Melbourne Australia: Wine Tours and Grand Plans

A riverboat cruises along the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia. Max Hartshorne photos.
A riverboat cruises along the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia. Max Hartshorne photos.
Nick Johansen teaches the ins and outs of swirling and sipping.
Nick Johansen teaches the ins and outs of swirling and sipping.

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

I joined a group of about twenty wine enthusiasts for a trip to the Yarra Valley’s wine country.

The van drove down winding roads through wooded hills and then onto more wide-open areas with rolling hills and mountains in the distance.

It was a gorgeous, sunny, fall day and spirits were high as we got to know each other across the aisle of the van.

I asked my mostly Aussie bus mates about sports in Australia. I told them about how much fun I had at the AFL game on Sunday. Most of them, being from near Sydney, didn’t share the Melbournian love of this game, they said that cricket was the really dominant sport in Oz.


“Netball is huge,” they added. I had never heard of this game, but they told me that girls play it and it involves a basket and no backboard and requires a lot of passing and shooting. There are two kinds of rugby here, union and league.

The union is the pro game that is on TV, the league is a lower-level version. ‘Footy’ is what everyone in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, and everywhere but Sydney loves. Footy is short for Australian rules Football.

The hills here were quite green, owing to a few inches of rain that had fallen recently, but it was clear seeing the shrunken ponds that a serious drought was still ravaging the country.

More than sixty wineries are spread out through this vast valley, and we got a chance to sample some interesting wines like sparkling red. It’s better than it sounds, but we can’t buy this variety, from Chandon, in the states.

More Screw Tops

Here too, I learned that screw tops are becoming more and more popular, as winemakers have discovered that the metal tops avoid cork rot that can spoil good wines.

Our host, Nick Johansen is an avid wine lover who made the trip a lot of fun with light-hearted banter and constant jabbing at the residents of other states. “We have few interstate rivalries here, you can tell,” he told me with a laugh.

Under his tutelage, we learned that swirling the glass loosens the molecules in the wine and brings out the aromas; that letting wine breathe is basically meaningless, and we perfected our sipping, sucking, and swirling techniques.

It was a great way to get to know about wines and the only thing missing was a chance to see a kangaroo… The only one we spotted, I missed; it was munching grass in a field by the road. Damn!

Tina Banitska
Tina Banitska, who created The Convent, a series of seven art galleries, a cafe, a bar, and a large function hall where high-class weddings are held almost every week.

The Convent is Just the First of Tina’s Many Grand Plans

Tina Banitska paused for a moment, feeling a bit emotional when she took me through her 15-year labor of love called The Convent in Daylesford, Victoria. “Excuse me,” she said, sensing that I could tell this made her emotional.

She grabbed my arm and continued, “I get this way sometimes, Max,” she said. I could totally relate and fell in love with this amazing woman the moment I met her.

To know Tina is to walk through this sprawling converted 1860s convent, a project of immense proportions that began two decades back when she saw the place from a distance. She knew she had to have it, and it wasn’t until years later that she made her dream a reality.

Tina is a warm person, who says your name and reaches out and touches you to make her point. The scale of what she’s built here is impressive — seven beautifully sunny art galleries, a restored chapel, a large retail store, a cafe, a lounge bar, and function rooms that accommodate large weddings.

Restored Nun’s Quarters

Oh, and gorgeous gardens, restored original nun’s quarters, and a dynamic personality that radiates confidence, her belief in the power of the arts, and in the goodness of people to help her make it all work.

She has 45 full-time employees — gardeners, chefs, clerks, baristas, sales help, and assistants, and she gives them all the power and confidence to do their jobs without her meddling. As we sipped chardonnay in the Altar Bar, she told me how glad she was that I came, with a flattering amount of conviction. I was too.

“I didn’t know anything about finance,” she explained, and when she signed up for a multimillion-dollar mortgage at 18 percent interest, most people would have balked. But again, it’s that belief, her sincere belief that creating a place where artists can show their work, and in putting such love into the restoration, and the attention to detail, it comes back to that old saying, “If you build it they will come.” And they sure do!

Artistic Banisters and a Tower

The stairway banisters are welded to create a piece of art, as are the details of the crenelations and stained glass windows. The massive structure begins first with a Victorian-style tower, then the middle section with another tower is Romanesque, and finally, the side devoted to the function rooms has a modern tower. Yet they blend together and stand out on the tall hill overlooking Mount Franklin.

There are acres of polished light wood floors, and a chapel that’s perfectly restored, an excellent location for weddings. She brings in more than 120 of them a year, many from overseas couples who hear about her venue and come all the way to this town outside of Melbourne to tie the knot.

“I’ve got a secret to tell you,” she whispered, sipping her wine and smiling. “I’ve bought another convent, it’s five times as big as this one.” This new project will also take millions in loans, and despite the daunting challenge, you just know that Tina will make it all work out.

