Australia: Day 1 – The Yarra Lifestyle
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.