Wine region worries

It’s taken me the best part of two months to get over the experiences enough to write about them. But it’s time I shared.

From mid September through to mid October it so happened that I visited four different wine regions. Boy am I committed to research for my job! 😉

First was the Coonawarra, which all went swimmingly. Then a few weeks later while my wine-appreciating friend Dave was visiting in early October we explored Heathcote, Yarra Valley and my own current home region of the Pyrenees.

Whilst fun, the three regions in one week turned out to be a bad idea for me. I don’t know 100% that there was a link between the wine and my clumsiness / misfortune … I’ll let you be the judge.

Let me just say this first – wine festivals are dangerous! And the Heathcote Shiraz Heaven wine and food festival was no exception.

Especially when you decide to pay for premium entry – which gets you a huge tasting glass – and there’s around 40 wineries pouring tastings of their wares, and it’s a gorgeous warm sunny spring day, and you realise around 11:30 that you’re already feeling a bit tipsy!

IMG_3661And perhaps most dangerously of all – when your entry includes a seat at a shiraz masterclass led by Nick Stock – comparing Heathcote shiraz with others from around Australia and the world.  There you are, a captive audience, with 12 tastings in 1.5 hours. Doesn’t sound like much, but it sure took its toll!

I know, I know – you can still taste without downing it, and that’s what I should have done! But I just can’t get my head around the indignity in spitting, or the waste of the precious stuff.

IMG_3658The masterclass was excellent by the way – I was a bit concerned I’d be out of my depth, not being either a huge shiraz fan (usually a white or sparkling kind of girl) or particularly knowledgeable or discerning when it comes to wine.

But Nick made it really accessible and fun – definitely not too wanky!

Despite eating all sorts of different things throughout the day, being in a red region and only trying whites/sparklings outside the masterclass, and trying to drink as much water as possible, by 4pm I was totally done for. We eventually retired to the caravan park by about 5pm (how I didn’t fall off my bike on the way is a complete mystery to me) and I barely moved for the rest of the night – incapacitated would probably be the best description. Not sick, but not in good form.

I did manage to win a $50 gift voucher though by shamelessly tweeting about the Coliban Water tank!

I did manage to win a $50 gift voucher though by shamelessly tweeting about the Coliban Water tank!

Dave still managed to toddle off to the Heathcote Wine Hub for some cider tasting then make dinner for us both. Handy accomplice to have. 🙂 I felt a little better after eating and offered to do the dishes, only to take a tumble in the dark after failing to negotiate a small ditch between our van and the amenities block. Dishes flying but fortunately I was still nicely “relaxed”, landed on grass and no one saw me – so no harm done.

The following day – and with me feeling more than a bit grey – we toddled off to the Yarra Valley and checked into our lovely caravan park there before dusting off the bikes again to cycle into Healesville and explore.

Before we could even get out of the park, I had a spectacular fall – and not even a single drink in me! I tried to follow Dave up a fairly steep hill, but misjudged negotiating the small rise from a roadway onto a path around the rec room, and went splat sideways.

I’ve had many falls from my bike, but this was probably the slowest, most embarrasing and most painful fall I’ve ever had. And as I later learned, it was also to ruin my attempt to take on the main event at Run From the Hills by somehow upsetting some normally innocuous tendons or ligaments (I can never remember the difference) deep inside my foot. I still have a lump on my right shin.

After lots of swearing, some first aid, much deep breathing and a change of clothes, we started out again – only to be attacked by a persistently aggressive magpie as we approached the town. Not Dave and I mind you – just me. It even had the smarts to attack me from the side instead of only getting my helmet, and I copped a peck on the cheek. Glad I had my glasses on…

As we sat a small time later at the White Rabbit brewery in Healesville enjoying a Sunday afternoon beer (by far the pick of our experiences in that town), I honestly began to wonder what unwritten rule I had broken? Sadly that wasn’t the end of my stupidity/misfortune.

Later that night, relaxing after dinner, I leaned into the front of the van to look for something and discovered the interior light wasn’t working. Worried that maybe the battery was flat, I went around to do what I had done hundreds of time when I was travelling on my own – opened the drivers door, put my foot on the accelerator and started the van to give it a few revs.

I didn’t know Dave had left it parked in first gear.

