This past weekend I turned off my Instagram, gave everyone a head’s up that we’d be gone, and we went to a vineyard.
There are a few vineyards in New York. There are tons of vineyards in California. Yet while living in America I never once ventured out amongst the grape vines.
Getting to see what it’s all about while living abroad isn’t such a bad introduction, especially when it’s in the name of our 4-year anniversary.
If you ever hear word of Australia’s Hunter Valley, then you know they’re talking about the iconic wine region in the state of New South Wales. Located near Newcastle, it’s about a two hour drive from eastside Sydney.
The long stretch of highway reminded me of our drive to Canada, and at times like driving on the Garden State Parkway. But there were, of course, those tell tale signs that remind you you’re in Australia.
Quite literally the highway signs, for instance. They tell you when there’s a rest stop, they tell you there’s going to be food, but they don’t tell you what kind. There are no hunger-sparking little icons filling you in that you could be enjoying Chick-Fil-A off Exit 18–or if you miss that there’s always the opportunity for Wendy’s in the next exit.
Oh no. The Australian highway miles are for the resilient. It’s hard to tell in those long stretch of kilometres when the next chance to eat is. Even harder to imagine what exactly you’ll be eating.
About halfway through our journey, the hunger began to knock, gently, without kicking in too hard. Once it shows up, it only gets needier and needier before all you see is red. Together, we agreed to be mindful, and to communicate, when passive hunger turned to raging hanger. As the kilometres rolled on and the signs became more infrequent, we knew we’d probably be in it for the long haul.
Finally, approaching the last half hour of the trip, the GPS told us to look out for one very important highway sign: “the exit.” Again, unlike the informative signs at home and in most parts of Australia, there was no name, no number. We just had to be mindful for when “the exit” approached.
It wasn’t hard to spot. For miles and miles (sorry, k’s and k’s), it was the only exit. We took it and scurried our small car around a roundabout surely built to have trucks haul ass through, and were just one more right turn away from our destination: Tranquil Vale.
To spare you the true description of the place that my heart wants to sing through, I’ll just say this: it had it all.
Two friendly dogs greeted us on our arrival; one black, one tan. They weren’t jumpy, they weren’t particularly quick either. They had an almost sedated way about them, but they always had an energetic wag when you spared the moment to pet them.
Our room was “the Loft” above the cellar door. That’s right: we were literally perched on top of the wine gold mine.
We declined an initial wine tasting upon arrival because the hanger would surely creep in if we didn’t make our next moves toward food. Upon recommendation, we headed to the “Royal Federal.” A grand name like this often constructs lofty dreams, but I knew better than to get too excited
The place, in truth, was a pub. The bistro menu online had some promising options, but when we arrived we were told the bistro was closed, only the pizza oven was still firing.
It’s hard to find good pizza in Australia. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to find good pizza outside of the tri-state area. My hunger superseded my hesitance and over a schooner of beer each, we made our shot-gun decisions: “fungi” for me and “supreme” for Rich. Our respective go-to choices made in a wood-fired oven, what could possibly go wrong?
For the sake of the story, I’m almost ashamed and disappointed to say: nothing went wrong. The pizza was surprisingly good. My biggest critique on my own was that the cheese was slightly in excess, but the medley of wild mushrooms that were wonderfully roasted, mixed with crispy basil leaves, and generously spread on top was the saving grace.
That and the thin crispy crust. A 4/5 star pizza in Hunter Valley, Australia. Off to a good start.
The pizza had to hold us over for the afternoon. After all the day’s driving, we’d rather not have to go out again for dinner. We fortunately had the option to purchase a “BBQ pack” directly from our hosts which we could make on our own.
The options were set up like a three-course prix fixe. We chose Sirloin steaks, mediterranean grilled vegetables, and a garlicky caesar kale salad. There was a grill area and pavilion on the grounds for us to use, and plenty of bottles of wine on premises.
By the time we had gotten back to the vineyard after our pizzas, the cellar door was open. A gentleman stood inside behind the warm lights of the bar within, almost as if to say “Good Evening, Mr. Torrance.”
We were full, perhaps a little beer buzzed, and happily accepted the invitation to taste some wines.
When it comes to wine, I’m a red drinker, and I often stick to it. Very few whites have been able to sway my preference. When it comes to dessert wines, I steer completely clear. All funny habits from a culinary enthusiast, I’ll admit, but I just hadn’t had any really quality example of a good white or dessert wine.
That’s because I’d never been to Tranquil Vale.
In a matter of minutes, the man behind the bar (named Phil), the very man who made these wines, turned everything I thought I liked about wine on its head.
His award-winning Semillon was nutty with hints of honey. His chardonnay had a deep oaky flavour, aged in French and American barrels.
After tasting these, the reds practically didn’t exist. I had stepped through a portal to a different place, finally smelled the flowers in the world of white wine. A winter awakening.
When we did taste the reds next, we found that they had just as much character and enjoyment as the white.
