Wine tourism in Victoria: Tourists flock to small vineyards

In a world seriously up-ended, a cellar door dubbed the "Upside Down House" seems wholly appropriate - even more so when you consider that business at Oakdene, a boutique, family-owned wine label, is on the up and up in these formidable times.

The growth of  intrastate wine tourism close to the major cities is a cause of much cheer for smaller producers, who in pre-COVID times competed for visitors with the bigger, more familiar labels and their more elaborate facilities and attractions.

Now boutique wineries are enjoying pleasing sales boosts, not only from tourists traditionally stocking up on drops at these more intimate, personalised vineyards, but also at liquor stores in urban centres, where visitors seek out the wines on their return home.

"As a small producer, wine tourism has always been an integral part of our business and one we rely heavily upon for a large proportion of our wine sales," says Steven Paul, general manager of Oakdene Wines, at Wallington in the Bellarine Peninsula. 

"But since the COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria were relaxed in October, 2020, we have experienced weekly tourism numbers that we only usually see in the peak month of January."

Paul says that in the past, most of the winery's promotional activities were run with the aim to drive visitors to the cellar door. But with the boost in wine tourist numbers, the focus has switched to offering "a memorable experience to visitors so that they look for our wines when making purchasing decisions when they return home".

"The restrictions have also changed the way we offer tastings for our visitors, moving from free tastings at the bar, to structured seated tastings which are paid for," he says. "They now have more time to assess the wines and interact with staff."

In fact the average spend per visitor to the winery has increased due to a rise in premium wine sales of Oakdene cool climate drops from smaller vineyards, which offer superior bragging rights for the more discerning wine tourist.

And this is not only a cellar door phenomenon; wines produced by smaller labels are selling at almost twice the rate of other wines across BWS and Dan Murphy's outlets since the pandemic began.


Andrew Shedden, head of fine wine at the Endeavour Group, the big wine retailers' parent company, says Australians are discovering wine regions closer to where they live, thanks largely to travel limits imposed by border restrictions and sudden lockdowns.That can often translate into smaller vineyards in less touristy regions.

"When these customers return home, they are excited to find bottles from the very winery they just visited at their local Dan Murphy's - and they keep supporting these wineries by continuing to choose to buy their products," says Shedden.

"Another factor that has helped boost significant interest in locally made wine is that more Australians are moving from urban centres to rural areas - including wine regions - thanks to the ability to work remotely. 

"It's exciting to see that more and more customers are buying local wines and really getting behind supporting and celebrating their local wineries."

Back on the Bellarine, Steven Paul is ready to receive the next pandemic-induced wave of visitors this weekend. He believes his customers are increasingly in search of something "new and unique such as wine made in small quantities or only available direct from cellar door". 

"The 'support local' is a key factor," he says. "Tourists have traditionally travelled further afield, closures and restrictions have forced tourists to discover regions, and wineries, in their own state instead of interstate or overseas."