Eat local, drink foreign: Not for me!

There has been a trend over the last decade to eat locally produced food, representative of region and season.  This has become popular because (1) food in season and region are fresher and tastier than when transported from further away, and (2) people want  sustainable, ‘green’ food chains to protect the environment.  These ideals make sense and I embrace them.  So then why do restauranteurs and sommeliers think it is trendy to offer wine lists which are made up of foreign, obscure wines using tertiary varietals?  It does not make sense and has been overdone in my opinion.  This recent article by Huon Hooke nails it in terms of wine lists becoming ‘too’ trendy.  I don’t get the diversion in trends to eat locally and drink foreign?  I would think consumers of good food and wine would trend similarly for both their food and wine.

Wine listI live in the Hunter Valley wine region and love my local wines, especially with local food.  I also value and like access to trying wines from different regions around Australia and the world.  One of the great attractions of wine is the great diversity of styles, varietals and methods use to make wine.  But when I travel to other locations, I want to experience the best of what is on offer locally, in terms of both food and wine.  When I visited Canberra and Rutherglen recently, I want to sample Canberra and Rutherglen wines!

I remember picking up a Mexican friend at the airport in Minneapolis a long while ago.  The woman sitting next to him on the plane was from Minnesota and insisted I take him to Boca Chica’s for the best tacos around.  I thought “how stupid is this?”  My friend can get great tacos (and even better ‘real’ Mexican food) at home.  I – and more importantly he – wanted to experience food unique to the region such as Scandinavian or Swedish food, or just a good Midwestern pot roast!  The last thing my Mexican friend wanted was to eat Mexican food!  And he certainly was not interested in drinking a Dos XX beer – he wanted to try Minnesota beers.

Jim Chatto, Chief Winemaker at McWilliams Mount Pleasant and Chairman of the Judges for the Hunter Valley Wine Show last night stated that since he moved to Mount Pleasant, he removed from the restaurant wine list McWilliams wines made in other regions (McWilliams is a large multi-regional winery in Australia) to focus on local Hunter wines to go with local fare.  This makes great sense to me.  I have three favorite restaurants I visit in the area:  Bistro Molines in Hunter Valley, Paymasters Cafe in Newcastle and Two Naughty Chooks in Singleton.  Without exception, they all have great food.  Paymasters and Two Naughty Chooks offer a wine list of about 60 wines, with Bistro Molines offering twice that.  They all offer some wines outside the region and some foreign wines (especially Bistro Molines).  But all three have wine lists representing the Hunter region, at great value, and many by the glass.  I love these restaurants, not just for the great food on offer, but because the owners have put so much effort into providing local wines to match the season and local food they make.  I love eating locally and drinking locally!

Trendy, obscure, tertiary varietal wine lists with over 1,000 bottles to chose from – no thank you – to much work and too much risk.  I appreciate a restaurant where the restauranteur / owner has done the hard work for me and can offer me the best of local food and wine.

Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, due out Sept 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley. All rights reserved.
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Great Chefs of the Hunter Valley and Surrounds

When I was on Food in Focus several weeks ago, we were discussing how difficult it is to make a restaurant commercially successful, especially in the prolonged economic environment we currently face.  Natascha Moy, our radio host, mentioned with sadness the closing of one of her favorite Sydney restaurants.  We talked about how important it is for a chef to be the face of the restaurant and truly hands-on to infuse his or her passion and quality to give the restaurant every chance of success.  This made me think about how those of us in the Hunter Valley are fortunate to be able to have some access to some great restaurants and superb meals by some of the finest chefs Australia has on offer.

Two Naughty Chooks VenueMy wife and I took two weeks vacation in early July.  It was great to get away.  For the most part, we took the time to cook every meal at home, had some people over for a nice meal, and really spent the time writing, learning new technology and blogging.  However, we did have four meals out, all which were exceptionally good.  We have a few restaurants in the Hunter Valley we frequent regularly, but none with more enthusiasm than Bistro Molines, up Mount View Road and next to Tallavera Grove winery.  It has beautiful views, but most importantly is one of the few hatted restaurants in rural NSW and under the ownership of Robert and Sally Molines who are Hunter Valley icons.  If we want a good meal or a special celebration, this is where we go about 80% of the time.

