After two cancellations, small businesses and wineries gear up for Australia’s longest-running wine festival

Source: De Bortoli Rutherglen / Instagram

After two years of lockdowns and pandemic disruptions, Victoria’s Rutherglen wine region is once again preparing to showcase the best its small business community has to offer.

The two-day Winery Walkabout festival will take place this weekend for the first time since 2019, bringing Australia’s longest-running wine event back to Victoria’s north east.

Some 18 wineries are set to take part in the event, which traditionally draws thousands of tourists from Melbourne and beyond to cellar doors and marketplace stalls.

Annalee Nolan, executive officer for industry group Winemakers of Rutherglen, says Winery Walkabout typically generates around $1 million in economic activity for local businesses.

“It’ll be great to welcome everybody back,” she told SmartCompany.

It’s been a long time coming for local producers, who see the festival as a vital drawcard for the winemakers, tourism operators, and hospitality businesses.

The expected turnout for Sunday’s Rutherglen Country Fair market — which draws some 300 stallholders to the town’s main street — will be “huge for small businesses, especially coming out of COVID-19”, says Declan Keating, co-founder of Keating and Co. Condiments. (Keating is brother to SmartCompany editor Eloise Keating.)

Keating, who grew up near the Rutherglen region, said the re-emergence of the Winery Walkabout and Sunday market will benefit producers of all sizes.

“Trade has been slow for us and a lot of other small businesses and hospitality industry services,” he says.

“It’s a big draw card for the bars in the area, the small shops, but also small businesses like ourselves setting up our stalls.”

The event was cancelled in 2020 as the state endured its first year of heavy COVID-19 restrictions, but organisers endeavoured to hold the event again in 2021.

Despite postponing the event to a later point in June, last year’s event was also struck down over lingering lockdown uncertainty.

The pandemic was not the only headwind to face local wineries in the past two years.

The Australian wine industry at large also suffered due to new import tarriffs imposed by China, which reduced exports and resulted in a glut of inventory.

A small number of wineries in the Rutherglen region were “quite heavily impacted” by those measures, Nolan says, with affected producers seeking new export opportunities to make up for lost trade.

This weekend presents an opportunity for winelovers to descend on the region, but industry participants say Australians from across the map can also support regional small businesses as they emerge from years of COVID-19 restrictions.

Punters can acquire Rutherglen-grown wine from the region’s official online marketplace, Nolan says, and vendors like Keating advertise their stockists online.

There’s nothing like supporting those businesses in person though, Nolan added.

“Get up here when you can,” she said. “Get an esky, fill it up, have a wine and meet the people. When you come to Rutherglen you get a very authentic experience.”

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