Check Your Head with Winemaker Jayden Ong

A DIY punk ethos drives his vineyard ambition, and a lyric from an early 90s Beastie Boys song Pass the Mic is how it all began for winemaker Jayden Ong. But he also counts Bad Religion, David Bowie and Stevie Nicks as artists worth quoting when he bottles his own.

While Ong runs his own namesake winery and cellar door in Healesville with his wife Morgan, he is also co-owner and founder of Cumulus Inc with chef Andrew McConnell -a Flinders Lane institution that celebrates its 15th anniversary this month.

“There’s a DIY to how I approach wine. We make it for ourselves; it’s old school in that way. And that Beastie Boys line from Pass the Mic – “Be true to yourself and you will never fail” – that is how we feel when we make our wines as well. I don’t pretend to make wines for anyone else,” says Jayden Ong.

“But I do hope my own experience and the decisions I make lead to great wines,” he adds.

When the WA native who moved to Melbourne in the late 90s, he was chasing a love of live music as much as he was the food and drink culture on the East Coast of Australia. A seven-year stint at Melbourne Wine Room led to working with Andrew McConnell at 312.

It was fellow chef and friend David Moyle who introduced Ong to McConnell – and to his wife Morgan as well.  Then came the opportunity to start a business together – and enter Cumulus Inc.

“Andrew and I set about creating a place that as owners we wanted to go to ourselves,” says Ong.

“We discussed everything from we wanted to see on the plate to what mattered in the glass and how we wanted to be greeted when we arrive at 45 Flinders Lane,” says Ong. “We stuck to that vision I am proud to say.”

When it comes to the wine list at Cumulus Inc, Ong says it’s about supporting local and based on merit. There’s been a consistency to his approach over the past 15 years.

“When I look at the wine lists now, the things that remain the same are the pillars I installed early on at Cumulus Inc,” says Ong. “Value, merit, quality.”

“I guess the biggest difference is the cost of wine has changed in 15 years.  Value is important; but I don’t mean cheap makes the cut.  I still have friends who harass me today because I didn’t put their wines on the list 15 years ago because we were mates,” he laughs. “Cumulus Inc is very Australian leaning and we still are that today.”

He admits many restaurants all deal with the same wine suppliers, so the importance of keeping a step ahead is imperative too.

“There’s always a possibility that lists look similar in restaurants because of this, but at Cumulus Inc we were always looking to provide our guests with something unique and a point of difference,” he says.

Ong is drawn to sourcing wines that are made at high altitude, come from small producers and grapes farmed in a particular style. “They’re often the most attractive and interesting to me at the end of the day,” says Ong.

He also owns a property on Mount Toolebewong in the Yarra Valley, and it’s here he planted a vineyard at a significant elevation which he tends to organically.  A long-term lease on the Chestnut Hill Vineyard at Mount Burnett is a second location.

His wine brand includes Moonlit Forest, One Block, La Maison de Ong and Jayden Ong. It’s the detail in the label that also reflects the hard-working ethics of the winemaker himself.  The team who created the logo for Cumulus Inc are also behind the One Block Label [That’s Round Design while an artist friend from Perth makes the Moonlit labels; painterly nudes that reflect his heart on sleeve approach.

A new release of Moonlit Forest 2021 will hit the shelves soon. It’s a skin contact pink wine that will be available at Blackhearts & Sparrows.

“We have a second bottling coming up that has spent longer in old oak and it’s a deeply complex quite easy drinking wine that can be served chilled,” he says.

When it comes to his own personal preference, Ong says the wines he enjoys tend to be lower in alcohol.

“The wines I enjoy are usually vibrant and have vitality. They have a balance in flavour that isn’t dried out or over ripened,” he says.

“There’s a fresh quality to them. It’s like looking through a window when you taste them – you can sense where the wine has come from, how it was made, how it was farmed and where it was grown. I think high alcohol distorts the clear view of how grapes have been grown, and technique can cloud it as well.”

Settling in the Yarra Valley eight years ago is paying off for Ong who says the locals have made his family feel welcome. “To have the support of locals is really great. You never know when you turn up to start a vineyard how others will take that, but we’ve been lucky to have the support and that’s great for our community connection.”


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