Legends of the Hunter Valley award winners. Back row, L to R: Alex Beckett, Philip Hele OAM, Neil McGuigan, Jerome Scarborough, Mike de Iuliis. Front row L to R: Brian McGuigan, Julia Allen, Liz Silkman, Christina Tulloch, Mark Whitnell. (Photo credit: Elfes Images.)

At an awards ceremony hosted by the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association last Thursday, the 15th Annual Legends of the Hunter Valley awards looked ahead to 200 years of the Hunter, and placed a spotlight on tourism operators.

An audience of 350 guests, including industry leaders from around the Hunter Region gathered for the Legends of the Hunter Valley Awards, presented by the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association (HVWTA) at the Cypress Lakes Resort.

New titles for tourism

This year’s awards were notable for the expanded categories in the tourism sector, with new titles granted for Tourism Operator of the Year, won by Beyond Ballooning and Accommodation Operator of the Year, won by Spicers Guesthouse.

Accepting the latter award, General Manager of Spicers, Mark Whitnell, paid homage to the staff at the restaurant.

“We have a wonderful team out there and it’s such a privilege to be involved in the awards. It’s a great privilege to represent Hunter Valley wines.”

These categories formed part of the largest ever Legends of the Hunter Awards, with four new prizes.

Another tourism sector title went to De Iuliis wines, which secured the 2022 Cellar Door of the Year Award.

Accepting the award with her team, De Iuliis Cellar Door Sales and Marketing Manager Jenna-Rose Vaughan acknowledged all the other cellar door operators in the Hunter, who had endured a difficult two years during the pandemic.

“We actually wanted to dedicate this to every Cellar door person out there. It’s been a really tough year with masks, taking down details, and no matter what happened, the whole Hunter Valley has shown through with a smile, so thank you everyone.”

Vaughan spoke to The Shout and expressed her delight in winning amongst such a strong field of nominees.

“It was such a high quality of nominations this year, and it was an absolute joy to win,” Vaughan said.

The Cellar Door award is a particularly tough contest – as it is mystery shopped, with the winery’s bricks and mortar location, phone call professionalism and online presence assessed. De Iuliis received a score of 90 per cent.

“We love to focus, not only on our exceptional wine and our story, but to also highlight the Hunter Valley as a premium white wine region, with a really rich history and exceptional quality wine,” Vaughan added.

The de Iuliis team.

A sustainable future required

Vaughan also looked ahead to 2028, earmarked as the Hunter’s 200th anniversary, when the whole region will collaborate on a range of events, festivals and celebrations.

“We’ve never had phylloxera here in the Hunter, so we’ve also got some of the oldest surviving wines in the whole world – and that’s very unique.”

When asked what the future might hold for the Hunter, Vaughan commented that, “the most important thing is sustainability.”

“It’s not just a buzzword that you throw around, because it’s really important for farming, and winemaking and grape growing is all about farming conditions,” Vaughan continued.

Vaughan’s words were echoed by winemaker Mike de Iuliis, who told The Shout: “Sustainability from my point of view is going to be paramount.”

“We have an obligation to sustainably manage those properties, so obviously they’re there for the next year and for future generations.”

Mike was also delighted by his Cellar Door team’s win and was quick to put the credit on the operating staff.

“My days in the cellar door are pretty minimal, but the guys really do put in the work,” Mike said.

“It’s more than just a retail job, it’s giving people a wine experience, rather than just trying to sell them wine – it’s more about the whole Hunter Valley experience,” Mike continued.

“People are there to learn about the history of the region and the history of the brand, rather than just sell a bottle of wine.”

Reflecting on the awards as a whole, Mike de Iuliis was glad to see an expanded program of tourism categories.

“Winemakers – we always win awards for the best Riesling, best Semillon, best Shiraz, there’s heaps of awards.”

“But it’s so important to acknowledge those people that wouldn’t normally be acknowledged – the best accommodation and the viticultural side of things.”

Vital viticulture

One such viticulturalist was Jerome Scarborough, who picked up the title of The Jurds 2022 Viticulturist of the Year later in the evening, and told The Shout how delighted he was to be recognised for his work in the field.

“It’s always nice to be recognised by your peers for not just what you do in your own vineyards, but also for the local industry – it’s a lovely thing to have that had happen,” Scarborough said.

“I’m not saying this in a negative way, but winemakers generally are much rewarded.”

