Today is Friday. It's now nine o'clock. I've had a really bad, salty German dinner (a fatty pork cutlet, a fatty sausage, and some exceptionally fatty-even-for-Leberkäse leberkäse), a really ordinary, watery lager (Dortmunder Aktien-Brauerei), and I've had so much God damned wine that I swear my pee is going to come out red and reeking of alcohol. But anyhow.
Today started at the old Seppelt winery (or is it Seppeltsfield? I couldn't really tell). The first tip-off should have been the big blue "This roadway kept tidy by Southcorp" sign a mile before the winery; the second tip-off should have been the utterly gigantonormous parking lot complete with separate toilet buildings - oh, and the 187 mL bottles of cheap wine on offer. The tasting room, well, you could probably park a small aircraft carrier in there, and there are stacks and stacks of a bewildering array of bottles all over the place, willy-nilly, ranging from $12 magnums of nasty sparkling all the way to a noticeably un-priced "demonstration bottle" of a 19th century port-style wine ('this bottle is guaranteed to be 1 of less than 500 produced', displayed in its own specially alarmed case). Oooh oily oh boily.
To their credit, they had a decent selection of stuff available for tasting. I skipped their ordinary $9 riesling, tried their premium riesling, tried their superpremium cellar door only riesling. Both of those guys cost less than $20, and, well, yawn. Tried a couple of different sparkling wines - eg the Fleur du Lys vintage reserve - and, again, yawn. Not bad, not great, totally innocuous, won't upset your relatives from Jersey. Tried a couple of shiraz, a cabernet, I don't know what else, spat the whole lot down a gigantic spitoon disguised as a wine barrel, didn't really like any of it, didn't hate any of it either. Very corporate, I guess. Tasting room staff were attractive, well-groomed, and lightened up considerably when I cracked jokes about Southcorp finally selling their heater business ("well, true, but it's a lot harder to get cooling equipment for the grapes now!"). My overall impression: corporate, sure, but you can't fault them for it. Friendly people, attractive packaging, not what I was looking for.
Next: Gnadenfrei. I had wanted to stop here because... well, long story. Back at Netscape, there was this kind of disarming Austrian (I think) guy who worked on Mozilla named Waldemar Horvath. He had an amazingly out of control white man's fro that scared children, but was always very nice to me, especially after I fixed his Mac for him. (Little known fact: I once was an Apple trained technician, and I still am very good with all kinds of Apple hardware.) One day, I noticed that K&L Wines, a Bay Area wine retailer, had a bottle of something called The Waldemar, for US $30. I thought it might be funny to buy him a bottle, but come on. $30? No way. Maybe if it were $5, for novelty value. But... the price keeps dropping as K&L realize they can't sell it to save their lives. It's now $15. So... I stopped by this funky house at the top of a hill, up a really bad 4WD-only rutted muddy road. In the rain. And in the basement of this house was a big empty chilly room that looks like one of your creepy cousin's rumpus rooms, the one they built in the 1970s with knotty pine panelling, you know, the one that smells like rat urine. And in the corner of this dank room is a small tasting bar complete with three huge old barrels of some kind. It's depressing and horrible, and there's a row of ugly bottles, two glasses, and a chalkboard. Everything is $30. The winemaker nearly falls downstairs and somehow you find yourselves talking about how Gallo are horrible, nasty people and how their $60 cabernet is "bullshit" (that's a quote from the winemaker himself). He's a Seppelt family descendant, "the black sheep" as he puts it, and his wines taste... well, frankly, fucked up. Dan thought they tasted like tomato soup. I thought they tasted like one of those weird eight color smelly felt pens, maybe the blueberry one. The winemaker demands that you take that back and agree that it tastes like an amazing mouth-filling load of blackcurrant. Uh, right. Desperate to escape, an old woman comes downstairs, dropping a glass and breaking it, causing much shouting. You make your excuses, vow to buy some when you get back home - he gives you a back label from his US importer to figure it out later - and get the hell out of there. Later on, at the gas station in town, you throw out the label and try to forget the day you went to Gnadenfrei. Truly, it lives up to its name.
