Chrissy Symeonakis

Established in 1997, Margan now boasts a five-star winery, 100 hectares of sustainably farmed vineyards, a hatted restaurant and award winning cellar door. In this interview, we talked to Lisa about how her business has been impacted by the fires as well as her international experiences including working as a chef in France and traipsing through the eastern bloc in the cold war days. We also discussed her commitment to environmental stewardship and how she copes with the pressure and constant expectation of excellence that comes with operating a hatted restaurant.

When the dust settles

A bleaker start to the year could scarcely have been imagined. In fact, it goes without saying that 2020 has been a hard year for everyone but it’s been particularly trying for Australian wine makers who have endured devastating bush fires and loss to their harvest before the global pandemic took effect.

“Everyone saw the news and is familiar with those dreadful fires that rolled down the east coast of Australia. Many wine regions were impacted either directly by fires tearing through vineyards or through smoke damage.”

Sadly, Lisa stated that Margan Wines lost 80 percent of their crop, a result of both the drought and smoke damage.

“It’s been a heartbreaking year” she said. “When you were growing grapes and they were looking amazing, it’s heartbreaking to lose your crop, but farming can be that way.”

Lisa said that Margan Wines salvaged enough of their grapes that were not smoke affected to produce four white wines. Sadly, they were unable to produce a red wine this year as the type of grapes used in the creation of red wine proved more susceptible to smoke damage. Lisa stated that there are techniques wine makers use to mitigate the damage caused by smoke.

“You can run the grapes through charcoal filtration, which we certainly did with all of our whites as a precaution.”

However, even after winemakers have taken the necessary precautions, and run tests to determine the level of smoke damage, Lisa argued that sometimes it isn’t noticeable until after the wine has been produced and tasted.  Lisa said that its obvious when the grapes have been contaminated by smoke as the wine “tastes like an ashtray.”

Despite what has certainly been one of the most difficult years in recent memory for wine makers, Lisa argued that consumers can rest assured that any winery that produces a 2020 vintage has certainly done their due diligence to ensure their product is on par with industry standards. She states that no winery would be foolish enough to risk their brand reputation by producing an inferior product.

“No one will put out a wine that is smoke impacted so if you see wines that are this vintage, they’re going to be great. If people see 2020 Australian wines from any of those regions that have been impacted by the fires, they should get on board, buy them now, drink them and enjoy them because those producers will need some kind of income from their disastrous year.”

When the travel bug strikes

On a happier note, we couldn’t resist asking Lisa about her early adventures through Europe and the inspiration behind the Margan Wines brand. She certainly had quite the baptism by fire into the culinary world.  

“Marrying a wine maker, I had to move to a rural destination known as a ‘green change’ now, but back then it was more like going kicking and screaming to a paddock. I was a bit lost and lonely in the early days. That was 33 years ago.”

“I retrained as a chef when I moved to the valley. I was a high school teacher in Sydney before that. After I retrained, my husband Andrew was offered the opportunity to make wine in Bordeaux. We relocated and lived there for 2 years. I worked at a 2 Michelin star restaurant and also as a private chef for a wine chateau in Bordeaux. It was an amazing opportunity. Not many females worked in commercial kitchens back then. It’s still a very male dominated industry, but more so 30 years ago and for a little Aussie girl to find herself in a French kitchen where no one spoke English and I didn’t speak any French it was very intimidating! But what it taught me was a great appreciation for produce.”

Lisa stated that “seeing how the French regard their produce as the corner stone of everything they do” inspired her cooking, and her approach to menu design. Food and wine tourism has certainly grown into such a mammoth global phenomenon we perhaps take for granted that it hasn’t always been the case. 30 years ago, the concept of food and wine tourism was virtually non-existent. Lisa stated that during her time abroad she was just noticing the burgeoning concept develop and was inspired to bring the joy of celebrating wine and seasonally inspired menus back to the Hunter Valley.

