Jesse Schrader mans the Dorset Street taps (Photo: Naomi Haussman)

Fill ‘er up: The Christchurch garage turned haven of beer, wine and good design

Part cellar door, part bottle shop and soon-to-be urban winery, Dorset Street Cellar Door has a big future ahead of it. 

Just off Victoria Street in Christchurch’s faded golden mile is an unassuming building with a sawtooth roof. Even with a fresh lick of paint, you can still make out the lettering of the former tenant, Batstone’s Garage. It’s now the home of the Dorset Street Cellar Door, having traded CRC for IPA — Garage Project beers pour from the taps.

But a brief conversation with the guys pulling the taps shows they’re bursting with ideas, and that beer is just the beginning of a project that also includes coffee, design and an urban winery.

I visit Dorset Street during a torrential downpour, the sound of rain occasionally drowning out the voices on my dictaphone as it thunders into the roof. I’m talking to Jesse Schrader, who runs the front of house, and Matt Smith, who fitted out the place. Both have backgrounds in design, and working in bars — and have returned to their hometown of Christchurch to embark on this venture.

Dorset Street was once a garage (Photo: James Dann)

Matt’s link to Garage Project comes from his ongoing and award-winning fit-outs for the Wellington brewery. His recent design for their taproom in Auckland managed to be both gritty and clean at the same time; prior to that, he had designed both the Wellington taproom and cellar door. He’s also responsible for some of Wellington’s hippest fit-outs, including Monterey, Six Barrel Soda and People’s Coffee (which provides the beans for the coffee machine at Dorset Street). But after creating all of these great spaces and then handing them off to the client, he wanted to do something for himself. So Matt came back to his hometown of Christchurch, and found a space that he could first design, and then run.

The design is stark but purposeful; the two stand behind a long bar, and in front of a wall with 12 taps on it. Along with two shelves built into either of the side walls, that really is it for the fit-out. There aren’t any chairs or tables — Dorset Street isn’t a bar, it’s a fillery. They did consider getting an on-licence, but Jesse says “it could turn into suits drinking craft beer”. Matt adds, “we could retire!”

It just wasn’t what they wanted to do. As Jesse explains, “we’ve got the beer, we’re doing that; now we want to focus slightly more on the wine”. Matt concurs. “Garage Project is a very good anchor, but the idea is wine. It’s a winery in the city. We want to make stuff — some really playful, interesting things.”

Co-owner Matt Smith at Dorset Street (Photo: Supplied)

As has been written about here before, natural or living wine is a bit of a thing at the moment. Matt’s mates up at Garage Project are one of the places in Wellington that have been getting into it with their “wild wines”. The terminology is loose, but Matt and Jesse envisage wine made from “organic grapes, biodynamic farming, estate grown”. In addition to that, you can add some of the values that go into other conscious products, such as coffee — fair pay, decent working conditions for growers, sustainable farming practices.

Increasingly, when consumers are choosing discretionary items like beer, coffee, or wine, they are putting their own values into their purchasing decisions. It makes sense when so much of the experience of enjoying them is emotional that you’d choose something that you believe in, whether that be organic, fair trade, family-run, a unionised company, whatever.

While for many producers, it might seem like the latest trend to hop on to, for others it’s just what they’ve been doing for hundreds of years. In countries like Georgia, they aren’t setting out to make “living wine”, but they’re doing it anyway. They escaped most of the rapid agricultural intensification that swept Western Europe and the States post-war, continuing to make wine the way they had been doing for generations. Now, the techniques employed in Georgia, along with some smaller producers that managed to dodge the rise of the machines in Austria and France, are inspiring a new generation of viticulturists and winemakers, including here in New Zealand.

Natural wine is a big focus at Dorset Street (Photo: James Dann)

There are a couple of other places not far from Dorset Street that are making this part of town the place to go for the more adventurous wine-lover. It’s just a minute or two to walk from Dorset Street to Vesuvio, one of the city’s few remaining specialist wine bars. In the same row of buildings is Gatherings, which is not only an award-winning restaurant, but a champion of living wines. They recently partnered with natural wine producer Halcyon Days on a pét-nat (pétillant-naturel to its mother) Sunday session that was standing room only, demonstrating that this isn’t just an esoteric concept, but one that has a dedicated and growing following.

While the Halcyon Days Pét-Nat comes from the Hawke’s Bay, the Waipara region, about an hour up the road from Christchurch, has the most living wine producers in the country. It’s from this region that Matt and Jesse are planning to get their first batch of grapes, and they hope to be making wine at Dorset Street as early as March of next year.

While for the next few years they will be buying in grapes, their hope is to be able to use their own. Matt has been planting vines, including pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, on family land above Akaroa, and is hoping they will be ready to harvest in three or four years.

A pinotage vine called Pedro takes pride of place on the wall (Photo: James Dann)

When I suggest it might just be easier to keep buying grapes in, his answer hints at one of the reasons he’s put so much time and energy into Dorset Street. Always the designer, he wants to keep tinkering, building, brewing — and see what the results are. “We can dig up clay, we can make amphoras, then we can bring them in here and make wine, and we control every bit of it.”

He’s designed and fitted out the space, he’s making the amphora, he’s growing the grapes. Of course there are some things that you can’t control, especially when there are factors as unpredictable as yeast involved. As Jesse says, “I guess if you’re making wine and fermenting everything it’s a moving process, so once it starts you can’t stop it, you can’t pause it — but you can guide it.” The guys are hoping to start that journey in the new year.

It will be a few months yet before there is Dorset Street wine on the taps. In the meantime, they’ve got the largest selection of Garage Project beers on tap in the city, as well a wide range of natural wines. Like the fit-out, Dorset Street Cellar Door is a well-designed, deliberate and humble project, more evolution than revolution.


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