Further down the road, past the Seppelt family mausoleum and about a dozen Lutheran churches, there's a small sign pointing you down another dirt road to Peter Lehmann. Now, I remember Peter Lehmann well as being the first Aussie shiraz I ever had that I liked. (Thanks to Chris and Barb Kritzer for giving it to us!) I also have vague memories of Mr Lehmann being a friendly old guy who helped out his fellow growers in the late 1970s by coöperatively selling their excess grapes after vinifying them. Their tasting room is great: a big, open, airy room with a warming fire at one end. The only problem would be the spitoons, which are about knee-high, meaning that you look doubly ridiculous when spitting. Busy when we arrived, it cleared out a little bit and we settled in for nearly two hours of tasting and yakking with a wonderfully friendly, very knowledgeable woman whose name escapes me. It was a hell of a lot of fun, especially as once she warmed to us, she started pulling all kinds of bottles out of the back room - you know, the ones that cost up to A$75 a bottle, and which are clearly marked on the tasting room price list as being NOT AVAILABLE FOR TASTING. It's amazing how well things can work out when you're friendly, patient, and show knowledge of and interest in the industry and in a specific winemaker. It was cool. The chenin blanc was straightforward, fruity, and pleasant without being too sweet. The riesling, well... the Blue Eden one struck me as being ballsy as hell, all acid and brightness. I loved it. I'm gambling that it'll mellow out in ten years... if I can leave it alone that long. The ordinary riesling was fine, but not freaky enough to really grab me, and the aged riesling they had (the reserve, I guess they'd say), was lovely, but not yet old enough to really do it for me. (I like them stinky.) They just released a 100% grenache rosé in an especially beautiful bottle (the Stelvin cap and label make it look like something you'd pay €20 for in a chic Paris boutique) - that was simple, fruity, and pleasing without (again) being too sweet. I was impressed. From there, we moved on to the reds, and I'm sad to say that without my price list (which is in the car, and it's really cold out there tonight), I don't remember all of them... save for the most expensive ones, the Eight Songs shiraz, and the $75 flagship shiraz (sorry, can't remember the name of it). For my tasted, the Eight Songs (a snip at $65) is just about the ideal of Aussie shiraz, but with French not American oak. It was sublime, really, but my problem is just that I don't like them like that. I prefer them a little funkier. Amazingly, I got a huge pour of both of them, so I was able to wander off into my one little wine-wank universe for about fifteen minutes, just smelling and sipping and spitting and in general behaving like a complete prat. If I were wealthy and wanted to serve an obviously expensive wine that everyone would like, the Eight Songs would be it, hands down. I suspect it's better than Grange, but I won't know until tomorrow (I have a tasting booked at Penfolds, but that's another story). Their Merlot was really, really good for a Merlot, with wonderfully integrated oak that never upstaged the wine itself. The Black Queen sparkling shiraz was as good as a sparkling shiraz could be, pleasantly tannic. The Late Harvest Frontignac was a lot like a muscat, but made me wish it were a moscato - at nearly 12% alcohol, it was just a bit too much. The Seven Surveys grenach shiraz mataro was good, but not as funky as other Rhône blends. The 1997 Mentor (I had to explain to our hostess that that was a condom brand back home, which elicited a lot of laughs as I pointed out that at least Mentor is the most expensive condom brand), a Bordeaux blend, was perfectly lovely but not a fantastic value at $40, especially not compared with the Sevenhills. And, last but not least, Dan bought a bottle of the liqueur muscat, which was great for what it is at $20 a pop. I left really satisfied with the tasting experience, and looking forward to having the Black Queen we took along in front of the fireplace some winter's night in the future.