However, we were anxious to try a few new wineries and restaurants this trip and were able to combine both by attending two great meals hosted by McLeish Wines.  We really fell in love with their 2012 Rose, 2007 Reserve Semillon (numerously awarded internationally), and the 2009 Reserve Chardonnay.  Jessica McLeish, proprietress of McLeish Wines, also has a fine taste for good food and introduced us to two excellent restaurants, Two Naughty Chooks in Singleton and Paymaster’s Cafe in Newcastle.  Both were outstanding restaurants with great chefs that we are certain to go back to.  The meals were on back-to-back nights and were two of the best meals we ever had.

The next week, we visited Restaurant 221 in Cessnock for another outstanding meal, even though, I must admit that I had a bit of a ‘concept conflict’ with such fine dining in a pub environment.  And the following day we ate lunch at the restaurant at Margan Wines in Broke.

Paymaster VenueFour new restaurants with four great head chefs (actually five as Two Naughty Chooks is a husband / wife team) which we are certain to visit again.  Each restaurant and their great head chefs deserves their own write-up, so I will be writing a post on each of them over the next month or so.  You may feel this has more to do with food than wine, but food and wine go together so well and each of these restaurants has a great wine list and close relationships with wineries in the region.  They all have some ‘special’ wines for consumption and make every effort to provide the best food and wine dining experience available.  That is why I want to introduce you to them as you deserve to know about such outstanding places to eat and they deserve your support.

I wrote a review of the great meal we had at Two Naughty Chooks already.  So I will be reviewing Paymasters Cafe next and their outstanding long-term chef, Rodney Scales.  We did my first ever Australian Christmas in July meal there and it was magnificent.  Rodney is passionate about cooking and serving and is also well versed in social media, so feel free to connect with him and follow what he has going on  in terms of upcoming events and new menu items.


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2013.  Steve Shipley
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deVine is divine for food and wine!

I have only referred to a few restaurants in SAZ in the Cellar.  While I am willing and even excited to try new places, I feel most comfortable going to where I know I will get great food, great wine and great service.  In that regard, I go to Fish on the Rocks (29 Kent Street, Millers Point) quite a bit because they have great food and I can ensure I am having great wine because they are a BYO (Bring Your Own wine).  They are also licensed for wine and beer, but there is nothing more satisfying and fool-proof than taking wine from your own cellar!

And The Cut Bar and Grill (16 Argyle Street in The Rocks) is my favorite steakhouse and meets all the criteria.  They have a great and good-valued wine list along with great food and service and while they are not a BYO, if I asked ahead (and because I bring a lot of food business to them), they will let me do a BYO for special occasions.  I don’t take advantage of this, but really appreciate that they provide me the option when I want to do a truly special dinner with special wines.

I hate and avoid restaurants which have over a 300% (and sometimes far north of 500%!) mark-up on wine over what I can buy it for retail or from the cellar door.  As nice as the food and view is from Cafe Sydney on top of Customs House and overlooking Circular Quay, I only go there at the insistence of foreign friends who marvel at the view.  A number of their wines cost two to three times what the same wine at Lord Nelson Restaurant in Millers Point does.  And I was at The Malaya at Kings Wharf a few weeks ago and they were charging $50 for a bottle of wine I paid $8 for retail!

I simply will not go to restaurants that screw you on the wine and those restaurants have lost all of my business over the last decade.  I don’t care if it is for business or personally, I want good value and refuse to do business with businesses that do not provide good ongoing value.  Restaurants I will frequent include Fish on the Rocks, The Cut Bar and Grill, Hux’s Dining, and Lord Nelson for four of my favorite outings around Sydney.

A typical guideline is that a restauranter should charge about 220% of what they paid for the wine to cover the cost, labor of serving and cleaning glasses, breakage, the ‘insurance’ risk of have a corked bottle, etc.  And I am comfortable with that.  I am glad to pay up to 250% of the price I could have bought the wine for at retail.  But I simply will not frequent or pay for wine that is over a 300% mark-up.

