THE tiny township of Mena Creek - known for its rolling hills and winding creek - could soon be home to the world's first high-quality banana table wine from a commercial banana plantation cellar door.

In what could truly be a local landmark for the town, the plan is to ultimately establish a winery to rival the best that South Australia's Hunter Valley has to offer, with one distinct difference - there won't be a vineyard in sight.

A banana table wine has been the dream of Mary Lankester for almost two years now. And she is determined to turn her dream into a reality because for it's personal.

What spurs Mary on is a desire to establish an alternative industry for her children to build careers in - so they aren't confined to the option of working the family farm or leaving town.

"Like many other women I speak to in the district, I'm concerned that my kids will have to one day move away from town if they don't want to work the farm. I want to give my kids the choice of staying here and doing something they enjoy. And if I can give other kids a future here as well, all the better."

Mary has pursued her goal with relentless determination. Dissatisfied with the results she was achieving with the advice of a home hobby book, Mary decided she needed to "get serious".

"I looked at all of the industries that I could develop to value-add to our banana farm - from dried fruit to preserves to tourist ventures, and developing a high quality wine was the one that most appealed to me," she says.

Wine-making is a specialised profession, steeped in tradition and ritual. Oenology is the science of wine making, and oenologists spend years in training. Mary knew if she was going to pursue a place in the quality wine market, she needed to develop the skills to compete.

Mary tracked down as many wine-making courses as she could in the country - her search often ending at prestigious universities in Melbourne or South Australia. She knew gaining a tertiary education in such hallowed halls would be expensive - the costs of fees alone, not too mention travel from Mena Creek to places like Melbourne.

But she wasn't daunted and, despite having left school in Year 10, knew that the study was a means to an end.

It was at this stage that Department of Primary Industries Futureprofit officer Diana O'Donnell suggested she apply for an Elaine Brough Bursary.

The Bursary, named in honour of a renowned DPI entomologist, is awarded every year to a rural woman whose project will benefit Queensland agriculture, rural women and life in rural communities. A high quality banana wine fit the criteria perfectly, and Mary was awarded the $5,000 Bursary in 2001.

"The grant has enabled me to complete wine making courses at the University of Western Sydney and the University of Melbourne, and I'm about to start another course in wine analysis. If you had told me 12 months ago that I would have been doing courses in these places involving complex chemistry and microbiology, I wouldn't have believed you.

"The courses have been quite hard, the University of Melbourne course is very hands-on with a lot of laboratory work and a lot of assignments. Wine-making is not a recipe; it's a process. Developing a wine is very clinical - cleanliness and sterile equipment at constant temperatures is very important - and it's not as fun as it sounds. While some people say it must be great to taste wines all day, it is actually very difficult to evaluate and develop your senses to distinguish the complexity of varieties under development. And it's a very slow process with no short-term rewards."

Eighty batches of banana wine on, Mary says she is still a long way off from releasing her first vintage. "I hope to have the cellar door open in about two to three years' time," she says.

And how does Mary predict banana wine will compete against its grape-derived rivals?

"I really think it will do well, and there's already a ready-made market for it. Tourists are looking for locally-produced goods to take back home with them, and a high quality table wine fits the bill for many. The fact that the wine is made from bananas makes it a truly unique, far north Queensland memento."

Novelty value aside, Mary believes that the wine will also take its place in the wine lists of the most discerning restaurants.

"The taste will be there, the complexity will be there, there will be a well rounded, full-bodied flavour. It will become a wine of choice for many connoisseurs," she says.

I'm sure the residents of Mena Creek will all drink to that.

DATE: August 2001

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