July 26, 2023
Wine & Dine

From Bulgaria to Adelaide’s southern vales

Perched on the ridge of a vine-laden natural amphitheatre with views all the way to the Fleurieu coast, Dandelion Vineyards’ spectacular cellar door – The Wonder Room – represents a pinnacle in the career of South Australian winemaking dynamo Elena Brooks.

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Since moving from Bulgaria to Adelaide to study oenology at the age of 19, winemaker Elena Brooks has become a sensation of the international wine industry.

Elena and her husband Zar Brooks founded Dandelion Vineyards in the late 2000s and now export wine to 25 countries, supply major airlines, operate a sister vineyard in Spain, and many of their wines have won top awards in Australia and abroad.

And yet, despite the success, the lack of a cellar door has meant that many local consumers are unfamiliar with the South Australian brand: until now.

“We wanted to do it at the right place at the right time. We’ve waited for almost 17 years for this,” says Elena.

“In a funny way, we have done it backwards, but the Wonder Room has come at a very good time.

“It’s nice to have an Adelaide base where people can come and see us.”

Dandelion Vineyards’ Wonder Room is situated next to Chapel Hill Winery on the Firehawk Farm vineyard.

Glass doors open to soaring views across a valley of vineyards.

Dandelion Vineyards’ new McLaren Vale cellar door. Photograph: Fastbreak Films.

“This is 60 acres of pristine, beautiful land and some of the most amazing views. It feels natural for it to become the home of Dandelion,” says Elena.

“It’s one of those iconic McLaren Vale vineyards. The soil is incredible, the quality of the wine coming out of here is stupendous and, look at where it is? It’s just beautiful as well.

“We had already started the [development] process just as COVID happened. In one way, it was fortunate because we could concentrate on the build, but everything ended up costing a fortune.

“It has evolved from a tractor shed, to this.”

Polished concrete floors extend to the verandah and grand concrete steps which meet with a large grassy landing.

The concrete aggregate is scattered with glass that refracts glints of sunlight and adds an ethereal quality to the space.

“I’m a step sitter … when I travel, I just like steps. So, we created our own – it’s a temple of wine,” says Elena.

“I see the steps and the vineyards as an amphitheatre or a Colosseum.

“I wanted to have a different way of experiencing wine and the steps add that: you can sit on them and just enjoy the view and the serenity. Nature provides the entertainment.”

Constructed by GT Building Group, the Wonder Room’s materials take inspiration from the natural terroir, which includes limestone and ironstone.

“It’s an extension of how my husband Zar and I see our wines. The materials are visual cues, whether it’s the iron beams or the concrete.

“Finally, people can visualise how we see our wines and brands. They can come and understand what we see in the wines, not just by taste but by visuals too.”

Elena was born in Bulgaria before the country’s socialist rule ended in the late 1980s.

Her father Encho Golakov was a MIG fighter pilot and her mother Dani Golakova was a MIG mechanic, who then worked in marketing at a large Bulgarian winery.

Elena’s wine education began at a very young age, immersed in the world of the large and historic winery Vinprom Lyaskovets, which was in itself a “small city” comprised of hundreds of winery workers.

“I was among the first generation after communism to speak and to study English at school,” says Elena.

Elena worked at the winery from about the age of 12, pouring and talking wine to English-speaking tourists.

“We didn’t have a drinking age, so you could try the wines, pour the wines and talk about the wines,” she says.

“No one really spoke English, so when tourists came from different English-speaking countries I was told to go and talk to them.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I knew so much about wine before I made my first wine when I was 16 or 17.”

Numerous Australian winemakers would work vintages at the Bulgarian winery and one of them encouraged Elena to study oenology at the University of Adelaide, which had an international reputation.

Photograph: Fastbreak Films.

After graduating, she began her first wine label with a friend, but it was not until meeting her husband-to-be Zar Brooks, a South Australian winemaker and wine judge, that Dandelion was born.

“We started Dandelion in a small shed at McLaren Vale and everyone had a managerial role,” says Elena.

“My mum was manager of the broom, my dad was manager of the pumps, everyone was a manager of something, and we did it all by hand using small fermenters.”

Elena was heavily pregnant during the 2010 vintage as she worked away in a small McLaren Vale shed, plunging a grape fermenter by hand.

“Everyone was telling me to take it easy,” remembers Elena. “I said: ‘no, I need the baby out’!”

it worked – Elena and Zar were first-time parents the following day.

Dandelion won trophies with its very first vintage.

“We started Dandelion at the worst of times, the GFC, but we grew every year because with my husband’s knowledge, amazing vineyards and hopefully me as an experienced winemaker at age 28, we had enough behind us to move forward.”

Fast forward to 2023 and Dandelion Vineyards is an internationally renowned, award-winning business that exports 70 per cent of its wines across the world.

Zar and Elena were crowned McLaren Vale’s Bushing King and Queen in 2021 and have won top awards at the Barossa Wine Show.

However, it’s the completion of the Wonder Room that represents one of the most satisfying milestones for Elena.

The couple’s eldest son, aged 13, has just started working at the cellar door, completing a full loop for Elena and her lifelong journey in the industry.

“Our children have been in the vineyards their entire lives, so it’s natural, but you don’t want to push it on them,” says Elena.

“Wine is one of these things that you can’t just pass on to the next generation – you can show them, you can tell them, but you can’t transfer the love of winemaking.”

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