Winemaker Rob Wilce had always dreamed of opening his own winery. Without the capital to buy his own vineyard, he thought outside the box and set up his own inner city cellar door.
Rob first started in the wine industry in the Hunter Valley in the early 1990s before working for a wine wholesaling company and then exporting wines.
When the global financial crisis hit in 2008 Rob saw the wine industry change.
“Many independent bottle shops were being bought out by big corporations which made the wholesaling business extremely tough,” he said.
“I then started planning my next move which turned out to be Inner City Winemakers”.
As a Novocastrian, Rob said he could see huge potential in Wickham. He found himself a space in Church Street and Inner City Winemakers was born.
Without his own vineyard on site, Rob buys his grapes from different growers throughout NSW and brings them back to Wickham to be processed.
“There is usually a week or so between regions harvesting so I can make a lot more wine here than you would think,” he said.
“Usually we would start with grapes coming in from the Hunter in January with the last of the reds coming in from Hilltops in late March”.
All the winemaking is done by hand. All the grapes are hand bucketed from picking bins into his crusher and into the vats.
“We also use a traditional hand operated basket press. In the past we did our own bottling here but now we get most of the bottling done off site,” he said.
Initially, he wanted the whole focus to be on wine, but he soon realised that wasn’t going to work.
“To help things get moving I started to run some events based on food and wine and hosting art exhibitions,” he said.
He held wine dinners for wine club members and guests, and regular Sunday afternoon events where he’d arrange local caterers to supply the food to match his wines.
“The most popular days were when a local oyster farmer would sit out the front shucking fresh oysters,” he said.
“All the events we were running became so popular that our venue became far too small so we decided to look at other places where we could hold similar events with a much larger capacity”.
Rob began working with Stanley Park in Fullerton Cove and Merewether Surf Life Saving Club.
He held a few long lunches at these venues in collaboration with local chef Tony Harrison.
“All these events ended last year due to COVID but we'll probably look at kicking things off later this year. I am now back focusing on the wine, our cellar door and wine club,” he said.
Interestingly, Rob believes going into business under-capitalised was a blessing in disguise.
“It makes you get creative on how to do things. Also, I am sure I would have wasted large amounts of money on poor decisions if it was there to spend.”
“You also need to be able to adapt your business to change,” he said.
Rob said being based in Newcastle has been “an interesting ride”.
“It’s frustrating at times but at the same time exciting. While the CBD and surrounding suburbs including Wickham are going through a huge transformation it's difficult to decide which way to drive and promote the business,” he said.
“There have been some really quiet times when I've wondered how to keep everything going and then things suddenly turn completely around and I'm wondering how to keep up with everything”.
Rob is proud to still be operating after nearly nine years in Wickham. He is also pleased to have picked up some impressive accolades for his wine along the way.
“Many of our wines rated really well in Winestate Magazine with four featured in their recent 2020 Pick of the Crop edition,” he said.
“Also, our 2019 Nebbiolo was recently awarded a gold medal in the Australian Italian Varieties Wine Show.”
Rob is now looking at expanding to larger premises, increasing his wine production and running more food and wine events.
“Due to COVID all this was put on hold but we will look at it again later in the year,” he said.