I spent much of Saturday taking a drive with the gang out to the Macedon Ranges and the famous Hanging Rock, near which a friend of Stu and Cam has a summer home and a vineyard site. Pulling up to the estate I noticed a huge gum tree with the bush out in the distance and immediately thought of the old Kookaburra song my mom used to sing to me as a kid. Whereas the Yarra Valley feels very much like home, Macedon—located to the north of Melbourne—looks and feels more like I expected Australia to.
The friend I alluded to above was a boutique wine and spirits importer named Robert Walters who has spent twenty-five years supplying Australia with wines from producers like Didier Dagueneau, Francois Chidaine, Robert Weil, and pretty much every other global winemaker you generally find at K&L. He's also the author of a book called "Bursting Bubbles," documenting the rise of grower Champagnes in the industry—another one of our specialties! I had a lot to talk about with Robert and a lot in common with him in terms of taste and experience. We started our visit with a glass of rosé and a walk around a property he's recently planted with high-density chardonnay and pinot noir vines.
Because Robert is a more serious and studied wine professional, Stu spent the first ten minutes of the vineyard tour antagonizing the hell out of him; peppering him with technical questions, overwhelming him with pessimism and sarcasm, and judging every word that came out of his mouth within seconds of him having uttered it. It was absolutely hilarious. It was like a comedy duo feeding off each other's energy. Ultimately Stu respects the hell out of Robert, which is why he loves to tease him. We were all taken aback by his commitment to viticulture and the way he's turned his attention towards winemaking from his importation experience.
One thing I've learned from my colleague Ryan is how serious the food scene is around Melbourne. Actually, I shouldn't say "serious" because it's actually quite laid back, but the quality is tremendous! Robert's wife Kate was amazing, putting together small snacks of anchovies with lemon and chili on perfectly toasted slices of baguette. It was quite a lunch and a further example of how awesome the place is. Everywhere I've gone so far I've met nice people who like to eat and drink nice things. When am I supposed to come back again?
Driving east from Melbourne into the hills, and then eventually through the Yarra range and down into the valley isn't all that different from the trip to Napa from San Francisco. It's about the same distance and the terrain looks very familiar—brown hills scorched by the hot summer sun, dried brush with scattered trees, forested mountains flanking the vineyards on the horizon. Arriving into Healesville, the small Victoria town where Four Pillars distillery is located, felt no different than driving through Sonora or Sonoma—small artisanal shops and that kooky mountain vibe, but with serious food and drink. Healesville is mostly known for its animal sanctuary, a nature park with hundreds of native Australian creatures frolicking in an open area. The attraction brings in a large number of tourists, and those people expect to be fed and plied with alcohol once they're done feeding the kangaroos. After the hour cab ride from the airport, I was dropped off at the town's quaint and cozy hotel and immediately liked what I saw: a local guy sitting outside on the building's porch, drinking a glass of cold Yarra chardonnay, taking in the valley's warm afternoon. "You mind if I snap a photo of you?" I asked.
"No problem, mate," he replied with a smile, "What's it for?"
"I'm trying to capture the quintessential Yarra lifestyle," I answered with a laugh.
"Well, mate; I'm very, very good at leading it," he chuckled back.
And what is the Yarra lifestyle? I had an idea going in based on conversations with my colleague Ryan Woodhouse, K&L's buyer for Australia. They're into the same food and wine culture we have in the Bay Area: fresh vegetables and meats, organic farming, a healthier, outdoorsy mentality, etc. Having spent years listening to him talk about the region, the people, and the winemaking, the Yarra mindset seemed to represent a modern update to simple, everyday living, just without any of the pretense we see in California. I think that utter lack of snobbery and affectation is what ultimately pulled me in over the years. There's something relaxed, at ease, and very straightforward about the wines from the Yarra Valley; almost as if they don't have anything to prove. I got the same type of vibe yesterday walking through Healesville. After dropping off my bags and freshening up, I walked down the Maroondah Highway and headed towards the distillery to meet up with the gang. The storefronts were warm and inviting without ever feeling ritzy or boutiquey. To be honest, it felt like the set of an eighties movie. There's a certain timelessness to everything; not lost in time or stuck in the past, but simply as if there was no hurry for life to move forward.
It was only about a five minute walk to the distillery from the hotel, but I was absolutely soaked by the time I got there. February is summertime in Australia and the sun was relentless. Of course, there's nothing like a cold gin and tonic to quench one's thirst during a hot summer afternoon, and I knew there would definitely be one waiting for me inside. I could practically taste the juicy orange flavor of the Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin just from thinking about it!
