What is your role?
“I’m the owner and wine maker.”
What were you doing before this?
“Always been wine making… Always, been wine making.”
Are you originally from Sydney, Australia?
No. From Wagga Wagga.
What is your favourite thing to do when not at work?
“Playing with my boys, actually. I’ve got three young children, 7, 6 and 2 and they keep me busy enough.”
What is the happiest moment of your life?
“Each of the children being born, my business being born, and marrying my wife, how’s that?”
If it was your last day on earth, what would your last meal be?
“I know what my last wines would be, they would be Domaine Romanee Conti Pinot Noir from Bergundy and a beautiful Chabis as well. The last meal?… Probably a smorgasbord of beautifully roasted meats…”
A bit more…
Alex developed a love of the land from his parents who owned a farm. They weren’t in the wine business, but they unwittingly inspired Alex: “I got into wine when mum and dad planted a small vineyard on our farm in the mid ‘90s and I was just doing an arts degree in Canberra and had no idea where that was going […] I thought wine making sounds like more fun than an arts degree.”
He left Canberra and went back to Wagga to study wine making at Charles Sturt University. After completing his degree and serving a traineeship at the Uni’s winery, he worked in America for one harvest, was a winemaker in the Hunter for 3 years, worked at a harvest in the South of France, ran a winery in Bordeaux for 2 years, worked in Spain, back to Bordeaux then started his own thing back in Sydney.“I started my label which is A. Retief Wines in 2008.”
Alex was renting space in other people’s wineries before starting Urban Winery in St Peters at the end of 2015. He moved to EQ 10 months ago because of council restrictions in inner west. “These guys are dreams compared to Inner West Council. You can’t do anything in the inner west.”
No regrets, then? “In terms of moving into the Entertainment Quarter? Dream! Absolute dream! Our business has expanded so much. We’ve been here for 10 months, now I’ve got two event managers, I’ve got a venue manager, I’ve got six casual bar employees, whereas before in St Peters it was basically me and an assistant wine maker and a few casual bars.” This is the first, and to date, only urban winery in Sydney. Wine is a competitive industry, but Alex says “If you stick to your philosophies and you believe in it, then it works well.”
His secret? “To me, that’s what you should always be doing – just showing that wine is fun, and that was the main reason behind starting Urban Winery Sydney as well, is to show that wine isn’t that snooty thing, wine is fun.”
In line with that belief, Urban Winery offers a number of experiences including a tour of the winery where you taste 6 wines from three regions and then talk about wine and wine making. They also offer group and corporate experiences.“To me the most fun experience…is a blending class. So we sit down with 6 single variety wines straight out of a barrel, I walk [attendees] through the structure of each of those varieties, and then as a group they blend their wine.” The groups do blind judging and choose the best blend which can then be bottled and have a customised label.
And you don’t need to know about wine at all. That morning, they had a group of roofers in.
“They loved it. They were a bit nervous to start but then really got into it. By the end of it they were, you know, really tasting properly and loving the experience and having a great time and at the end they ordered a case of the winning blend, for Christmas or to give to clients.”
The other must-do experience is stomping. Red wine gets put into bins with skins and seeds to get fermented. “We set up a bin with some disinfectant in water, [participants] jump into that, we hose their feet off so there’s no disinfectant. Get in the grapes. Stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp. Jump out, hose off, shoes on.”
Is that hygienic? “There’s enough acid and enough alcohol to kill off anything.” If you prefer a less feet-on experience, try the degustation style dinners. “Within the event space here we have two preferred suppliers, two chefs, so whoever is having the event, they choose the chefs. But the chef matches the menu to the wines. You could be having an intimate dinner for 20 people amongst the barrels, or it could be 180. But it’s all amongst the barrels, long tables, shared platters.”
Urban Winery’s grapes are all sourced from within NSW (Tumbarumba, Wagga and Young) as is and all the produce for their charcuterie, their beers and gin. “I think we’ve got such good wine in NSW, there’s just no reason not to.”