Virtually next door to Lehmann was Richmond Grove. It had a huge parking lot and an oversized tasting room, and 187 mL bottles of their cheapo red and white... yup, Southcorp again. Or was it BRL Hardy? I can't remember. I'd had a bottle of the 1994 riesling back in Perth which I loved, but I was disappointed to see that they wanted A$25 for the old riesling they had in stock - I had paid $20 in Perth, and felt ripped off at $25. The current riesling was OK but nothing special, the sparkling wine was boring, and I felt I had to leave lest anyone ask me if I wanted some fries, er some chardonnay with that. So I did.
Now, I had promised Dan we'd get some good German food for lunch, but at the last minute I decided I would have a tantrum and demand we just have peanut butter sandwiches again (to save money, and to use the bread before it goes completely stale). We did. It sucked. I'm sorry, Dan. At least we're almost out of peanut butter at this point.
Making our way up the narrow winding roads in the rain, we passed Bethany - I suppose I should have stopped - and instead wound up at Yalumba. Now, let me tell you a really embarassing story that I really should mention in public. But, being such a swell, honest guy, I will tell you regardless. Back in Tasmania, I somehow got the notion that I should try some cheap, horrible cask wines (aka Chateau Cardboard). So, I got a box of pressings style red, and a box of Yalumba Rosé. Yalumba may be a well respected family owned winery that is especially known for their viognier, but they do sell an awful lot of 2 liter casks which are actually pretty good for wine-in-a-box. But it's still cheap cask wine. So... I got this two liter box of rosé chilling and went on a 24km hike way up in the Tassie high country. After the hike, I was so exhausted/elated that I promptly stripped down, had a shower, proceeded to cook a fabulous pasta dinner in the buff, and start swilling down the rosé like there was no tomorrow. This predictably led to some awful, truly heinous consequences: namely, vomiting on my part in just a few hours, followed by a drunken dismemberment of the Yalumba rosé box in the kitchen sink, all the while swearing that I would never, ever do that again. (I haven't, yet, but you know we all slip up from time to time...) As a result, all Dan has to do to piss me off is just to say the words 'Yalumba rosé' and I get all growly.
Yalumba's big. Real big. It kind of looks like a cheesy Disney world. You know, Tomorrowland, Futureworld, Yalumbaland. There are twee signposts telling you which way to the Cooperage and which way to the Tasting Cellar. But when you actually get inside the tasting room, you'll notice the stuffed bear holding the wooden tray that, I guess, figured in early ads for the company. Best of all, of the three pouring staff, this one poor woman got the hiccups just as I walked in. So... I gave her my best 'you are a horrible, disgusting tramp' look, which got her laughing, and hiccoughing even worse. Hey, it was fun.
The wines: The viognier was stunning, as far as viognier goes, with a great balance between that weird floral/florid viognier nose, as well as the oily unctuousness that you only get in a really fine viognier. It wasn't as lush as the Clonakilla, but I liked it a little bit better due to its restraint. The rieslings we tried - I think the Heggies and some other one - were OK, but I was kind of riesling-ed out at this point. I was very, very impressed by the nebbiolo and dolcetto, neither of which are available any other way than direct from the winery; both are $25, and come in horribly fashionable bottles that made me want to own them immediately. Both wines had that peculiarly Italianate thing going on where the beauty and fruit of the wine are somehow undone in a mind-blowing mouth-puckering acid explosion at the end of the glass that makes me somehow want to jump up and down and scream how happy I am that people bother making these kinds of wines outside Italy. In fact, if I didn't have a few Bonny Doon charbonos, sangioveses, and so on in my cellar already, I would have bought a few of these. They were that good. The winner of All Time Fucked Up Wine, though, would have to be the sienna, which is apparently an Aussie-created CSIRO cross between cabernet sauvignon and some Spanish varietal that is so obscure I didn't recognize it when they said what it was. It was pretty good, but MAN, talk about tannic - I had to wait a minute or two for my mouth to un-pucker after that one. I guess I could say I liked it, but it didn't compare with the wild rush of sensations the Italian ones provided. I also tried a pinot gris which was kind of a pinot grisgio - not French, not Alsatian, not Italian, not really that wonderful. I'm sticking with Bonny Doon on that one too.
