Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Wine Judging Trip to Blue Mountains of Australia and Lillianfels Resort
October 2012 - During the second week of October, I was honored to be invited to participate in the Sydney International Wine Competition in Australia with 12 other wine judges from around the world. Two of us arrived on the non-stop flight from San Francisco to Sydney on Sunday morning at 7:30am and took a taxi ($15 with tip) to the Mercure Airport Hotel where they had reserved a day room so we could shower before meeting the rest of our group at 10am. We then boarded a small bus and drove the 1.5 hours into the Blue Mountains and Lillianfels Resort.
The Blue Mountains and the Three Sisters Rock Formation
The Blue Mountains of Australia are a World Heritage Site and renown for their beauty. They remind me of a smaller version of the Grand Canyon with trees. I was told they are called “blue” because the eucalyptus trees that cover the steep mountains release a blue resin in the air that causes the mountains to look blue – especially in the evening before sunset.
One of the most famous areas of the Blue Mountains is the Three Sisters overlook. These are three large rock formations that rise up from the canyon floor and are beautiful to behold. Thousands of tourists visit every year, and it turned out that our hotel, Lillianfels Resort, was located only a five minute walk from the Three Sisters Look-out.
Lillianfels is a famous old resort on the edge of the canyon near the Three Sisters. It looks and feels like an old country manor with large comfortable lobby and rooms decorated in Victorian fashion with fabric wallpaper and large draperies above each bed (in most rooms). It is quite expensive with prices ranging from $250 to $600 a night. The beds are some of the most comfortable I have ever slept in, and the breakfast – which is included in the price – is a decent size buffet in a sunny dining room. There is an indoor and outdoor pool, spa, tennis courts, billiard room, and a Devonshire tea served every afternoon in the lobby.
My experience here was mixed in that I enjoyed the amenities but had problems with my room, and a very poor response from the staff that didn’t match their claim to be a 5-star hotel. The first night I arrived there was no hot water in my room. When I called to complain they told me it would be off for 1 to 2 hours. So after a 14-hour flight and a long day, I fell asleep without being able to take a hot bath. The next morning, when I took a shower, the drain didn’t work and it flooded the bathroom. I called to report it, and they said it would be fixed, but it wasn’t until the second day – after the bathroom had flooded two more times – that they finally suggested I change rooms. I was happy about this, because the lock on the door didn’t work that well, and when I arrived back to my room the second day, the door to my room was open! Apparently the maid had done this because I remember distinctly how I had to slam it very hard in order for the lock to catch.
The new room was much nicer because it didn’t have a view of the large green dumpsters near the tennis course. Instead it had a view of the parking lot and trees. One disappointment about this hotel is that only a few of the very expensive rooms on the upper floors have a view of the beautiful canyon. Once in the new room, I continued to have small problems that I wouldn’t expect with a regular 5-star hotel, such as the bedside phone not working and the bathtub plug missing. I was able to use the desk phone and finally get these small issues resolved, however the service and maintenance here is not what would be expected of their rating and claim to be a Starwood Luxury Resort.
Excellent Wine Tasting Event at Birdland – Determining the 100 Top Wines
Fortunately the small issues at the hotel were eclipsed by the excellent time I had at the wine judging. The director, Warren Mason, hosted the judging at his charming house called “Birdland,” because it has a large beautiful garden filled with colorful Australian birds. The first two days, we evaluated 2000 wines (approximately 150 wines per day per judge, spitting), and on breaks we would congregate in the gardens or play boule, ping-pong, or darts. Once we narrowed down the wines to the top 400, we spent the next 2.5 days evaluating these wines again with food. It was a fascinating judging process that I haven’t experienced before. Our scores for these will determine the 100 top wines for the competition. See: www.100topwines.com for more information.
In the mornings and evenings, we would take hikes along the Blue Mountains trails, and one morning I even ventured down the famous 1000 stairs and took the loop walk. There is a caution sign stating it is only for strong walkers. It took me 2 hours, and was beautiful as we passed the Katoomba waterfall and saw a Lyrebird on the path. For the next two days however, my legs were very sore.