He poured us a taste of each as we walked us through the inspiration, the process, and candid answers to any burning questions we had. This is a master craft sort of undertaking, where there was no room for error or even rosé.
What he did have was a dessert wine. Notorious for being sickeningly sweet, it’s something I normally detest.
Turns out, he had similar sentiments, and in response made his own version of dessert wine: the anti-dessert wine. Not to sweet yet oh-so-heavenly smooth and nutty, it was the fastest taste glass I had finished all evening.
We had a long weekend of wine ahead and, more imminently, an evening of steak. New love affair with white aside, we committed to purchasing a bottle of Shiraz Cabernet to accompany it and ventured upstairs to our little loft.
To match the mood, we slipped into comfy clothes, popped open the bottle (actually, just screwed it off, as I learned corking is unimportant and remains so prominent in America simply because we “seem to like it”). It wasn’t long until we were ready for dinner.
We prepped the steaks in our room and were delighted to see how magnificent they were. Salt, pepper, and olive oil was all these local Angus cuts needed. We strolled outside, past the greeting dogs, and got to grilling.
Somehow, even after a foible of undercooking and then putting back on the heat, we managed to grill our way into a two divinely tender and perfectly rare steaks. We enjoyed it even without any A1; a true testament to Aussie beef. We ate on our little loft table and chairs with the hearty and creamy kale salad, grilled vegetables, and side of baked potato.
I knew I’d be coming for wine, but it was a great surprise when I also got a taste of the best local ingredients Hunter Valley had to offer.
The next morning, freshly baked sourdough was delivered to our door. We enjoyed it with fresh local yogurt, homemade granola (known here as muesli), milk, and OJ. A bountiful breakfast to begin our first (and only) full day in wine country.
It’s the “off-season” given its wintertime. That meant we had the place to ourselves, save for the group of bikers that showed up to the cellar door at 11AM sharp.
Since we had our tasting the night before, we spent the morning walking through the vineyard and strolling down the country roads. The sun was warm and an airfield nearby offered opportunities to watch flying acrobatics throughout the day.
We were enjoying the tranquility as much as we were simply holding out for our next bottle of wine.
When you stay on a vineyard, it’s never long before your next taste. The sun was still high in the sky when we were handed another pair of tasting glasses. This time, the wine was straight from the source.
We were welcomed into the shed in which the magic happens. The entire process, from squashing the grapes to removing the sediment and barreling it up was shared, seemingly, without a detail spared. Much of it might have been lost on me, but the passion for wine that Phil had was unmistakable.
For dinner the following night, we ventured out into the nearby town. We stopped into an art gallery, grabbed a beer at the hip craft brew spot, and enjoyed aboriginal-inspired dinner by the river.
We skipped the dessert for the promise of Semillon at home. The cellar door was closed when we arrived back, but with the quick ring of a bell we had wine service appear like magic.
Paired with fresh fruit and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, we capped off our last night laughing over a bottle of award-winning wine.
The breakfast bounty from the day before easily stretched into our second morning. We ate, packed up, and headed downstairs for one last stop at the cellar door. We chose a sparkling Pukka, a Chardonnay, and–you guessed it–a bottle of the dessert wine to take home as souvenirs. With this, we had officially welcomed white into our wine repertoire.
The getaway was made perfect all because we picked the right place to stay. What was special about this little loft in the Hunter Valley wasn’t the warm and toasty heat that greeted us, nor the luxe appliances and tasteful winery photos. What really stood out was all of the homemade touches within well-groomed accomodation. It was the fresh produce provided so we’d never go hungry. It was the homemade Semillon-and-sea-salt soap. It was the happy but docile dogs. Above all, it was the honest and eager hospitality of the hosts.
One hell of an AirBnB find, sure, but also one incredible first trip to a vineyard.
It was also our first trip back out into the world since it all shut down, and it was a very special one. We celebrated four years together in a time when celebration seems strained.
Living in Australia with my husband-to-be has been one of the greatest gifts life has given me–but everything has its price. In exchange for living this luxurious life, I trade almost everything in life I had before. My family sits 10,000 miles away. In today’s technological world, that’s not a terrible sentence. The global border shutdown seemed a strange twist of fate, though.
There’s a sense of helplessness–and on the worst days, a sense of betrayal–that accompanies me on my new life here.
It’s when I get to go out and experience exciting things and meet new people that I get a sense of fulfilment. It helps me to understand the darkness and light that exists in all of our lives. Most importantly, my experiences turn into stories, and that is the best gift I have to offer my family, who’s given me everything; and my closest friends, who offer their selfless love and reassurance as we all navigate the stages of life together.
This little winery trip was just the right amount of light to help illuminate the stretch of long days. We enjoyed the trip, we celebrated each other, and we came home well-stocked with wine and smiles.
Plus, I joined the mailing list, meaning Tranquil Vale wine will show up at my door in six month intervals so long as I continue to ask for it. Not only do I get to share the stories of this place, but when the borders open up and my friends and family finally come knocking, I’ll have some of this life-changing dessert wine to share with them, too.