"Oh, you'll like it up there," the policeman said politely after handing my companion an $80 ticket for doing 77 kilometers per hour (48 mph) in a 60-kilometer zone. "Lovely wine," he added. After commending her for keeping to the left side of the road, he suggested a better route to our destination, Pokolbin, the main wine-growing town in the lower Hunter Valley. "Where are you staying?" he asked. "Tower Lodge," I said, and his eyes rolled back in his head, as though he should have doubled the fine.
The night before, at the tail end of a two-week trip to Sydney, we'd had dinner with a group of friends that included wine columnist Peter Bourne. He had urged us to spend a couple of days in the Hunter Valley visiting "cellar doors" (tasting rooms) and trying the Shirazes and Sémillons for which the region is famous. "And if you go," he said, "you must stay at the Tower." Suddenly, conversations stopped, cutlery clattered, and the faces around the table glowed. Yes, yes, you must see the Tower, beautifully quirky, only 12 rooms, famous investors, a million dollars Australian per room, luxe, luxe, luxe. Oh, and the owner's a maverick.
And so, 2 1/2 hours, countless rows of gorgeously scruffy pines, and one speeding ticket later, we rolled into Pokolbin, whose main thoroughfare is called Broke Road (perhaps in salutation to failed wineries past), and headed through vineyards and farmlands dominated by grand Victorian manses toward the portals of Tower Lodge.
Bold, purple rectangles that look like sandstone—but in fact are colored concrete troweled over brick—both intrigue and forebode at the entrance. After a short driveway, an angular complex that would arrest the eye in any location astonishes in this one: more purple surfaces jut heavenward and seem to surprise one another by eventually intersecting. It's not clear whether we are in Marrakesh, Santa Fe, or a Le Corbusier fantasy, but the effect in the surrounding wide-open field is strangely harmonious.
Arranged around a fountained courtyard reminiscent of ancient Rome, the rooms are spacious and airy—with 16-foot ceilings—many with white stucco walls, brick floors, massive beds and headboards, bent copper chandeliers, and heavy, personality-laden chairs. They convey the notion that a very demanding Babylonian, compulsive about personal comfort, designed, oversaw, and road-tested these chambers to psychotic extremes. All but two have narcotizing king-sized beds (a pleasure if you've just come from France or England, where a request for a king is greeted with the same response as if you'd given your address as "Box 13, Mars"). Several ceilings have straw panels bordered with mahogany, giving a voice to the interior design of yet another country—this time, Malaysia. (That makes five international styles so far—six if you include the Australian signature of galvanized steel roofs; seven if you consider the immense public rooms, featuring a baronial fireplace and mammoth furnishings that might have been designed by Charles Foster Kane.) The hotelier responsible for all this extravagance is a maverick indeed. Len Evans, the best known and most imaginative of the local vintners, not only conceived the lodge but also financed and designed it himself.
By many estimates, Evans—who has started up no fewer than three wineries in this valley alone—has done more for the Australian wine industry through his promotional and viticultural contributions than any other individual. Australia has recently supplanted France as the second-leading exporter of wines to the United States (Italy is the leader).
We had arrived shortly before dinner and, though hungry, played with all the room gadgets first—we opened the blinds with a remote, watched the brass-highlighted ceiling fans spin gold as they whirled above us, and practically ice-skated across the capacious, mosaicked bathroom. Since Tower Lodge serves only breakfast, we headed out to Robert's at Pepper Tree, co-owned by Evans and generally considered the best restaurant in the area.