Hoppin’ Around Hunter Valley with me Mates

Many of the wine valley tours offer to pick-up and drop off in Sydney, but given that it’s at least a two hour drive, they rightfully charge for the service.  Out Multi Passes in hand, we opted for the train/bus option.  Unfortunately this demanded a rather early (4am) rise on our part in order to catch the train at 5:30.  Actually, it wasn’t the train that was driving the departure time, it was the bus; the one and only bus from Morisset to Cessnock.  It runs twice each day; once in the morning, and again in the evening.  Miss it, and you’re SOL!

No matter.  Savvy travelers that we are (not tourists), we set the alarm and headed into the stillness of early morn.  Actually, the sights were quite entertaining.  On this Saturday morning there were more than a few hardened souls dragging their tortured bodies back to their lairs following a long evening of festivities.  Our day beginning as their evening ended.  Ah, youth!  Reminds me of my Navy days– I think.

This morning, Sydney was socked in with fog, giving some of the train stations a “film noir” feel I recalled from my aforementioned past.  As the sun broke the horizon and burned off the haze, we were treated to yet another wondrous sun rise, Thene at last having the opportunity to see the Hawksbury River area that I saw on my trip to Newcastle.  The trip was a surprisingly fast 2 ½ hours, followed by an equally quick one-hour bus ride from Morisset to Cessnock.

Cessnock.  Imagine Mayberry downunder.  A paved main street of two story buildings comprised of stationary stores, a news store called “The Daily Telegraph” and a variety of restaurants and cafés.  With time to spare before our pick-up, we had some coffee and pastries at a place called “The Queen of Tarts”; a very simple place with really good pastries.

After a short wait in what transformed into a glorious day, a minivan with “Two Fat Blokes” pulled to the curb and as I opened the door I was greeted with “Hi Roger” from our van mates who were obviously preempted to our identities.  Following two additional pick-ups our troupe of ten was complete and as we cut through the country side, Jan (one of the “blokes”) gave the narrative.  Only a mile or so from “Mayberry”, the landscape looked much like the Augusta wine valley back in Washington, MO; or perhaps Tuscany but with smaller mountains.  Surrounded by high foothills/low mountains, the valley was carpeted with vineyards and olive tree groves, creamy Tuscan buildings with terracotta tile roofs, amidst the Broken Back Mountain Range.

Our first stop was the Mistletoe Winery.  Given the early hour of ten o’clock, obviously no one was interested in wine tasting; right?  Not!  Our van of lushes descended on the tasting bar like parched cattle on a trough.  The tasting covered the usual spectrum from white to red, sweet to dry and finished with dessert.

The property also boasted various pieces of art from local artists including a sculpture garden, one of the pieces was a large pair of high-heeled shoes, guess whose favorite that was.

So what’s wine without cheese?  Next stop?  The Binnorie Dairy; makers of fine soft cheeses, such as duetto (mascarpone/gorgonzola mix), labna and cow’s milk fete.  We also found tapenade, fruit paste and other picnic necessities.  All just down the road from several wineries.  Good idea.  No competition and a complementary business.

Next was the Keith Tulluch Winery.   We were escorted to a large private sunroom with a rustic table that could easily seat twenty.  Our previously stoic group was becoming chattier, and we learned of the various histories of our fellow wine lovers; a pair of German women, and three couples from the Sydney area.  As we chatted and the staff poured us “samples”, their wine recitations were all but ignored.  Our guide, Jan, was off gathering lunch to be served at our next destination which was the Audrey Wilkinson property.

As opposed to Tulluch, this location was on a moderated hill-top surrounded by its bigger brothers.  To the East, the hills stood against the ancient trees on the property, to the west, the sun was casting surreal images in the clouds.  By now we were all ready for food.

Jan presented us with a picnic-style lunch from a local spot called “The Stinky Cheese Shop” consisting of cheeses (obviously), meats, olives and fresh veggies.  Over lunch I regaled our troupe with tales of my book and the surprises I found during my research.  Governments, politicians and the frustrations of their constituents are obviously universal.

With lunch (and a lot of wine) under our belts, we’re on to dessert at McGuigan Cellars and a pairing or wines and chocolates.  This winery has a more rustic feel, with a saloon-style bar where we had the tasting.  Another great experience, both wines and chocolates were exceptional, especially the chili chocolate which packed quite a kick.  Back in van, Jan informed us of a herd of roos (kangaroos ) that he’d spotted earlier.  Having promised the non-Aussies  a roo sighting, we eagerly anticipated the event, much to the groans of our local counterparts, one of whom (and if she’s reading this she knows who she is) told the group (directed at me) that she was not “leaving the van for some bloody roo.”

The first herd was located on the right, separated from the road by a straight and barbed wire fence.  Viewing was limited due to distance and a hill, so after getting the ok from Jan, I climbed through the fence.  This action, I later discovered, was foretold to the rest of the van goers by my wife, who knew full well that I would never let something as easily ignored as a fence keep me from my goal.  As I carefully approached, I was glad to discover I wasn’t the only roo fanatic, one of the German lasses was right behind me, and our tenacity paid off.  Though our quarry did lift an inquisitive head, they remained in place and let us take many pictures.  While this may sound like a rather docile undertaking, you need to know that a cornered roo will attack and eviscerate its enemy.  While this was highly unlikely, it did not stop the van inhabitants from jeering and my wife from worrying.  Truth be told, exiting the pasture area was more disconcerting as Jan informed us of the presence of a poisonous snake in the area, and that we should make a hasty retreat.

Our second roo sighting, only a few yards farther down the road, was even better.  Though a smaller herd it was much closer to the road.  Initially they hopped away as I exited the van, giving me some excellent “action” photos.  Then they did something very rare; they actually hopped TOWARD us and fanned out, giving us an unusually good photo op.  SO good in fact, that the many hypocrites in the van (including the aforementioned woman who said she wouldn’t leave the van for some bloody roos) were madly clicking away with their cameras.  In fairness, the lady in question did NOT in fact leave the van.  Whatever.

Our next stop was Hungerford Hill.  By now most of us were pretty “wined” out, but we soldiered on.  The winery had excellent wine as well as accompaniments and picnic items and a restaurant called the “Muse” which looked very interesting.

Our final stop was the Hunter Valley Brewery.  A very nice facility, it had two bars, a full restaurant and lots of seating.  As it turned out, it’s only a short distance to the center of Cessnock (the previously mentioned “Mayberry”) but a world away in feel.  The tour included a tasting of three of the eight varieties they had on tap, all made on sight, the process and ingredients of which we’re demonstrated.  Being a home brewer myself and having recently completed an internship at a microbrew, I opted out of the tour and instead found a pint of Oyster stout.  I discovered that real oysters were used in the process which made me rather apprehensive to try it.  But the oysters (I was told) only added a mild smokiness to the beer.  It was very good without the slightest hint of oyster flavor.

The worst part of the tour was its conclusion, which came way too suddenly.  By now we were all fast friends and when Jan told me we needed to leave in order to make the return bus, we were not anxious to depart.  We left our blog address and exchanged hugs with our new friends, before Jan whisked us away and dropped us back where it had all began.  The difference between the brewery’s party atmosphere and the bus stop’s desolation was almost painful.

A quiet ride back with dazzling sunsets, we reflected on the day.  We spent our money on the things that were important (the tour) and got the travel for free.  An early day, but it was worth it.

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