A short while ago I went to the Australian Small Winemaker’s Show in Stanthorpe, Queensland. I am now sufficiently recovered to let you know what an amazing event this is. Amazing because it showcases over 1400 wines from small winemakers all over Australia and New Zealand. Amazing because it’s run by volunteers from the industry who are committed to supporting and progressing wine making for small producers. Amazing because the hospitality on offer is a window on country towns throughout Australia. And amazing because just over twelve months ago, I didn’t even know of the show’s existence.
I learned about the ASWS in a conversation I struck up with winemaker Warren Smith from Pyramids Road Winery in Ballandean, which is part of the Granite Belt. Warren attended a Swirl Sniff Spit in Brisbane to talk about Granite Belt wines and I was lucky enough to sit beside him. He urged me to attend the show, which is on in October every year but alas, last year we were in South America (my, how time flies). I made a note of the details and kept a regular watch on the website during the course of the year so I could purchase tickets to the public tasting.
Registration and participation in the show is open to Australian and New Zealand Winemakers who processed less than 500 tonnes for 2013 vintage and had a minimum of 400 litres in bottle at the time bottles are dispatched for judging. Judging is the standard blind tasting in a number of classes over a number of days. This is followed by industry events such as the awards, presentation dinner and exhibitor tasting followed by the public tasting on the Saturday afternoon.
So what happens at the public tasting? I was very curious as there’s not a heck of a lot of info on the website. The tasting is held in a cavernous all purpose pavilion at the Stanthorpe Showgrounds. Inside, the space is divided into seating, an enormous tasting counter and behind the counter, 1400 hundred wines that must all be tasted come hell or high water. The doors open at 1.30pm and you’re allocated a wristband, tasting glass and program. Dozens of tables have been set up so the first thing you do is find your assigned seating. We were at ‘Tempranillo’, conveniently located close to a fire door so we had a great breeze and some fresh air all afternoon. We met the other tasters at our table, had a chat and tucked into the delicious antipasti on the table including on this occasion, hummus, carrot dip, pickled mushrooms, asparagus frittata and salamis – all home made or cured.
Just before 2pm we’re welcomed to the event and a brief explanation of the afternoon is provided. Tasting starts at 2pm and finishes at 6pm on the dot – no exceptions. There’s a short rush at the beginning but the ASWS stewards are well practiced in finding the bottles quickly, pouring and moving on. They are also very patient in explaining how the system works. You use the program to choose a wine to taste, then tell the steward the category and exhibit number. There’s no point in telling them the name or style – they are listening for the numbers so they can locate the bottle. What ever you do…Don’t. Lose. The. Program. You might think you don’t need it but trust me, three or four tastes in, those numbers start to get confusing and it’s hard to keep track of where you are at, what’s still available and what you want to taste next. There were plenty of names that were new to me but I was surprised that I did know quite a few. This goes to show that small winemakers can still make decent inroads into the highly competitive market in Australia.
After the initial rush, things settle down to an relaxed pace. There’s live entertainment from a couple of acoustic duos playing all the hits of Simon & Garfunkel and Fleetwood Mac. As the afternoon progresses, the local hippies will be drawn to a space in front of the musicians and you’ll see some great free stylin’ dance displays. In addition to the table grazing, there’s also hot food being served in another part of the pavilion. Homemade pasta and curries, salad and bread – all good wine soaking dishes. Every coffee plunger in Stanthorpe has been rounded up for the event with coffee and tea available to take back to the tables. The local community had been very busy indeed!
Along the way there are some raffles for charity, a chance to bid in an auction to join the judging panel next year and a couple of lucky door prizes. As the afternoon moves along, you’ll find that many of the wines have run out so make sure you have back up options when you’re at the tasting area. Things also start to get a little squeezy down the fortified end as people start looking for something sweet at the end of the day. At 6pm, last drinks are poured and it’s time to go out into the cool of the early evening and head back to wherever you’re staying.
The ticket price includes a shuttle bus (well, school bus actually) to and from the the showgrounds so if you’re staying at one of the motels in town, they will arrange pick up if you RSVP. There’s a reasonable amount of accommodation in town but it fills quickly. We stayed at the Boulevard Motel at the southern end of town, just near the river. It was clean, comfortable, quiet and within walking distance of most facilities.
The public tasting is well subscribed and it sold out last year so make sure you pencil in the event for next year and check back regularly with the website so you don’t miss out.
Australian Small Winemaker’s Show