HOPE can be a four-letter word up Pokolbin way.
Or that’s the feeling I get after listening to critics of Hope Estate founder Michael Hope, rattling off what’s wrong with this and what’s wrong with that, when it comes to the sprawling entertainment and winery complex he has built out of the old Rothbury Estate, right in the heart of wine country.
“Too many people, too expensive, good for him but not for anyone else.” There’s no point putting names to the comments because they are so widespread as to be urban legend.
But talk to Hope, listen to the answers he gives to his critics, and talk to the people who know him as someone to work with, and another picture emerges.
He’s a driven man. There’s no doubt about that. And he runs Hope Estate for a profit, as you would expect from someone who owned his first pharmacy at 24 and who owned six by the time he was 30.
But Hope is also someone who has developed a dream and stuck to it – a dream that involves lifting the Hunter’s profile as an entertainment destination to 5.5 million people living within a 2.5-hour journey of the vineyards. Over seven seasons Hope Estate has attracted some of the world’s greatest rock acts to the Hunter Region – no mean feat when you think of all of the acts you’d otherwise have to go to Sydney to see.
So, who is Michael Hope? And how has he built a business that includes a musical echo of the baseball stadium built by the Iowa corn farmer in the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams?
Hope was born in 1962 and raised in western NSW. As a boy on the cusp of high school he watched his parents “sacrifice everything” to buy a glazing business in Young. Admiring their work ethic but determined to make his own way, he studied pharmacy at Sydney University and built the chain of Hope Pharmacies referred to above. He still has three chemist shops.
On the verge of marrying wife Karen in 1994, Hope was struck with reactive arthritis, the same inflammatory condition that later floored Silverchair singer Daniel Johns.
On medical advice to cut down on stress – and financially able to retire – Hope and his wife decided to move to the Hunter. Describing himself as “a classic Sydney wood duck” who said yes to the first property the real estate agent showed him, Hope bought the old Saxonvale winery at Broke, creating the first Hope Estate.
Success there allowed him to buy Rothbury in 2006, paying $9.2 million to owner Fosters, which was getting out of the wine game at the time. At the same time, he sold the Broke winery to coal company Xstrata – another of the things he is criticised for – and bought an adjoining property at Pokolbin. Today, Hope Estate at Pokolbin sprawls across 160 hectares, combining vineyards, a winery, restaurants, the entertainment ampitheatre – capable of holding 20,000 people – and a brewery.
The brewery was another controversial innovation in a region that is fiercely protective of its wine heritage. In the next stage of Hope’s ever-expanding empire, he intends to buy a herd of wagyu, the Japanese cattle that were traditionally fed beer or sake as part of their diet, and which produce a marbled, fatty meat that is highly sought after by connoisseurs.
Hope intends to feed them the brewery “mash” – left-over barley and wheat that still has 30 per cent of its original energy content after his brewers have finished with it.
“People will be able to drink wine grown on the estate, have a beer brewed on the estate, and eat a wagyu steak fed by the same grain that went into their beer,” Hope says.
Hope was not the first Wine Country operator to introduce live music into the tourism mix. But Hope Estate is by far the biggest, giving him the clout to deal with the country’s biggest promoters, who in turn bring the biggest acts.
Having already brought the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart and The Eagles to the Hunter, Hope has a wish list that is topped by Abba – “never say never” – along with Coldplay, U2 and AC/DC.
Top: Bruce Springsteen played Hope Estate on two perfect summer nights in February 2014.
The deal with promoters is simple enough. He provides a giant stage – capable of being made larger, as it was for the Stones – and they provide the acts. The promoter looks after the music, the ticketing, the security and so on, and he looks after the food and the wine. “I’m the caterer,” Hope says.
Moving up to 20,000 people a night in and out of Wine Country is a logistical nightmare, and Hope acknowledges he could not “do what we do” without the help of coach operators led by Cessnock firm Rover Coaches and Sydney’s Zephyr Tours. The buses use the McDonalds Road entrance at one end of the winery, while cars come and go from the other end, off Broke Road. The bus ride out is less stressful than being stuck in the Pokolbin traffic for an hour or more after the gig, but there’s a commercial side to the bus deal as well, because the bus punters are poured into Hope Estate hours before the music starts, giving them plenty of time to buy Hope Estate wine, beer and water (branded H2OPE), and to eat the food provided by an array of food stalls. Damien Battye, who runs his Satay Shack outlet at Hope, enjoys the amped-up atmosphere that comes with feeding an army of hungry punters.
“It’s a good set-up,” Battye says.
Further up the food chain, Hope Estate runs a Gold Club for people prepared to buy two cases of wine a year. Membership includes access to the estate’s various bars and restaurants during concerts. Food, wine and show packages for last weekend’s Cold Chisel show topped out at $679 per person, not including accommodation, which Hope can also provide at his nearby Tower Estate and its five-star Tower Lodge.
For all the grog at a Hope Estate show, the “responsible service of alcohol” (RSA) mantra is never far from sight, and Hope says he co-operates with licensing police to ensure his shows run as smoothly as possible. Maitland police inspector Glenn Blain – on duty at the Chisel show – says he has worked closely with Hope over the years and describes him as a venue operator who “understands the need to run a safe event”.
On Saturday afternoon, Hope was in a helicopter over the venue, barking instructions to various underlings to “fix this, and move that”. He admits to being a hyper-active boss who finds it hard to delegate when it’s his reputation that is on the line.
Although the music shows are Hope Estate’s flagship attraction, Hope is also serious about the wine side of the business, exporting about 70,000 cases a year of “mid-range to premium wine”. Exports peaked about four years ago at about 150,000 cases, and Hope says he deliberately cut back in the face of a then-strong Aussie dollar and a global wine glut.
Critics say his wine uses non-Hunter grapes but Hope points out that he owns six vineyards, including properties in Victoria and Western Australia, and is surely entitled to “make wine from my own grapes”.
He readily acknowledges he is “no vigneron”, or “no brewer” for that matter.
“I’m not a Tyrrell or a Drayton or a McGuigan,” Hope says. “I’m a grape farmer. I hire the experts to turn the grapes into wine, and to turn the barley into beer.”
Hope believes he has created something unique at Pokolbin. He says more Hunter vignerons and tourism operators now realise that “when 35,000 people come to see Fleetwood Mac, they are also people who are going to want to eat, play golf and go to the spas [elsewhere in Wine Country]”.
“I didn’t come here to be a disrupter,” Hope says. “But who’s to say that a Hunter winery can’t have the Rolling Stones play? Or that Farmer Wants A Wife shouldn’t shoot segments here?” Who indeed.