Five Minutes With Margaret River Restaurateur and Small-Batch Wine Producer Jess Waldron

Jess Waldron has been a part of the Margaret River drinking and dining scene for the nearly of eight years.

Together with Rob Webster, her partner in life and in business, she owns and operates Normal Van, an Americana-inspired burger joint that began as a food truck back in 2020 and blossomed into a bricks-and-mortar store on Bussell Highway three years later.

But Waldron’s legacy in Margaret River stretches beyond burgers – she’s also a winemaker. Waldron’s wine label, Jingalup Wines, is more or less a one-woman operation with Waldron playing an incredibly hands-on role, from vine management and fruit picking to producing and bottling the resulting wine, which is made with minimal-intervention techniques from small parcels of fruit grown in the South West.

As vintage 2024 kicks off in the Margaret River wine region, we sat down with Waldron to discuss her journey into the world of hospitality, the challenges of running multiple businesses and what winemaking means to her.

How did Jingalup Wines come about, and what’s your philosophy as a small, independent winemaker?
I love wine and we romanticise wine in the restaurant industry, so that’s where that intoxication of curiosity came from. [What drives me is] that itch to get perfect fruit and guide it into a pure expression of time and place.

How did you know it was the right time to start a wine label?
Covid was a catalyst. I had just finished vintage at Pierro Wines [and] I was [planning to] head back to Vasse Felix [but] they couldn’t take me back [due to] Covid. I had never felt like I could not get a job and that scared me. I hate being idle.

I had already been keen to start making my backyard ferments a little more serious. I just thought of all the energy I put into these workplaces, but when things change suddenly, I felt disposable. You aren’t disposable when you work for yourself and put your energy directly into you and your own projects. So honestly my thought was “I’ll start this now so I never feel idle again”. Wine takes a while, so that year I spent my time planning, sourcing excellent fruit from great vineyards and lining up logistics leading up to our first harvest.

What was the scope of the operation when you first started out, and what’s it looking like now?
It was so little and we are still very small. Our first harvest was an excellent one, I hand-harvested 700 kilograms of semillon with a group of chicks I had messaged asking for help on the first harvest moon of the season. The syrah came later from the Frankland River region; another 700 kilograms that the vineyard owners had to put on a truck for me as my terrible car couldn’t make the five-hour trip there and back.

Currently, I’m still getting grapes co-op style in tiny batches from growers around the region. Riesling and syrah have been my focus, but I’ve got a little bit of malbec coming soon, and have another fun variety lined up for this harvest. Running [our own] vineyard right now (on top of everything else) isn’t a priority, but we are on the hunt for a vineyard and a small winery space.

You also co-own a restaurant. How would you describe Normal Van to someone who’s never visited?
Normal Van [serves] good North American food. It’s a burger shop with a fine-dining background. [We use] local suppliers, farm direct where possible, [and everything is] made from scratch. Plus delicious local wine, beers and a concise cocktail list.

How do you find running a restaurant and a winery at the same time?
I’m busy, I guess? It can be tough but I’m still learning balance and I’m not there yet. Last harvest [2023] was very hard, we were opening the bricks-and-mortar restaurant when the fruit came in and my focus was a little split.

I’m super lucky the wines are looking great and Normal Van survived with me [running off to make wines] at midnight. The upside is it’s pretty sweet having a venue [where I can] showcase [my] wines and see people enjoy it. We have plans for fun [wine] dinners coming soon.

When you’re not on the floor at Normal Van or making wine, where do you like to kick back in Margaret River?
Honestly, being pretty busy, I don’t get out as much these days, but I haunt the following. Pearl’s Bar: those guys are legends and it just feels like home. [I go for] an after-work beer or a few Martinis, they’re the best. Dahl Daddys: the generosity in that food is phenomenal and I’m so grateful they stay open late and serve such wholesome meals [that we can eat] once we’ve knocked off. And then Pies & Ale, The Colourpatch Cafe and Dear Darnell’s are my day-off spots.

Before Jingalup Wines, were you working in the wine industry?
I was a vineyard girlie and loved working in the vines. I’d then jump into the cellar for fruit [processing] time. [It was] the best of both worlds. I worked at Vasse Felix and did a quick jaunt at Pierro Wines, too. The rest was backyard ferments and secrets.

Tell us more about those backyard ferments. What’s helped you more when you’re running Jingalup: the lessons you learnt at established wineries like Vasse Felix or those you learnt at those more bootleg operations?
I think it’s always a bit of both. Those big wineries kind of just confirmed my ethos: single-vineyard top-level fruit doesn’t need manipulation. It might be on a larger scale but winemaking for wines of excellence is very simple, it’s where you intervene the least and let the fruit do the talking. These wineries had excellent people working for them from the bottom up [and between them there was] a wealth of knowledge. I’m super grateful to have worked with so many legends.

[When it comes to] small-batch winemakers, [there’s] a great community down here and everyone will answer a call if you need help [or] equipment. The backyard ferments were just a bit of fun, I would pick a few buckets of grapes, experimenting with wild ferments. Not all of it was good but it was where I fell in love with making pied di cuve or a “starter” ferment in the vineyard. They always had such vigour, and weather permitting, it’s how I start the wines now.

Is there a Margaret River producer or winemaker that really impresses you at the moment?
McHenry Hohnen. Jacopo “Japo” Dalli Cani [head winemaker] and his crew make exceptional wines. I feel like a lot of people sleep on them. The chenin at Dormilona has always been a banger, too, and their orenji [wine] is my summer drink of choice. The new cellar door is awesome!

What’s your go-to Normal Van dish and Jingalup wine pairing?
Proxy riesling and buffalo chicken. Leesy textural riz and fried chicken were made for each other. I’ll die on that hill.

And finally, how do you see Normal Van and Jingalup developing over the next few years? Anything exciting you can share with us?
We have just done our first summer so now that’s done, we are planning what happens next. We are pretty excited to do some cool stuff in-shop and maybe online. We hope to do some fun Jingalup Wine events at Normal Van with specially curated multi-course dinners. I’m hyped for that, we both come from higher-level restaurants so we can’t wait to get creative and do something special.

We would also love to use our Normal Van space to highlight our local hospitality and wine community, collaborating with other young chefs and small wineries to put on events where others can have the opportunity to be creative. When we lived in Toronto there was a lot more energy behind chefs and bartenders and [a lot of] pop-up events. It would be really cool to help foster that kind of energy in Margaret River.

As for Jingalup, hopefully we will find that piece of land or an older vineyard site where we can develop the brand – but we are really going to take our time to find the right spot.

@jesswaldron
@jingalupwines
www.jingalupwines.com/
@normalvanfood
normalvan.com

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