Hunter Valley: Week 212

Vineyard landscape in the Hunter Vallery: Pokolbin, Australia

Pokolbin, the gateway to the Hunter Valley wine region, is an undulating field of grape vines under a pale blue sky. It’s located about two and a half hours north of Sydney and a good first stop after that long drive would be Kevin Sobels Wines. Aside from the tasting bar, the grounds host the Handmade Hunter Markets on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. Because we drove up on Easter weekend, the markets were also open on Sunday.

The usual country goods were all in attendance- from hand sewn purses to cutting boards to scented soy candles. We ate a bacon and egg pizza that was cooked in the back of a van and tasted passion fruit lemon butter ‘just like Grandma made.’

Casbars Kitchen and Garden business card: Pokolbin, Australia

My best purchase though was a jar of River Flats Estate Chilli & Fennel infused Corregiola olives in apple cider vinegar. The diminutive size of the olives might not have been impressive- and the fact that they weren’t pitted- but that would have been a huge misjudgment. They were some of the best olives I had ever tasted and it was also the first time I actually appreciated olive pits because they forced me to slow down and savor the spiciness of the chilli and the bite of the fennel seeds.

Tamburlaine Vineyard: Pokolbin, Australia

After the market our friends and I drove to an organic vineyard called Tamberlaine. The tour guide worked part time at the vineyard and had a full time job as a drama teacher. We knew it was going to be an interesting tour when we heard him respond to a query about having children. “Look at me. Do you think any woman would trust me to impregnate them?”

After we toured the vineyard we reconvened in a large tasting room. Beside the tour, my $50 ticket included a bottle of wine and a plate of cheese and crackers to go with the wine tasting. I was feeling quite generous, so I told Barret I’d drive and poured my share of the wine samples into his glass. He was definitely looking sleepy at the end of the tasting.

Originally we intended on visiting several vineyards, but we had such a good time with our guide that the next thing we knew there was only a half hour until most of Pokolbin closed. Barret and I decided to buy a few extra bottles of wine and some dark chocolate. Unfortunately we didn’t have any more time to spend in the Hunter Valley, but I was very happy we went away with some good wine.

Vineyard landscape in the Hunter Valley: Pokolbin, Australia

About: The Hunter Valley

About: River Flats Estates

How to get to the Handmade Hunter Markets: Corner of Broke & Halls Road, Pokolbin NSW 2320

How to get to Tamburlaine: 358 McDonalds Road, Pokolbin NSW 2320

Yarra Valley Wine Tasting: Week 206

St Ronan's Cider

One of my friends pushed me forward. “Excuse me,” she said to the vendor, “could you please explain to my American friend where the Yarra Valley is? I can’t believe she doesn’t know.”

“Sure.” The guy replied. “We’re about 60 km northeast of Melbourne.”

“Ah, ok.” I shook my head knowingly as I reached for my glass of pinot noir. “I kind of know that area.”

As soon as we turned away, my friend leaned in. “I didn’t know where the Yarra Valley was either- but I couldn’t admit it because I’m Australian.” I don’t know why my friend was so worried because the question really wasn’t as stupid as it sounded. My friends and I weren’t in the Yarra Valley, we were actually at a tasting exhibition in downtown Sydney.

Although the event was dominated by wine vendors, there were representatives for Yarra Valley ciders, beers, and gin too.

St Ronan’s Cider was my first stop and I tried both their apple and pear ‘Methode Traditionelle’ cider. Both were very good, but anyone interested in more detail than that would be disappointed- my notes simply say, “sparkling apple & pear.” No beating around the bush for me.

Seville Estate Yarra Valley

My next stop was the delicious Yarra Valley Dairy. Of all their cheeses, my favorite was the Black Savourine. I was too busy scraping the soft cheese off the plate to compile my thoughts on paper, but luckily I did pick up a brochure description which sounds a bit naughty (as all good food descriptions should). Semi-mature, aged white mould goat’s milk cheese. A complex plate of full flavours. Roast nuts, cooked cream, hint of blue, full length.

From there I visited TarraWarra Estate (my notes say “very tannic pinot”), another vineyard who had one of their wines chosen for Qantas first class (can’t remember the name-lost that note), and Seville Estate (my notes show a picture of a smiley face).Payten & Jones

Of all the wine that I tasted, and I did enjoy most of it, the vendor that stood out the most was from Payten & Jones. His name was Troy and I noticed that he not only had the most casual shirt of the lot but he also had working hands- as in the kind of hands that are actually out in the vineyard picking grapes.

The reason that stuck out in my mind was that after having picked kiwifruit in New Zealand, I know how much it sucks to be in the field. So for someone to be so passionate about their product that they wouldn’t avoid the back-breaking work when they still have to do the marketing and all the other stuff that comes along with running a vineyard, I think that says something good about the product.

