In the words of Eurythmics’ song, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves”, Janelle and Kristen Zerk are indeed “standin’ on their own two feet” as pioneers of a wine brand that is capturing high acclaim from Australia’s most renowned critics.
The name Zerk has been in the Barossa since 1846 and this duo represents the fifth generation, yet it’s not their long family lineage that has enabled them to earn their place among the region’s finest wine producers.
No, these women are writing their own history from the very opening paragraph and they’re proud of it.
“Our whole attitude from the start was what could go wrong? Throw caution to the wind and let’s have a go!” laughs Janelle, the first winemaking Zerk in the family.
She was only 17 and not even old enough to drink alcohol when she started her university degree. But after seven years working in the Hunter Valley and gaining experience in Burgundy, Tuscany and California, Janelle honed her winemaking skills and developed her own style.
Meanwhile, younger sister Kristen studied wine marketing, for she too knew the path she wanted to follow from an early age. She would work for a number of high-profile wineries in the region, nurturing a clearly evident talent for brand management and a gift for selling fine wine.
Both working successfully in their chosen fields, a sisterly catch up phone call changed their lives.
Kristen says, “Janelle was in the Hunter Valley and we were on the phone one night saying, you know what? We do this for everyone else, I do the marketing, sales, exports and all that and you do all the winemaking stuff. Let’s do something together, we know what we are doing, surely we could do it for ourselves? So we did. Janelle bought grapes from our dad and he loaded them into a truck and mum chucked a bucket of dill cucumbers in the front seat…”
“So the grapes came over and I’m doing pump overs, chewing on a dilled cucumber!” adds Janelle with a hearty laugh. “I love them and you couldn’t get them in the Hunter!”
That first Shiraz, released in ’06, funded the next Z Wine vintage and the next. Whilst Kristen was cracking new markets and selling wines to high end restaurants, Janelle was adding new wines, including Grenache, Mataro, Cabernet and Riesling. She built their line up to the current list of over 20, all sourced from Barossa and Eden Valley and showcasing the individuality of each vineyard and variety with the refined elegance and sense of place the label celebrates.
Eventually, both Janelle and Kristen quit their day jobs and in March, 2017 opened “Z Wine Cellar Door and Wine Bar” in Tanunda’s main street.
Their vision had been realised and a whole new level of hard work began.
In the days since opening, it’s not been unusual to see a baby being nursed behind a desk or sleeping soundly in a nearby pram while mum is running tastings and serving up the Z Wine experience.
Both married with four children each, juggling the school run and a wildly hectic work schedule is a precise art form – much like the wine they make and share.
“That’s how we roll” Janelle and Kristen say, seated in one of the many antique lounges in their little wine bar with its eclectic “retro, recycled and up-cycled” décor continuing to capture the imagination of all who set foot through the doors.
Live bands every weekend and a family friendly atmosphere make this place a popular destination, even though naysayers said their concept wouldn’t work.
“We were told there were two things that didn’t belong in a wine bar – children and coffee. We have both and everyone loves it!” says Kristen. “We even have a children’s tasting plate on the menu that my daughter created.”
“Our customers are us,” adds Janelle.
“We love good wine and good food. We have children, have limited time and juggle lots of things – this is a reflection of who we are and what we enjoy.”
For the sisters, the styling and ambiance at Z Wine captures memories of their tight knit family, growing up on the farm in Lyndoch and enjoying a “schlück and a schnitter” with grandpa Hedley who inspired them to achieve their dream of making a name for themselves.
He would be proud of his plucky, go-getting granddaughters whose strength of character and work ethic have turned them into the savvy business women they are today. Their courage and determination to knuckle down, has allowed them to navigate their way through the toughest of times, including a global pandemic they say was “petrifying”.
Yet despite all the challenges, the sisters agree that being polar opposites in character means they are the perfect business partners.
“I think we give a lot of ourselves in our wines, in our presentation and in our business,” says Janelle, eyeing off a Zimmy’s dilled cucumber on the Barossa platter in front of her, yet another celebration of the sister’s passion for place, with its perfectly placed slices of Graham Linke’s mettwurst, Maggie Beer’s pate, Owen Andrews’ olives and Nipper Fechner’s bread, still warm from the bakery across the street.
“To me we are offering history in a bottle and capturing a moment in time.”
The Zerk women personify what it means to be Barossan and revel in being able to share what they love most about living in the region with others.
“Sparkling red for breakfast is normal isn’t it?” laughs Kristen.
“I often say to Kristen, it’s almost like the Barossa owns us!” adds Janelle.
“It almost seems like a series of happy accidents… but it’s also us implementing and having confidence in making decisions too, and that’s no accident.”
Kristen agrees. “We have fun, we both have very different personalities and focus on different things within the business and it just works well. We are complete opposites, doing what we love,” she says.
“I couldn’t do what Janelle does.”
“And I couldn’t do what Kristen does,” adds Janelle.