Yep you get the picture. Scared the shite of myself and Dave as the van lurched forward, red wine spilling all over the bed in the process. My brain was so befuddled (I wasn’t drunk, promise! but if you’d had a day like I had…) that I was too slow to work out what was happening and react to stop it. Our bikes were chained to the roobar: multiple buckled wheels. We had the awning attached: ropes and pegs went flying. I was lucky to work out how to stop the lurch before I risked doing a Malcolm Douglas on the approaching tree.

So eventually we put everything back to right (except the bike wheels, which ended up being a costly repair/replace exercise involving a local bike shop, but at least that meant I didn’t have that option to hurt myself for a good while!) and went to bed.

Next day we hit the road to explore some tastes of the Yarra – found a gem at the lovely little Maddens Rise cellar door, which we vastly preferred to Chandon (stunning location but too big and cold and impersonal – we even went there twice planning to do a tour, and decided we couldn’t stay long enough) or any of the others to be honest. A great recommendation from some Brits we had met in Heathcote.

The loveliest Yarra cellar door - Maddens Rise

The loveliest Yarra cellar door we found – Maddens Rise

At one point that afternoon we stopped outside a cellar door to eat some lovely cheese, crackers and snacks we had with us. For some ridiculous reason we were using the newest sharpest knife I own to spread blue cheese on crackers as we ate. Sure enough – a cracker breaks and the knife slices straight into my little finger. I thought the blood might never stop! The second requirement in two days of the first aid kit that until then had largely sat untouched in the front cab since my travels started.

I’ve often said it, but really wish I was wrong – I don’t do things by half!

By comparison my home region of the Pyrenees treated me well. I did end up committing myself to buy four cases a year by joining a wine club, something I never ever planned to do – ever!  But I guess I can live with that.

First delivery of my celebratory Taltarni Key Club membership...

First delivery of my celebratory Taltarni Key Club membership…

Maybe it was a subconscious celebration of surviving the Yarra. I think I may never go back – way too dangerous.

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Tassie time

Good morning from sunny Hobart!

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Well, Hobart is somewhere over the other side of that hill in the background. And yes I am in a t-shirt and bare feet, and its glorious!

I’m on seven mile beach, east of Hobart – it’s near Sorrel I think. I woke up early with aches and pains from yesterday’s run, despite a good nights sleep at the fancy schmancy Wyndham Resort where I’m staying for a few days with my parents, aunt and uncle.

After a soothing bath, and finding the olds all still asleep I decided to come check out the beach and do some cartwheels. As you do! It helps loosen up my shoulders and neck. Wow, totally worth it. I really miss the beach.

And I love Tassie! Looking to forward to whatever the next three days have in store.

Now, back to the unit to see if anyone is awake to let me in…

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Run From the Hills – to a winery!

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Well, there they go. Three coach loads of intrepid trail runners, heading for the start line of their half marathon, which they’ll find at the top of the Pyrenees State Forest.

And no, I’m not with them. 😦 I’m super disappointed, having learned of the event early this year, committed to it in March and registered months ago. But the body just wasn’t going to manage it.

I was relatively on track with my training until I fell off my bike a month ago (more on that soon) and managed to hurt my foot. It only hurts when I run downhill. This race has 1500m high loss, so I guess that just wouldn’t be very sensible!

So today I’m just going to do a relatively sedate and flat 7km round the vineyard race instead.

Great to see so many people in little Avoca today – nearly 300 registered for this event alone I understand. And in the main town there’s a large pétanque tournament running for the weekend, they were setting up as I passed through.

Here’s a few more shots of the race village for you, I’m off to warm up for the race!

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Doing time at Narmbool – no bad thing!

On Sunday, I finally caught up on some of the voluntary time I’m supposed to be giving to Sovereign Hill. It’s many months now since I’ve managed to get in to the main site in costume to do my usual voluntary stint. Just too many competing priorities unfortunately…

sml DSC00419Sovereign Hill also owns a 2,000-hectare property south of Ballarat called Narmbool, which was first settled in 1839 and  donated to the organisation in 2000 so that it could be developed as an educational resource.

Consisting of an historic homestead, beautiful garden, restaurant, lodge and environmental education centre – plus approximately 12,000 adult sheep on a sustainably run farm – its a fascinating addition to the Sovereign Hill portfolio.

