With new wine bars popping up every week these days, it’s tempting to think of them as a recent phenomenon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Adelaide’s first wine bar – one of the earliest recorded in Australia – opened its doors in 1876. The man behind it was Thomas Hardy.
At the time of his death in 1912, Hardy was eulogised as “the father of the wine industry in South Australia”. The Adelaide newspaper The Register published a lengthy obituary describing Hardy’s introduction to wine-making at Reynella before he began his own wine business in 1853:
When Mr. Hardy first became associated with the wine industry there was practically no machinery. The grapes were trodden by men and boys with their bare feet, and then placed in the lever press. In 1859 he shipped his first produce, consisting of two hogsheads of wine, to England. This was one of the first shipments of wine for South Australia. Some of the vines at Bankside have been bearing continuously for 40 to 50 years, and are still in a good, healthy condition – convincing testimony to the suitableness of the soil and the climate. Mr. Hardy also planted extensive vineyards at McLaren Vale. He started the first wine bar in Adelaide, and it did much to break down the prejudice against colonial wine.
The wine bar opened in December 1876 in Grenfell Street, Adelaide, and was announced in the Evening Journal as “Something new”. It sold “the good ordinary wines of the country at moderate price” and was designed to persuade wine drinkers that their local drop could compete with fashionable imports. Wine was sold by the glass or in larger quantities. The manager of Hardy’s wine bar was one Mr Michel C. Billiet, the son of the man who, according to the Journal, had started the first wine shop in Melbourne.
M. Billiet had been in charge of the Colonial Wine Bar at the 1875 Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne, so it’s clear that the concept of the wine saloon was already established beyond South Australia. Hardy went on to open two further wine bars in Adelaide.
Elsewhere in Australia, certain wine bars have cemented their place in history. In the St George district, south of Sydney, Smithson’s Wine Bar operated from around 1880 until 1934. Smithson’s concentrated on fortified wines. An account on a family-run website reports that “by the early 1920s, the Smithsons sold port and sherry in stone jars at two shillings a pint, three shillings a quart and 14 shillings a gallon. Muscat was sold at two shillings and threepence a pint.” Originally operating from Jim Smithson’s house, the establishment became a landmark in the district.
Some historic wine bars are still operating. In Mudgee, Roth’s Wine Bar traces its history back to 1923. Outside Canberra, Gundaroo’s famous wine bar began trading in 1928. Previously the Commercial Hotel, the establishment had somehow lost its beer licence. Alfred and Jane Crowe took over with a wine and spirit licence, renaming it the Star Wine Saloon. The couple’s son, Martin “Matt” Crowe took over in the 1940s. “Matt Crowe’s Wine Bar” gained fame in the 1980s thanks to the writer and radio presenter Mike Hayes. Dubbing himself the “Prickle Farmer”, Hayes wrote many a tale about the wine and cider consumed at the notorious drinking hole. Now with a regained beer licence, it’s the Colonial Inn.
In Melbourne, James Calexte Watson opened his Lygon Street store in 1935. Influenced by his Italian heritage, he promoted the civilised consumption of table wines rather than the “fourpenny dark” for which other wine saloons were infamous. Jimmy Watson’s is still an institution in Lygon Street and a Royal Melbourne Wine Show trophy for the best one-year-old red commemorates its late proprietor.