Right when I walked in I spotted Cameron Mackenzie, the distiller for Four Pillars, and he wasted no time with formalities. It was hot, we were both thirsty, and after roughly twenty-four hours of travelling at that point, it was finally time to relax and have a drink. We found Jennifer Bailey, the manager for Four Pillars, and sat down at a large table. The distillery was an absolute madhouse; Friday afternoon, tables jampacked with guests, parking lot full, and a gang of bartenders cranking out drinks right and left. Australia is luckily free from a number of the restrictions that prevent distilleries in the U.S. from operating much like a traditional brewpup. In the case of Four Pillars, it's like a giant bar that also happens to make its own gin. I was thrilled to see the tourists and locals alike, talking, visiting, drinking, and having a few gin cocktails in celebration of the weekend's arrival. It's like a giant gin-soaked clubhouse where even the local wine industry folk hang out after work. We were joined by winemaker Steve Flamsteed from Giant Steps, whose wines I absolutely adore, and the conversation just flowed naturally. We were all excited to see each other.
While I'm scheduled to head over and visit the Giant Steps winery next week, Steve announced he would be out of town unfortunately, so he wanted to come say hello and have a drink now. Talk about unpretentious—Steve Flamsteed is a legend in the wine business and a renowned chef to boot, but you'd never know it from hanging out with him. The guy was just voted "Winemaker of the Year" by Gourmet Traveller and he's pretty much an Australian version of Patrick Swayze—chisled, vibrant, with sparkling eyes and a sort of rugged manliness. Yet, he couldn't have been more welcoming, humble, and laid back. I liked him immediately. "We need to go get a beer now, don't you think?" Steve asked after we killed our gin and tonics. "I've got my bike outside; let's go over to the brewery down the street."
Cam had to leave in order to get started on dinner (we were all heading over to his place later for a barbeque), so Jennifer, Steve, and I headed down the road to grab a few pints. Four Pillars is located in an industrial part of Healesville that's currently being revamped into a number of modern spaces, another of which is the Watts River Brewing Company; a project started by two guys who worked together previously at White Rabbit. Located inside of what looks like a former trucking warehouse, the set up is simple and the beers are absolutely delicious. We hooked up with Aaron and Ben to taste a number of fun things, before the man himself—Four Pillars owner Stuart Gregor—finally made his appearance. We embraced, poured a few more beers, and headed back to the distillery for one last cocktail before making our way over to Cam's.
Given the lovely summer weather, Cam had prepared a large table for us on his deck where we were soon joined by more friends and family. I played a few rounds of badminton with Cam's daughters and Stuart made sure the wine kept flowing. We talked late into the night about music, trying to decide what Australia's five greatest contributions were to rock and roll. It was picturesque in a number of ways, some of which I can't really put into words at the moment. Everything just felt natural, unforced, and real; from the conversation, to the food, to the wines, and the people I was introduced to. If pressed, I would say thus far: the main difference between the laidback Yarra lifestyle and the laidback California lifestyle is that the folks in Yarra are actually living it. We like to think we're doing the same back home, but in reality I think many of us Californians are getting lost in the race. In the Yarra Valley, there's no contest. No one's competing against each other for social credibility, or trying to Instagram the ideal version of every moment. It's just warm and bountiful place with nice people and plenty of good wine, beer, and gin.
I think I'm really going to enjoy my time here.
Getting ready for a big K&L trip is always a little nerve-racking because you have to be in top form if you expect to make it out alive. You can’t go in with so much as a sniffle. I always try to dry out for a few days and exercise a bit before I embark on a ten day bender, but I’ll admit I rested more than usual before leaving for Australia because of the circumstances. First off, I’ve never been a fan of red-eye flights because I’ve never been able to sleep on them. I end up arriving at my destination in rugged shape, often with little energy, and I have to play make-up right off the bat. Having suffered from several crippling cases of jet lag in my life—to the point that I’ve fallen asleep at a dinner table during a business appointment—I wasn’t looking forward to this journey: an 11:30 PM Wednesday night flight out of SFO to Sydney that would last fourteen hours and get me into Australia on Friday morning. The problem with long international flights when it comes to the booze business is knowing the task ahead of you. From the moment you step off the plane you’re going to be tasting, swirling, and drinking serious amounts of alcohol. Even when you’re 100% fresh in the morning, a long and detailed wine or spirits tasting can quickly take the wind out of your sails. But how fresh could I possibly be after working all day in the Redwood City store, waiting all night for my flight, spending fourteen hours on a plane, then connecting to Melbourne, and spending another hour and a half in the car out to the Yarra? I had a premium economy seat at least, and I had heard that Qantas’s cabin was quite spacious, so I was slightly optimistic. When we finally boarded at around quarter-to-eleven, and I saw my window seat, however; I was overjoyed. Tons of leg room, comfortable chairs, and a big fluffy pillow to rest my head. “I can do this,” I thought to myself; “I’m a veteran traveller at this point. I need to learn how to sleep in the air.”