One of my very favorite restaurants is deVine at 30 Market Street (corner of Market Street and Clarence Street) in Sydney.  This is a magnificent restaurant, with the lowest mark-up I have ever found on wine.  I rarely pay 50% more for a bottle at deVine than I do retail.  And the service is magnificent, being both friendly and attentive.  There is always one, if not both owners, Terence and Andre, on the premises to take care of you.

Their wine knowledge is superb.  (I also value sommeliers like Terence and Andre at deVine and Gustavo at The Cut Bar and Grill who know far more about wine than I do.  Surprisingly, the ‘wine person at most restaurants does not.)   And they have a wide range of domestic and foreign wines to choose from.  In addition to a great and often changing wine list, the owners at deVine have a collection of private wines from their own cellar and for the right occasion, they may recommend trying one of those.  I have never been disappointed (in fact – quite the opposite – I have been greatly pleased) with each and every time this has occurred, and I don’t remember ever paying more than $100 for a rare and truly great find!  Again, I am not sure they would do this for anyone, but once they quickly understood my interest and appreciation of good wine, it just became part of their superb service proposition!

The location, ambiance, service, quality, value and just about everything else is divine at deVine.  Make sure to try them out if you have not already.

When choosing a restaurant, I look for the following things:

  • great food
  • diverse wine list
  • average wine mark-up no larger than 250%
  • great service
  • ability (if I prove to be a good customer) to do BYO and pay corkage (usually about $10 – $25 per bottle is reasonable at a good restaurant and for a very good bottle of wine this is a steal!)
  • occasional food or wine choice ‘not on the menu’
  • ownership or senior operational management is on the premises
  • location helps if it is spur of the moment or I am pressed for time

The restaurants I have featured here meet those criteria.  Make sure to frequent them, and avoid the ones that are more interested in their profit than your experience and pleasure, regardless of how iconic they may be!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley
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Twitter:  Steve Shipley @shipleyaust;   InkIT Publishing @inkitpub


Don’t be afraid to ask and ye’ shall receive!

Never assume that what is on the wine list is all the wine that is on offer at a restaurant.  It pays to ask and minimally you may be surprised to find some alternatives wines not listed (wine received, but wine list not updated yet), or even be offered a wine from the owners private collection!

Today we had a most fabulous lunch at Bistro Molines in the Hunter Valley.  The place is one of the very few Hatted restaurants in rural NSW.  Robert and Sally Molines have been together for 40 years, and always in the food business.  They are true food icons in the Hunter Valley.  It is one of our very favorite restaurants, and every visit is a special occasion.  For some really special occasions like our anniversary, we might bring along an exceptional bottle of wine from our cellar, but today, having a normal great lunch with great friends, I ordered wine off the wine list.

Bistro Molines has a nice selection of wines, including Australian and imported wines at very reasonable prices for a Hatted restaurant.  After looking over the menu and the specials for the day, it became apparent that the four of us would all be having different starters and different mains.  Therefore, I would have a bit of a challenge selecting wines that went well with every dish.  We agreed as a table to venture forth with a Riesling over a Chardonnay for the white and selected a very nice Kabbinett Riesling from Mosel. The Riesling was sweet, but not too sweet, with a beautiful smooth texture.  (Embarrassingly, I do not remember nor did I take a picture of the wine, so I do not remember the wine maker.)

For the red wine, I really wanted something with some age on it, but many of the really good choices were from 2010 or 2011.  The wine list had a 2010 Cape Mentelle Zinfandel which is an outstanding wine.  I have had the 2007 and 2008 vintages, including the 2007 vintage at Bistro Molines a year ago.  While the 2010 vintage is considered a superior wine to the 2007, it should ideally be drunk from 2015 – 2030 and I felt it was far too young to drink this wine today.  I asked if they still had any of the 2007 vintage around and after checking, the waitress told me they had one bottle left, but since they had a new order of the 2010 in, the wine list had been updated to show that.

While the 2010 vintage would be a better choice to drink in five years, it was not th best choice for today.  The 2007 vintage would be far more mature and better drinking today so we selected that.  While the 2007 vintage was not on the wine list, it was ours for the asking!  Restaurants often have a number of wines which are single bottles left, or other special wines that do not appear on the wine list.  Therefore, it is worthwhile asking if there is something in particular you are interested in.