Sunday was the first gardens open day they’ve had for some time, and I put up my hand to volunteer as a guide as I’ve been curious to see it ever since I joined up. It was well worth the hour long journey each way to get there! Such a stunning garden and property.

I’m not going to ramble on too much further, and will let the pictures speak for themselves.

sml IMG_3833Except I had to show you the spot I chose to spend most of my day hanging out in, to talk to visitors as they walked around the gardens, near the relatively newly developed lake area. (there are many weddings at the property, you’ll see why below!)

It so happens it was one of the warmer spots in the whole garden, as I discovered when I returned up the hill to the main homestead at lunch time. It was only half way through the day that I spotted a Geraldton Wax in the border very near to my chosen spot (left of photo) – coincidence or sub-conscious?

sml DSC00433And these are the new additions to the garden – they were running a competition to name them during the open day.

I just thought they were gorgeous – longingly looking and tracking towards that very tasty garden! By the end of the day they were named Herbert, Hector and Hugh – three early pastoralists of the property. Close second choice was Ess, Car and Go (but deemed too hard to explain to visiting school kids!)

Enjoy…

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Celebrating one year

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Today I’m celebrating one year of living in central Victoria. 🙂 it helps that it’s also super sunny and bright, and Melbourne Cup day, so a very good excuse to open a bottle of bubbly!

It’s very novel for me (coming from WA) to have a holiday just because of a horse race. But very welcome!

So… one year ago today I arrived at Creswick’s Calambeen Lake Caravan Park, which was to become home for two months while I looked for work in or near Ballarat.

(I admit, I’m deliberately ignoring the the previous night I spent in a hideously miserable caravan park in Ballarat that shall remain nameless – couldn’t get away quick enough!)

On arrival at the park in Creswick around lunch time, I was welcomed in, invited to join the cup sweep and to join a group of regulars and the parks managers to watch the race. What a great intro to Victorian life! The park is now my second home in this state.

Today? I enjoyed some bubbles, caught up on housework neglected over the weekend while I was in the big smoke indulging my newfound love of cricket (Sheffield Shield – and Vic Bushranger’s Cameron White is simply awesome by the way!) and listened to my favourite local ABC radio – Lindy Burns and Coodabeens in the same day – bliss!

Life is pretty good. 🙂

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Four weeks to go; mixed messages…

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After a disastrous two-week downfall of my training schedule preparing for my first half marathon, Run From the Hills which is fast approaching (16 Nov) I decided the best remedy would be registering for a 10km run through similar terrain to shock me back into action! Hello Brackenbury Classic.

So this morning, after a restless night and not as much sleep as I’d have liked, I left the house early to return to my first “home town” in Central Victoria – Creswick.

I just had to wear my new favourite running shirt – I love the simple message! anything that helps. 🙂

It was a disappointingly small turnout for the event, I’d have thought; a field of only thirty or so, spread across three distances – 5km, 10km and half-marathon. All three races started and ran together for the first 2.4km at least, so that created a bit more atmosphere than there might have been otherwise.

After doing a ridiculous amount of warm up exercise in an effort to avoid my usual calf pain, I hung out at the back of the field for the start, proudly holding that position for quite some way into the start I must say, before eventually passing one person. But that was it for the whole race, no major overtaking moves for me in this game!

My friend Andrew, who came along for the 5km only as he was feeling a bit out of shape (why can’t I be that sensible?) very patiently plodded alongside my pedestrian pace from the start until we parted ways – him to his attractively-nearby turning point before his return; me to continue another 2.6km before I could turn and head back to the finish line. And then the hills really started! What fun.

And the verdict in the end? Well actually not too disastrous, considering my disappointing week since I registered for the run.

Four days ago I couldn’t even manage a 3.5km run up my nearest favourite hilly training ground – ended up limping most of the way with a mysterious pain in my left foot just below the ankle bone that wouldn’t go away. And worryingly, that pain kept me company most of the rest of that day too.

After a couple of days rest, it seemed all better again though, and having reached the half-way drinks stop today my only concerns were overheating (28 maximum today) and having walked up large uphill stretches, particularly the last very long steep one of that first 5km, cos I was too woossy to run them.

How red is that face?! But still happy.

