramatic iron entrance is still playing a role in the evolution of the estate, with the renowned on-site dining venue being renamed The Gates Restaurant earlier this year.
It is the latest phase in the Widins’ successful journey to create not only a premium wine label but a prominent tourist destination as well.
“There were no buildings on the vineyard when we took over, but in anticipation of building a distinctive entrance to Brokenback Vineyard we sourced two sets of antique iron gates from a dealer in Ballina, Each gate displays a lion rampant in the centre. The lion became our logo, and we named the estate Leogate,” said Bill Widin.
“We engaged a Cessnock-based home builder, Lance Murray, to build the cellar door, restaurant, and function centre complex on Brokenback Vineyard and were very pleased with the finished building, which we opened to the public in August 2012.
“Vicki is endowed with a high ability for design and coordination, and we utilised these skills to create an ambience of quality and service in the cellar door, restaurant, and function centre.
“We then engaged Lance Murray again to build the cottage, which is now named ‘The Gatehouse’ and, more recently, to build our residence on the vineyard.”
Although Leogate Estate is primarily a working vineyard and winery, its location within easy reach of the main population centres of Sydney, Newcastle, and the Central Coast means they have been able to establish the property as a prominent tourist destination where they offer a wide range of products and services.
“As a destination, Leogate Estate provides visitors with vineyard tours, winery tours, wine tastings, restaurant meals and platters, and tourist accommodation in ‘The Gatehouse’ cottage, while our function centre and courtyard is an attractive venue for weddings and corporate occasions,” said Bill.
“In order to achieve this position, we have the benefit and able assistance of an excellent operating staff of some 40 personnel.”
The Pokolbin property has a long history in the Hunter, having been first planted in the late 1960's by a Rothbury Estate Syndicate led by one of the founding fathers of the modern Australian wine industry, Len Evans.
Over the ensuing years, the vines have produced premium wines, which have been sold under a variety of labels.
These days, however, Bill and Vicki’s vision has created a new lease on life not only for the Pokolbin property but for the former premier Angus producers as well.
“By 2007, we had been producing pure Angus cattle in the Tamworth district for some 20 years at ‘Middlebrook Park’. Our Angus herds comprised 3,000 commercial breeders and 500 registered stud breeders,” Bill said.
“We have always been keen on wine and, as farmers, (noting that there are operational similarities between agriculture and horticulture) we thought that it would be interesting to acquire a vineyard and produce our own grapes and wine.
“After looking around the NSW wine districts, we decided upon the Lower Hunter Valley and identified Brokenback Vineyard in Pokolbin as our desired vineyard.
“We made successful offers to the owners of the two halves into which the vineyard had been split and were able to re-amalgamate the 130 hectare (ha) property.
“For the next ten years we worked between Tamworth and Pokolbin but in 2017, influenced by my decreasing ability to chase cows successfully, we sold our farm and cattle herds and moved full-time to Brokenback Vineyard.”
While they may not have come from a viticultural background, the Widins used their own knowledge and experience on the land, and the expertise of others such as senior winemaker Mark Woods, to reinvigorate the property and build the successful wine brand they are known for today.
“Brokenback Vineyard had been established as part of Len Evans’ Rothbury Group in the 1960's. The grape varietals then growing in 2007 covered 50ha and comprised Semillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz,” Bill said.
“We have since added Verdelho, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Tempranillo. There is now some 75ha under vine.
“Prior to our purchase Brokenback Vineyard had been maintained by contractors, so our first objective was to increase water storage and to improve the health of the vines.
“Our second objective was to plant additional vine blocks in order to achieve higher grape production and a level of viability while maintaining vine health.
“As a generality, Hunter Valley vineyards can produce premium wines but are inherently low-yielding. Our farming background has been beneficial in resuscitating Brokenback Vineyard and promoting natural growth and sustainability.
“At the time that we took over the vineyard, the former Tempus Two winery had ceased production. In October 2009 we purchased its winery plant and leased the premises from the Roche family.