“They’re the ones who are attributed to what ends up in the bottle, but in reality, what we’re looking at is the vineyard and the winemaking process, because there needs to be quality fruit for there to be quality wine,” Scarborough commented.

Scarborough was also keen to highlight the achievements of Liz Silkman of First Creek wines, who picked up her third Winemaker of the Year awards, and Christina Tulloch, who won the Outstanding Contribution by an Individual (a new title replacing the Award for Excellence).

“They were both very well deserving, and it’s great to see some of the females being recognised within the industry as well.”

Liz Silkman with the Winemaker of the Year Award.

Reflecting on the awards in general, Scarborough said: “These awards are very important. We need to recognise people’s hard work.”

Like Vaughan and Mike de Iuliis, Scarborough expressed the importance of sustainability for the on-going health of the Hunter Region and was excited to be honoured for his work in this area.

“What we do in the vineyard, looking at sustainable grape growing, and changing the traditions of what’s been done in the local area – it’s always nice when the changes you’re making in the vineyard are recognised,” Scarborough concluded.

Accepting her award, Tulloch said that “personally and professionally, this has definitely been the hardest year of my life, so to receive this award is a wonderful silver lining off the back of all that.”

“I’ve got an incredible team around me,” Tulloch continued.

And Tulloch was also quick to praise Amy Cooper, the outgoing CEO of the HVWTA, saying: “We’re going to miss you so much, and thank you so much for being in our lives.”

Alex Beckett from Briar Ridge Vineyard picked up the award of Hunter Valley Young Achiever of the Year – which recognises an individual, less than 35 years of age, working in the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism sectors. Another of the major gongs went to Philip Hele OAM, who achieved the title of Hunter Valley Tourism Industry Living Legend.

McGuigan brothers reflect on Legend status

It was also a good night for the McGuigan family, with brothers Brian and Neil McGuigan receiving awards. Brian McGuigan took home the title of Wine & Tourism Association Honorary Patron, another new award, while Neil McGuigan was honoured with the flagship accolade of Hunter Valley Wine Industry Living Legend Award.

The Shout spoke to both brothers about what the successes meant to them.

Brian said the awards provide an excellent focal point and friendly competition for the Hunter Valley.

“They’re uplifting – because what it does is there’s tremendous interest by the community at large in being able to gain a particular award,” Brian said.

“By that recognition there’s a good, aggressive competition between us all to do better for the industry and do better for the district.”

Neil expressed his pride at being named a Living Legend: “It’s a great honour to be thought of in the same paragraph as all the other legends in the Hunter.”

Neil also commented on the success of the awards as an occasion, and their value to the industry at large.

“It’s important to recognise excellence in any region, and that’s what has been happening in the Hunter.”

In particular, Neil highlighted the potential of the award to foster the next generation of Hunter Valley winemakers.

“I think it’s very important to recognise especially young people, and to help those young people and mentor them so they understand the history – they understand where we’ve come from so they respect what’s happened before.”

Summarising the feeling amongst the community after the awards, Neil returned to the theme of his winner’s speech: camaraderie.

“In the early days, it was camaraderie in the winemaking fraternity, but now its camaraderie in everything else that’s related to the industry – whether that’s restaurants, accommodation, activities, we’re all in there together and we’re all singing from the hymn sheet and bringing people into the valley,” Neil said.

“A bottle of wine is a bottle of wine at the end of the day, but when you start to meet the people, you say to yourself ‘actually there is more to it than just having a bottle of wine.’”

“There’s the history, there’s excitement, there’s these people that want to take it in a direction which respects what happened before – and I suppose that’s what those awards are all about,” Neil concluded.

A full list of winners is as follows:

– Riedel Young Achiever of the Year: Alex Beckett (Briar Ridge Vineyard)

– HVWTA Tourism Operator of the Year: Beyond Ballooning

– HVWTA Accommodation Operator of the Year: Spicers Guesthouse

– Jurds Viticulturist of the Year: Jerome Scarborough (Scarborough Wine Co.)

– Wine Selectors Cellar Door of the Year: De Iuliis Wines

– First Creek Winemaking Services Winemaker of the Year: Liz Silkman (First Creek Wines & Silkman Wines)

– HVWTA Outstanding Contribution of an Individual: Christina Tulloch (Tulloch Wines)

– HVWTA Patron: Brian McGuigan AM

– Hunter Valley Tourism Legend: Philip Hele OAM (Hunter Valley Resort & The Farm Hunter Valley)

– Hunter Valley Wine Legend: Neil McGuigan

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