It’s one of the oldest cellar door complexes in the Hunter Valley. But while the buildings that once housed tastings for Hungerford Hill still showcase a wide range of Hunter Valley reds and whites, its current tenant, The Garden Cellars, is known for more than just great wine.
Located within the Hunter Valley Gardens Shopping Village, once the site of the renowned Hungerford Hill winery and tourist complex, The Garden Cellars offers a range of craft beer, local wine and premium spirits.
After the previous owners had placed the business into liquidation, it was re-opened in 2011 by local businessman Peter Clarke, who was keen to make the most of what he saw as a prime opportunity within the bustling tourist precinct.
While originally trained in accounting and law/economics, earning his degree at Sydney University, The Garden Cellars was far from Peter’s first foray into the world of small business, having been self-employed in a variety of successful enterprises since 1968, selling everything from surfboards and yachts to fibreglass roofing.
After moving to the Hunter Valley from Sydney in the late 1990's, Peter diversified his interests even further to include chocolates (Hunter Valley Chocolate Company) and premium spirits (Hunter Distillery).
However, with a lifelong interest in wine, beer and spirits (at one point his own personal cellar contained more than 8000 bottles!), it seemed The Garden Cellars was a perfect fit for Peter.
After taking the reins of the struggling retail liquor outlet, Peter saw the need to transform its smaller, more boutique range into a more mainstream offering.
“We had reservations as to how the cellar had been operated by the previous owners, who placed the business into liquidation,” Peter said.
“The range was much smaller when we first opened. We were mainly wine-focused and stocked just a few beers.
“We decided to diversify the range, which was more focused on expensive Australian and international wines and beers, to a more mainstream range with better value for our customers.
“We discovered the ever-increasing popularity in craft beers and premium quality spirits. We now try to keep our range ever-evolving to suit the changing tastes and needs of our customers.”
Being located in the heart of one of Australia’s oldest winemaking regions, it’s little wonder that Peter remains committed to supporting plenty of locally-made products.
“We stock a large range of local products. A lot of our customers are interested in trying local, and it only makes sense for us to offer local products,” he said.
“We currently have many Hunter Valley wines from different local producers, and we are increasing our local beers as much as possible.
“We’ve recently added Ironbark Hill beers to our range. They are only a few minutes away from us, and their beers are proving to be hugely popular. We also stock Hunter Distillery’s schnapps, liqueurs, vodka and gin. These continue to be very successful products for us.”
The Garden Cellars have also stayed true to the site’s cellar door heritage, now acting as the main distribution and tasting point for two Hunter wine brands including Mt Eyre Vineyard. Mt Eyre Vineyards combines a European family tradition of winemaking with a generation of experience in Australian viticulture, with their first Australian vineyard (Three Ponds) planted in Broke in 1970 by Neil Grosser.
Today, it is still carefully managed by Neil and his son David, with more than 30 acres of Semillon, Chardonnay, Chambourcin and Shiraz, while Mt Eyre’s second property, the Holman Estate at Pokolbin, features 16 acres planted to Shiraz, Merlot and Viognier, as well as a large olive grove.
The Garden Cellars has been acting as Mt Eyre’s cellar door since 2010, stocking the complete range of their wines as well as some interesting back vintages, museum releases and several exclusive lines that are not available online or in bottle shops and restaurants.
“We are the cellar door to Mt Eyre and also Polin & Polin Wines. Both wineries have been long established but no longer operate their own cellar doors, so it was more economical to have us do their marketing and distribution,” Peter said.
In the tradition of a vineyard-based cellar door, The Garden Cellars has daily tastings, however, their much broader stock range means it offers much more than your average vineyard experience.
“The combination of wines, beer, spirits and chocolate tastings gives our customers a different experience to other tasting options in the Hunter Valley,” Peter said.
“Our informative tastings allow the customers to connect with the products. It also allows us to understand the tastes of our customers, which are always evolving. We can then adjust what we do as well.”
The key to the success of these tastings and the overall customer experience at The Garden Cellars is clearly the businesses staff.
“Our team currently includes Andrew, Amanda, Gabby, and Steve. All of our staff has at least five years of experience in the industry and are responsible for the everyday running of the store and sales of our products,” Peter said.
“We also have great staff who help out in our busy times such as Simone and Melissa, who are well versed and highly knowledgeable when it comes to talking about wine, beer and spirits. Our staff work as a team to make customers’ visits as enjoyable as possible.
“We pride ourselves on the knowledge of our staff. Because we stock such a large range, customers are always asking for recommendations or for explanations of our products. Our staff are always happy to help and lend their knowledge.
“The staff have an ongoing thirst for knowledge about new wines, beers and spirits, and this is continuing each week with new products being constantly released.”
With a range as extensive as the one on offer at The Garden Cellars, the staff certainly have plenty of products to stay up-to-date with - especially when it comes to the business’s famed “Tunnel of Beer”, which has become an essential stop for any beer enthusiast visiting the Hunter Valley.
“Our tunnel of beer is amazing. We stock over 800 different beers from around the world. We believe in offering choice for our customers,” Peter said.
“With new breweries opening every month and the existing ones bringing out new products, it is no wonder that we have the widest variety in the Hunter. Craft beer fans often enjoy new beers, not just sticking to the same brews they’ve tried before. As beers fans ourselves, we understand this and try to make sure we can keep our customers excited and happy to return and enjoy something new.
“We are always being asked for beers that customers have heard about or experienced overseas. Part of what we do is try to track down these beers, and while we aren’t always successful, one beer we were able to track down has been added to our regular line-up over the years.
“It was a beer a customer had tried but couldn’t find in the local area, called Golden Stout Time. As the name suggests, it’s a Golden Gaytime-flavoured stout, and it’s proven to be hugely popular and is delicious too.”
With all this and more already on offer, you’d think there was nothing left to do to improve The Garden Cellars experience, but Peter believes that when it comes to business, you can’t afford to rest on your laurels.
“The old adage ‘while I live, I grow’ is true, and unless you constantly evolve and change you stagnate, and the customer always wants the latest. Staying the same is never enough,” he said.
“This is one of the oldest cellar doors in the Hunter Valley. The building has been here since the 1960's and was originally the cellar door for Hungerford Hill. It always needs refurbishment and adding a larger range means increasing refrigeration and changes to the shop format, which will both be happening in 2020.”
For more information on Garden Cellars visit their website.