How red is that face?! But still happy.

 

Then, three quarters of the way through my joyful, skipping, tumbling jog back down that hill after I had tipped most of a bottle of water over my head, I heard it…

Faintly at first, then it grew louder and stronger – “hey, hello, you up there! I’m your left foot, remember me, and how I wasn’t happy on Wednesday? Well, I’m still here… – and what do you think you’re doing?!”

Bugger. Thought I was going to get away with that.

Only at about the 6km mark at that point, the remainder of the run was therefore unfortunately mostly walking (especially downhill, which hurt more than uphill) and a bit of jogging. And then I thought, what the hell I might as well stop and take some photos.

The run took us past St Georges Lake, which I remembered from a couple of walks I’d done when I’d been living in Creswick. This picturesque lake, surround by steeply wooded hills, happily reminds me of The Lake District, where I’d spent five very distracting months working in a pub during my first year in England in the 90s. Just stunning.

The whole run was pretty picturesque to be honest – it’s so gorgeous to run through the dappled shade of a cool forest on dirt tracks, rather than on a hot bitumen road. For me, it’s the only way to run.

I’m looking forward to Run From the Hills, where most of the run is on a walking track rather than a vehicle track – even more special I’m sure. Though according to one of the other runners Andrew was talking with while he waited for me to return (which must have seemed like hours!) today’s hills are nothing compared to what I’ll be facing in four weeks. Hmmmm…

Anyway, I’m just overjoyed that my calves don’t hurt. That’s phenomenal! The first time I ran 10km a few years ago, which was mostly on the flat, I couldn’t walk properly for a week afterwards. And after my 11.5km Run the Gap experience earlier this year, it was two days before I felt back to normal. This time – so far, fingers crossed – all seems pretty good! Even my foot has calmed down now I’m not subjecting it to trauma.

Well, that’s progress at least. 🙂

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Learning to love The Coonawarra

IMG_3582I didn’t expect or intend to enjoy the Coonawarra Wine Region in South Australia. My friend Jacqui and I agreed to meet there, as a convenient half way point between her home in Adelaide and mine in central Vic, for a weekend catch up. We both like a glass of white wine or too, so it seemed an obvious choice.

After we made the plan I discovered that the region promotes itself as the “other red centre” of Australia – ie red wine. So I wondered how much it would have to interest us both, given neither of us drink red wine if we can help it!

Then when I talked to colleagues and winemakers in my own region about my planned trip, and my intention to keep an eye out for ideas and inspiration worth exploring in terms of better promoting our own Pyrenees Wine Region, all I heard was “there’s no point, they have a name already, and lots of big players and we just can’t compete”. It actually made me determined not to enjoy my visit, in a bizarre kind of way. Maybe I didn’t want to believe I was on a hiding to nothing. Always a big fan of ignorance!

I knew already that it was similar geographically to my home “local”, the Swan Valley region in Western Australia. The flat unvaried landscape full of wall to wall vineyards there, particularly along the Great Eastern Highway, has always struck me as boring and industrial. And so I expected similar of the fabled Coonawarra. By contrast the Pyrenees, which I have come to love so much, is a place of breath-taking views, unexpected valleys and hidden gems of vineyards sculpting the sides of impossible hills – just so stunning.

My initial impression of the Coonawarra didn’t ‘disappoint’ – in regards the boringness. Entering onto the main drag immediately north of the core stretch, I progressed south towards our accommodation booking in Penola on an almost perfectly straight road lined both sides with endless vineyards and a profusion of brown tourism signs pointing to cellar doors. Pretty uninspiring.

The most arresting sights of that initial introductory drive were a huge industrial-looking winery carved into the ground just to the east as I approached the main drag, and a large block of recently ripped out vines awaiting clearance part way along the main road. It was, frankly, quite depressing.

On arriving in Penola though, I could feel my resolve slipping. Always a sucker for a town that values its built heritage, I first noticed the visitor information centre was in a spectacularly impressive heritage building. This was next to a gorgeous well maintained town centre park with fab kids playground, bbq’s and adjacent outdoor swimming pool and intriguing yarn-bombed tree. A small detour around the back streets in order to find the backpackers where we’d booked in gave me glimpses of more historic precincts and enticing shops and restaurants.

