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Escaping the Rat Race – Career Goals in the Country

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3 December 2021. Words by Campbell Mattinson.

To coincide with the launch of Wine Guns for Hire – the wine industry jobs market – we thought it timely to have a closer look at a growing trend in the industry. So many industry professionals are ditching city life and moving to regional areas in the pursuit of a better work-life balance. Acclaimed wine writer and novelist Campbell Mattinson – who has experienced a tree-change first hand – speaks with some of the wine guns that have upped stakes and taken their skills off the beaten track.

I know this journey because I’ve been there. Seventeen years ago my wife and I packed our pre-school kids into the car, followed the removal truck up the Hume Highway and rolled into a life where the space around us was squillion-fold bigger than we were used to. We moved from the city to the country. It was a great journey but a challenging one; there were lessons to be learned.

There was a trend toward the country even back then – the phrases sea- and tree-change had already been coined – but like most things in life the second wave is bigger, and grander. That’s where we are now. The pandemic has brought on a change, or more accurately an acceleration, of an existing trend. There’s no beating around the bush about going bush now; the number of people who either have gone or are going to live/work rurally is suddenly significant.

“There’s a lot more wildlife! Removing a dead animal (kangaroo) from the car park minutes before a VIP group arrived is not something you need to worry about in the city. Nor are lizards in the office.”

If The Great Resignation takes hold in Australia then the lessons learned by the wine folk who have already made the shift will prove invaluable.

Because work in the city and work in the country are similar but not the same. Just ask Sally Johnson, who moved from wine retail in Adelaide to work/live in the Barossa.

For starters, she says, “There’s a lot more wildlife! Removing a dead animal (kangaroo) from the car park minutes before a VIP group arrived is not something you need to worry about in the city. Nor are lizards in the office.”

Sally grew up “in the country” and so, “I thought I knew what to expect. (But) the Barossa is entirely different (from the city, and from where she grew up). The food, the heritage and the faith play a big part of the fabric of the community. Oh and there is a lot more riesling consumed.”

“I’d always thought I had a pretty broad ability to converse with people, given my front-of-house background, but I have definitely benefited from meeting and working with a wider cross-section of characters. I’ve learned a bit about myself in the process.”

Personally, I’ll never forget the first night we spent living in the country; all my life I’d gone to sleep to the sound of trains and sirens, but on this quiet night there was the low ongoing sound of cows, in a paddock somewhere nearby, mooing.

There’s an impression of the country that “you’re not a local until you’ve lived in a place for 50 years”, but while there’s truth in that there’s another truth: rural communities are generally overwhelmingly welcoming of the newbies.

It’s lucky, because the need to become part of the local community, in order to work successfully in it, is a recurring theme among the people we spoke to for this article. If a rural life is to succeed, you need to get yourself connected.

Opposite: Adam Cash, General Manager of Sales and Hospitality at Sutton Grange. “I’d always thought I had a pretty broad ability to converse with people, given my front-of-house background,” he says, “but I have definitely benefited from meeting and working with a wider cross-section of characters. I’ve learned a bit about myself in the process.” Above: his favourite local pub.

Adam Cash, who was well known in the Melbourne restaurant scene before moving north to the town of Kyneton, is well aware of the advantages of a rural lifestyle – but also of the challenges.

First and foremost, he loves having access to local produce. “Being able to buy half a sheep from a farmer, or fruit and veg from the other side of the mountain I work on, is amazing. Central Victoria is such a rich food bowl, and almost every wine varietal is (grown) within 30 minutes of where I live.

“The night sky is so clear. I had forgotten what the Milky Way looked like. Seeing the seasons change, and the beauty of the landscape, gives me a pretty constant feeling of joy.

“(And) feeling that connection to the seasons has been an eye-opener. Working outside of the city has helped me learn another approach. I’d always thought I had a pretty broad ability to converse with people, given my front-of-house background, but I have definitely benefited from meeting and working with a wider cross-section of characters. I’ve learned a bit about myself in the process.