While I’m not normally a fan of sleep aids because I don’t like being drowsy, I decided to get on the Tylenol PM train everyone keeps telling me about. There’s an idealistic part of me that wants to try and fall asleep naturally, but in this situation I decided to go with the pragmatic advice. It was just a matter of when to apply it. About ten minutes before we were scheduled to take off, I swallowed two pills, handed my water glass to the attendant, then put my head back, closed my eyes, and started to meditate a bit. I knew something had to be amiss, however, when another twenty minutes went by we were still at the gate. That’s when the captain came on the PA and said: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a bit of an issue here, and it’s one I’ve never experienced in my career.” We were all intrigued. He continued: “Due to the weather here today a number of connecting flights didn’t make it in time to board our flight to Sydney, so we’re missing over fifty passengers.” Problem? That’s not a problem. Judging from the smiles on the faces around me, I think all of us were pretty excited about having a little extra room for the next fourteen hours. But then he added: “The plane is unfortunately now out of balance and we can’t take off until we correct it. We have too many people sitting in the front and not enough weight in the back. Therefore, we’re going to need another twenty minutes to rearrange all the luggage and then we’re going to ask about thirty of you to move to the back of the plane just for takeoff. Once we’re in the air and the seatbelt sign has been switched off, you can move back to your seat. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
I already knew I was going to be one of those thirty people. I could sense it. Sure enough, my row was called for voluntary Qantas equilibrium service. To be honest, I wouldn’t have had an issue with temporarily moving had the drugs not begun to kick in. I was already nodding off in my chair when they first made the announcement, and now just minutes later I was being snatched from imminent slumber and moved to the very last row in the fuselage, smashed into a middle seat between two large gentlemen with very little elbow room. There are two tips I can give you thus far when flying to Australia: 1) the Quantas premium economy upgrade is worth every penny, and 2) Tylenol PM isn’t just a sleep aid, it’s a mood-altering and necessary narcotic. Despite the late departure, being forced to leave my seat for a good forty-five minutes, and the uncomfortable nature of my new position, I really didn’t care one bit. Even when I thought about how annoyed I was to have to leave my comfy seat, I couldn’t muster one bit of frustration. I just sat there in a trance-like state, emotionless and calm. It was incredibly peaceful. After we took off and I finally got back to my seat, it was like moving from a twin to a king mattress. Back in Modesto during the nineties, we’d go hot-tubbing quite often, and one thing you’d do to refresh yourself and intensify the heat every now and again was climb out of the spa, then jump into the cold swimming pool for a body shock. When you finally got back into the spa to warm yourself up again, the heat would feel twice as relaxing as before. That’s what moving from premium economy, to the worst row in economy, and then back to premium economy felt like for me. In fact, I was so comfortable getting back in my original seat that I immediately conked out for eight straight hours. Poof!
When I finally came to and checked my watch, I was completely confounded. It had been almost nine hours since our departure?! What had I been doing the whole time? Sleeping? I couldn’t believe it. I feel like a million bucks now sitting in the Sydney terminal, despite the fact I still have another flight and drive ahead of me. Modern science is a wondrous thing. I definitely should have boarded the PM train earlier on in my career. I definitely won’t fly without it in the future.
You absolutely cannot stop Bryan Davis. After his original Lost Spirits Distillery in Salinas went down, Bryan took his reactor out to the East Coast and began distilling rum. When that didn't go as planned he came back to California, built a new still, and started making navy strength rum in Salinas again. Now he's opened up a huge warehouse space in downtown Los Angeles where he'll be continuing to move the brand forward. These two new Abomination releases should help accomplish that task (by the way, if you don't know who Bryan Davis is then jump back a few years here, then again here, and then here again). This time around, rather than using his own whisky distillates, Bryan contracted a bunch of peated new-make spirit from Islay and ran it through his reactor (and if you don't know about his reactor, then click here). The result is classic Bryan Davis, albeit without any of the funkiness or earthiness his earlier whiskies carried. I think fans of the genre will be pleased. I also think Islay lovers will want to give these a whirl. There's at least one thing I know for sure: you cannot stop Bryan Davis. You can only hope to contain him. He may lay low every once and a while, but when he pops up again he's always doing something incredible; kind of like Brad Pitt's character in 12 Monkeys, except I don't think Bryan is trying to bring about the end of the world (at least I hope not).
The only distinction between the two expressions is the type of wood used in the reactor. The Crying of the Puma uses toasted oak from a late harvest riesling barrel, whereas The Sayers of the Law uses charred oak from the same cask type. Both whiskies bring huge smoke, lots of woody notes, and carry Davis's calling card of concentrated oak flavor with unabashed power. Think of Kilchoman on steroids with tons of chewiness.