When Todd Alexander And Jeff Ross decided to buy a winery and move to the Hunter Valley, they didn't quite know what they were getting themselves into. Jeff didn't even know how to drive but had to quickly learn how to use a tractor.
"The amount of posts I have taken out by trying to turn on the sprayer and steer, it's just all too much for me!"
But they've been here for eight years now and a lot has changed. Todd and Jeff produce about 15,000 bottles a year - and they've even become vegan and rescue animals like sheep and goats.
"We were going to raise pigs for nose-to-tail," Jeff says, "but then we called them Rodney and Billy and that stopped us wanting to eat them."
Most significantly, Todd and Jeff have also now built five luxury villas on the secluded property called Block Eight, a little slice of valley paradise where guests get stunning views and can do a wine tasting by the lake at sunset.
Exploring the Hunter Valley for a few days, I meet quite a few people who've come for a tree change and created successful new businesses. Like Ron and Lyn Hammond who opened the Watershed Gallery in Pokolbin last year. Lyn's an artist and some of her work is on display, but they've also curated a diverse collection of contemporary colourful styles that pop off the high white walls, bringing an inner-city vibe to the rural setting.
Even for visitors who've been to the Hunter before, there are always new things to try.
Elsewhere in Pokolbin, I visit Jen Nicita at the large kitchen she has custom-built with panoramic views across the 70-acre vineyard she and her husband Vince own. Here Jen runs Our Italian Table, a cooking class that is a small and personal experience (something you don't always find in the Hunter), where making the pasta may be the main focus, but sharing the meal at the end of the class is often the highlight.
"I think people are just wanting more experiences," she says. "They're just wanting to do different things that they don't normally do."
The same can probably be said for the wine tastings themselves in the Hunter Valley. Of course, wineries still dominate the landscape in Australia's oldest wine region and famous ones like Tyrrell's, Tulloch, Brokenwood, and McGuigan are popular. But there's also a new generation of young winemakers pushing the boundaries of the industry.
At the cellar door of Comyns & Co, I meet Scott Comyns, who's been making wine in the Hunter Valley for two decades, originally for some of the biggest wineries and now under his own name. While he still loves traditional Hunter varieties like Semillon, he's also trying edgy and bold blends, including one called Popsy Sparkling.
"It's a Grner Veltliner and I think it might be the first sparkling Grner Veltliner wine in Australia, definitely in the Hunter," he says. "So I like to play around with different fruit and make them in a different style."
Even for visitors who've been to the Hunter before, there are always new things to try. Have you ever taken a llama for a walk through a vineyard, for instance?
It's something you can do these days with The Llama Collective, which organises regular events where you lead a llama through an estate. I spend an hour with the majestic Ambrose and am convinced by the end that llamas are my new favourite animal.
"They're companionable animals and they like to be with you," organiser Viv Rogers says, as we wander together. "They'll walk along as if you're walking along with your best friend. They'll engage with you and it doesn't feel like you're leading an animal."
The idea started when someone offered to take one of Viv's animals for a walk and she then realised that there was actually quite a demand for the experience (and the photos!).
However you experience the Hunter Valley, you're going to need to eat, and there's no shortage of excellent dining, from the two-hatted Muse Restaurant to pub grub at the Hotel Cessnock. For breakfast with a view, head out to the RidgeView Restaurant, and for dinner you can try The Mill Restaurant at Estate Tuscany, where chef Angela Campbell was awarded a hat this year.
But for lunch I would recommend a little expedition to Singleton, where you can explore the heritage of the town and experience a quieter side to the Hunter Valley. It's here you'll find the wonderful Worn Out Wares - part florist, part grocery, part antique store, part restaurant.
"I've always described it as everything I love thrown into a shop," owner Louise Christensen says. "It's something I don't think you could just go and mass produce. We're individual in everything we do."
Worn Out Wares is a busy family affair with Louise's parents and three daughters all contributing to the business, which has been here for 16 years in the town Louise was born and raised. While it's been great on this trip to see all the innovation in the Hunter, it's also comforting that strong community connections like this remain.
WHAT TO DO:
- Visit Watershed Gallery to see a diverse selection of contemporary artists (all the works are available for purchase).
- Take a cooking class at Our Italian Table to learn how to make pasta, then enjoy your meal at the vineyard.
- Join the Llama Collective to take a llama for a walk amongst the vines.
- Do some wine tastings and, if you're interested in young innovative winemakers, visit Comyns & Co, M&J Becker, Usher Tinkler, and Angus Vinden.
WHERE TO EAT:
- For breakfast with a Mediterranean influence, there's RidgeView Restaurant.
- Make a trip to Singleton to have lunch (and do some shopping) at Worn Out Wares - and explore the town's heritage while you're there.
- One of the newest dining options in the Hunter to be awarded a hat is the Mill Restaurant at Estate Tuscany.
WHERE TO STAY:
Michael Turtle was supported by the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association.
Michael Turtle will be bringing you a new idea each week for a trip within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for things to do in the Hunter Valley.