Sitting around an open fire on a cold night is one of life's simple joys.
Ten years ago Glandore Estate lit a mid-winter bonfire in a Hunter Valley paddock for 25 wine club members and fired up a barbecue to thank them for their support. Every year the event got bigger - and better - and these days more than 350 guests make their way to Broke Road, Pokolbin, each June to enjoy gourmet food and wine, live music, entertainment and fireworks as they bask in the warmth of a huge bonfire.
The Burning of the Barrel, as it is known, has been named in Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine's "Top 50 Wine Experiences" worldwide.
For Glandore winemaker and operations manager Nick Flanagan, Burning of the Barrel is a celebration of the vintage past - and this one has been more challenging than most.
"With all the rain, it proved problematic," he said. "It was one of those years where we were heavily reliant on having a good viticulturalist.
"We probably got a bit complacent over 2017, '18 and '19 when it didn't rain, and I'm sure there are a few winemakers who were new this year who were shocked by the conditions. But having said that, we got all our fruit in and we came up a lot better than we were expecting."
Glandore is best known for its "old vine" vineyards at the foot of the Brokenback Range however in recent years it has also been acquiring small parcels of high-grade fruit from Orange, Mudgee, Hilltops, the ACT and Tumbarumba.
"Unfortunately we had to leave out some of our best vineyards this time because they are old-vine, dry-grown vineyards and they just don't ripen the same way as an irrigated vineyard. You've got to let them come on in their own time, but it just didn't stop raining in February."
If it wasn't Mother Nature causing havoc through fire and flood, it was the COVID-19 pandemic. Labour was in short supply and tourism shut down overnight.
"I've been in the Hunter Valley for 20 years and thought I'd seen it all, and then 2020 came along," Flanagan said.
"When the doors opened after lockdown one, it was madness. We had to put in a booking system, like most cellar doors. We'd never made so much money. Then we locked down again and the bounce back wasn't the same as the first time.
"You've got to roll with the punches - being an agriculturalist you don't know what hand you're going to be dealt year to year, and you can't get upset about it. You've just got to deal with it."
Last year's Burning of the Barrel is a case in point.
"The party's started, we're running around putting the final wines in ice, the band's tuning in, and at 2.45pm - just 15 minutes before the gates were due to open for Burning of the Barrel - the government announces that all of Greater Sydney is going into lockdown and that anyone residing in those areas needed to return home or to their accommodation at 6pm that night," Flanagan said.
"We had all these people trying to get in the gate, and we're trying to figure out what the hell to do.
"In the end we decided our responsibility was to tell people what was going on, and to let them be grown-ups and make their own decisions.
"At 6pm we got on stage and said right, here is the latest news from the government. A bunch of people left and went back to their accommodation - but a bunch of people stayed and we probably had the best Burning of the Barrel ever, to be honest. Those who stayed were determined to have the best time of their lives."
Organising this year's event has been far less complicated for Flanagan and his team and, for the first time Utopian Fire (fire dancers from Sydney) will join the line-up alongside Newcastle talent Cameron Thornton and Sneaky Freakers.
"James Wilson-Miller will do the Welcome to Country and he is amazing. He takes people on, as he describes it, a spiritual journey back in time through the creation of the Hunter Valley. Baiame Cave at Broke has an amazing rock painting of Baiane, the creator of the Hunter Valley, with huge 15-foot long arms enveloping the Hunter Valley."
As for the food, Harry "Mulga Bill" Callinan is is preparing five courses for the sold-out Firestarters lunch while chef Andy Wright is taking care of the on-site "soup kitchen" and barbeque. It's a far cry from the humble barbecue that kickstarted the Burning of the Barrel concept in 2012.
"Glandore staff used to run the barbecue, make the soups ... we had our wives selling drinks at the counter," Flanagan said.
"I was making the soup at home and I borrowed a pot from Andy Wright, put it on my stove, and it was big enough to take up all four burners. I was jamming all the ingredients between the top of the pot and my rangehood, a space of about four centimetres, and I realised how ridiculous it was.
"We started to outsource. Getting Andy in from Pokolbin Catering allowed us to start thinking about improving and expanding.
"This weekend we'll have the main bonfire plus about 10 separate fires to ensure everyone is warm and comfortable."
When: Saturday, June 25, 3pm to 10pm
Where: 1595 Broke Road, Pokolbin
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