Despite being an hour outside the city, the Yarra Valley’s metro-Melbourne classification means its wineries, cellar doors and restaurants have been unable to operate properly for close to two years.
“We are used to dealing with adversity," says Murray Lyons of Whispering Hills. "Grape oversupply issues in the 2000s, frost, botrytis, drought and, of course, phylloxera. However, while we are mentally prepared for difficulties and challenges in agriculture, [Covid] surmounted all the above.”
Boat O’Craigo’s Travers Graham recalls the uncertainty of the first lockdown in March 2020. “I remember thinking, what’s going to happen? How will this affect our team and culture? What will we do with our staff? How will this affect our cellar door, winery, and vineyard operations?” he explains. “It was all so vague and there didn’t seem to be anywhere we could go to get clear answers.”
Murray and Marie Lyons of Whispering Hills launched wine soaps and candles mid-pandemic.
As lockdowns became a part of life, so did the importance of pivoting. “Our main tool was continuous reinvention and optimisation of our business, which allowed us to create a cash safety net for subsequent lockdowns,” says Brad Atkins of Steels Gate.
With 90 per cent of their sales derived via their restaurant and cellar door, they immediately upgraded their website and e-commerce platform. “Creating an online platform for our members and customers drove more, and new, engagement. We focused on member benefits and the overall end-to-end customer experience early on, adding virtual wine tastings, hampers and Friday night takeaway.”
The chefs at Steels Gate are trialing new dishes for their reopening.
At Mandala Wines, Charles Smedley says that while nothing beats being at the winery in person, the pandemic opened new ways of communicating with wine lovers. “Digital marketing will be a big focus looking ahead, particularly the creation of video content for both the domestic and international market,” he explains.