Digital overload? Aussies look for country air, wine and rock music

Hope Estate’s Michael Hope says there’s a new leisure market generated by stressed city folk looking for authentic experiences to enliven the senses – and Hope Estate is taking centre stage.

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Gone are the days when leisure meant a can of beer and backyard cricket. With the new age of ‘digital overload’, vineyard Hope Estate has customers looking to define their downtime differently.

Whether it’s digital overload, city stress or just the thrill of a good old-fashioned outdoor concert, Sydneysiders in their thousands are driving up the M1 to visit the Hunter Valley’s Hope Estate.

It’s a business about wine – and a lot more than that. With a winery, brewery, the Great Cask Hall (where The Farmer Wants a Wife is filmed), and Australia’s largest winery amphitheatre that’s hosted some of the biggest names in music from the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen to Fleetwood Mac, this is no ordinary vineyard experience.

Instead, it’s an experience that’s authentic, says Michael Hope, pharmacist turned entrepreneur and founder of Hope Estate.

“All this digital communication creates the wrong kind of urgency,” Hope says. “So much of my work is now about ‘digital overload’. People are trying to get away from that stuff. They want to taste real food, breathe real country air and enjoy a drink that someone spent time making.”

From stress to hope

Michael Hope knows a lot about stress.

Dux at his high school, his parents encouraged him to study pharmacy at Sydney University. Aged 23, having adopted his parents’ passion for business, he bought his first pharmacy, and by age 29 he owned six of them, three in Sydney and three in regional centres. In 1993, on the cusp of marrying his sweetheart Karen, Hope was struck down by reactive arthritis.

“It’s a stress-related illness that hits the immune system,” Hope says. “It just brought me to a standstill.”

After six months of “heavy meds”, Hope was mobile again and being warned to change his lifestyle. “I sort of took early retirement and sold the Sydney pharmacies,” he says.

He bought a property in Broke, in the NSW Hunter Valley, and started Hope Estate in 1994, later selling that to fund his 2006 purchase of the estate’s current site in Pokolbin, NSW.

Creating an experiential venue

What Hope aimed to achieve at his Pokolbin estate was an experiential venue.

“We’re a venue, it’s all about having experiences; whether it be festivals, concerts, camping events, corporate dinners, dining in our restaurant, or our cafe,” explains Hope.

The amphitheatre can hold up to 20,000 people and has attracted some of the biggest names in music.

“We’re a lifestyle business. We’re about people coming along, having a good time. If you’re going to come and watch the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen or the Eagles – and they’ve all played here – you want a really nice night, you want a nice package, you want a nice restaurant on site, the whole experience.”

Maturing of Australian tastes broadening leisure

Hope says the estate caters to Australians’ matured tastes.

“When I was young, it was all Jatz crackers and beer,” he says. “Now people know a little bit about wine, boutique beer, olive oil, cheeses and chocolates. These are real things, just like good rock’n’roll. At Hope Estate, they can experience it all together.”

Wine is still the foundation of the business, with vineyards across the country and Virgin Hills its flagship drop. The business employs chefs, winemakers and brewers, to ensure high standards are met. But Hope recognises that wine can be intimidating, and wants to remove that stigma.

“One of the biggest challenges that I see in the wine industry is it’s an intimidating subject. You go to the restaurant, you order wine from the sommelier, you feel intimidated, he looks down his nose at you. So, I’ve tried to make wine approachable – we have fun at our cellar door.”

Hope has also developed corporate events centered around learning about wine in a relaxed way.

“If you came here for a corporate event, we’d take you into the winery for a drink and explain how you make wine, have a bit of fun, learn how to sniff and spit and things like that. So it’s about not taking the business too seriously, but having fun.”

Humble to high voltage brand

Recently the Hope Estate team has revamped its visual identity, integrating the music, wine and beer labels so there is consistency across the group.

For Hope, not only is the brand his name-sake, it’s his heart and soul.

“Every bloody bit of me is in this business. I started this from what I love in life. We’re not a slick marketing company. We are a family-owned and established place where you can come and have a great time. To be honest, there is all of me in here.”

Up next: direct wine sales, wagyu and accommodation

For Hope, there are plenty of growth opportunities ahead.

“We’re never going to try and be the biggest brewer or the biggest winemaker. The opportunities are still to get more of our beer and wine out direct to consumers,” says Hope.

“An opportunity is to get more out through the trade, especially interstate. China is also an export growth opportunity as the market is drinking a lot more wine and isn’t as saturated as the US. The other opportunities we have? We’re on a 420-acre site in the middle of wine country, Pokolbin, and can build more accommodation and facilities here on site.”

Hope also plans to manage a herd of wagyu cattle, with feed from leftover barley and wheat from the brewery, so that people can enjoy a steak grown on the property.

Sydneysiders can put down their devices and get ready for their next road trip. There’ll be a lot more to experience at Hope Estate soon.