Walking through the 93-hectare estate of Oakdene Vineyards with Steven Paul, it’s clear to see the pure love of the product with each staffer busily undertaking the year’s harvest.
General manager at Oakdene for several years, Steven’s journey has been one fuelled by a passion to educate and produce the best wine in the industry.
Growing up in Melbourne, Steven’s younger years were before the days of cellar doors, quality local wines at supermarkets and the rise of small batch produce.
“There wasn’t a wine culture, our parents used to drink dry Mosel-style Riesling and fortified wines—so that was it,” he says smiling.
When he was 19 Steven started work as a bellman in some of Melbourne’s elite hotels. In one particular hotel he was designated a tile in the lobby to stand on and await customers who required his service.
Working across the hospitality industry from this point, Steven fell in love with wine and produce. He furthered his skills with a business and marketing degree at university, and continued to educate others on the wine industry at Box Hill Tafe and La Trobe University. The passions driving Steven soon lead him to a role at Bellarine winery, Scotchmans Hill.
“Probably half way through that year Scotchmans Hill had a job going running their retail business, and being a conduit between the winery and all their sales team,” he says of the role he commenced in 2005.
It was in this position where Steven first met Bernard Hooley – owner of Oakdene Vineyards. At the time, there was no café or cellar door on the site, and the winery was selling a portion of its fruit to Scotchmans Hill and Lethbridge Wines, while only making a small batch of 900 dozen wines for the restaurant.
“I was up in Melbourne one day having lunch with Bernard and he was talking about what he should do for his business and he was saying, ‘I don’t think selling fruit is going to be the best thing for the business’,” he says.
“’We’ve got land, maybe we should do something’, he said ‘I’m retired but I still like doing something, what should I do?’”
With Bernard and his partner Elizabeth’s vision, paired with Steven’s extensive experience in marketing and industry know-how, Oakdene Vineyards ramped up its production of wine to sell to the public.
“Now we’ve gone from 900 dozen [wines produced], only open on evenings and not selling much wine to 8,500 dozen. We crush every berry from here, we’ve consolidated all our production and I run everything over to Scotchmans Hill. We’ve got new vineyards bearing fruit, so we’ve gone from 30 acres to 90 acres total. And we’re buying a third of the fruit we use at the moment,” he says.
Oakdene Vineyards still has a strong relationship with Scotchmans Hill, where they send their crushed grapes off to be produced on the estate. The partnership has enabled the winery to grow in its offerings, while maintaining the origins of why they started.
This nature of working together isn’t exclusive to Oakdene Vineyards and Scotchmans Hill, and is witnessed across the region as a whole – with the organisation Wine Geelong tying them all together. The collaborative, rather than competitive, act comes from the notion that when one winery succeeds, they all succeed.
“At the end of the day if someone is doing really well in Geelong, we’re all doing really well,” Steven says.
“If someone wins an award, they start looking at the rest of Geelong. We all get really excited about those successes because it affects us directly. Australia is now producing wine as good as anywhere in the world and I think Australia overall wants to keep pushing and getting better.”
There’s no denying the impact of this collaborative nature and the attention being paid to wine on the whole, as the region has grown from a handful of estates in the early ‘90s to more than 60 wineries in the current day.
Steven attributes part of the success of the region to the change in approach of taking people direct to the source, and thus, the creation of the cellar door experience.
“They want that time with a well-trained wine person who’s going to tell them the story of how we make our wine and a little bit about the region,” he says.
Popularity for the region’s hero varieties of Shiraz, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir mean there is increasing demand for exporting produce. But as Steven says, this creates challenges with control, alcohol tax and keeping up with demand due to a long production period.
Due to these considerations, Oakdene plans on focusing on the local market, which is “still growing”, over Melbourne and Sydney markets. The focus on local allows complete control over the whole process and results in greater margins when dealing direct.
“The businesses that I’ve admired over the years and, particularly the wineries over the ’70s I’ve admired, they’ve all stayed relatively small. They haven’t been taken over by a large company and spoilt by stretching brands and volumes or introducing brands that don’t relate to the original purpose,” he says.
“I want to be in 20 years time still Oakdene, still based on the Bellarine Peninsula and still known for creating really great high quality wines that sell out each year with a small staffing base where we all still have control of what we do. Once you start getting big, things change dramatically.”
With Steven’s focus for Oakdene to remain true to its origins, there’s no question the winery will contain to make high quality wines and ever-lasting connections with the audience that chooses to enjoy it.
“The greatest stories and wines I’ve drank around the world are from one type of place and usually it’s a vineyard solely owned by one producer,” he says.
“You’re getting to consume something from one small space that is unqiue, that is different every year and that represents the vintage and that’s what its about.”
Written and photographed by Amanda Sherring.