Matt Gallace says his wife, Ruth, never lets him forget the day
he questioned her on cider.
"About two years ago, Ruth and our winemaker, Wayne Hewett, came
to me and said they wanted to make cider," Matt, third-generation
strawberry farmer recalls. "I said 'What on earth do you want to do
that for?' I thought it was an English drink."
Despite Matt's initial scepticism, the couple's Cheeky Rascal
Cider has tapped into the growing demand for the bubbly beverage
and has been a roaring success.
Matt, 32, and Ruth, 30, and their team make the cider from
strawberries, raspberries and blueberries picked fresh from Matt's
family's farm, blended with locally grown apples and pears, in the
shed that was once the farm's apple-packing shed.
Their cider production has increased dramatically in the past 12
months, with seven varieties of cider now sold in supermarkets,
liquor stores, hotels, farmers' markets and the farm's cellar door
and cafe. And, perhaps most importantly, the next generation has
created itself a place on the family farm.
"They never let me forget it," Matt says with a grin. "If I
question them on anything now, they always bring up the cider."
Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm at Main Ridge on the Mornington
Peninsula has been in the Gallace family for nearly five
Matt's grandfather immigrated from Italy and bought an
18-hectare property in 1964, planting cherries and apple trees. In
between the rows of fruit trees, he planted strawberries - a quick
cash-crop to help pay the bills while he waited for the fruit trees
Matt's father took over the orchard and developed the
strawberries, expanding the farm and adding a cafe and cellar door
where they sold strawberry wine and liqueurs made from a
traditional Italian recipe.
Matt grew up working on the farm.
"I did everything you could possibly think of," he says.
"Growing up I worked on the farm, out on the tractor or the rotary
hoe. I've looked after everything from irrigation to payroll and
customer service at the farmgate. And I loved every minute of it -
sitting out on the tractor for 12 hours a day. The peace, there's
no one there to bug you."
It's a farming heritage that has held him in good stead.
"Mum and Dad always wanted me to come back to the farm, but we
had to come back and grow our own part of the business."
Matt left the farm to study business management, specialising in
agriculture water management. He and Ruth, who was a model and had
studied PR, marketing and graphic design, had been travelling
overseas and had returned to work in the family's cellar door and
cafe where they sold the strawberry wine made by Matt's father and
"We have always made a fruit wine, to value-add to the
strawberries," Matt says. "We saw an opportunity to commercialise
In 2005, Matt and Ruth started to develop their own versions of
Sunny Ridge's fruit wines which they tried to sell to hotels, bars
and retail outlets. Ruth says they had mixed success.
"We called our business Rebello," Ruth says. "It's a play on the
Italian word for rebel - we were young, we were making wine from
fruit, and no one would talk to us. Feedback at the time was that
they loved the product but they didn't know where to put us."
Matt and Ruth made a sparkling strawberry wine known as
Stawbellini - 30 per cent strawberry wine, 70 per cent moscato (a
"It was a far more accessible product," Ruth says. "People knew
what it was." The Strawbellini won a double gold medal at the San
Francisco International Wine Competition in 2010. "As far as giving
us the credibility and confidence that we were on to something good
- it was awesome."
And last year they turned to cider. "That's when everything
really took off."
Cider was just gaining momentum in Australia when Matt and Ruth
launched their Cheeky Rascal label - blends of apple and pear cider
with strawberries, raspberries and mixed berries from their farm.
The cider is sold in major supermarkets, liquor stores, at farmers'
markets in Melbourne and food and wine shows.
Matt and Ruth say the secret is in the fresh fruit. "We try not
to mess around with it," Ruth says. "We just let the fruit tell the
story, with minimal intervention."
These days, Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm has about 200 hectares
under strawberries - about two millions plants - at the Main Ridge
property and at two other farms, one in Boneo near Rosebud and one
in the Yarra Valley. Matt's father has just bought a farm in
Queensland which ensures year-round supply.
Matt says market demand governs the price paid for fresh
strawberries, but the cider business offers a hedge against market
"When strawberries drop below a certain price that Dad needs to
get, we stop picking for markets, let them ripen in the paddock,
make sure the sugar levels are sufficient and then we pick them for
the cider. This way we don't need to worry about shelf-life,
there's no packing costs, no freight costs or agents' commissions -
the strawberries go straight from the field to the winery. Then we
make as much wine as we can in the certain time period and store
A bubbly future
Ruth says cider is following the same trajectory as boutique
beer. "Cider is in a similar position as craft beer was a few years
ago. It's only just getting started. If you look at England where
we adopt a lot of their traditions, cider consumption has just
topped beer consumption. And we have everything here to make great
cider - the right climate and the best fruit."
Rebello now has a team of about a dozen staff members working on
administration, sales, markets, events and the Main Ridge cellar
door. Matt is the general manager and Ruth the CEO, and the pair
juggle their roles along with their children, Charlotte, 4, and
Isabella, 18 months.
Last month, they launched a mulled cider - a bottle of their
Cheeky Rascal Cider, served warm with a bag of spices, used like a
In its infancy, the winery produced bout 5000 cases of wine and
liqueurs a year. This year it has pre-sold 10,000 cases of its
mulled cider alone. And while it's still early days, indications
are it will increase eight-fold in the next year. Demand in
Australia is growing and now Asia beckons. "It's a sweet product,
so it should do well in that market," Matt says.
Despite the corporate work, Matt says the rows of strawberries
his grandfather planted still call. "I love getting out on the
tractor when I can," he says. "I try to get out and get my hands
dirty. It's good to get back to your roots."