In 2003 my wife and I were faced with a tremendous opportunity. The National Trust had approached us about buying and renovating an extraordinary old bank building in View Street, Bendigo, which was built in 1876. Architecturally it was stunning, the price was rock bottom, but it was in a serious state of decay. On top of this, the National Trust had placed one of the highest protection orders at their disposal on the building, meaning renovation must strictly adhere to restoring its original form in all its 19th century glory, which would ensure a very costly renovation, as well, of course, minimum potential commercial uses. We thought long and hard and decided that this was above and beyond our abilities and interests at the time. We declined and continued on our merry way living our Melbourne life.
I personally think one of the most fortunate things to ever happen to the people of Bendigo was that Mark Coffey and his wife Janine then expressed interest in the building. Mark is an accomplished Master Builder and a highly passionate wine drinker. With the go-ahead from the National Trust Mark, using his building nous and contacts undertook a complete restoration of the site and created the iconic wine oasis we now know as Wine Bank on View.
As the surrounding photo’s illustrate, The Coffey’s created a stunning showpiece in Bendigo’s town centre, with a brilliant wine bar including relaxed couches, tasty bar snacks, open fireplace, alfresco areas on the town’s finest strip (View Street), a retail outlet for fine wine, as well as gorgeous boutique accommodation out the back.
I don’t use the word “iconic” lightly, in fact I use it rarely and only for places that have put in the hard yards to warrant it. Due to consumer’s fickle wants and constantly changing trends, hospitality is clearly one of the very hardest industries to achieve any longevity or notoriety. Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar in Bourke Street has been consistently punching it out since the halcyon days of the 1960s; Café Di Stasio in St Kilda has been at the forefront of quintessential Italian for 25 years. After 20 years, Punch Lane in Little Bourke Street is ever reliable, and not long after I first started working in Melbourne in 1993, a unique little “hole-in-the-wall” bar opened up in a tiny laneway, just 30 meters away from where I worked. It was simply known as “Meyers Place Bar” – at least that’s what we called it, as there was no signage or branding of any kind. We must have spent every Friday night there for five years (well, we were in our 20s!). Little did I know at the time, that it was the first of many tiny bars to spring up in the emerging stylistic and previously under utilised Melbourne laneways. Its simplicity started a massive bar revolution (still evolving to this day) and it is justifiably on my list of “iconic” hospitality venues.
Ladro is my family’s favourite pizza restaurant and it recently celebrated 10 years and Attica, perhaps now Melbourne’s most famous restaurant is about to turn 10 also. It’s vibrantly clear Melbourne has its fair share of places that can justifiably be considered “iconic”. And whilst each and every one mentioned here (as well as many others) has a place in not only my heart but obviously many others as well, as they are all still thriving.
I can’t help think though, that having a population approaching four and a half million people at your disposal, as well as very generous tourism from all over the world is a great tool to have when you wish to ply your dynamic, cosmopolitan and eccentric stylings to all and sundry. Building something equally special in a small country town, like Bendigo with less than a fortieth of Melbourne’s population and very minimal tourism, then it’s a vastly different story – the dichotomy between Bendigo and Melbourne hospitality a decade ago cannot be overstated.
Mark and Janine did something extraordinary with the making of The Wine Bank. They overcame the greatest of all hurdles – changing generations of stagnant hospitality culture.
In a town that was overrun with pub and café mediocrity and only a tiny percentage of the population looking for “something different” it was always a risk for the Coffey’s to build something so grand and impressive, with an extremely pointed and professional direction toward their love of wine. When the business first opened it had nearly 400 wines available to drink in or to take away That number has now climbed to well over a staggering 1000, and on top of that they now offer full al-la-carte meals, seven days a week.
The business also acts as a cellar door (of sorts) for most of the local wineries – many of which are tiny ventures and simply too small to be able to operate their own cellar door. Visitors to Bendigo, and locals alike, can go to The Wine Bank to get expert service and advice about the massive walls of local, Australian and international wines they have on sale.
Whilst in Melbourne, in 2004, the concept of the “wine bar” was becoming quite mainstream, (thank you Dog’s Bar and Walter’s Wine Bar) it was still years away from public acceptance in country towns; something Mark was honest enough to admit. Mark mentioned to me recently, that an entire month’s revenue in his first year of trade was roughly equivalent to that of a decent Friday night nowadays. I know this to be true, as during the mid 2000s, my wife and I would regularly come back to Bendigo to visit her parents on weekends and often find ourselves the sole guests of this epic bar at 7pm on a Saturday night!
Mark explained that locals simply couldn’t get their heads around tapas or just catching up for a few glasses of wine (this was really only done at pubs back then). The best he could hope for in those early days was getting a few locals dropping in for a glass or two of wine before or after they went out and had a traditional three course meal elsewhere.
Thanks to (another iconic restaurant) MoVida in Melbourne for virtually changing the dining format for all (hello small plates), it wasn’t long before everyone started looking for tapas and wine bars and eschewing more traditional restaurants. In fact I think many Generation Y foodies must assume all restaurants are designed to serve only shared small plate food nowadays, such is the slavish and dedicated surge to follow the trendy popularity established by MoVida, Cumulus and many others a decade ago.
I, for one, am thrilled Mark and Janine took the punt on Bendigo, for they have created an enduring and now clearly iconic venue in the heart of central Victoria.
Just before Christmas last month The Wine Bank celebrated its tenth birthday. It’s truly a remarkable achievement. Very few hospitality business’ last that long and fewer still continue to improve whilst forging a virtual hub of evolving wine culture – for which the citizens of Bendigo are the true beneficiaries. I’d suggest anyone who reads this should pop in and say hello to Mark, have a glass of wine, shake his hand, and say thank you. I know I will be.
Simply put, The Wine Bank was the harbinger that carved the way for all modern and progressive hospitality businesses in Bendigo (for which there are now many) that followed it.
WINE BANK ON VIEW
45 View Street, Bendigo
03 5444 4655