Never heard of Kelly? He is Australia's biggest folk hero, kind of a combination Jesse James and Robin Hood. And Glenrowan is home to a strange little museum dedicated to the Australian equivalent of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Part stage set, part rudimentary robotic animation, all the proprietor's obsession with the Kelly tale (his grandfather made the crude metal bulletproof helmet for which Kelly was famous), it was a fitting introduction to Australian lore.
Back on the road, we tried to nail down Australian lingo. "Pokies" are electronic slot machines, a rage sweeping the continent -- to which wine-producing regions seem particularly averse. "No Pokies" signs abound.
At Two Hands Wines in South Australia's Barossa Valley, visitors sample vintages in the "cellar door" and lunch in the "bakehouse."
We learned that "cellar door" is the Aussie (there is a national insistence on shortening every word and adding "ie") term for what we Americans call a tasting room. The wineries started out selling their products literally out the door of the cellar, and most of them still do; some sell all their wine that way. Not only are the prices better for consumers, but Australian postal rates for shipping wines are incredibly low -- about $14 U.S. to ship a case of wine from one end of the country to another. (It costs about $250 per case to ship to the United States.) Most vineyards are along the perimeter of the continent -- where most Australians live -- and visiting vineyards is a national pastime.
These days visitors are allowed inside the wineries -- into often spare, sometimes luxurious accommodations -- where the person doing the pouring is just as likely to be the vineyard owner or the winemaker or at least members of their families.
Pasties and Penguins
Since Bill and Alma had visited Rutherglen several times, they took us to their favorite, All Saints Estate, as an elegant introduction to the wine country. This is one of the region's original wineries, now owned by members of the Brown family, a founding dynasty of Australian winemaking. All Saints is housed in a castle, with lofty brick walls and hedges that resemble a moat. It's an aristocratic site that wouldn't be out of place in the Bordeaux area of France or along Highway 29, the main drag of California's Napa Valley. On the edge of the Australian bush, it appeared like an apparition.
The cellar door is a cavernous room, with a huge tearoom and restaurant in an adjoining conservatory. We were greeted like long-lost cousins. All Saints produces a staggering array of wines, including shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, Riesling, sparkling and fortified wines by the dozen. And we were welcome to sample as many as we wanted, without charge. We focused on the durif, a robust red that often has been mislabeled petite syrah in the United States. When we were finished sampling it and a half-dozen others, we tried out the breathalyzer by the front door as we left, a contraption that is a regular feature of Australia's wine-tasting circuit, an indication of the country's tough drunk-driving laws.
Back on the two-lane blacktop that serves as the main highway through town, we ducked down a rutted dirt road and stopped at a ramshackle shed that is home to some of the finest sweet wines in Australia. The old farmhand dressed in dusty work clothes and tending to a dog tied up outside turned out to be William "Sir Bill" Chambers, the owner of Chambers Rosewood Vineyard, who was awarded Australia's highest honor, the Medal of the Order of Australia, for his contributions to the nation's wine industry.
Chambers is the king of what Australians call "stickies," the fortified sweet wines most often served with desserts. Sample bottles were sitting out on a table, and we were invited to pour our own as Chambers, a fifth-generation winemaker in his early seventies, brushed aside compliments. "We just do it the way we always have," he said. To hear him tell it, anyone could plant some vines and turn out world-class wines. It was not unlike having the owner of France's famed Chateau d'Yquem talk you through a tasting.
The next morning we learned firsthand about another mainstay of Australian road trips: the bakery. A vestige of settlers' European roots, there are bakeries in every town and they serve as kind of bush country McDonald's. The bakeries aren't just all pastries and cakes but full-scale eateries serving sandwiches and pasties (meat turnovers) and a few hot meals such as shepherd's pie. The little town of Beechworth is home to one of the area's most famous, the Beechworth Bakery, a two-story place where tour buses schedule lunch. Over scones and coffee, we plotted our way through the Alpine and Yarra valley wine regions.
For the next week, we explored the wineries of Victoria, along the way sampling the artisan cheeses of Milawa and Red Hill, and dining in the sumptuous hall of Chateau Yering (Australia's only Relais and Chateaux hotel) and in the breezy elegance of Red Hill Estate, with sweeping views across the vineyards to the waters of Western Port and the Southern Ocean.