About twenty years ago a confident American stood, warming his butt by the pot belly stove, at my farm house on Mount Macedon.
He looked around the rolling hills, scattered with a few cows and sheep, and did a John Batman. He said: “This is the place for a village”. Or words to that effect. He may have actually quoted the baseball movie “ build it and they will come”.
His name was John Wright and he was on a mission. He was the chief honcho in the United States for Moet and Chandon and his company planned to invest millions setting up a champagne vineyard and building a winery in Australia.
Wright decided on Victoria and the Mt. Macedon region where there were only two fledgling vineyards: John Ellis’s Hanging Rock and my Macedon Ridge.
The affable John Wright decided to, with deep Chandon pockets, buy land and build a mini-France near Gisborne to produce champagne (back when you could still call our fizz “champagne” even though we were thousands of miles away from the namesake wine-growing district).
The deal was almost closed when Wright started to drown under the pettifoggery and officiousness and red tape and rudeness that he was confronted with from local councils.
He impetuously pulled up stakes – before one had even been driven in the ground – and took the idea to the Yarra Valley where they welcomed him with open arms. Almost open legs figuratively-speaking. And thus the Yarra Valley wine district entered the major league.
Now it is huge. Names like Domaine Chandon, de Bortelli, St.Huberts, Balgownie, Yering Station.
It has since grown like Topsy. At last count there were about 75 vineyards of all sizes and the boutique winery cellar door sales seem to have dammed the dyke against the flood of excess wine which has caused a major crisis in the grape-growing and wine contract industry in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
That’s not to say they haven’t been bruised like fruit in a hail storm. Even some have told me horror stories about whole vintages being left to rot on the vines. Not because they were looking for Noble Rot but because the cost of picking the grapes would not have been covered by the rock bottom prices being offered by wine blenders. Other vines had the chainsaws taken to them. And that must be like watching your pet dog being put down.
On a good day the Yarra Valley is only about an hour from Melbourne. Not for us. Somehow I ended up in Dandenong en route (when it wasn’t en route) but that is another story altogether.
In general, there are vast rolling areas of manicured vines. Swelling hills with the Ranges as a backdrop. Most of the vineyards have some sort of lunch bistro and the bigger ones also cater for dinners. Driving home though on stony, pitch black, country roads in a thick winter’s fog is not the ideal way to end a dinner. And it is imperative you appoint a designated driver.
Surprisingly, several of the biggest complexes, like Domaine Chandon and De Bortelli have disappointing “café-style” eateries.
(The Hungry Hinch will be reporting on some of the Valley nosebag treats shortly).
Many wineries are building comfortable cottages overlooking the vineyards. They are a great one or, two-night, getaway from the city. And being able to stay on the premises, sample their wines (maybe too thoroughly) and then walk to your room certainly has appeal. Anything to avoid the pitch darkness and the real threat of a late-night unwanted encounter with a kangaroo on rough roads that you cannot swerve on.
The whole area is studded with Bed and Breakfast places. We stayed at a really comfortable guest house that had been modernised with Bay windows overlooking the lush green paddocks and with a backdrop of towering forest trees. Huge, plump beds had vital electric blankets.
A lot of wineries have artificially-enhanced lakes, or totally man-made ones, in which they stock and catch fresh fish. And there are other great opportunities for adventurous foodies.
They have the Yarra Valley Regional Food Trail with maps that point you in the direction of 100 epicurean hideaways. There are cheesemakers and trout farms and organic vegetable growers.
Follow the map and the distinctive blue and orange food trail signs and you can unearth places that sell venison and zucchini flowers and clotted cream and home-baked bread and jams and chutneys. Mustard, lemon cordial, lavender honey. It’s all made in the region.
And you do it in your own time and without any dreaded “group activity”.
Country towns like Coldstream and Yarra Glen have old pubs on the main street and their pub food includes steaks and salads and steak and mushroom pies.
There are the obligatory candles and incense shops but there are also genuine “antique” shops filled with bottles, and flat irons, and candlesticks and coal buckets and scythes and old saws and antimacassars and milk jugs (with beaded lace tops) dating back 100 years. There are also great book shops to browse in.
Having had one of the first vineyards in the Mt. Macedon region – with similar terrain -- on the other side of Melbourne I am reluctant to admit it but….. the American John Wright got it right in the Yarra Valley. It IS a better place to visit than Macedon-Woodend.
I doubt that officious pen-pusher in Gisborne who drove him away would drink to that.