“Since working at Sutton Grange (winery) I have learned how to prune a vine, feed cattle, and operate a forklift. I would never have experienced (any of this) in the city.”

“Where I work there isn’t a shop within 30 minutes' drive, so you need to be pretty self-sufficient, and (be able) to plan ahead for what might eventuate. The power goes out a lot more often than I’d experienced in my previous CBD locales. (So) make sure your laptop is always charged up!”

But there are challenges. “The biggest one,” he says, “is logistics.

“Where I work there isn’t a shop within 30 minutes’ drive, so you need to be pretty self-sufficient, and (be able) to plan ahead for what might eventuate.

“The power goes out a lot more often than I’d experienced in my previous CBD locales. (So) make sure your laptop is always charged up!” Cash also found it pretty sobering when he wasn’t able to go to work on a Code Red fire day.

“Job opportunities” in the country, he says, “are less accessible. Lots of businesses are looking for staff, but they are mainly entry level. Salaries for management are generally lower than the Melbourne CBD.”

Peak hour, city versus country.
“No commuting! No traffic, no getting up at stupid o’clock and flying around the world. I can walk to work through the vineyard.”

Nicky Stevens knows all about adapting to a new environment. She was working in Global FMCG marketing out of London before moving to Huntington Estate in Mudgee, a move she calls “a change and a half.” She’s well aware of the benefits too – ‘Working on a vineyard is not just about magnificent views and room to breathe (and kangaroos skipping through the garden – will never get used to that). Seeing the vines go through their annual cycle and watching them respond to changes in the weather, time, water, nutrition etc makes me feel very connected. I love growing things, and am passionate about regenerating the land, healing the soils, renewable resources, using water and power carefully and wisely, and encouraging biodiversity. It feels like one of the most profound, real and important things any of us can do.

“And no commuting! No traffic, no getting up at stupid o’clock and flying around the world. I can walk to work through the vineyard.”

Plus, she says, “small town networks make it easy to get things done quickly and efficiently. Just yesterday I realised I was missing a bottle shot for our Christmas campaign. A case of beer and the sample in question got it done within 12 hours.

“I don’t feel like we have competitors in the industry. (Instead, we have) a community who support each other and celebrate each others’ success, as we all benefit when one of us does well. Our kids play in the same sports teams, go to the same schools. The same heatwaves, bushfires, hail storms etc affect us all. If the neighbour’s forklift breaks or lab equipment is on the fritz we just help out. I was used to a very competitive environment.”

But she also sees the downsides, and can rattle off a list. “Quality and speed of internet connection especially when it rains! Brownouts and blackouts can throw a spanner in the works during bottling for example. Wildlife – snakes in the bathrooms, bats in the barrel hall, spiders the size of mice, rats the size of cats. Healthcare and education, the country/city divide is stark. Young people wait over a year to access mental heath support, cancer patients go fund me to live in Sydney for their treatment.”

Nicky Stevens, General Manager of Huntington Estate, conducting a wine tasting.
“Small town networks make it easy to get things done quickly and efficiently. Just yesterday I realised I was missing a bottle shot for our Christmas campaign. A case of beer and the sample in question got it done within 12 hours.”

Keira O’Brien was part of a busy Brisbane business when she decided to make a beeline for the country wine life. She moved to Tasmania. “My move to a rural location was possibly a bit reckless and reactionary when viewed from the outside, and (so) I didn’t go into it with big expectations. But I’m very happy with the path I’ve taken and feel very grateful for the way of life I’ve adopted.”

Such a big move brought its own challenge: geography.

“My sense of direction isn’t great and I’ve had to become very good at listening and asking questions about farming practices and how to pronounce place names. When I moved to Tasmania I used Google Maps to mark up my own map of all the places around Tasmania relevant to my work, and studied it so I knew how long it would take to drive places, and their relationship to one another.”

O’Brien also points out the value of connections. “I made a point of spending time with very experienced people in the industry who had worked in the region for a long time – to better understand cultural practices, industry history, weather and water.”

