Some people admire their works of art on a gallery wall. As RICK BAYNE discovered, Barry Clarke admires his in a bottle.

Barry Clarke’s passion for a good wine has turned a part-time hobby into a growing niche business as his Mepunga Wines starts to make inroads in the market.

But it’s not just about business for Barry, it’s about the art of making a good wine.

“I love being able to create something from scratch; growing it, harvesting it and the whole process of making the final product is my art, my creation.”

At the same time, Barry continues to work four days a week in community services and calls on family and friends to help when it comes time to pick the grapes.

Mepunga Wines, based about 20 minutes outside of Warrnambool in south-west Victoria and named after the farming area where Barry lives, started as a label about three years ago but his winemaking journey reaches back a decade to when he bought winemaking equipment.

“It started as a hobby and experiment to see what I could do,” he said.

Not long after buying the equipment, Barry met a Timboon resident with a small hobby vineyard of 200 vines. Big wineries didn’t want to know about making his grapes into wine because he wasn’t big enough, but Barry was willing to give it a go.

“He got me started making wine and then I set up a little vineyard at home with about 300 vines, just for myself as a hobby.”

His interest was piqued by a massive pear tree on the 0.4ha block he shares with his wife and children.

“I’d pick up pears off the ground, freeze them, then press them and make pear cider; that was my first experience of making something.”

Barry Clarke on his leased vineyard east of Warrnambool. He says the area’s cool climate is well suited to quality vines.

Barry completed a viticulture course through North Melbourne Institute of TAFE.

“It was good to learn a bit of theory about growing grapes as we were starting to propagate some vines.

“It was really helpful with the viticulture side of it and it had some winemaking in it.”

In 2017, he started leasing a block on the other side of Warrnambool with about 2000 vines.

The vineyard was established by previous owners more than 25 years ago, with more than two hectares of vines and a cellar door.

“I could see the value in this vineyard because of its age and that it could create good quality wine grapes,” Barry said.

The 0.8ha that now remain was originally half Pinot Noir and half Cabernet Sauvignon, but Barry found the cab sav was more difficult to create high quality, because the variety was not suited to the cool environment.

However, there have been some great wines made from the site, including a Pinot Noir made by grapes he had grown on the land in 2018 and sold to another winemaker.

“It was ranked as a 97-point Halliday wine which shows that good quality can be grown here,” Barry said.

“You can’t make good wine from below average grapes.”

Fruit of the vine.

Over the past three years, Barry has grafted onto the former Cabernet Sauvignon vines and now has Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris winegrape varieties.

He says the quality continues to improve.

“I’ve learnt how to manage it better as I go and I have input from the previous owners and I’m involved in the Warrnambool Wine and Food Society which has some members who have grown grapes or know about winemaking.”

He’s also hoping to lease or buy land closer to home.

“I do everything in a double car garage at the moment. I’d like to have more vines there and somewhere to sell the wine that’s not our home (sales are only by appointment at the moment).

“Not a true cellar door but wine tastings by appointment, where I can run people through what I do on a micro level compared to what the big places do.”

The garage of Barry’s home has been converted into his winemaking facility.

The hobby enterprise has lots of support from family and friends, and grape picking has turned into a fun adventure.

“I have been fortunate to be able to rely on family and friends and we have a really great vibe. It’s a big day but it’s a wonderful and fun day and people really enjoy it.

“I give everybody coffee, a feed and a few bottles of wine to take home and we pick over half the vineyard in one day.”

Once the grapes are picked around March/early April, Barry is then busy at home pressing and crushing grapes and processing the wine, then letting it mature and testing it.

Barry says viticulture is a small but growing interest in the Warrnambool and surrounding area.

“It’s a cool climate which is good for quality. If you want quantity, go to a warm environment where they can push three or four times the number of grapes on the same patch of land, but in a cool climate we most always get quality over quantity.

“You can try for quantity in a cool climate but there are so many anomalies that can create extra pressure.”

South-west Victoria’s high rainfall helps grapes grow but creates challenges.

“Because of good annual rainfalls and the vineyard being so well established, it has to be a very dry year to have to water the grapevines,” Barry said, “but moisture can be an issue because it creates humidity and exposes the vines to risk of developing fungus.”

He sprays organic fungicides to avoid powdery and downy mildew but this season has been easier to manage after challenges created by cool conditions and a lot of rain the previous year.

“The wetter it is, the more challenging it is.”

Barry has about 200 vines on his Mepunga block.

Mepunga Wines sells mainly at markets, where Barry enjoys mixing with fellow creative food producers. He is looking to add more regular outlets.

“In the past two years, it is finally paying for itself and we’re getting a little bit of income from it. It should only grow from here because we’ve done all we need to set it up.”

While Barry appreciates lots of wines, his personal favourite is his Pinot Noir.

Now 47, Barry hopes to grow the business over the next decade to take it into semi-retirement from his day job.

“I love the hobby because it gets me out in the environment after working a lot indoors in community services.

“When you’re a grape grower and winemaker, I like to stand behind the product and see it all the way through.”

The end result of Barry’s labour of love where .

Barry Clarke’s vineyard.