The Criterion Hotel

It takes fortitude of a wardrobe-changing kind to take on a crumbling old building destined for demolition, and turn it into a hub for the community. That’s exactly what Ferg and Andrew have given the people of Sale in Central Gippsland – a pub to be proud of. It came as the result of a passion for heritage; ably guided by Heritage Victoria, they have turned a wreck that had barely survived since it was built in 1865 into the kind of local establishment where you’ll want to spend hours with your mates.

The hospitality side of things is looked after by Ferg Horan, a former chef at places like the Tinamba Hotel, amongst others. His team is turning Gippsland produce info the kind of pub food that brings a smile to your face. Nothing too wanky, just beautiful flavourful dishes that actually make you smile when they arrive. Yes, there’s a parma for those who are on that quest for the perfect one, but the steak is amazing too. It should be – Gippsland is beef country.

The hotel has some stunning accommodation as well, for those on the way somewhere.

All pubs should be a collection point, a place for people to meet, unwind, and put aside the cares of the day over a pint of the finest. The fact that the kitchen turns out some damn fine food is the best of bonuses.

Payten and Jones

The Yarra Valley’s rock and roll bad boys have gone and opened up a cellar door. Best mates Behn Payten and and Troy Jones have never done things the conventional way. The cellar door is just as likely to have a food truck parked out front as it is to be sporting some new graffiti artwork on the side walls. Don’t be fooled by the deliberately urban vibe, though. These wines are sophisticated. Behn is happy to have a play with skin contact, whole-bunch, and SO2-free, but the range cleverly spans the gamut from fine elegant chardonnays to beautifully weighted savoury pinot noir, to outright ball-tearing funky shiraz. Look for the gorilla if you’re into the latter.

This is no picturesque vineyard-side cellar door. You’re in the heart of Healesville, across the road from the Four Pillars gin distillery, in a sharp fit-out with picnic tables out back for sitting and drinking a glass or three of the good stuff with whatever offerings the food trucks have on the weekends. The OHO trip coincided with a damn tasty BBQ from The Cypriot Grill – a caravan resplendent in yellow livery turning out awesome accompaniments to Behn and Troy’s booze. So far three significant pieces of graffiti art adorn the walls, and are in themselves worthy of a drop-by.

Giant Steps

Giant Steps quickly became the stalwart of the Yarra Valley winery and restaurant scene when Phil Sexton first opened it over a decade ago. The structure has become a reassuring symbol of always-available quality wines and food situated in Healesville’s east end.

Winemaker Steve Flamsteed has an unwavering commitment to making quality wines that express the place they’re from, whether it’s one of the single-vineyard series wines or a regional blend. His commitment to excellence is exemplified in his path to winemaking. First he was a chef, then a cheesemaker, but it was wine that caught his attention. While studying oenology, he paid his way as a chef with Maggie Beer. It’s unsurprising that he emerged with a passion for local expressions of produce.

Steve’s uncompromising attention to detail yields results, from the vineyard to the wine glass, and the experience at the Healesville cellar-door restaurant is a reflection of this same approach. Staff are knowledgeable and genuinely love talking about the wines they’re selling. It helps that the tasting room is behind the glass wall, right in the barrel hall where you’re immersed in the workings and glorious smells of a winery.

After a recent refurbishment, the place is looking as fresh and contemporary as ever. It’s a pleasant place to sit and enjoy the food, and definitely to appreciate the good work of Steve and the team in the winery.

Boat O’Craigo

With a name that harks back to the Scottish ancestral roots of owners the Graham family, Boat O’Craigo punches way above its weight for quality wines. Indeed, Halliday named it as ‘Dark Horse Winery of the Year’ in 2018. The cellar door on the high side of Healesville heading out of town is a perfect place to sit and lose a couple of hours trying wines and eating platters of local produce, or the simple traditional pizzas expertly turned out of the tiny kitchen.

Wines are made by the legendary Rob Dolan at his Warranwood facility, from fruit grown on the two estate sites at Kangaroo Ground and Healesville. Quality is high, with an emphasis on wines made for drinking and enjoying. Rob is known for his generous winemaking style, and Boat O’Craigo wines definitely fit that bill.

The deck outside shares the close panorama of Mt Riddell with the dining area inside the building. For people who might be heading up to Marysville or just on a drive up the Black Spur, stepping out of the car and encountering the stunning view across the lush vineyard to the foot of the mountain comes as something of a surprise. It’s easily overlooked as you head up the highway, but with the triple threat of great wine, food and a surprise view, it’s a must-stop venue.

Oakridge

You might know Oakridge for its deserved reputation as a producer of some of the best wines in Australia. The best wine writers consistently score Oakridge’s sacred drop over 95 points, and for good reason. The cellar door and restaurant, set in the middle of the vineyards at Coldstream, is a beautiful architectural work of minimalist art, and is the perfect place to try all the latest as well as some selected museum releases. Winemaker David Bicknell is one of the greats, described by James Halliday as ‘an extremely gifted winemaker’, so the opportunity to sample the wines with knowledgeable staff is one you should consider seriously as a life goal.

Another life goal should be to eat the food of Oakridge’s dynamic duo, Matt Stone and Jo Barrett. Both might appear familiar to you from cameo appearances on TV shows, including MasterChef. The ethos of local and seasonal is taken seriously, with an array of just-picked produce coming straight out of the large garden behind the winery. Matt handles the savoury flavours delicately and with such finesse that you’ll be hard-pressed to resist the instagram urge before devouring. Go slowly, because you’ll want to remember every bite. The same is true of Jo’s exquisite desserts.

