From humble beginnings to dramatic expansions and national awards, Union Street Wine has become one of Geelong’s best wine bars and cellars

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From humble beginnings to dramatic expansions and national awards, Union Street Wine has become one of Geelong’s best wine bars and cellars

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Located in two prime yet inconspicuous positions within the region, this is a place where vino is taken very seriously.

Finding a top-notch wine bar that fits your every desire is the dream for any wine lover. A wine bar used to be noteworthy simply due to its collection of wines by the glass and bottle. Now we’re looking for more. Alongside the wall of wine, it’s the décor, ambience, and charismatic and knowledgeable staff that we’re yearning for.

Located down one of Geelong’s great alleyways marked by a sign simply reading WINE, Union Street Wine is the crème de la crème of the wine world, becoming a serious retreat for local wine lovers since opening in early 2014 after Geelong local Andy Leigh – who’d worked for several wine retailers – decided to use his house deposit to follow his dreams instead.

“I liked the idea of working for yourself,” Andy explains. “I’ve been in wine retail for years and loved it, but then it came to start thinking about taking it to that next level and challenging myself a bit more.

“At the time I was looking to buy a house and I wasn’t finding what I like, so a friend of mine at the time just suggested I start my own business and do my own thing. It was her advice that kicked me in the right direction so I just used my house deposit to start a bar where people could sit down in a quiet enough space and enjoy some nice wine and a chat.”

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With a gap in the Geelong market for contemporary Australian wine bars, a vacant space down a busy CBD alleyway and a love of wines made with integrity, Union Street Wine was born.

Tucked behind an industrial-looking roller door, the intimate wine bar was an elegant but low-key spot you can swan into for a glass of wine, or linger awhile with a table full of snacks within a comfortable European-inspired space, orchestrating the perfect balance of expertise and affable hospitality.

On the verge of blossoming into a nascent rose, in 2016 Geelong local Lewis Phiddian joined the Union as co-owner. Already establishing themselves as a go-to wine bar for locals, the dynamic duo took higher aim and took over the shop front right next door, turning the space into a complimentary boutique wine store.

“The bar had always had the license to sell wine both on and off-premises but we just found because it was such a bar and it was used as a bar, people really only thought of us as a place to drink wine,” Andy explains.

“We decided to expand into the shop next door and create a dedicated retail space where people can come and take the time to talk and learn about wines without having the distractions of the bar. It allowed us to move everything online and expand into the online retail space too.”

On one side, the fit-out sticks to classic wine bar territory with exposed brick, floor-to-ceiling wine racks, a bespoke polished hardwood bar and high ceilings. There’s also a stunning piece of custom art by local Georgia Naughton and spectacular feature lights. With seats for 20 people and a little galley-style kitchen where the team prepares snacky plates of charcuterie, olives, cheese and more.

Next door, the retail space is simple yet inviting. With terrazzo flooring and dim lighting, countless bottles line the walls, with fridge space for a selection of white and sparkling varieties.

To drink here really is to revel in the best of all booze. Laying claim to the most impressive and comprehensive wine list in the area, it’s the sort of place where you might stop in for a glass but can’t help staying for a bottle, before leaving with a couple more to take home after a chat with one of the Union staff members.

“We do work with some interesting wines and different grape varieties, different producers and different regions so I think it’s really important to give people the opportunity to try them while they’re there,” Andy says on the combined retail and bar concept.

“I come from a retail background in wine, and there are so many times you talk to people about these fantastic wines and they take them home but then by the time you see them again they’ve forgotten what the wine was like.

“This concept allows for immediate feedback on whether they like the wine. And it gives people an opportunity to talk about what they’re tasting, and learn and ask questions while they’re drinking the wine.

“For us, it’s really important to have that. It’s not like we ever take that away from our focus because we love that. To talk to people is the core of Union.”

Union Street Wine covers the major grape varieties but also devotes space to the less familiar varietals such as Chablis, Chenin blanc, pinot Meunier and Gamay. Orange and non-alcoholic wines feature, and there are sections for half bottles and magnums too. Think classic European drops – such as the Christophe Et Fils Chablis and vibrant Massolino Langhe Nebbiolo – and unfamiliar Aussie vintages, such as the Onannon Mornington Pinot Noir and the Combes ‘Savage Garden’ Sauvignon Blanc.

While the collection of wines is eclectic, the selection was built on the best formula of stocking wines they love. With a deep list of inspiring wines from local, domestic and international producers handpicked by the duo, prices range from $20 a bottle to $250+ a bottle.

As for the wines by the glass, Union Street Wine offer a shorter changing list of new and interesting wines the team is enjoying at the time. These range from $12 to $18, depending on the varietal and vintage which can change daily or weekly. If you’re staying in, grab a glass of whatever’s on this blackboard menu, or you’re welcome to choose something from the cellar and enjoy it at the bar. And the best part is, you’ll always find something new to try with wines arriving weekly.

“In the wine world, it’s pretty crazy. There’s a lot of new stuff always hitting the shelves and things for us can happen quite quickly with a small team, so we’re usually getting new wines in weekly. You’ll always find something new and we’re here to guide you.

“We can find exactly what you’re looking for, but sometimes it’s awesome when you get to try completely different things; the wine you never thought you’d be buying or you’ve never heard of.

“It’s all about learning. We want people to be pretty open mind with what they’re having and be willing to go on another adventure and learn new things.”