“I want to begin an artist mentoring program, where we teach artists about the business of selling their work, so they can not only create art but make a living at it.”

When she saw that this second convent was up for sale, about 35 minutes away in Ballarat, she stayed up all night writing a proposal. The nuns even agreed to finance part of the deal for her. Of course, they did, she’s Tina Banitska, and she believes it will all work out.

A kookaberra makes the sound of someone laughing. These birds have gotten used to free helpings of meat scraps on the patio of the Lake House in Daylesford
A kookaburra makes the sound of someone laughing. These birds have gotten used to free helpings of meat scraps on the patio of the Lake House in Daylesford.

Getting to Know the Pleasure Region with Josh Oakes

Josh Oakes says he is raw. Raw as in new to many aspects of running a full-time tour guide business here in Melbourne. We met yesterday and he took me to a beautiful part of the country, the spa-focused region of the Macedon Ranges.

Here, he said, the emphasis is on pleasure. There are mineral springs, thermal baths, hot tubs, and massage therapists. There are also many restaurants that adhere to the ever more popular concept of 20-mile dining.

We stopped at an elegant inn called the Lake House, where the chef lists every vendor she works with on the back of the menu, with details about the delicious meats, produce, or other local product they offer.

We dined on fresh trout with broccoli rabe, and in the garden, we fed filet mignon scraps to a kookaburra bird, whose cries sound like a mocking laugh.

Josh told me about his and his wife’s expanding business that caters to high-end clients, many of whom come from the US. They take people out and using all locally-raised guides, give them a taste of what’s really delicious, impressive, and fun in Melbourne.

They also take folks out to the hills to places like Daylesford and to the ocean on the peninsula. They’ll cater their tour to whatever the client wants, including chartering private planes to spend an evening on a distant beach.

Comparing notes in the van back from the trip, we both had a lot of the same issues in common, and it was clear that business on either end of the globe are fraught with the same pitfalls, glories and hassles.

Melbourne’s Tiny Butterfly Club is Where Talent Begins

The Butterfly Club
The Butterfly Club

In Melbourne, the arts are a seriously high priority. Whether it’s public art in city squares or nurturing the art of new clothing designers or performers, the arts are a big part of the experience of visiting here.

Even the highways coming into the city are lined with gigantic steel posts, angling sideways, there just to make the city look nicer.

Last night I met two men who have developed the country’s most successful incubation center for new cabaret talent, and do it without a penny of government grants or other assistance.

In a country where arts dollars flow freely, this is a big change. They prefer to make money with a jumping bar and sell tickets to the lucky few who can snap them up.

The Butterfly Club operates in a cramped Victorian apartment in South Melbourne, where guests stream for 600 shows a year. The one-hour cabaret performances are held in an intimate 50-seat theatre.

Neville, the affable silver-haired gent in charge of the front of the house, welcomed me with a glass of wine as I mingled with the pre-show audience just before nine last night.

“We bring these artists in and about two percent of them go on tour with us to the US, London, and other cities. We have discovered some major talents here and after they hit it big in larger venues, they come back and see us. We have an extremely sharp eye for real talent.”

Inside the apartment, people stream back to a bar tended by a former ballet dancer and another young man who works as a photographer’s assistant.

The Queen Vistoria Market
Queen Victoria Market raises up a mature red snapper for your consideration. Some of the world’s most clear-eyed and delicious tasting fish are found here. It’s the biggest market in the world.

“They have to be perfect, there is no gap between them and the audience, there’s nowhere to hide.”

Strolling Queen Vic Market and Watching Yawning Lions at the Zoo

Often I compare these journeys to eating tapas. There’s a little bit here, a taste of that there, and you never really settle into a groove because it’s time to go when that finally happens.

This week in Melbourne has been splendid, and I must say that Oz is as fascinating and fun as I suspected it would be. That’s because I’ve met so many Australians in my travels and they are the reason that this a great place this is to visit.

I got a chance to sit down with a travel editor at the Age, and a web marketing guy for Tourism Victoria. Both of them shared their insights and provided me with some details into the working business of travel here in Australia.

I had time after our two-hour stroll to Queen Victoria Market (the world’s largest), so I took the tram to the Melbourne Zoo. Most of the wild beasts were sleeping, but I did have fun watching the elephants take baths and caught some of the big cats in repose.

Dinner at Mario’s

For my final night here I was joined again by Josh Oakes who brought along his lovely wife and business partner Susan. We had dinner in a casual Italian place called Mario’s on Brunswick St, one where they go a lot on their own. It didn’t have the high-priced menu that we’ve seen so often downtown. Oh, and they didn’t take credit cards.

Winding down in my giant hotel room, I did what a local Melbournian would do. I tuned in to the footy game on the telly and watched the Western Bulldogs come back and beat the Essendon Bombers in a live match from the Telstra Dome. Getting ready for a long ride home.

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