“While we made our own wine in the leased winery from the 2010 harvest onwards, we engaged Tamworth shed contractors, Eco Enterac, to build a new winery shed on Brokenback Vineyard.
“This excellent new winery building was finished in 2012, and we relocated the plant and equipment to Brokenback Vineyard in time for the 2013 harvest.
“During 2010 we also engaged Mark Woods as senior winemaker. Born and raised in Maitland, Mark is an excellent winemaker and is now on his 25th Hunter Valley vintage.
“Mark has been an integral part of the operations and growth of Leogate Estate. We now produce some 20,000 cases of wine from Brokenback Vineyard and also make the wines from a Mudgee district organic vineyard, which we purchased in 2016.”
Since establishing Leogate Estate Wines, the Widins and Mark Woods have presided over a host of local, national and international accolades including the IWC Trophy for Best New Wine, wines poured on Qantas First and Business class flights. James Halliday’s renowned 2020 Australian Wine Companion awarded Leogate Estate Wines a red 5-star rating for the ninth consecutive year.
Bill said a commitment to producing only the best wine possible has proved incredibly successful for the wine label.
"Our highest award, arguably, was obtained in July 2014 when our 2011 ‘The Basin’ Reserve Shiraz won the James Rogers trophy for the world’s best new wine at London’s International Wine Challenge. This wine competition attracts some 12,000 entries annually."
“Our abiding success over the last five years for consecutive vintages has been the presence on Qantas International flights of our ‘Brokenback Vineyard’ Shiraz in Business Class and our ‘The Basin’ Reserve Shiraz in First Class. This has been a substantial boost to our business.
“Our wine club is growing rapidly, and our export markets are expanding; we currently export to China, UK, USA, Hong Kong and Japan. However, we shall have to look to further increase wine production to keep up with demand.
“Our overriding principle is that we only make wine when the season allows us to make good wine.
“For example, we did not make red wine from the 2012 vintage, which suffered heavy rains preceding harvest. Similarly, we did not make reserve red wines from the 2015 and 2016 vintages.
“This philosophy restrains the business from time to time, but our customers are confident and comforted from the knowledge that the wines we make and sell are of the highest quality.”
The Widins are also committed to serving food of the highest quality, with their popular on-site restaurant receiving rave reviews from diners.
At the helm of The Gates is well-known head chef Adam Baldwin, who was born and trained in the UK but has been a Hunter Valley
personality for some years and is well regarded for his previous restaurant, ‘Mojo’s’, in Lovedale.
The mouth-watering modern Australian menu is a gourmand’s delight, from the succulent mixed oyster platter entrée offering everything from the traditional Kilpatrick to the more exotic-sounding Virgin Mary, Semillon Jelly, Mojito, Thermidor and Wasabi Tempura, to the confit duck leg with onion soubise, smoked pork hock cassoulet, silverbeet and Madeira jus.
Not surprisingly though given the Widins’ background, the restaurant’s signature options are the Nolan Meats’ Private Select Black Angus grain-fed dry-aged beef, which is hung in their dry ageing room for four to six weeks before serving to achieve maximum concentration of flavour and tenderness.
For those who want to extend their visit to Leogate Estate Wines beyond a trip to the cellar door and the restaurant, the property also offers the opportunity to linger longer with a stay in their sumptuous four-bedroom residence known as The Gate House.
Centrally located on the iconic Broke Road and perfectly positioned to take in sweeping views of the Brokenback Ranges, The Gate House is situated on an elevated ridge overlooking Leogate’s opulent wedding venue, the Crystal Room, as well as the restaurant, vineyard, winery and cellar door.
The accommodation is as elegantly decorated and distinctive as their wines, with an effortlessly luxurious ambience that makes it the perfect retreat for bridal parties, corporate guests and members.
For more information about everything on offer at Leogate Estate Wines visit www.leogate.com.au