Of course the wine speaks for itself too and in this case it’s saying, “buy me- I’m tasty.”

About: The Yarra Valley

About: Payton and Jones

About: Yarra Valley Dairy

About: St Ronan’s Cider

Glebe Town Hall: Week 204

Phia performing at Glebe Town Hall for High Tea: Sydney, Australia

For most people high tea is a sugar-filled, decadent afternoon treat. For Sydneysiders in the know, High Tea is also an invite-only folk music event that happens twice a month.

The musical headquarters is located inside a small loft in Surry Hills. The street-level entrance leads people through a graffiti-covered passage, up a few flights, and out onto a walkway that is curiously squeezed between two buildings. It’s a bit of an urban rabbit warren.

Because the venue is so intimate, it’s not always easy to get tickets. You have to follow the High Tea Crew Twitter account so you know exactly when the event list has opened. The event fee is payable at the door and, as always, a table covered with tea cups and hot kettles awaits guests at the entrance.

High Tea at Glebe Town Hall: Sydney, Australia

If the tea fails to excite, there is no charge to bring in your own bottle of wine. There aren’t a lot of chairs but there are plenty of cushions around the room. The lights are low, the candles drip, and the large art deco windows front a twinkling nighttime city landscape.

The only difference this time around was that for the season opener, High Tea was being held at Glebe Town Hall. This historic venue was built in 1880 and the main hall fits up to 200 hundred people, which is a lot larger than the loft in Surry Hills. Although the Town Hall lacked the quirky layout of the usual venue, the table of tea was still there and I suspect the program organizers spent a lot of time tracking down more cushions.

Glebe Town Hall: Sydney, Australia

High Tea kicked off with Phia- an Australian/German loop pedal and kalimba playing songstress. She was classically trained on the piano and is the first to admit her parents weren’t too happy when she first ditched all that training for the kalimba. Her boyfriend is the only other member of the band and is probably the most timid musician I have ever seen on stage. He looks a bit like a lost puppy- which I mean in the nicest way possible. It was the second time I’d seen them perform and I liked them even more than the last time.

The Maple Trail closed the program and as it got close to the end of their set, I lay down, closed my eyes, and listened to the music. The group sounded a lot like The Wallflowers and it reminded me about my childhood in Florida and the excitement of owning my first few CDs (which obviously included The Wallflowers).

While I’m guilty of enjoying a bit of nostalgia, I’m lucky enough to be simultaneously happy about the past and the present. And where I am- inside the Glebe Town Hall with friends and tea and wine and music- is pretty darn good.

About: High Tea

How to get to the Glebe Town Hall: 160 St Johns Road, Glebe NSW 2037

About: Phia

About: The Maple Trail

South Australia: Week 170

Heli pad outside the Chateau Yaldara: Barossa Valley, South Australia

Barret and I made a very important decision while watching National Lampoon’s European Vacation. We decided that we couldn’t miss the Barossa Valley during our first trip to Adelaide. The valley has a lot going for it (like producing 21% of Australia’s wine), but it wasn’t until Chevy Chase slipped into some lederhosen that we pined for the region’s Germanic heritage. We’re tasteful like that.

Just outside the town of Tanunda, is Chateau Yaldara. It’s one of the most famous vineyards in the Barossa Valley because of its beautiful sandstone buildings. It was founded in 1947 by Hermann Thumm, a Georgian immigrant. Because of his German ancestry, Thumm spent several years interned in a POW camp after he first arrived in Australia. Never one to idle, he used the camp’s library to study viticulture and upon release he headed straight for the Barossa Valley.

The misty rain had cleared by the time we reached the cellar door. Along with four other American friends we sampled almost everything on offer before heading into Tanunda for lunch. The air was crisp and carried the scent of a wood-burning fire. It made me wish we had an extra night to stay in one of the old stone cottages.

Vineyards in the Barossa Valley: South Australia

We left the valley in the late afternoon and headed for the A1. The rural route passed Bumbunga Lake, a pink-streaked body of water inhabited by a Loch Ness monster made out of car tires. The only station we received was Radio National, the Australian equivalent to NPR. A retro-disco-Bollywood band from Melbourne was performing live in the studio and each member had an identity like The Skipper or The Bandit Priest.

The saltbush landscape slowly crept up as the Bombay Royale led us on a psychedelic journey. “We’re in a very small space for those listeners who can’t see us right now, and this is the Mysterious Lady talking. But you can imagine in this scene, this set: the humidity and the passion and we go to the Island of Doctor Electrico.”

