From the tasting team

James Halliday on Ten Minutes by Tractor

James Halliday by James Halliday

15 Dec, 2021

The Mornington Peninsula’s Ten Minutes by Tractor has faced countless bureaucratic hurdles and a devastating fire on top of lengthy lockdowns. But James Halliday was so impressed by a recent visit, he says the restaurant is on par with Michelin three-star venues.

In early 2004, together with his life and business partner Karen, Martin Spedding learned the three families of Mornington’s Ten Minutes by Tractor had decided to sell. 

“Within weeks, we owned the brand, a few hundred cases and dozen barrels of wine, and a lease of the Judd, Wallis and McCutcheon Vineyards,” Martin recalls. There was also a tin shed with plastic awnings serving as a cellar door.

Martin and Karen Spedding pose in a vineyardKaren and Martin Spedding at Ten Minutes by Tractor.

Their first priorities were to make changes in the vineyards, find a permanent home for the winery and transition the winemaking in-house. So, 5.84 hectares were removed and replanted from the three leased vineyards, and that amount again for subsequently acquired or leased vineyards. On the other side, new blocks were planted, and others grafted. Today there are 40 hectares spread across nine vineyards, 36 of chardonnay and pinot noir certified organic. 

In the first decade of ownership, they opened a cellar door and restaurant on Mornington-Flinders Road, developed and shelved various plans for a new winery (after inspecting 100 wineries in various parts of the world), and purchased the McCutcheon and Coolart Road vineyards. The duo started a new business, which Karen managed (with two former colleagues) until daughter Addie was born. At this point, Martin took over, working seven days a week running the two businesses, with intensive commuting and travel. 

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I have no doubt the menus, wine, glassware, service and ambience entitle the Ten Minutes by Tractor restaurant to three Michelin stars. 
The next decade, they bought the Spedding vineyard adjacent to the cellar door and restaurant, and established the first high- density vineyard (12,140 pinot noir vines per hectare) using a 67cm-wide Niko tractor. It was also the first of endless local council requirements and objections to building the long-desired new winery. The cumulative cost of acceding to the council’s edicts caused Martin to withdraw the request for a permit after 12 months of negotiations. Only formalities remained, but the cost of building the winery, its limited capacity, and operating costs made it too expensive. Then, fire hit the site in February 2018, devastating the restaurant, cellar door and 16,000 bottles of wine. Nonetheless, over 2017 and 2018, winemaking moved in-house into a leased winery, and a new dedicated bottling was installed. The decision to build the new winery and waste-water treatment facility on the Coolart Road vineyard proceeded apace, completed (just) in time for the 2019 harvest. Newly appointed chief winemaker Imogen Dillon was involved in the layout of the winery, with a capacity of 15,000 cases, backed by a future expansion option of an additional 15,000.

Ten Minutes by Tractor cellar door
Ten Minutes by Tractor's brand new cellar door, which opened just as Covid hit in March 2020.

The design, construction and opening of a new restaurant and cellar door was an altogether different story, bedevilled by the council and Covid-19. “Our overriding desire was to reopen as quickly as possible so we wouldn’t lose the 20-odd staff who had worked onsite,” Martin says. The team had been responsible for winning eight significant restaurant awards between 2008 and 2017. The target was a re-build permit by mid-2018, but that also proved problematic. “We didn’t realise we’d be treated as a completely new build/development with imposed preconditions that we build a new kerbed and guttered 50-space carpark, lighted pathways, a new stormwater drainage system with huge water catchment tanks, an additional turning lane to supplement the first built in 2006, and a waste-water treatment plant, including a 400,000-litre holding tank.” 

The process involved eight different specialised engineers for reports and design. “The cost was so high and over-engineered, we had to delete large sections of the plan and go through the entire process two or three times,” Martin says. “The ultimate cost of meeting the requirements was over $2 million before the rebuild had even started, and delayed the opening for a year.” To rub salt in the wound, Martin adds they were allowed to operate their cellar door and restaurant on the same site for 12 years without any issues. Ultimately, the new restaurant reopened in November 2019, and the cellar door followed last March. But soon after, Covid-19 shut the business, followed by more closures since, resulting in a cumulative loss of 622 restaurant days, and 676 for the cellar door [prior to July 2021]. Especially bitter was assembling the most experienced people to reopen on July 3 last year, before Melbourne’s second lockdown came in on July 5, closing for another 126 days. 

Despite the challenges, Ten Minutes by Tractor has a magnificent restaurant and cellar door complex. There are four degustation menus, with a primary choice of five or eight courses ($165 or $240), each offered with a matched glass of wine (discovery/alternative $105, or Fine and Rare $165). This structure extends to vegetarian or conventional, and there is also the option to add another marron or short rib and foie gras dish. They offer a choice of 1000 wines by the bottle, and more than 50 by the glass.

Ten Minutes by Tractor restaurant interior
The restaurant, which Halliday believes is on par with three-star restaurants of France.  

In 1982, thanks to a wildly favourable exchange rate, I went to 13 Michelin three-star restaurants in one 12-day stretch through France. It’s a long time ago, but my recollection of the special qualities of such restaurants remains fresh in my memory. I have no doubt the menus, wine, glassware, service and ambience entitle the Ten Minutes by Tractor restaurant to three stars. This has been achieved by head-hunting four chefs who have remained employed throughout the recent dark days and months. English-born executive chef Adam Sanderson joined in September 2017, and Hayden Ellis is head chef; Heston Blumenthal and The Fat Duck feature somewhere in the background of both. Two other chefs stayed the distance by working in the vineyards over this time. Another theme was the Petit Tracteur Bistro in Main Ridge, opened in early 2016 and closing last October, where parts of the team worked at various times. 

This article appears in issue #60 of Halliday magazineBecome a member and get digital access to the magazine.