And say you can’t come to the wine? In more recent years Union Street Wine was able to turn their attention inwards and create seamless virtual shelves for their wine store. With wines sourced from all over the world, including hotspots such as France and Italy and of course Australia, you’ll find everything from the cellar via the website within minutes of it arriving in store. They even offer contactless free deliveries of their drops to Geelong, Bellarine and the Surfcoast.

For the true wine lovers out there, you can even sign up to The Union Subscription, where you receive six bottles of carefully selected wines by Andy and Lewis, delivered straight to your door. Ahead of the curve, the Union began offering these wine subscriptions – perfect for those who aren’t afraid to try something new – well before the pandemic forced sporadic closures of their bar.

“We started doing that not long after opening the bottle shop but when the lockdown started kicking in, I was in self-isolation after coming back from New Zealand and I spent two weeks working with the webpage designer to bring everything into a whole new dimension where we could create quick content online.

“In part, that also more streamlined subscription service and from there it grew into what it is now. COVID helped push it to a new level.”

Despite the consistent stream of lockdowns forcing the Union Street venue to close its bar and operate as strictly retail for most of the past two years, Andy and Lewis were inspired to take their dreams to the next level in 2020 and launch the business’ next venture six years after the opening Union Street Wine Bar.

The new space – Union Cellars – is Geelong West’s answer to the well-loved wine bar. Taking to Minerva Road, the new haunt is the collaboration between Andy, Lewis, and Alain Sparey of The Cheese Society.

Here, the guys replicated their CBD venue, and have now curated an extensive new and interesting wine, beer and spirit offering for the new space, bringing everything we know and love about Union Street Wine to the other side of town, offering a laid-back neighbourhood bottle shop and bar with a community feel.

“We saw the opportunity to keep growing and keep doing what we do so we went for it,” Andy says.

“We wanted to venture out of the CBD; we’ve found the CBD is a little bit trickier for retail with having no parking and a few other obstacles, while the spot over in Herne Hill offered a lot more accessibility.”

While the space was perfect for them, the duo wanted to make the most of it, noticing a gap in the local market when it came to artisan and hard to fine cheeses. It was here that they brought Alain – a good friend and something they’d already had a working relationship with, offering him an area to devote to cheese and small goods.

“We met Alain when he had his own business and he sold us the cheese and charcuterie for the bar when we first opened, so we’ve known each other for a long time.

“He worked with several great producers, chefs and venues and over the years we became good friends and we’d often talk about being able to have an excellent range of cheese and charcuterie in Geelong without a lot of overheads.

“When this shop became available, it was probably a little bit bigger than what we needed so dedicated to collaborate to bring in the best of both worlds.”

Operating as a retail space from Tuesday to Thursday, on Friday and Saturday Union Cellars becomes a bar of sorts, staying open until 9pm with a dedicated area for people to enjoy a glass of wine (or two) and try some of the cheese and smallgoods from The Cheese Society.

The space also offers plenty of advice and recommendations of what is eating well right now, along with great wine to complement from Union Cellars. No matter what language you’re speaking, everyone knows that cheese and wine is the ultimate combo, and this collaboration is all about bringing high-quality products to locals in a thriving and central location.

Everything that Andy and Lewis have created – the wine, the online store, fit-outs, food, staff and even the merch – is full of character that shouldn’t be missed. And we’re not the only ones who think so.

Over the past two years, the beloved original Union Street bar had made its way into the Wineslinger Awards multiple times. An annual Australian event that recognises the country’s best places to drink and experience wine, more than 150 of the country’s leading sommeliers, winemakers, hospitality tastemakers and journalists judge venues from across the nation while the coveted People’s Choice is publicly voted.

A credit to the bar’s service, creativity, excellence and enduring passion, Union Street was named in the Top 50 Australian venues to drink wine last year, as well as being crowned the People’s Choice winner that same year. Proving what a dynamic industry it is, more recently the venue was awarded a spot in the Top 100 places list, alongside 20 venues named in Sydney and Melbourne; 10 in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth; and five in Canberra and Tasmania, plus regional locations.           

The awards were created in 2018 by Rory Kent, who also founded the Young Gun of Wine Awards and is all about recognising and encouraging the country’s most excellent and innovative places where vino lovers can enjoy an ace drop, while also acting as the ultimate wine guru’s guide.

“I think that was the highlight of everything we’ve achieved at Union Street. The feeling of being named in these awards is quite humbling – it’s a list of venues that we hold in high regard and admire, so to be among them is very special,” Andy shares.

“Knowing that the list is peer-reviewed and voted on by people in the industry that know and recognise what we’re doing is great, it’s kind of their nod to us to say we’re on the right track. They see through everything and get to the core of what we do which is sharing good booze.”

 With a deceptively low-key façade, both the staff and booze offerings are ambitious and polished across both spaces, beautifully balanced with grace and finesse. Bringing new and exciting drops to locals, the charm of the Union is its ability to make wine connoisseurs out of a whole new generation of drinkers in Geelong through not only its knowledgeable staff but also its masterclasses and wine-focused event, which we can expect to continue for years to come.

“Quite a lot changed in the last couple of years and now that lockdowns are a thing of the past, I think we just need to focus on what we’re doing and make sure we’re satisfied with what we offer,” Andy says.

“We want to just to spend some time connecting with people in Geelong. For us, it’s just about doing that and building that reputation in Geelong for being the shop to buy really exciting wine from.”

With knowledgeable staff and carefully constructed menus featuring only the top-quality producers, there is no wrong choice at Union Street Wine.

Union Street Wine Bar & Cellar is located at 6-8 Union Street, Geelong. Union Cellars is located at 15 Minerva Road in Herne Hill. Visit their socials to find out the latest in wines and opening hours and shop online here