Soon enough, I noticed that they had a shiraz viognier available which was not available for tasting. At least I got to talking with Mr Tasting Dude about it, and I was able to find out enough about it to talk myself into buying some, which I did. But the huge surprise was this: Yalumba also do a A$15 Barossa shiraz that includes about 5% viognier that's co-fermented with the shiraz. Wow. That really shocked me - it had that distinctive shiraz-viognier flavor that I love so much, if perhaps not nearly as good as the Clonakilla - but for A$15? That's insane. It immediately took out the Penfolds cheapie red as the best value for money red in Australia, in my book. It was faboo. The more expensive shiraz they did, however, had no viognier, more oak, and was good but not remarkable in any way. So, I grabbed my bottle of shiraz viognier and took off. Note to prospective visitors: they also sell the Grosset-Yalumba 'mesh' riesling at the tasting room for $25 a pop, but you can't taste it. Guess I didn't have to have some sent to Julian, but hey. How was I to know?
Next stop was Henschke. I don't really know why I went... OK, I went so that I could taste the Hill of Grace, or maybe the next most expensive shiraz. But... the Irish woman running the tasting room disarmed me. She gave me a really hard time for not wanting to try the chardonnay or the semillon (in a loving way, actually), and generally disoriented me completely. Their riesling is OK, but not great; their gewürztraminer is bone dry but doesn't smell like it at all. It's oddly spicy on the finish, and frankly I think it could have used a little tiny bit of sugar in there after all. The semillon sauvignon blanc was exceptionally good (but, then again, I really don't like the semillon note that's in there at all), but at this point I looked at the price last and saw that these wines were all nearly $30 a bottle. Ooops. I lost my nerve. They did have the $80 Shiraz available for tasting, but I started to feel so bad about tasting wines I would not possibly buy that I stopped right there. Dan soldiered on, trying the pinot, but at that point I was truly aching to leave, feeling like a complete jerk for trying wine I couldn't afford.
It was then that I had a nasty run-in with the cellar door itself.
Henschke is a really old winery - over 150 years at this point - and it was apparently built by midgets. The cellar door is only about 175 cm tall. Me, I'm nearly 190 cm tall. And Prue, the winemaker, is short as well, just like Dan and the other tasting staff. So, suddenly, I heard this amazing boom! and realized I wasn't outside like I thought I should have been at that point. And I was bleeding. Not a lot, but enough to freak out the woman working in the office. I suppose it's not every day you get customers walking into the door, bouncing off, and starting to bleed. Ouch. Well, I now have a nasty bump on my head, some scabbing, and am feeling even more horrible than ever about having visited Henschke.
And I didn't even get to taste the shiraz. Ah well.
Finally, we had to stop by Karl Seppelt's winery, aka Grand Cru. Franz Pribil, a handsome and intelligent Bear from Perth we'd met, has a sister who married into the Seppelt family, who sold out their Seppeltsfield winery back in the 1980s. Once they did that, Karl went on to found a new, smaller winery that's kind of hard to find. It, too, is way up a badly rutted muddy dirt road. Franz was kind enough to call up his sister and warn her about the Californians coming to visit, but as luck would have it, she and her husband weren't there when we arrived - they'd gone down to the Barossa to do some shopping. Damn! So, we tasted a few things with the caretaker. The riesling was OK, nothing special. The shiraz was just fine, no flaws, but nothing special. Not really wanting to spend any more time, I left fairly quickly, after shooting the breeze about Gallo and so on; either E or J had been there 25 years ago, and we talked about how the Gallos never seem to divulge information about their operations. Kind of interesting, but it was now late in the day and I needed to go drink something, ANYTHING other than wine. So, I bought the riesling to be polite, and a bottle of the sparkling shiraz because, after all, that's what Seppelt is best known for, and at A$20, it was a pretty good deal.
Tomorrow: the A$100 "Penfolds Ultimate Tasting": rip-off or merely a bad deal? Plus: a trip to Orlando/Jacob's Creek, and a visit to Charlie Melton.