"Drinking good wine with good food in good company is one of life's most civilized pleasures." Michael Broadbent
So to my other lunch - lunch out two days in a row. A most unlikely occurrence in this household. Anyway on Saturday with two groups of friends - the association was my old film society committee days - we decided to have lunch in the Yarra Valley at a winery. After a bit of hunting around for good places and availability Monika and Craig settled on Mandala - a winery in Dixon's Creek which is just a little beyond Yarra Glen, one of the Yarra Valley's main towns.
The winery and restaurant were beautiful. Of course it was. This is the Yarra Valley - a premium wine growing spot and a premium tourist destination for tourists and day trippers from Melbourne. After all it's only an hour - actually less than that to the nearest vineyards. It takes us in our Eltham home just over half an hour to get to the city (outside of rush hour that is) and within ten minutes or less we get to the first of those vineyards. In fact I believe that one of the vineyards in our Shire (local council area) has a small vineyard right in the middle of Eltham, although their cellar door is further out.
Anyway - above is the Mandala restaurant - DaVini Ristorante and below are two more shots of the winery and vineyard from their website, including one of the owner Charles Smedley.
It's family owned business which began with a small vineyard at Yarra Junction in 1999, and then expanded greatly with the purchase of this vineyard in Dixon's Creek in 2006. Pinot and Chardonnay are the main focus but there are other wines too, including the Pinot Grigio which I and several others on our table drank with our meals. Although I have to say here, that Pinot Grigio was not listed in the other grapes that they grow. I have to say it was lovely but just a tiny bit too pricey for David to lash out for after the meal.
The label - and the vineyard's symbol/name - is a Mandala, which Wikipedia describes thus:
"it originally was meant to represent wholeness and a model for the organizational structure of life itself, a cosmic diagram that shows the relation to the infinite and the world that extends beyond and within various minds & bodies." Wikipedia
According to the Mandala website:
"'Mandala' is an ancient Sanskrit word for 'sacred circle' - look closer and discover the Smedley family's circle of life"
It's a rather beautiful label, as many Australian labels are, which has different colourings on each variety of wine, and segments of which decorate the pages of the website. A think all designed by a company called Stoke Street Studios. A design website called Multi-colour Showcase described it thus:
"The circle depicted as central to the label’s identity signifies the elements that comprise what is important in life and the quest to achieve balance. The mandala draws the viewer into its centre. It represents Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer, North, South, East, West. It also represents the area’s geography, and the dreams, passions and visions of the family and their desire to nurture and educate the next generation." Multi-colour Showcase
And on the piece of blurb about one of their wines - The Compass Chardonnay it says:
"Charles has symbolised the four points in his Mandala to his four children who always centre him and guide him home."
Which to be honest doesn't make sense to me, unless his four children's names begin with the letters denoting the four points of the compass. There is nothing specifically about the children at those four points. The fundamental design of the mandala is the same for each wine - it's just the colours that change. A lot of thought went into it. Anyway it's beautiful.
And it all is. But ...
The restaurant - like virtually all the Yarra Valley winery restaurants these days - the vast majority anyway, is all glass and hard surfaces. Beautiful, but so, so noisy when you fill the room with people having a good time. As was the case on Saturday. And so part of the purpose of the exercise - catching up with friends - was a bit difficult - particularly I think if you were in the middle of the table and a little deaf, as was one of our friends. I felt bad for her. This semi-industrial look - industrial chic - is everywhere these days is it not? Every buzzy bar and café is much the same. And yes I know it's easier to clean up spills from a hard floor, but there are other ways to soften the noise. Tablecloths for a start. It was markedly different from Grossi Florentino Grill, which, I'm pretty sure has carpet on the floor and definitely has tablecloths. You could speak in a normal tone of voice and be heard in spite of the buzz around you.
Also but - the view was pleasant - more than pleasant and I'm being a bit picky here, but not quite as stunning as some other Yarra Valley spots. Here's another one - Boat O'Craigo - which our friends had previously visited. And it's typical of virtually any Yarra Valley vineyard.
And finally but - the food. Italian based and pretty nice, but not super nice and also not that cheap, although there are other wineries with much more expensive food. Indeed these days it is getting harder and harder to find a cheapish but good place to eat in the Yarra Valley - well in a vineyard anyway.
Which brings me to what I sort of wanted to say about all of this. When did it happen that if you had a cellar door then you had to really provide food? And then when you did start providing food when did you have to up your game and serve super high quality food? I tried to find articles on this but all I found for my various search terms were 'best of' lists of where to eat at a Yarra Valley winery. Those lists are all different of course, although a few pop up all the time - Oakridge, Levantine Hill - whose restaurant is now operated by celebrity chef Teague Ezard, Tarra Warra and perhaps Domaine Chandon and Yering Station. None of these are cheap options. Wonderful they may be - I have dined at Oakridge and it was indeed lovely.
In some instances one might wonder whether one is there for the wine or the food. Surely the wine is the main thing you would think? After all this is why these places came to be there in the first instance. And I suppose it made sense to provide some food. People might drink (and buy) more of your wine that way, so some began to serve simple things like platters of cheese, and charcuterie and other local produce - that is also an increasingly large Yarra Valley industry - then came pizza and pasta and now each new offering seems to be subtly upping the game. And of course you have to compete.
Witness Domaine Chandon - the biggest of the lot, which originally served virtually no food - maybe a biscuit and cheese - with your wine tasting selection (for which you paid), then came the platters and a bit of pasta kind of stuff - now upgraded to an actual restaurant. Now the views there are truly spectacular.
There are a few places that are simpler. Our friends tell us that Boat O'Craigo is one - mostly pizza and platters, but it seems to me that this kind of thing is becoming increasingly rare.
Not that I mind going out for an opulent gourmet meal, with ingredients sourced locally or grown in their own garden - that's another trend. If you have a restaurant with the space you have to have your own kitchen garden too.
It must cost a fortune to build these celebrity architect designed spaces, employ a high-grade chef, source expensive ingredients as well as growing wine. Indeed I noticed one local vineyard up for sale. I think it is one that we visited - Nillumbik Estate - superb wine, and pretty tasting looking food as well. Maybe I'm wrong and it's an old ad that is still up there. I hope so because we always enjoyed visiting when the very local vineyards have their open weekends.
An interesting contrast to Grossi anyway. Although in some ways the food was very similar - and in some instances actually superior. I think Grossi Florentino was having a bit of an off day last week - though not the chocolate cake.
And I would do it again. Well I would do a Yarra Valley lunch again. Any time. The Yarra Valley is just so, so beautiful and the wineries themselves are all stunning in different ways. I would like to try them all and then decide on which is actually best. There are over 40 wineries in the Yarra Valley - not all with restaurants it has to be said - but an increasing number of them. Days out for years to come.
When I was looking for suitable quotes I came across these two which are not really relevant, but I loved them. The first partly because of who said it!
"Men are like wine - some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age."
Pope John XXIII
"Wine is sunlight, held together by water." Galileo Galilei