One of the things we all look for when we go out to dine is flavour that we won’t experience at home. Jo and Matt both pair flavours with such bold confidence, you’re guaranteed a unique taste experience that you won’t get anywhere else, much less at home. Some flavours seem so unusual, ethereal and beautiful that they’re impossible to put a finger on. Who’d have thought that the lime-like acidity in a dish might come from the unexpectedly delicious addition of green ants?

 

Six Acres

The name could not be any more literal. Six Acres is truly six acres of vineyard producing estate-grown (vegan-friendly) wines in small batches on site. The Zuccaro family has tended this plot lovingly, subscribing to the adage that all good winemakers say: ‘Good wine is grown in the vineyard.’ It’s a prime little patch of Yarra Ranges dirt near Silvan in the Upper Yarra region of the Valley. Here the soils are deep and volcanic, and the fruit yields wines of density and structure. Some of the greatest wines of the Yarra Valley come from up this way; we’re not far from Seville Estate, Hoddles Creek, Thousand Candles, and vineyards growing fruit for Giant Steps, De Bortoli and Oakridge. So the area has some kudos.

Six Acres is a smaller affair, located in a modest (cute) shed with a great view. However, don’t let size fool you. The Zuccaros are focused on quality in their pinot noir, merlot and cabernet. They pride themselves on minimal intervention wines, using none of the usual animal products (like eggs, which are traditionally used for fining). The cellar door is a fun and super-personal experience with a passionate family sharing some stonking wines. You’ll need to allow a budget for take-home wines, but nothing is super-expensive, so don’t be shy!

Trofeo Estate

The word “Amphora” conjures up images of the Romans to me. It turns out that’s exactly what Trofeo Estate have here – ancient-looking clay jars used to ferment wines without imparting flavours from wood (such as with oak barrels) whilst still letting in that crucial slow leak of oxygen which ages and softens the wine (unlike stainless steel.)

Winemaker Richard Darby says that the huge clay pots allow the truest of fruit flavours to shine. We did a head-to-head of the same Syrah as fermented in clay vs. fermented in oak. We could see his point. Beautifully focussed and delicate fruit flavours.

The estate is also a restaurant, set in a former passionfruit cannery from the 1930’s. The food is local where possible, always seasonal, and matched nicely to the wines as you’d expect.

Join the mailing list and follow this place on social media. The music nights are epic, and there are plans to host movie nights and more.

The Farmer’s Place

We don’t know how many times we’ve taken this trip and passed the shed-like structure made from shipping containers which houses the Farmer’s Place on our way to Lorne or Anglesea. We’re glad we made this pit stop though. The day was perfect for a long breakfast outside in the herb garden. We had the rice pudding and French toast. The former was light (for such a big dish) and tasty. The latter was as you’d want your French toast to come. The lavender syrup was amazing.

If you’re staying in the area, consider booking ahead into one of their many courses on food and growing. These guys preach what they practise, making the Farmer’s Place much more than a simple pit stop.

Bom Gosto

So, you left the city early, nothing was open when you left, and the first stop has to be a great coffee. Found it. The coffee here is from Toby’s Estate, and expertly made. Let’s face it, that’s what matters at your first stop on any road trip. 

‘Bom Gosto’. It sounds awesome, and it means ‘Good Taste’. After nine years running Smith St mainstay Deelish (now Rockwell and Sons), the location has shifted to Lilydale, gateway of the Yarra Valley. Dee runs the restaurant, and her partner Geoff runs the 16-acre farm where they grow much of the produce on the menu.

We had the smashed pumpkin with feta, dukkah, greens from the farm, poached eggs and earthy spices, and also the mushrooms with kale, seeds, feta and poached egg. The accompanying breads were multigrain and sourdough respectively. The french toast is a rich, eggy bread with bacon and maple syrup. The bacon is to die for, with additional smokiness from the wood-fired oven, which the chefs tend as if it were a needy child. This is balanced with freshness from local strawberry slices, raspberries, dusky blueberries, and tart apple. There was also a fresh minty taste with a lingering depth that we couldn’t identify. “It’s chocolate mint – we have a plant out the back”, Paul, the barista, tells us.

One thing is for sure, you will not leave hungry.

Clyde Park

Clyde Park is one of those jaw-dropping moments in wine touring. You step out of the car behind the winery, walk around to the restaurant and cellar door, and find yourself looking over a balcony across the valley. It’s a stunning view across the vines. Pinot lovers will have a field day here. It’s a study in terroir – the impact of local conditions, soils, etc on specific sites. Here they craft single-block wines of such different refined character that it’s hard to believe they come from the same property.

The real bonus here is that the food is amazing. Great wood-fired pizzas cooked in front of you (weekends), and a seasonal al la carté menu with what owner Sue humbly calls “home-style” food. It’s the kind of home I’d like to live in, if this is what’s cooked there. It’s so easy to spend half a day here, tasting extraordinary wine, eating Sue’s food and staring out at that view. Wow, that view.

Oh, if you’re planning a special event, while you’re standing at the tasting bar, turn 180 degrees and stare at  the awesomeness that is the barrel-hall event space. Long table dinner or lunch in a working winery. Perfect.