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Bellwether Wines: Small is beautiful

Linda Yulisman

The Jakarta Post

Adelaide  /  Tue, June 19, 2018  /  09:13 am
Bellwether Wines: Small is beautiful

Boutique wines: A selection of Bellwether wines on display at the winery set up in 2009. (JP/Linda Yulisman)

For Susanne “Sue” Bell, the year 2008 may be a turning point for her career as a winemaker. Stonehaven, where she was the chief winemaker, was closed down following an industry downturn caused by economic recession. At that time, the winery, worth A$40 million (US$30.22 million), employed 40 staff.

Driving home the night after she left her job, she saw that Glen Roy Shearing Shed had been put up for sale. For the last few years, she had passed the Coonawarra-based shearing facility on her way to and from work every day and admired the beautiful building.

Along with her business partner, Andrew Rennie, Bell later bought the shed for A$150,000 with a determination to convert it into a winery, start her own label and do something creative and personal.

“Starting a small wine label is not a very lucrative thing. You don’t make a lot of money out of wine. You’re constantly investing,” Bell said, calling her attempt “a labor of love”.

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Bell was familiar with sheds as her father was a small farmer who ended up becoming a shearer to make money for the family.

The 1868 Glen Roy Shearing Shed was designed by architect William Thomas Gore and built by Chinese immigrants on their way to Victorian goldfields from the nearby coastal town of Robe. Since 2009, Bell has been developing the facility slowly and carefully.

“I haven’t tried to be big. I am happy to be small,” Bell said of her business.

Now the former wool shed is home to a boutique winery, community kitchen, cellar door, produce garden and campground. The place also hosts a broad range of cultural events from music performances to art exhibitions. Bell believes such activities add to the character of the place.

Despite the scale of her business, Bell has a clear vision: to make a difference in Australia’s wine industry. It is a vision aptly captured by the name of her winery – Bellwether – which literally means the leading sheep of a flock.

Unlike many other winemakers, Bell does not own any vineyards, and therefore she works closely with local growers. Her educational background in agriculture is a big help, allowing her to giving them appropriate tips to improve production.

Making a difference: Susanne Bell poses inside Glen Roy Shearing Shed, which she has transformed into a boutique winery.Making a difference: Susanne Bell poses inside Glen Roy Shearing Shed, which she has transformed into a boutique winery. (JP/Linda Yulisman)

Local farmers greatly benefit from a gift of nature in the form of unique terra rossa soil, formed through the transformation of limestone over thousands of years.

Bell’s winemaking experiences in California, the United States, in 2002 and Bordeaux, France, in 2006, also enrich her knowledge of great wine making.

Bellwether’s wine selection includes Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon, Tasmanian chardonnay, Wrattonbully shiraz and Heathcote vermentino, which visitors can enjoy while eating at an old wool sorting table.

Bell has created a campsite for both camping and glamping to offer people the opportunity to get to know the source of the food and wine she offers at her place.

For her, the surrounding natural environment is a source of great wisdom. While the shearing shed is nearly 150 years old, it is surrounded by much older red gum trees that have been growing for over 500 years in limestone-based soil, which has been forming for thousands of years.

“It’s just a constant reminder of how you’re still very new with whatever you’re doing, and then, you could be respectful,” Bell said.