The Hunter Valley has always been a popular destination for Sydneysiders, but few decide to make the move north on a permanent basis. Fortunately for us, that’s exactly what Andre Georges – our much-loved cellar door manager – did back in 2017, in what would be the first of many steps that have brought him here to Hungerford Hill.
‘I was previously a pilates instructor,’ says Andre, though you wouldn’t catch him at the local Fitness First running an abs, bums and tums class. ‘It was old-school, traditional pilates with all the medieval equipment you sometimes see on TV. We used it as a form of rehabilitation to help people get back on their feet, but I had no background in wine whatsoever before Hungerford.’
It’s not like Andre left pilates with the intention of coming to wine; he and his wife chased the property dream north and ended up in a little spot outside of Maitland. ‘We didn’t have any family or friends up here,’ he says. ‘We built a house, moved in, sat down and thought, “What the hell have we done?” We’d left everyone behind, invested in this house and there were no other houses around us.’
The move also forced Andre to look for a new job. ‘I started thinking about what I could do and the vineyards were right near my house,’ he says. ‘I enjoyed wine, and was already a member at Hungerford Hill, but I didn’t consider myself a serious wine drinker. I could hardly tell the difference between a white wine and a red. I just opened things up, drank them and liked what I tasted.’
Over the following three months, Andre dropped his CV off at wineries all over the Hunter. ‘I did my RSA and barista courses, then I spent months looking for work and couldn’t find a damn thing,’ he says. ‘I went to all the wineries. I knocked on doors, I dropped off my resume, but I didn’t hear from anyone because I had no experience. Hungerford was the first place I went to, but only because I wanted to tick everywhere off. I didn’t expect to get a job because I thought it was too high-end for me to work at. I knew that if I was going to get a job at a winery, it’d be off the beaten track at a smaller winery, but I didn’t hear back from anyone.’
Having all but given up on the wine industry, Andre later saw that Hungerford was advertising for a sales assistant. ‘I umm’d and aah’d about it because I’d already dropped off my resume, but my wife encouraged me to do it. She said, “What have you got to lose?” I got a call from the old manager at Hungerford, who invited me to come in for a chat, and I couldn’t believe it. I went in two days later and was very honest and upfront about how little I knew, though I did tell them I was a club member and that I brought people in all the time. They rang a couple of days later and offered me the role but I still couldn’t believe they wanted to take me on. I started the week of the Easter long weekend and it was a trial by fire. It was one of the busiest trade weekends we’ve ever had and I worked five days straight on the bar, selling wines and learning as I went.’
Despite the somewhat traumatic start to Andre’s career at Hungerford, he’s now spent four years learning the ropes and has worked his way up from sales assistant to cellar door manager, though there have been plenty of challenges along the way, none tougher than the Covid pandemic. ‘It [Covid] has forced our hand on a lot of stuff,’ he says, ‘but some of it was actually stuff we wanted to do but weren’t sure how to rip the bandaid, like with seated tastings. We always wanted to be a seated-tasting winery but we weren’t sure how people would react. Covid forced us to go ahead and it’s been great, so I’m looking forward to building on that. I feel like the past 18 months have been a big learning curve for me, in terms of my own role, and now that I’ve got that under my belt I’m looking forward to really leading the team in a more effective way.’
More than anything, Andre counts himself lucky for inheriting what he calls a great cellar door. ‘Cellar doors are like a collage of previous managers’ decisions and experiences and they don’t always fit well together,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you walk into a cellar door and immediately know that there have been too many hands in the pot and no clear direction. That’s not the case at Hungerford – I inherited an amazing base on which to build. The Epic experience was here, as were the beautiful cheese platters. The excellent wines, of course, have always been here, and even the approach to wine tasting – how we talk about wine and tell stories – was here. It’s kind of like my pilates career; you get given a framework, whether it’s for exercise or tasting wines, and you honour it, but expand by adding your own twist. What’s important is ensuring you don’t dishonour what’s come before, because the winery will be around longer than any of us.’