Mike Bennie is anything but conventional when it comes to wine appreciation.
He was once offered $1000 by a former employer to update his work wardrobe. Apparently a baseball cap, footy shorts, socks and slides weren't compatible with the wine industry. Bennie begged to differ.
"That's who I am, and I'm not going to change for anybody," he told Food & Wine.
"My boss ended up leaving the business a couple of years later and I stayed on and became the general manager who wore a pair of shorts and a T-shirt."
Bennie is a journalist, wine writer, presenter, wine educator and former lawyer whose wine journey started when he applied for a "no-brainer" job as a delivery driver at Best Cellars in Sydney while studying law. What was supposed to be a temporary job gradually morphed into a career in wine. Working under an inspiring mentor and with clients including former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, Bennie was encouraged to learn all he could about the wine he was delivering.
"My boss told me to know the most in the room about wine but also have the most fun. That set me up for how I approach everything in life, really."
Bennie continued working at Best Cellars after graduating from university and while working part-time as a lawyer. The rest is history.
Bennie, editor-at-large of wineFront.com.auand a co-founder and partner at P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants, is coming to The Edwards on April 17 and 18 for Naturellement. It's part of Newcastle Food Month and is a collaborative effort between Bennie, owner of The Edwards Chris Joannou and award-winning events guru Kristy Austin.
It's right up Bennie's alley. Smaller in scale but big on engagement.
You'll be able to talk to producers, distillers and brewers chosen by Bennie who are at the coalface of their respective businesses and industries, as well as top-shelf chefs, and attend a series of short but sweet masterclasses: Introduction to Natural Wine; Orange Wine Party 101; Pet Nat Party; and Wild Style Wine.
"These producers had to be of the avant-garde sect with a natural winemaking focus; more expressive wine styles from younger generation producers who are at the cutting edge of contemporary wine in Australia," Bennie said.
"The same goes for the brewers and distillers. Artisan, small, craft - a handmade product.
"A lot of large food and wine festivals end up making the producers feel like bar tenders or servers and the engagement is missed. With Naturellement, logistically, we needed to give full autonomy to our producers to explain their story, not to make them feel that they are simply bar tending and giving away free wine to people for an entry fee, because that is unconscionable in this day and age."
One of Bennie's priorities is to rethink the strategies around the drinks components of festivals and other events, with a view to "engaging a much broader generation of people".
"I am trying to 'democratise' wine, and to be a leader in the realm of what the future of drinking is," he explained.
"Naturellement is a way of teasing out what's happening in NSW in terms of avant-garde producers and exposing Newcastle to the umbrella concept of what natural wine is. That's where the masterclasses tie in as well.
"Chris and The Edwards are a natural fit, hand in glove, for me. He just gets exactly how we operate. So does Kristy. We're building a culture around this that I think, long term, will reap benefits and create a likeminded community.
"Newcastle, like many other regional centres, has been overlooked in the past but has people who are equally hungry for knowledge and experience and exposure to the new genres of drinks that we're working with.
"I think people underestimate that there is a great regional interest in everything that we are interested in outside of our ivory castles in the capital cities. I've long travelled through Newcastle; my parents met while working in the Hunter Valley.
"I've always enjoyed the lifestyle even in the rougher and readier days. There are less people lobbing pint glasses into the harbour these days. I'll never forget watching the divers going in and retrieving them from the harbour.
"There's a younger generation of people, especially in regional areas, who feel like they are overlooked. My definition of democratising wine means bringing these kinds of events to places like Newcastle. Engaging with everybody and ignoring cries of it potentially not being financially viable."
Naturellement, April 17 and 18 at The Edwards, Newcastle West. Times: 11am to 2pm; 3pm to 6pm. Tickets include all tastings and a take-home wine glass. Go to newcastlefoodmonth.com.au for details.
Piazza Mercato opens
Alfonso Muras (Napoli Centrale, Popolo Artisan Gelateria) has opened Piazza Mercato at 231 Hunter Street in Newcastle. He says the deli/restaurant/bar was "inspired by the ancient, bustling market square at the heart of the Mercato neighbourhood in my birthplace of Naples". Piazza Mercato will be open from breakfast to dinner and beyond, serving rare and authentic Italian cold cuts through to house-made gnocchi and seared swordfish. Read all about it in Saturday's Weekender.