Wine for Dudes!
West Oz Walkabout Part Two
It began raining as I reached Perth’s city limits on my way south for the second portion of the trip. I was heading toward the temperate forests, a bit different from the red desert I’d been driving through for most of the previous days. As the day was going to be spent largely in the car, I didn’t mind the rain.
It was still going strong when I reached the sleepy town of Walpole, at the edge of the Walpole Nornalup National Park and just 10 minutes from the Valley of the Giants Treetop Walk. I checked into the Tingle All Over YHA (tingle is one of the neighborhood giants) and for most of the afternoon was the only guest. I did rainy day things – checked my e-mail, read my book, ate junk food – and retired early.
It was still coming down in the morning, but I got an early start to the trees. I took a quick gander at the Giant Tingle – escaping the downfall for a minute standing inside its immense hollow trunk – before heading to the real attraction.
The Treetop Walk has tourist trap written all over it, but it’s one of those rare ones that’s worth it. It’s not all that expensive, actually – $8 admission, plus another $3 for a pancho – and it’s a coup for man harmonizing with nature. It’s a 600-meter steel loop that gradually rises to the canopy of the trees and back down. It’s designed to sway in the breeze and blend with the leaves. As I began the ascent, I was happy for the rain: I was alone for the entire walk, and it added something of a one-with-nature feeling to be in the canopy of a temperate rain forest in a rain storm. I was smiling to myself for most of the walk, enjoying it and thinking it would be even better if there were cute little monkeys in the trees. Wrong continent, unfortunately.
After a quick sidetrack to Peaceful Bay to catch a glimpse of the Southern Ocean, I was on my way to wine country. Despite the continued rain, it was a lovely drive on winding roads swallowed in green. I arrived in Margaret River after a few hours and walked down the main drag; I liked it immediately. Another small town, yes, but not another one-block town. This one had a bit more depth – surf shops, cafes, hotels, etc. As I would come to realize, Margaret River’s allure comes from its unique wine country-surf town combination. I headed for the visitor center to plan the following day at the vineyards.
The next morning I was picked up by the owner of my chosen tour operator: Wine for Dudes. It’s an unpretentious approach to enjoying wine, without lacking the respect for or knowledge of wine. Despite the name, Wine for Dudes was started by a woman; she called everyone “dude” and believed “wine should be simple, fun, approachable, a part of everyday life,” according to their website. Two years ago, her young Kiwi workhorse, John, bought the company. He now runs the two-van operation and I was lucky enough to have him at the helm of my tour.
The day was a highlight of my trip. There were only five of us on the tour – Aussie mates Rodney and Scotty winding a guys’ weekend, and Chloe and Michael, a couple in the Navy enjoying a romantic getaway. John began with a winery owned by his friend’s parents, Windance, a little one with award-winning shiraz. Immediately we realized with anticipation and glee what the day had in store for us: a wide selection of excellent wine generously poured into tasting glasses. We were psyched!
We hopped across the street to Virgin Block, which won our award for best view of the day overlooking the vines and rolling hills beyond. In addition to great reds, they had fresh pressed olive oil available too. I went back for a bottle of that the next day.
Next was Hayshed Hill, a hit with everyone. Our charismatic host, Mark, casually but helpfully talked us through the eight or nine wines we sampled. Though I was waiting to go through all the wineries before buying any bottles, I had a feeling I’d be back here for at least one (I did, a delicious chardonnay). Staying on the property, we moved into an empty room where John had set up what looked like a high school science experiment, complete with graduated cylinders and worksheets. We got to work mixing our own cabernet sauvignon merlot, a variety for which the region is well known. We experimented with different proportions and when we had a favorite we poured ourselves a glass to go with the delicious lunch spread John set out for us.
After a quick trip through the Margaret River Chocolate Factory for a free-sample dessert, it was on to our final stop, a combined winery and brewery. Saracen Estates had a great selection, served to us by John’s lovely girlfriend. Then we went over to the Duckstein Brewery side and I finished the day with a refreshing Hefeweiss.
So ended the official wine tour (not before I won the Wine for Dudes quiz, scoring a nice logo coozie!), but the fun was far from over. Rodney, Scotty and I decided to continue imbibing at the pub in Margaret River, and John decided to have a round with us as well. We sat and chatted as the evening crowd began to descend upon the bar. After a little while, Wine for Dudes’ second van pulled in; that tour had been a private charter of about 10 friends celebrating one gal’s birthday. Sharing the common Dude bond, we ended up hanging out with them, and it was great fun. We watched some rugby, played pool and chatted. One of the guys offered his couch for my last two nights in Perth instead of having to rent a room. I was thankful for the offer, but as the only word he kept using to describe his live-in girlfriend – who had returned to their campsite before I got to meet her – was “intense,” I graciously declined. It was an amazing day and night, sampling top-notch wine (while producing only 5 percent of Australia’s total wine, the Margaret River region puts out about 25 percent of the country’s premium selection) and meeting tons of fun people.
As much as I had been enjoying the trip, with time to think and quietly absorb the landscapes of this strange land, in the end I am a social creature, and I find experiences are enhanced by others. In Into the Wild, Chris McCandless writes, “Happiness is only real when shared.” I think that’s a bit strong; I think you can feel happy on your own. And not to compare my tiny solo jaunt with his ultimately tragic trek into Alaska, but I do think spending time on my own helped me to stop for a minute to appreciate the company of my friends and family that much more. Which leaves me in a good place to end my trip; it’s been the best thing I’ve done here so far, but I’m also looking forward to getting back to my friends in Sydney and, eventually, home.