Yarra Valley: Giant Steps, Measured Leaps
As soon as I walked into Giant Steps, outside Melbourne, I smelled coffee, which is not something that’s ever happened to me in a winery. The vast building, which resembles a huge wooden crate, serves as a combination front porch and town square for local residents. They sip tea, drink coffee imported from five countries, and eat freshly baked pastries while checking e-mail. Then a lunchtime crowd arrives for pizza, or single-pot entrées like steamed snapper with gai lan in a lemongrass broth. Regulars come for handmade chocolates, beers from Spain, Yorkshire, Bavaria, and throughout Australia, or any of a dozen house-matured cheeses. You can also buy wine, of course, from Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander—notably a Chardonnay that tastes like nectarines and the slightest touch of cream—and plenty of people do. They just don’t think of it as anything exalted, which is the point. “We want it to feel like you’ve come to a friend’s winery,” says owner Phil Sexton. “We get people saying it’s too noisy. Listen, it’s deliberately noisy. The idea is to democratize. Change the model.”
In the Yarra, Sexton has found the right place to democratize wine. The region is just a short drive from the city, and its gentle landscape invites casual tourists. There are no major architectural achievements here, and no rarefied terroirs that foment cultish devotion among wine geeks. As I drove country lanes lined with stringybark gums, I was reminded of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which is about finding beauty in understatement and imperfection. Healesville itself is pleasant but not quaint, and hardly twee, as wine towns from St. Helena to Stellenbosch have tended to become. It has no showy cathedrals, no glossy shopping districts. The Healesville Hotel, which houses the town’s best restaurant, is a seven-room reclamation project without en suite toilets.
Yarra wines, too, are replete with wabi-sabi. Even the largest producer, De Bortoli, strives for wines that taste of their place rather than their grape. “My goal is to lose varietal characteristic altogether,” says owner-winemaker Stephen Webber. That means he’d prefer that I couldn’t tell his Viognier from his Sauvignon Blanc. I could, but barely. Both had soaked up enough sun to get where they needed to go, but were equally at home beside roasted skate, which is how I had them, alfresco, at De Bortoli’s Italian restaurant, Locale, which looked big-city formal but turned out to be as casual as everywhere else I’d been. Vocal and opinionated, Webber is fueled by an urge to discuss, debate, and revisit that seems utterly at odds with the prevailing “No worries, mate” attitude. It’s all worries with Webber—Will his Shiraz get too ripe? Will I eat at the right restaurants in Sydney?—but ruminated over with such passion that it’s hard not to take to him immediately.
I knew Bailey Carrodus would be another story. Famously prickly, he was approaching 80 when I met him (he has since died) and had little time to educate visitors. His Yarra Yering ranks among my favorite Australian wineries, but I waited until my final morning in the area before driving up a dirt path and finding him standing at the end of it, bundled in a barn jacket despite the summer warmth.
Carrodus’s life and the modern vinous history of the Yarra are basically equivalent. Into the 1900’s, the valley had made wines that were highly regarded. Then the industry vanished. Carrodus had studied botany, but decided to try wine making. His debut vintage, the 1973, marked the Yarra’s first commercial wines since the early 1920’s. He wasn’t certain how various grapes might take to the area’s soil, so he retained flexibility by calling his Cabernet blend Dry Red Wine No. 1 and his Shiraz Dry Red Wine No. 2. Those generic names have remained, as have the overtly plain labels that seem tied to the Model T era, and a production style that is profoundly amateurish, in the finest sense. When I visited, he was still doing some of the wine-making (though he’d relinquished much of the physical work to Mark Haisma) and manning the austere tasting room, which consisted of just a few tables and chairs.
After some grumbling, he set out a small sampling of remarkable wines. Soon after, he told me he had work to do, in a tone that wasn’t without warmth but made clear that this was all of his time I was getting. “Close the door when you leave,” he said. I glanced up several sips later and realized that half an hour had passed. I couldn’t believe I was alone in the tasting room, that the world wasn’t beating a path to its door. As I took a whiff of Chardonnay and noted the late-arriving presence of honeysuckle, I heard some noise outside. I feared my idyllic time was ending but soon it was quiet again. I turned my attention to the Pinot Noir.
Bruce Schoenfeld is Travel + Leisure’s wine and spirits editor.