In the evenings, we generally met in the lobby for a cocktail around 7pm and then sat down to a wonderful dinner at 8. I felt like I was staying at an English manor for a week as a houseguest with a group of fascinating people, and found I really enjoyed the camaraderie and getting to know the other judges better each day. Every night they shared special bottles of wine from around the world, and one night we enjoyed a 1992 Grange Hermitage – bellisimmo!
Special Meals: Welcome Lunch, Australian BBQ and Judge’s Farewell Dinner at Darley’s Restaurant in Blue Mountains of Australia
There were three special meals during my wine-judging week in the Blue Mountains of Australia. The first was the Welcome Lunch held at Birdland, where Warren Mason and his wife, Jacqueline, welcomed everyone with warm hospitality. We started with sparkling vouvray and oysters, then moved on to salmon in papette, followed by beef tenderloin, and finished with a cream brulee. For each course, Warren served two wines – one from the old world and one from the new. Then he gleefully quizzed us on the varietals and region. I have to admit it was a little tough after flying for 14 hours and feeling quite jet-lagged, but Wilfred Wong and I managed to get most of the varietals correct. It turns out that the common theme was wine from the Loire, the birthplace of Jacqueline. Furthermore, she was the talented chef who cooked the magnificent meal.
The second memorable meal was a real Australian BBQ at the house of the stewards (those who set up the wine judging) where we had shrimp, kangaroo burgers, and beef tenderloin. We enjoyed this feast with several bottles of Champagne and many excellent Australian and New Zealand wines, as well as six wines from Thailand that were fun to taste. We were also serenaded by two strapping guitar players who sang slightly X-rated Australian bar ditties.
The third meal was the Farewell Dinner that Warren held at Darling’s Restaurant. This is a splendid establishment with exceptional service. The architecture is old Australian with the mansion dating from 1886. The menu, which follows, was mouthwatering, and Warren was an excellent master of ceremonies as he called upon the judges to stand up and guess the wines (all Australian) for the various courses.
• Aperitif – Deviation road Adelaide Hills Methode Champenoise 2009
• 1st Plate – Seared Nova Scotia Scallops with Texture of Lobster & Pea Puree with 3 Medium Bodied White wines: Saddler’s Creek Semillon 2005, Symphonia Savagnin 2008, and Yalumba Viogner 2004
• 2nd Plate – Redgate Farm Jurassic Quail, White Asparagus, Artichoke Puree, Madeira Jus with 3 Lighter Bodied Red Wines: Freeman Corvina 2003, Grove Estate Shiraz 2008, and Paringa Estate Pinot Noir 2002
• 3rd Plate – O’Connor Premium Gippsland Grass-Fed Beef Tenderloin, Blue Mountains Grain Fed Wagyu Braised Brisket, Cavolo Nero, Foie Gras Butter with 3 Fuller Bodied Red Wines: Grant Burge Shiraz 2002, Kilikanoon Grenache 2002, and Wirra Wirra Cabernet Sauvignon 2002
• 4th Plate – White Peach Fool, Almond Macaroon Crumble, Peach and Moscato Granita, White Peach Sorbet with 3 dessert wines: De Bortoli Botrytis Semillon 2008, Josef Chromy Tasmania Botrytis Riesling 2007, and LillyPilly Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2011.
• Digestifs – Optional coffee and 3 Australian stickies: Hardy’s Show Tawny Show Port NV, Morris of Rutherglen Old Premium Liqueur Muscat NV, and Buller Rutherglen Museum Reserve Tokay NV
It was hard to leave Australia after such a wonderful week. I should mention that the weather was excellent – sunny blue skies and in the 80’s most everyday. When we finished tasting the last 90 wines on Friday morning at 11am, we toasted with Pommery Champagne, and then headed to the airport. We caught the 3:45 non-stop home to San Francisco, and I was able to gaze out the window at the spectacular view of Sydney with the sun glinting off its downtown buildings and the ocean wrapping itself around the land in bays and inlets. In my opinion Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, along with San Francisco, Paris, and Capetown.