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Murray Almond's "From the Left Island"

How's Your CDE? (Cellar Door Experience)
© Murray Almond
(Photos © Sue Courtney)
20 January 2002

One of the great joys of being a wine enthusiast is being able to travel around and visit Wineries, which also provides the opportunity to taste wines as well. Wine Tourism is now a significant component of the economy here on the Left Island, just as it is on the North and South Islands, with regional towns now acknowledging themselves as 'wine villages'.

I like visiting Cellar Doors, and generally go away two to three times per year to various regions to taste the new releases and to talk to the people behind the counter. And while I like visiting Cellar Doors, I find the Cellar Door Experience can vary markedly. Some Cellar Doors are a joy to visit, and make an entire tour worthwhile, others can wreck the day. There's no direct correlation between company size and the Cellar Door experience, the largest companies deliver both the best and word Cellar Door Experiences, just as the Boutique Wineries can.

Things That Make a Great Cellar Door Experience:

A Spittoon.
This is very important. I spit the wine out, apart from the odd bit that accidentally gets swallowed, and I need a place to spit it. A well-sized and well-situated place to spit is vital at a Cellar Door. On a big day around a wine region, 10 wineries can be visited with an average of 8 wines at each. That's more than 3 bottles if I drink the whole lot. Spitting helps to protect the palate, so that the last wine tasted can be appreciated as much as the first, as well as protecting from the odd hangover.

A Decent Range to Taste
The wines presented at cellar Door should reflect the range of wines made by that winery. While it may not be economically viable to have the full range, including superpremiums open for tasting, an example of the premium range should be available. For example if a large winery has a number of wines in the $30-$80 bracket, as well as budget brands, then I'd like to see all the budget brands plus one or two of the premiums available for tasting.

Cellar Door Only Specials
Most wineries have wines that are generally available in major liquor stores, often at prices below the sale price, as such the need to present value in other ways to get money across the counter. Many wineries have a Cellar Door only wine that is often a hidden treasure. This may be a trial wine, or perhaps not made in sufficient quantities for Commercial release. In my view the king of the Cellar Door Specials is at Brown Brothers in North Eastern Victoria, where they have a large number of interesting wines to taste, such as a classic Ruby Cabernet.

Many wineries also have back vintages available to taste and buy as well this is another great bonus.

Decent Glassware
If a winery wants me to appreciate their wine they should make every effort to present it properly. Little sherry glasses or, even worse, plastic cups, just don't work at all.

Knowledgeable Staff
The staff can make or break a Cellar Door Experience. The staff should know a bit about the history of the winery, the wine-making details of the wines they're serving, such as oak treatment, and have a knowledge of recent vintages, they should also be able to identify faults in the wines they open to serve. A bit of local knowledge works as well. The ultimate is to find the winemaker pouring the wine, however good knowledgeable staff is just as valuable

But don't tell me what I'm going to taste before I've tasted it. In one, very well known winery I was handed a glass and advised "Here's the 1999 Shiraz, here you'll taste blackberry, vanilla, and fine tannins". In fact I tasted plums, chocolate and medium tannins. I would have found the wine highly enjoyable if not for the preamble.

Make Sure the Wine being Served is Fit for Drinking
Just as glassware is important, what goes into the glass is vital, as the wine will be the lasting impression of the visit. The main culprits here are Cork Taint and Oxidation. All too often I've been presented with wine where the overwhelming character is mouldy wet hessian. This is due to that bottle being tainted with "Cork Taint". Good staff should check the bottle before serving it to make sure it's not tainted and a fresh bottle opened if it is tainted. It shouldn't be served to prospective customers.

Oxidation arises from the bottle being opened for too long, and the character of the wine changes from being fresh and young to having tired, flat characters. This can be a problem where are winery only gets occasional visitors but presenting an oxidised wine gives a misleading view of what the wine is like and can cost a sale. The wineries with Good Cellar Door Experiences are happy to open a fresh bottle if you point out the oxidation. Leconfield in Coonawarra was a classic example of this good service when I last visited there.

Don't Charge for Tastings unless Value is Delivered
Some Winery Cellar Doors charge for tastings. This appears to be a particularly prevalent practice for wine regions near Capital Cities. This is understandable when dealing with the drinkers who simply want to get drunk at someone else's expense, or in handling larger groups, but is not particularly welcoming to the person with a genuine interest in the wine. If a charge must be levied, then it should represent value, either in providing premium wines, food, or a tour. In my view the charge should be levied with discretion.

If you're Closed; tell me so on the Main Road.
Very few things sour a Cellar Door Experience more than driving down a long dirt road to a winery that had been given a great wrap, only to find the "Closed" sign on the gate. Put the Closed Sign, or at least the Opening Hours, on a sign back at the corner of the sealed road.

My Pick for the Best Cellar Door Experience

The Left Island, and Victoria in particular, delivers a wide range of Cellar Door Experiences, I've mentioned just a few already. However my top pick for the best Cellar Door Experience would be Seppelt Great Western in Western Victoria.

The Tasting Room is a great size, the staff are friendly and highly knowledgeable, and the range, and quality of wines available is fantastic. Proper tasting glasses are used and all wines are checked for soundness on opening. There's also the opportunity to take a guided tour through the historic Drives, the caves dug by ex-goldminers where a million bottles of sparkling and still wine gracefully mature (pictured).

Children are offered a glass of cordial and the grounds and gardens are big enough for them to wander around. In addition to the commercially available wines there is a great Cellar Door Selection of wines including the unique 1991 Hans Irvine Sparkling Ondenc, a sparkling wine that delivers fantastic flavours just a little different from the standard bubbly. The 1996 Drives Pinot/Noir Chardonnay Sparkling and the Seppelt Drumborg Pinot Meunier are also in themselves a great bonus to visiting Seppelt. Back vintages are also available for purchase for many wines.

Part of what makes Seppelt great is also the area it's in, on the border of the picturesque Grampians Mountain Range, about 2 hours left of Melbourne, and with Best's and Langi Ghiran and other good wineries nearby, to me it's irresistable.

And did I mention the Spittoons at Seppelt? The all-important Spittoons there are the ice bucket trophies Seppelt has won at various Wine Shows. A classy, if somewhat quirky option.

So Seppelt Great Western would be my ultimate Cellar Door Experience over here on the Left Island. . I'll let Sue provide her nomination from the North and South Islands. If you have your own nominations, or others factors that make a great Cellar Door Experience email Sue or I.

© Murray Almond
20 January 2002

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