Zinfandel is not widely grown in Australia, but if you are going to buy a Zindandel, make sure it is from Margaret River.  Zinfandel grows best in Napa Valley and Margaret River is as close in climate and soil conditions as you are going to find in Australia.  It is a lighter style of grape with texture similar to a Pinot Noir, but sweeter in general.  The 2007 Cape Mentelle has flavors of blackberry and ripe raisins. It went well with the duck, the veal and the kidneys we had for mains (my wife continued to dring the Riesling to go with her mussels.)

Remember, even if you like what you see on the wine list, do not assume it is all that is on offer.  By asking, you establish an intimacy with the sommelier or owner that will serve you well in getting some even better choices of wines not available to those who don’t ask!

My first wine at HUX @ Nortons

We once again had a fabulous meal at HUX @ NortonsJay Huxley had recently returned from his trip to Las Vegas and was rearing to cook.  We had a special treat tonight of a blue-fin tuna belly starter and my wife and a friend had the Smooth Dory fish for mains while myself and the others had the Porterhouse Steak.  Usually it is just Deanna and me, and Deanna always gets a lemon, lime and bitters to drink and I always get a beer, either a Heineken or a James Boag’s Premium Lite.  However, since there were 5 of us tonight, we also got a bottle of wine – our first wine ever at HUX!

I was pleased to find they had a few decent bottles to choose from in addition to a decent selection by the glass.  For those of us having the steak, we narrowed the choice down to either a bottle of the 2006 Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz or the 2008 Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon.  Either would have been ‘ok’ with the Porterhouse, but Jay applies some nice seasoning and also makes a tremendous side of Potato Salad to go with the steak, so we opted for the Shiraz.  Since Jay’s food is so good, it demands a very decent to great bottle of wine.

I should have brought a pocket Vinturi along to do an immediate decant.  The wine needed a few minutes to breathe, but opened up after a bit.  Pouring it through the Vinturi would have made the wine more immediately accessible, but it was certainly drinkable enough and an enjoyable drop to have with the Porterhouse.

What did surprise me though was that there were about a dozen different wines available by the glass and a few decent choices of both reds and whites.  Plus they had a few premium bottles of reds with some age on them.  This impressed me.  I had usually just bought beer while eating at HUX, but will now consider wine by the glass or a bottle if there are a few of us who want wine.

And in a future column, I will be matching a Norton’s Hotel wine selection with each main on the HUX menu.  Stay tuned for that coming soon.

Why I don’t write for GT (Gourmet Traveller) Wine magazine

Well, simply because they have not asked me!  I would love to, and I expect so would the other 1,000 or so people who blog about wine.  Of course, I do plan on continuing to improve my wine blogging over the next year and hopefully get some amount of following and notoriety, possibly even some acclaim – who knows?  I have been writing a lot (on a variety of topics, not just wine) more recently, and been doing a lot of editing and guest blogging, so hopefully my writing will continue to improve.

The best way to get into GT Wine magazine is to enter and win their annual Wine Writing competition, of which the next round of submissions is in January, 2013 for the 2013 award.  In the meantime, I am planning on writing on the following topics over the next few months:

  • Why I keep empty wine bottles
  • Mistake of buying too much of a single wine
  • Terroir and its influence on various grapes
  • The difference between a wine snob and a wine enthusiast
  • The wine region Alsace
  • Review of matching wine with food and food with wine for special events
  • Specific wine and wine region reviews
  • Different varieties of corkscrews
  • Use of aerators
  • When and how to decant wines
  • Storing wines
  • Best wine magazines, wine blogs and wine writers to read
  • Wine applications
  • Use of iPad as a wine list for restaurants
  • Why James Halliday pisses me off when he writes about the ’27 Le Tache

and a variety of other topics.  I also plan on including more pictures and links to other resources.  I would be adding a number of pictures now, but we are packing to move apartments and most everything is packed for the move.

Hopefully, you will continue to follow and enjoy my wine blog.  Also, if you have any topics you would like to recommend that I write on, please let me know.  While I am not an expert on wine, I have a growing knowledge base, a lot of friends in the industry and love to share ideas and experiences with others who have a similar interest.