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After settling in to the very comfortable Penola Backpackers, Jacqui and went for a walk to explore our weekend “home”. Petticoat Lane – full of National Trust and heritage listed buildings – was fascinating and includes a cute little cottage you can stay in. On the corner of the Lane, the impressive centre celebrating the life of Australia’s first Saint Mary Mackillop (who had links in that area I understand) looked interesting. We checked out the menu at the award winning restaurant in town and considered whether we might make a booking for the following night.

The main street had all the elements needed for vibrancy, though it was actually pretty quiet at the time – apparently not so unusual for that time of day but today it was partly due to the town preparing for the big footy and netball grand finals the next day. Understood! Important business that. The town centre was tidy, clean and had an attractive mix of shops and businesses, with no empty shop fronts and a smattering of artistic chaos in the form of more yarn bombing – including a cheeky beard on the statue of the town’s founder.

IMG_3419Then we stumbled upon the Koonara cellar door and gift shop in the town centre, and dived into our first tasting under the guidance of the fabulous cellar door manager there who was welcoming, entertaining, educational and provided a faithful introduction to what the weekend would hold in store for us. She even gave us detailed advice on the best cellar doors to visit for exploring the best white and sparkling wines the region had to offer, (other than theirs!) which we thought quite extraordinary. So much for the Coonawarra being all about red wine! The owner of the winery called in while we were there and we also had a very interesting chat with him, quite an inspiring character.

The next morning I was determined to keep up my training for the big trail run in November, so headed off first thing. The woman I’d spoken with at the visitor centre the day before had recommended I head to Greenrise Lake for a good off-road run. While not great preparation for a forest run, it was appropriately rural at least and very entertaining staring out the odd sheep in the reserve that wasn’t scared off as I approached (which made me think uncomfortably of the absurdist Haruki Murakami novel Wild Sheep Chase) and I had a good laugh when I saw this sign.

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Okay, I know that actually it’s not that funny given it’s a sign of drought, but the absurdity of it still appealed to me. I blame that on my high school literature / drama teacher Mr Stone who didn’t believing in teaching Shakespeare and instead taught us about absurdist or hyper-realist drama like Stoppard, Pinter and Beckett!
Well, that’s my excuse for weirdness, and I’m sticking to it.

As the rest of the day progressed, the 22km stretch of endless vineyards and cellar doors grew on me, to the extent that by the end of it Jacqui and I had decided to return for the region’s big race meet in January.

I came to notice the various stages in evidence along the drag of vineyards at all stages of life – the recently ripped out blocks I mentioned earlier, the newly ploughed ones ready to plant, the early spindly vines just reaching up towards the frame through to the well established, solid gnarly vines with shoots just starting to show. Yes the landscape hadn’t changed and it was still flat and boring, but the concentration of life and evidence of the life cycle surrounding you every which way you look was impressive in a different kind of way to my new back yard.

In terms of the experience of the cellar doors – what I did notice once you got past the façade that some of the cellar door staff had (Jacqui is particularly good at opening up conversations, and we chose a smaller number of cellar doors and stayed longer at each than many might) was how willing they were to open up and tell you about the region, about the other wineries they’d worked at, the other wines from different places they thought we should try and how they all enjoyed their monthly get togethers with other cellar door staff to get better acquainted with other producers offerings and to foster cooperative relationships.

 

Surely that’s something from which any wine region can take some positive inspiration? It sure made for an enjoyable overall experience, and a great impression of cooperative working, which to me is always appealing.

IMG_3571On our last night in town, we were entertained at the local pub by some of the local footy team guys, who had been victorious the day before in winning their league grand final and were still celebrating. In a brief instant when I disappeared back to our accommodation, Jacqui was roped into a game of pool by one of them, and between them they held the table for well over two hours. I was kind of relieved actually, as I knew she wanted a game and was a bit of a shark – and I also knew I was way too useless to challenge her or to not make a fool of myself in front of any audience. So all’s well that ends well!

The verdict on the Coonawarra then? Well worth visiting, and exceeded my expectations, such as they were. The bounty I bought back with me probably says as much as anything. I was so determined this might be the trip where I learned to taste without buying. Wrong!! Oh well…

PS. It’s also hard to not like a region that has a vineyard called The Old Cricket Ground! More to come on that theme.

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