Return to Roots with Janelle Marsden

When Janelle Marsden graduated from high school in Wangaratta and high-tailed it to Melbourne to study architecture, she never imagined she’d end up returning to north-east Victoria to live.

However, that’s precisely how the cards fell and she’s very happily spent the past 22 years living and working in the region. “I’ve always loved a new project,” she says. “Plus, I like the fact that the path in life is not always straight.” While a series of health scares in her extended family may have brought her home to be closer to them, it’s led to an extraordinary career, which includes owning a winery and a pub, working in property development and project management as well as advocating for tourism in the High Country and the state. In her “spare” time, she moonlights as a marriage celebrant. Janelle’s passion for architecture took her on exchange to Kansas State University in the United States, then to Florence in Italy.

Return to Roots with Janelle Marsden

She came back to Melbourne and did a Masters degree in architecture and project management and found it suited her thousand-miles-an-hour brain. “In those days, architects primarily acted as superintendents on jobs and the new role of project management was held mainly by engineers, so it was considered the dark side,” she says. “Now no one thinks twice about an architect managing a project with the multiple engineers and surveyors that are required. But the experience led me to a career in feasibilities and property development. When I purchased Feathertop Winery, the transition of those project-management skills was the same. It was no longer a building, it was a bottle. How you have to keep to the time frames, manage risk and budget were the same — same but different.” Janelle first visited the winery as a guest and, after a few twists in her personal history, ended up buying the hillside property in 2005.

In 2009, she started building an expansive home for herself and her then young children, Boston, now aged 20, and Zara, 18. The house was built to her design and is anchored into a rockface with spectacular 270-degree views across the vineyards to Mounts McLeod and Buffalo. It was planned according to the highest passive solar design standards, with rammed-earth walls, concrete floors and the rock bed providing thermal mass, and double-glazed, argon-filled windows delivering insulation, to keep the interiors cool in summer and warm in winter. Janelle adds that these were relatively new principles at the time and she’s pleased to report that 15 years down the track, it still stands up and looks like a fairly new home. “It was designed as a family farmhouse and the concrete floors mean you can walk around with your boots on,” she explains. “It also has great capacity for entertaining, with outdoor terraces, swimming pools and big tables that seat 20 people.

Return to Roots with Janelle Marsden

But there’s also a private level of the house so that the children didn’t feel that they were always being infiltrated by visitors, of which there were many in this home.” As Janelle’s kids have grown up and are ready to “flit the coop”, she realised the house was too big for a single person or couple, so she’s in the process of building a second home just up the hill from the big house. While the original home is minimalist with clean lines, Janelle’s new dwelling is more muscular with lots of stonework and a more alpine cottage feel. When the farmhouse is not being used by visiting friends and family, Janelle rents it as a holiday house. It has become popular with people hosting weddings at the winery, or for multigenerational gatherings such as key birthdays and wedding anniversaries.

“It comes into its own when grandparents, their children and grandchildren are all together,” she says. “That’s what it was designed for — entertaining and sharing good food and wine.” As part of Janelle’s constant pursuit of opportunity, when she took over Feathertop, she realised she needed to understand the industry and participating in boards seemed a good way of achieving that. She recalls going to observe a regional tourism board meeting and coming away as its new chair. “At the time it was chaired by Ross Brown of Brown Brothers and he was looking to transition, so I thought I could manage the role,” she recalls.

Return to Roots with Janelle Marsden

“It was the birth of a decade of participating on up to 10 boards including Regional Development Australia and advising the ministers from Victorian Food and Wine Tourism for about five years and, ultimately, the proud position was being a director for Tourism Victoria. The insight gave me the global mentoring to run this business for the past 20 years. Although I stepped back from those roles when the kids were in their later high school years, I’m still an advocate for tourism in the region. It has so much to offer with rail trails for cycling, the snow just up the mountain and a thriving food and wine scene.”

While Janelle remains active in the running of the winery, she’s happy to listen to her young winemaker. “While I’ve got the experience to run the business, I need the young-blood attitude to expand Feathertop’s demographic,” she says. “To achieve that, we’ve recently collaborated with distillers Archie Rose to produce a gin, which is infused with Seville orange from the trees that line the driveway up to the winery. We’re also working with Powder Room in Melbourne to create fragrances called Spicy Citrus and Leather Musk.” Becoming the owner and revamping the late-1800s Porepunkah Pub was another case of seizing opportunity. “Or, if I’m honest, probably the result of having one too many drinks at a barbecue,” Janelle admits.

Return to Roots with Janelle Marsden

“The pub had closed, the tenants had walked out, and the owners didn’t know what to do with it. So, I was talking to another family in town and said it would be a good project for us to take on. To this day, my friend is not sure she ever accepted this position, but here we are, seven years in, really proud of the venue we’ve developed for the region and community.” Janelle still works in property development and thinks nothing of taking the three-and-a-half-hour drive down the Hume Highway to Melbourne and back, sometimes up to three times a week.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever retire, but I’m in a different phase now,” Janelle says. “I have the ability to spend time between business and my family — my children and my elderly parents — and extend that to hobbies. It’s been a lifetime dream to become a helicopter pilot and I’m about halfway there. Those things just take you out of the brain space that you’ve been in, when you have to learn something new for no purpose other than pleasure. When I get my licence, I’ll take my partner and children all over the place for lunches with friends.”

Photography by Ken Brass

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