Bacchus is the god of wine, Keno and meat tray raffles. He never rode a mountain bike; his toga would’ve got caught up. Graeme Scott doesn’t have that problem – he prefers baggy Nzo shorts to togas – but he’s still a god of wine, and he’s crafting his own version of mountain bike heaven amongst the vines.
Way up the Hunter Valley, out past the tour buses of Pokolbin, past the impossibly cavernous, open-cut coalmines, you’ll find James Estate winery.
It’s tucked away in Baerami, in the Bylong Valley, and hemmed in by the Wollemi National Park, a impenetrable wall of native bush and sandstone cliffs. The lower Hunter can feel a bit like Sydney moved two hours up the road, but this is proper country. The neighbours are a long way off.
When I drop in on a Sunday, the smell of baking has me salivating. ‘I was never a baker until we moved here,’ laughs Graeme’s wife Christine as she hands me a warm choc brownie. I bite into it and it erupts in my mouth like a chocolate volcano. ‘You learn to do things yourself when the nearest shops are so far off,’ she tells me. This ‘do it yourself’ attitude is what has brought me out here.
I first caught wind of what Graeme Scott was up to about three years ago, when someone handed me a bottle of shiraz that had a crazed-looking warthog riding a mountain bike on the label: Jimmy Jack. The winemaker was a bloke called Graeme Scott, a mountain biker with a vision for sharing his patch of paradise. And the James Estate winery is paradise: on a late autumn afternoon, there can’t be many finer places to find yourself than standing on the balcony of the cellar door, wine in hand, watching the sun set over the Wollemi wilderness. But what this paradise was lacking was mountain bike trails.
‘I’ve been mountain biking for ten years,’ says Graeme, ‘I just bought a pretty basic Trek, initially, to commute to work. But then the kids got into it and did a couple of races through the Hunter club, and I thought I’d have a go.’ The mountain biking of the NSW Central Coast spoilt Graeme, and after moving inland, he began to get antsy, frustrated by the lack of trails in his new hometown area. ‘After six months of trying to find trails, I looked out the window at my own backyard,’ he laughs. So he picked up a rake, and he and Razz the dog headed into the bush on the fringes of the property, to begin scratching in the makings of a trail network. That was four years ago.
Before we head to the trails, we tour the winery and Graeme explains the wine making process, dumbing it down for this beer-drinking philistine. I’m soon lost as Graeme explains how different fruit harvested from different blocks must be picked and barrelled at just the right time, and how the life cycle of the barrels must be managed, and the barrels matched to the wine. ‘I still remember taking a four-litre cask to a BYO restaurant,’ laughs Graeme, making me feel a bit better about my vinicultural ignorance. The laboratory, a funky mix of low- and high-tech, feels more like a mountain biker space. ‘It’s a real mix of art and science,’ Graeme explains. ‘You do a lot of things by feel and instinct, within the realms of certain boundaries – go outside these and it all turns to custard pretty quickly.’ That, I understand. Trail building is pretty similar. There are certain rules – the optimum radius for a turn, the right gradient for a climb – but doing what looks or feels right generally is right.
Feel and instinct is how Graeme got started. It wasn’t until he went to an IMBA Tracks and Trails Conference a couple of years ago that Graeme learnt the science of trail building technique. It was around then that he began to realise the scope of the potential he had in his backyard. Dafydd Davis was the conference’s keynote speaker – Dafydd’s the man behind some of the UK’s most legendary trail centres – and what he said struck a chord with Graeme. It got Graeme thinking big about the future of the trails. ‘A worldclass trail centre needs three things,’ Graeme tells me, recalling the key point he took away from Dafydd’s presentation. ‘A stunning natural environment – tick; a brilliant set of trails – we’re working on that; and a great visitor experience of the region as a whole. Our region is certainly special, and we can develop the infrastructure in terms of accommodation,’ Graeme says. ‘It still gives me goosebumps, that whole concept of building a worldclass destination.’
With that vision in mind, Graeme set to it, expanding his small network of tracks. Cutting in the trails has been a lonely task, especially since Graeme lost his dog Razz to a brown snake earlier this year. ‘Razz was an absolute legend,’ says Graeme, the emotion croaking up his voice. ‘He’d take bunches of riders out there. He knew the trails backwards.’ Unlike Razz, the winery staff just didn’t get it. ‘They thought I was nuts,’ he laughs. ‘I’d do a 12-hour day and then head into the bush with a shovel and rake for another few hours and come out covered in muck and all excited because I’d put in another 10 metres of trail!’ But Graeme stuck with it, convincing his boss, vineyard owner David Jones, that mountain bike trails would become a real drawcard for visitors.
Things became a lot more real when Rocky Trail Entertainment approached Graeme about the idea of holding an event on the property in March this year, as part of its Grand Prix series. For a racing crowd generally accustomed to hanging about in a state forest carpark, having a cellar door and facilities on hand is like paradise. Word spread fast. Wives and families who’d normally avoid races like the plague came along in droves until there were over 200 people camped out at the vineyard the night before the race with another couple of hundred filling every available bed in town. For the vineyard owner and the town mayor, it was a real wake up call.
‘The mayor was here on race day and he was just blown away by the number of people and how nice they were,’ recalls Graeme. ‘These were people who’d never even been into the area before, and now the whole town was doing a roaring trade, the coffee shops were full the whole time, the cellar door was busier than it had ever been.’ It was the turnkey moment, Graeme says: ‘For my staff and the whole community to hear person after person talking about the trails – it was amazing. Suddenly we had the mayor championing the importance of mountain bike trails to the local region.’
The task now is to carry that momentum forward. Just a week prior to my visit, Graeme and National Parks staff had surveyed a 300-metre-deep buffer of bushland surrounding the property. That is now the swathe of bush that Graeme has to work with. The terrain is awesome; big hunks of rock that have tumbled into the valley from ridges above, with sweeping S-bend turns weaving through. Graeme’s cut over 10 kilometres of singletrack already and there’s scope for at least another 20 kilometres – more than enough trail to work up a thirst for a glass or two. ‘You can only put in so much trail yourself,’ says Graeme, ‘so we’re looking to apply for tourism grants to employ a proper trail building company.’
The wine industry tends to be very ‘wine-like’ – you know, photos of bearded men in heavy knits swirling wine in a glass next to a barrel and using words like ‘herbaceous’ and ‘minerality’. But that’s certainly not Graeme. He’s got his head in the dirt, not the clouds. As I pack my now dusty bike back into the van, with a few of Christine’s brownies for the road (and a couple of bottles for later, too), I feel buoyed by Graeme’s vision and enthusiasm. It’s one thing to build trails for your own fun, it’s another to have the passion to push things further and to share your creations with others. There’s still a long trail ahead for Graeme, and it’s sure to be full of twists and challenges, but that’s the stuff that makes the best singletrack.