The road less traveled

Lisa and her husband Andrew’s overseas adventures didn’t end with a glamorous exploration into France’s famed wine making region. They also enjoyed a brief stint in Moldova. For those unfamiliar with the nation, Moldova was part of the former Soviet Union and was, up until very recently, considered the poorest and least visited of any European country. The small state has however been responsible for some legendary Eurovision performances. The country is also home to a historic wine region and was the wine making hub of the USSR. Venturing into the country in the year proceeding the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Lisa and Andrew certainly chose an interesting time to visit.

“Communism was collapsing, and foreign companies were coming into the region to do collaborations and partnerships. But communism hadn’t dissipated entirely, it was still firmly entrenched, so we were literally one of the first foreigners into the country. At the time we thought it sounded so exciting venturing into the eastern bloc. We also had a five-month year old baby at the time!”

Living in a foreign country that happened to be navigating through a dire economic crisis, with a small child and unable to speak the native language must have been daunting to say the least.

“Christmas came around and I bought Andrew a mars bar and two oranges on the black market for around $3, and I drew a crowd because the average person would earn about $2 a month!”

We asked Lisa how her time abroad has informed and inspired her business. “Traveling for me allows my creative brain to work because I’m not just staring at the same thing all the time. Traveling and being exposed to something else makes me think ‘what if.’ We’ve incorporated many wine regions into our travels and staying in those wine regions and absorbing what we see and learn in a mindful way allows me to come back and incorporate that into what we do here.”

Custodians of the land

It would be easy for someone as successful and educated as Lisa to develop an ego of sorts, but her humility and unassuming nature is truly striking. She is committed to “leaving the land in a better place. We strongly acknowledge the Wonnarua people and have descendants of Wonnarua people involved in our business. This valley has all sorts of caves and paintings that date back tens of thousands of years so when you actually look at that you realise that you’re just a custodian of the land for a spec on the timeline.”

Lisa, who has a master’s degree in Science and Nutrition with a specialisation in organic food production, has made environmental stewardship a cornerstone of her business. She argues that at its most basic and fundamental form “sustainable farming means do no harm to the land.”

The entire business operates under an environmental management plan. Margan Wines was the first winery in the Hunter Valley to become certified under the Freshcare and Winemakers Federation Australia Entwine Program, which benchmarks to the ISO14000 series for international best practice in environmental stewardship. Lisa stated that it is her goal this year to convert the entire property (all 100 hectares) to organic.

Lisa mentions that Margan Wines is incredibly conscious of water conservation and extremely mindful of energy use. “We run our whole business on rainwater reliability – we’re not even connected to water mains. We have solar panels and on a sunny day we probably won’t draw anything from the grid so we can be self-reliant.”

Lisa argued that living in a rural community had fostered a sense of consciousness around the land and the vitality of essential commodities. “When you live in a city, you just turn a tap on it’s taken for granted. But when you harness and harvest your own water, you’re more mindful about sharing those precious resources.”

Lisa and Andrew have three children, who they are eager to one day hand the keys of their wine kingdom over to. Lisa said she’s been pleased to see her children adopt sustainable based practices with a great deal of enthusiasm. ‘I’m really delighted to see how much the second-generation care about this sort of stuff. They choose organic and they make really conscientious purchasing decisions, certainly much more than my generation or my parents’ generation.”

Under Pressure?

In addition to running a highly acclaimed winery, Lisa has the honour of operating a hatted restaurant. We asked her how she copes with the pressure that comes with the constant expectation of excellence.

“The anxiety around that and the pressure is shared by literally everyone in the hospitality industry that operates at that end of the market. It’s pressure on your team. We sat at half a point off a hat for six years before we finally got our hat! Every year we thought this is our year we’re going to do this and we kept missing it by half a point!”

“When we didn’t get a hat in those early days, I had to talk my team of a ledge at times because they worked as hard as the possibly could, and they couldn’t have done anything more.”

When living up to customers’ expectations, Lisa stated “we just try and focus on why we’re here and connect with our purpose. Be here for our diners and our guests and hope the day we get reviewed we did it alright!”

You can listen to our full interview with Lisa here.