The sun set before we entered Port Augusta, an industrial town at the ‘Crossroads of Australia.’ The Leigh Creek coal field is 250km north of town and supplies Port Augusta’s two power stations. Usually only one is operational during winter, but the air still had a metallic tang.

We drove straight through town and onto the Stuart Highway- the legendary road which runs north through the center of Australia. It was named after the Scottish explorer who traversed a similar route in 1861. The most dangerous time to travel the highway is between sunset and sunrise. This is when kangaroos are either most active or (obviously) harder to see. At 30mph mid-leap, hitting a ‘roo could be devastating.

An Outback roadhouse: Pimba, South Australia

We were tired and eager to pull over for the night at Pimba. Although, it would have been more accurate to just label the speck on the map ‘Spud’s Roadhouse’. The gas station/café/motel/grocery store pretty much was the entire town.

Inside the shop construction workers in neon vests crowded around a rugby game on TV and the smell of greasy food wafted out of the kitchen. Barret and I didn’t feel like setting up the tent in the parking lot, so we asked the guy behind the counter for a room.

“It’ll be nointy dollas. Cheers mate.”

We drove our car round the side of the building and parked outside a long row of connected portables. The only other occupants next to us were already drunk and leaning against a large industrial truck. The front door behind them was wide open and the lights and TV were blaring. They eyed us as we unlocked our bent aluminum door and a salty lady called out with a grin, “we’re only here for the night!”

Inside a room at Spud's Roadhouse: Pimba, South Australia

The portable was a wood-paneled shoebox with three beds, a projectile vomit stain on the carpet outside the bathroom, and very thin walls.

“Hey, ya got any drugs?”

I spun around to see if I’d left the door open, but I hadn’t.

“Naw,” a guy replied. It didn’t stop him from searching his stuff though. He sounded like a hamster scratching through the walls. Barret and I pulled out some canned food for dinner and glumly listened in our on neighbor’s conversation. A loud voice sounded from behind our unit and then another woman cackled out in the parking lot.

I felt like we were being circled by a pack of hungry dingoes. Was it only last night that we were enjoying a fireside drink at the Grace Emily in Adelaide? The mantle had been covered in candle wax drippings about a foot thick and a giant papier-mâché dragon head hung in the cornice by the stage. I suddenly wished we were back there.

The hiss of a static-y TV channel reverberated through our walls. “Wow,” I mouthed to Barret, “this place is a shit hole.”

About: The Barossa Valley

How to get to Chateau Yaldara: 159 Hermann Thumm Drive, Lyndoch SA 5351 Barossa Valley

About: The Bombay Royale

About: The Bombay Royale performance on Radio National

How to avoid Spud’s Roadhouse: Don’t stop in Pimba

How to get to the Grace Emily: 232 Waymouth Street, Adelaide SA 5000

The Roxy: Week 71

There is something quite special about movie theaters in New Zealand. From the smallest towns to the capitol, people visit cinemas not only for movies but also for boutique restaurants and cafés. There is not a bendy straw or coin-gobbling video arcade in sight and if you asked for a child’s combo pack, well, there would certainly be a bit on confusion.

Barret’s favorite place to catch a movie is the Roxy. It originally opened in 1928 as a silent theater in the suburb of Miramar and operated until the mid 60s, when it was converted to a shopping court. After the business closed, it sat idle for a while until a group of cinemaphiles (including the Weta founders) bought the old building with plans of renovation.

It has been open for over a year now and on that rainy Sunday night, the illuminated entrance cast a bright welcoming glow. After purchasing our tickets we walked across the marble foyer towards the café. The counter was made from dark wood and cut clean bold lines. At the end of it, on shiny silver stands, were sugar-dusted muffins and brownies iced with rich chocolate cream. The espresso machine was steaming and the peaceful clatter of forks and knives could be heard from the restaurant’s tables.

Would you like the beverage list?” The bartender asked.

Yes, please.”

After browsing the selection we decided on a half bottle of red wine, which the bartender poured into a delicate glass carafe. Then he handed us two large wine glasses that had the kind of squeaky-clean surface you only see on dishwasher commercials. There was a fifteen minute wait before the movie began, so we made our way to the lounge upstairs. It was Barret’s favorite part of the cinema because the robotic ceiling mural (designed by a Weta artist) cleverly incorporated utilitarian elements like smoke alarms and vents into the image.

When the theater doors opened we found our seats and sat the bottle of wine on a little semicircular table at the end of the armrest. The lights dimmed and an Expedia commercial about Las Vegas began. Barret and I had seen it before so we knew when to expect our friend, Danielle Kelly, on the big screen. Right as her cameo began we glanced over at each other and gave a small toast for friends, for home, and for Wellington. And you know what- not one glass broke in the theater. How classy.

How to get to The Roxy: 5 Park Road, Miramar, Wellington

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