If Keira O’Brien had her time again, “I’d be less afraid to go to a really remote region for my first full time winemaking position. I realise now that there are some really great jobs available in my field in far-flung places, (and) the community in these locations can be wonderful, and the cost of living quite low.”

There’s no traffic to speak of in the country, or not outside of holiday seasons, but it’s interesting that many people mention distance and geography as key challenges, or factors, of rural life. The distances involved can either wear on you over time, or unshackle you, depending on your mindset.

If O’Brien had her time again, “I’d be less afraid to go to a really remote region for my first full time winemaking position. I realise now that there are some really great jobs available in my field in far-flung places, (and) the community in these locations can be wonderful, and the cost of living quite low.

“The change to (living in) the country wasn’t something I weighed up or was explicitly drawn to,” O’Brien adds. “It was (just) a necessity to pursue opportunities in winemaking. I didn’t stop to think about how different that would be to the life I was leaving behind. But it has been invigorating and rewarding.”

For those people about to move, what advice would you give?

Sally Johnson

Embrace the tight-knit nature of rural communities and jump in, whether it’s sport, community events or volunteering – (just) getting in and participating is what will help you meet people from all walks of life and help you get to know the community better.

Adam Cash

Get a dog. The first friends we made in town were through our dog, Coco. Be prepared to drive. My first job regionally was in Bendigo, 45 minutes from Kyneton. Second job was Sutton Grange Winery, 30 minutes from Kyneton. At least they are highway drives, so no traffic hassles – great podcast opportunities.

You need to be flexible and adaptable. Too rigid and you might struggle. Depending on what sector you work in, you will find the staff you work with might be more varied in style and personality than in the CBD. Be prepared to look outside your previous work role and see what jobs are out there. I jumped from a front-of-house role to a job at a winery, mainly in sales (not much front of house in the last 18 months!) and it has been a learning curve, but a rewarding one.

Nicky Stevens

Choose somewhere with a thriving community of like-minded folk, where you’re not the only ‘outsider’. The remote life may well be for you, but try a stepping stone first. Get stuck in with sporting clubs, volunteer, make a conscious effort to meet people and ‘belong’. It takes a while to build up a really good group of friends. (Actually – have kids sooner! They’re a great way to connect.) Sell the Prada handbags and the Miu Miu shoes – I live in a work shirt and boots. Aforementioned designer gear collected during a five-year spell in Milan has been nibbled by mice and houses spiders.

Keira O’Brien

Get comfortable with your own company, as solitude is much more frequent when you live outside the city. Your work choices may narrow, and the sort of people you will come into contact with will be different. Learn to appreciate slowness, cultivate kindness and the meditative aspects of rural pursuits. They may seem romantic from the outside but can involve methodical and repetitive tasks. Approached with the right mindset this sort of work can be very rewarding.

What do you miss about working in the city?

Sally Johnson

A broader perspective of the wine world. With less exposure to portfolio tastings and events, it’s very easy to focus in on home and not keep up to date with what is happening in other regions or countries.

Adam Cash

I really miss the hustle and bustle of the city. You are lucky to find a drink after 9.45pm in a regional town. Forget about eating somewhere interesting on a Monday night! Speciality ingredients are a stretch (I have co-workers bringing me bonito flakes from Melbourne etc). I miss going dancing after work. There are some amazing entrepreneurs and creatives in regional areas, but it is not concentrated like it is in the city. There is a huge focus on regional wines in Central Vic (I am enormously grateful for this fact, given where I work) but it means I miss the exposure to the rest of Oz wines, and international wines. There ain’t no City Wine Shop in Kyneton.

Nicky Stevens

Now when I go back to a city I feel the old thrill from the power, the money, the energy, the fabulous shops, the incredible restaurants, the art galleries and concert halls, the fashion, the noise and the sheer number and diversity of the people. But it pales quickly. Three days is about my limit now before I’m ready for the tranquility and natural beauty and calm and space of the country.

Keira O’Brien

The availability of good-quality coffee, ramen and sushi. Being able to walk home from the pub or a bar.

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