Ken and Gwen Sloan – owners of Mistletoe Winery are living the dream and creating some of the region’s most awarded and talked about wines from their 5.5 hectare vineyard on Hermitage road in Pokolbin.
Today this James Halliday 5 star rated winery is a true small family owned winery with 3 generations of the Sloan family involved in the business, which now includes their son Rob and daughter Cassandra and also granddaughters Natane and Jessica, who also has an interest in studying winemaking.
PICTURED LEFT TO RIGHT: GWEN, NATANE, KEN, JESSICA AND CASSANDRA
Whilst the main focus is on Hunter Valley Semillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz, Mistletoe also makes wines from Merlot, Cabernet, White Muscat, Verdelho, Viognier and Fiano - produced from grapes grown in an environment where the focus is always on quality over yield.
One of the Hunter Valley’s true gentlemen, Ken is an intriguing character with a seemingly endless knowledge of wine, local history and also hilarious stories of the ''antics'' of some of the locals... and as you get to know him, you realise just why his wines are so damn good. He is a man of unquestionable principle and a great believer in "quality without compromise" in just about everything he does – and especially when it comes to making wine.
Ken was born in Parramatta and spent his fist 9 years growing up on his grandfather’s farm in Wentworthville - west of Sydney before moving with his family to Baulkham Hills.
When asked, Ken can trace his interest in wine back to his years growing up in Wentworthville, which in the 1950’s was experiencing the fist waves of post WWII migration from primarily Mediterranean countries.
‘"With many of my friends being of Maltese and Italian origin, I was often invited to their homes where I was confronted with food the likes of which I had never seen before – salamis, loaves of bread, platters of spaghetti served with a variety of sauces, olives preserved fish and of couse wine. Not just any wine, but wine and Grappa – and often home-made", says Ken.
"It was the Maltese custom to allow the kids to taste a little wine – particularly on special occasions and often watered down. I received the same treatment and my fist taste of wine was on Christmas Eve in 1954. What a treat it was! I even recall that the wine was Woodley’s Est’’.
The conviviality of these families and their obvious enjoyment of food and wine was very different to what Ken was used to and it wasn't until his teens that he came to realise the lasting effect these early encounters were to have on him. By the time all his friends were drinking beer, Ken had become intrigued by wine and started to drink, appreciate and even collect it.
Ken left school and started a successful business selling souvenir toys made out of kangaroo and sheep skin before selling it to one of his customers. Ken stayed on to manage the manufacturing side of the business which went on to open retail outlets at Centre Point Tower, the Opera House and Sydney Airport.
Sticking to what they knew best, Ken and Gwen later started a similar business in Gosford in 1980 with 3 staff selling souvenirs to the tourist market. They also ventured into the macadamia chocolate business and pioneered a change in packaging styles by using licensed artists such as Ken Done on the packaging. Both businesses were extremely successful and grew to employ over 100 staff.
Throughout the years, Ken’s interest and love of wine continued to grow and was further encouraged by the writings of the late Len Evans and Max Lake as well as the celebrated Sydney wine merchant and restaurateur J.K. "Johnnie" Walker who had the Angus Steak Cave restaurants and was also the author of a weekly newspaper wine column. Through Johnnie Walker Ken started to bring wine in bulk from Kay Bros. in McLaren Vale and held numerous bottling parties throughout the sixties and seventies.
In the mid-seventies, together with close friend Michael Watt, they started to buy grapes from the Hunter Valley to make wine in their "winery", which in reality was nothing more than an annex to Michael’s egg production farm at the rear of his home.
Not lacking in confidence, thy also entered their wines into local wine shows and not without some success - winning 3 bronze medals at the 1978 Mudgee Wine for their Shiraz, Cabernet and Cabernet Shiraz blend. By 1987, Ken and Gwen found themselves in the Hunter Valley on a regular basis looking around for a suitable property. They eventually bought the Hermitage Road property in 1989 from their friend Johnnie Walker which was once part of the ill-fated Hermitage Estate Winery operation.
Unfortunately, in that same year, the 1989 Australian Pilots' Dispute – considered one of the most expensive and dramatic industrial disputes in Australia's history, had a major detrimental impact on the Sloan’s business as it did with the overall tourism industry. What followed was more than four years of mental and financial stress and uncetainty for the Sloan family who, at that stage, were living on a property in Glenorie with 3 young children in tow.
What was supposed to be part of a retirement plan, now became a welcome distraction for Ken and Gwen who used every opportunity to "escape" to the Hunter Valley property to work and clear the land. Two years after purchasing the property, the Sloan’s came to realise just how good the soil was for vines and so decided to plant a vineyard. The next seven years were spent building the house and cellar door and also digging the dams for irrigation.
They eventually moved to the Hunter Valley in 1997 and it has been home ever since. At fist the wines were contract made in the Upper Hunter by the Reynolds Wine Company, but in 2003 they decided to build a winery on the property now named Mistletoe Winery because of the vast amount of mistletoe growing on the ironbark tree which had once covered the property.
With great winemakers that included Nick Paterson and now Scott Stephens, Mistletoe’s Winery has, in a relatively few years, become one of the most respected and awarded boutique wineries in Australia. No stranger to winning awards for his wines, Ken does not hesitate to name the award which for him represents the most memorable and significant recognition or his wine.
"It has to be the 2011 NSW Wine of the Year Award for our 2009 Reserve Chardonnay which went on to become Winestate Champion Chardonnay for Australia and New Zealand," says Ken. "This wine went on to win 7 Gold Medals and was runner up to the Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay at the 2011 International Chardonnay Challenge in New Zealand – which in itself was a fantastic result.
"When it comes to making good wine, Ken believes a number of factors come into consideration and for Ken "being fair and doing the right thing by suppliers" is at the top of the list, up there with absolute care and close attention to detail. These are the same principles that have ensured all previous businesses have been successful.
Ken also believes that "a good wine starts in the vineyard" and for him it is critically important to keep "investing" in the vineyard. "We put back into the vineyard and it shows… In the vineyard and winemaking side of the business, the grapes are grown in an environment that is as natural as possible and where the focus is always on quality over yield", explains Ken
"We have the firm mandae of ’Quality without Compromise’ and we not only believe in it, we also act on it… We will walk away from bad years rather than make average wine by cutting corners or fudging it. For instance in 2008, 2010 and 2012 we made no reds because the quality just was not there." Not surprisingly, Ken and Gwen have no intention of retiring any time soon.
Instead they intend to keep doing what they are doing and doing it better than before. Mistletoe Winery is a very unique and special place and once you are there you will see why visitors to wine country return time and time again – especially at this time of the year when the Mistletoe "Christmas Cheer" Mozcato is so popular.
Also, while you are there take the time to browse through the onsite art gallery and sculpture garden!