The O’Reilly family has pioneered ecotourism in Australia. Since 1915, the family has hosted visitors in Lamington National Park, and they opened their award-winning guest house in 1926. For over ninety years, the O’Reilly’s have welcomed travellers from around the world, offering them a chance to escape and connect with nature. O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat sits atop the Lamington Plateau, with incredible vistas over the Scenic Rim and every guest is offered a ‘green’ experience. Down in the valley below is the picturesque Canungra Valley Vineyards, where visitors can sample wines at the cellar door, relax and enjoy a gourmet picnic basket on the banks of Canungra Creek, or indulge in a delicious lunch at Vintage Restaurant. Shane O’Reilly is the eldest of the third generation of O’Reilly’s and managing director of the family business. (www.oreillys.com.au)SHANE O’REILLY
When did the O’Reilly family settle in the region?
My ancestors came up to the mountain in 1911 and they started dairying, which was the idea, but when the government decided the whole area wasn’t going to be open for dairying and made it a national park, I suppose that limited their access to markets. They ended up looking at the idea of having a guest house, of having people coming to stay with them and experience nature. O’Reilly’s opened at Easter 1926, and it has been open ever since.
Where do you sit in the O’Reilly family?
I am third generation, the eldest of the third generation. I think it is one of those things. When I finished school, I didn’t work at O’Reilly’s. I worked in Brisbane. I did a traineeship in managing hotels. I then moved overseas and worked in hotels, then I came back and ran hotels and restaurants in Brisbane. I didn’t come back to work at O’Reilly’s until I was nearly thirty. For some reason, my cousins and my brothers started working in the business after they left school. They were still there, but they hadn’t really had outside experience or management experience. So, when I came back, my parents were fairly tired and they were still doing everything in the late ’80s the same as they were doing it in the late ’60s. They were still trying to do everything themselves. They had no money to retire on, and they were retiring in a few years, so we made a financial plan for them to retire and an operational plan to turn it all a bit more professional. I was given that job and, for some strange reason, I am still doing it.
When did you open the Canungra Valley Vineyards?
In the mid ’90s, this house was moved to this site and it just sat here. The grass was long and no-one lived here. The fellow who put it here moved away. So, it was just sitting here and it was such a beautiful house. People tried to buy it, but he wouldn’t sell it for whatever reason, so the agents tell us. Anyway, we had the idea of doing a vineyard. We approached him about that and the agent said, ‘He’s actually interested.’ So, we did some soil testing and found that because this valley is so narrow — it is very like the Marlborough region — it has quite porous soil. They tell me this alluvial soil been running down for years and years off the hills and into this tiny little valley and therefore it is quite well-drained and good for grapes. We approached him and said, ‘Look, we’d like to buy it and put a vineyard in and the house will be open for everyone to see. We’ll do it up …’ because it was quite dilapidated. And he sold it to us.
We had to get approval to have a commercial business because, by law, we couldn’t in this valley. So, we invited all of the locals. If one person objected, we would had to have gone to the State, and the State would probably have thrown it out. So, we invited all of the locals from the Canungra region and the valley to come here one afternoon. People met each other who hadn’t met forever. We had a big BBQ and talked about what we were going to do and … Anyway, we had zero objections for opening the vineyard and restaurant, and we’ve gone ahead and done it.
When we had that day — and they all loved it — they said, ‘When are you planting your grapes?’ We said, ‘Well, if we get approval, we’ll be planting in about six months.’ Quite a few people said, ‘Oh, we’d like to come and help you plant your grapes.’ So, they came along and we planted the grapes. We had sixty or so people come along to help. So I said, ‘We’ll be picking in February the year after. Do you want to come and help pick the grapes?’ and they said, ‘Yes.’ So, they all came to help pick the grapes.
That was where the membership was born and the membership at the vineyard is about engagement. They all come and pick the grapes, they prune the vines, they do wine trialling, they’re here for the launch of the wine with the winemaker, for long lunches and things like that. It is not really about buying, even though that is a part of it. It is about the engagement of the actions of being part of the wine process. It all comes from that original time with the locals back in the beginning.
I think our picnics and the picking are popular with families because they are some of the kids’ only experiences with agriculture. They’re coming out here, and the kids ask, ‘Why are we picking these grapes?’ and the parents explain to them, ‘Well, we’re going crush them, then they’re going to be made into wine.’
Your members feel invested in the businesses?
Up at O’Reilly’s, yes, because it has been going for three generations, and there are people who visit O’Reilly’s who feel like they own it too. They tell you if something is wrong or right. Down here, this business, it is separate. When we did down here, we just thought this would be a business that would be good for wine, functions and weddings, but what we didn’t actually realise is we have, over the years, built an incredibly loyal group of members, which we didn’t really expect to do. There are some people here that come to every event. They turn up and they’ve been here from the very beginning. They love it.
You also have a strong culture among the staff.
That culture comes from whoever is in charge. I would say, at the moment, we have a pretty good culture on both properties. It has certainly never been better down here. If you have good staff, you want to keep them and give them space. They organise and run it the best way they think. If you give them autonomy, I think it works.
What kind of grapes do you grow?
We grew two varieties when we started and we now grow five. It goes to show we really didn’t know what we were doing, I suppose. We have three reds, now: a chambourcin, which is a hybrid-type variety and quite hardy, which is why we put it in; a shiraz, which we’re quite well-known for; and a petite verdot, which is a new red that we’ve only planted about a year or so ago. We have two whites: semillon and verdelho. We’re known for our shiraz, particularly, but the semillon and verdelho are outstanding wines and, I think, whatever it is — the terroir, the ground here — it seems to bring out the best in those two wines.
Who is your winemaker?
We contract our wine out. At the moment we use Sarah Boyce up at Clovelly Estate in Murgon. She’s been our winemaker for the past two years and she’s very good.
Do you use all of your own grapes?
No, we have a vineyard lease at Stanthorpe and also one at Murgon with Clovelly, so we have grapes from three different locations. One year, we lost all three vineyards, in three different locations, miles and miles apart. We lost all of them. Boom, boom, boom. Hail storms over about two weeks. One of those things. It only happened once.
What is the best thing about this life?
The people that come here and the people who come to O’Reilly’s are mostly lovely people. They’re usually nature-orientated and they’re quite communal. They might drive a nice car, but they’re generally not the sort that are full of themselves. If they were full of themselves, they probably wouldn’t go up there. It is too far, too communal and too open. I feel quite lucky, in that respect, that I generally deal with people who are nice.
I’ve been quite lucky, too, to be serving on a number of boards. That is a bit unusual for someone who is stuck up in the hills and shouldn’t really be allowed out. I say what I think, mostly. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is not so good.
I think ‘Eat Local’ is a great movement, a great initiative. The more we can encourage it, the better, because it provides great diversity to Brisbane and the Gold Coast.