A year ago, a Cake Wines experience may have kicked off with tracking down an abandoned warehouse and crawling through a hole in the wall to reap your reward: one of Australia’s brightest young things regaling you with creative musings as you sip on top-notch wine. The focus was not the drink, but the experience.
These days, the wine company has its very own base (sans crawling-hole) for hosting events. At Cake Wines Cellar Door in Redfern – Sydney’s first cellar door – you’re just as likely to attend cheese-making workshops as you are to dance along to live house music from The Possé. And at the new home, which opened in March 2016, the focus on making wine accessible remains.
Self-proclaimed “young guys into wine” Mike Smith and Glen Cassidy launched Cake Wines in 2011 with winemaker Sarah Burvill at a small winery in Hahndorf in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills.
“We didn’t really come across wine companies that were speaking to us,” says Glen. “It was a cultural thing – when we went to music festivals or art exhibitions there was always wine, but it was just okay. And there was no connection to it. We thought we could do something interesting and different, come at it from a different angle,” he says, adding that launching their own label was about breaking down the barriers that scare people away from the world of wine.
“We should be able to [drink wine] in an unintimidating way,” says Glen. “You should be able to go into the bottle shop and choose whatever you want. You should be able to look at a restaurant menu, and if you don’t know how to pronounce the wine, who cares? If it’s AU$100 and you don’t like it, that’s fine. You don’t have to fall in love with something [that’s been] awarded.
The company has also donated 10 per cent of its proceeds to local independent radio station FBI.
“For us, it’s about presenting wine as accessible and digestible. That’s what our cellar door is to us. You might go to catch a live act. Yes, the wine is there, but it’s presented in a context that is welcoming and inviting and easy.”
To make their cellar door idea a reality, Mike and Glen based themselves in Sydney and have remained there, while Sarah holds down the fort back in Adelaide.
“Sarah’s in Adelaide giving us a bird’s eye view,” says Glen. “We’re on the road, doing what she can’t. Being based in the city has been to our advantage, as this is where our audience is.”
It was also their own cultural experiences that led Cake Wines to move away from just producing wine and doing tastings. The company’s events (which often sell out hours after going on sale) grew out of their own passions.
“The events are often an organic thing,” says Glen. “For example, we loved [music producer and photographer] Ta-ku and were good friends with the guys from Future Classic. One day we were peering in a [run-down] shop window and saw a hole out the back.”
That hole was the catalyst for a night ‘in conversation’ with Ta-ku, held in a secret warehouse.
“Building such bespoke stuff [is challenging]. That Ta-ku event was such a unique thing. You can’t do the same thing twice, and we don’t like to anyway.”
Cake Wines’ support of creatives doesn’t stop at these events – the wine labels are designed by artists, and change with every vintage. The company has also donated 10 per cent of its proceeds to local independent radio station FBI, supported short film festival Tropfest and run the annual ‘Archi-bottle Prize’ to illustrate their shiraz label, which regularly receives more than 1000 entries.
The brand also supports up-and-coming winemakers with the Young Wine Makers Series, which sees the release of small batches in collaboration with emerging wine makers.
“We push the envelope as far as we can. We’ve got two Young Winemaker Series wines, one with Richie Harkham and the other with Dave Mackintosh,” says Glen. “The fruit was picked in a little vineyard in the Yarra Valley. [It’s] a 100 per cent whole-bunch wine – we’re letting nature do the talking. It has a beautiful bright style and is a forward-thinking wine. It’s not a standard pinot.”
Despite the success, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Cake Wines, which faces the same challenges of wine producers the world over: being at the mercy of fickle Mother Nature, and unpredictable production.
“There are setbacks, from fruit and production to labelling and council issues with opening our cellar door,” says Glen. “Overcoming it is about how much you want it. How much you care to push through the hard times. Everything is difficult. It might look easy, but it’s not an easy game. You work 18-hour days. It comes from doing things you are passionate about and you think will make a difference. You get through those hard times because it means a lot.”
Although Cake Wines has quickly expanded domestically, the key concepts of the business have remained the same.
“[We haven’t] changed the way you interact with the business,” says Glen. “We are still very hands-on. We’re not sending directions – we’re in there at events, handling the execution of things. We’re contract-driving and bringing in new ideas. A lot’s still the same.”
At the end of the day, Glen says the formula to their success is simply down to a great product and rolling with the punches.
“We make really good wine. We put in a lot of effort. We make sure we love the wines ourselves and they represent where we are. [We’re always] trying out fresh ideas and being brave with how we communicate. Not everything we’ve done has worked but, when it has, it has spoken volumes. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve stuck to our guns.”