Life is too short to drink bad wine

“Ahhh love… it’s sunshine in a bottle” says the elderly gentleman at McGuigan’s winery in the Hunter Valley, pouring each of us a generous tasting glass of their Moscato. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine drinking the sweet wine with a dash of bubbles with friends at a summer barbeque, or by the beach with some cheese and crackers. Or better yet, give in to the temptation to settle in the sunshine in the winery’s garden, overlooking vineyards, and crack open a recently purchased bottle…

Only a 2.5 hour drive from Sydney, a spontaneous weekend escape to the Hunter has inspired a feeling of relaxation, peace and freedom, taking the place of a weekend otherwise jam-packed with pre-arranged brunches, bbqs and drinks. We forget how easy it is to break from routine and step out of the ordinary, temporarily abandoning reality to reflect, escape or just have fun. The rolling green hills, the birds calling to each other over the vineyards, the occasional sighting of a rabbit or a kangaroo, create a world far removed from the frenetic pace of the Sydney CBD. It is a gentle reminder to slow down, with smiling locals referring to Sydney as the big city where people are constantly in a rush.

Each winery that we visit has its own charm and character, with rustic cellar doors welcoming visitors in for a taste and a chat. At Emma’s Cottage there are bright original paintings by a local artist lining the walls, with the dessert wine named Perfect – “simply… because it is perfect. You’ll understand once you’ve tasted it”, says the lady behind the counter. Brokenwood Wines’ mission statement of “Make great wines and have fun” has led to the creation of an entire vineyard known as the “Cricket Pitch”, with blended wines sampled described to us as ideal for an afternoon at watching the sport (or any opportunity to sit in the sun and drink wine). Draytons Family Wines has rebuilt its cellar door since the 2008 fire that led to the tragic death of winemaker Trevor Drayton, and there is a sense of pride that the 100% family owned winery is continuing the tradition.

'Perfect' dessert wine... simply because it is

The hosts at each place delight in sharing their knowledge about the wine, and take their time with each explanation and tasting. Every experience is about savouring the moment, enjoying the quality of produce and appreciating the effort that has gone into the creation of each indulgence. In addition to wine, there are cheeses and dips, olive oils and jams, olives and freshly baked bread. The restaurants and cafés serve food sourced from the local area, and the emphasis is on freshness and flavour.

The Hunter operates by a different clock, with everything happening in its own time (including a cabbie who was late because he had stopped to place a bet on a horse on the way there). A watch is merely a quaint accessory, and the open space and fresh air allow you to unwind, relax and absorb. As Robert Louis Stephenson wrote, “wine is bottled poetry”, and there is nothing like a weekend in the Hunter Valley to bring that to life.


But it's an institution...

The crowd outside Mamak on a cold Tuesday night

It is a cold, wintery weeknight but the line at Mamak in Haymarket snakes around the corner (though moves surprisingly quickly), people shivering on the pavement and longingly watch the chefs work their magic. Chilly winds and the threat of rain aren’t enough to keep people away from the promise of fluffy rotis and slow cooked tender lamb curry (kari kambang) awaiting them in the warmth.

One of the chefs working his Roti magic

The fresh, inexpensive but mouthwateringly authentic Malaysian cuisine prepared in an open kitchen is a key ingredient helping Mamak on its way to becoming that mysterious creature – a Sydney institution (as in “what? You haven’t been there? But it’s an institution…”) – despite the fact that it only opened in 2007. The no-frills décor (including plastic cups for BYO wine) hasn’t got in the way of the SMH Good Food Guide 2009 awarding Mamak the Editor’s Pick award for Best Asian cuisine.

But it’s not the multiple awards that are causing people to flock there in droves. Mamak is becoming part of the unofficial establishment among Sydney-siders.

So what causes a place to become a ‘sydney institution’? A few other examples include (and this list is by no means exhaustive)…

Bill & Toni’s

Lonely Planet calls it a national treasure, and there are few places that have managed to last this long and maintain their reputation. Bill & Toni has been known for both its strong Italian coffee (in the downstairs cafe) and its schnitzels (upstairs) since 1964. Unpretentious but authentic Italian food, orange cordial, bread and a bowl of lettuce are brought to the table as soon as you sit down. Downstairs has a mix of old men, random bikies and journalistic types contemplating life over coffee, while upstairs sees everyone from families to couples to football teams feasting on pasta and parmigianas.

Harry’s Café de Wheels

You haven’t experienced a true Sydney night out if you haven’t perched on the wooden ledge of Woolloomooloo wharf during the wee hours of the morning, precariously balancing a pie topped with mushy peas, mash and gravy in one hand and a drink in the other. Harry’s has been around since 1938, serving “sailors, soldiers, cabbies, starlets and coppers” alike. Brooke Shields, Elton John and Colonel Sanders (of KFC infamy) are but a few of the well known names to visit Harry’s and indulge in a Tiger pie. Harry’s “institution” status was made official in 2004, when it was classified as a “quintessential Sydney icon” by the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and included on its register.

Kings Cross

Flashing lights, strip clubs and expensive restaurants, Kings Cross is a bizarre mix of red light district, trendy nightclub area and gentrified inner city living. A walk through the Cross on a Saturday night can lead to encounters with mini-skirted, high-heeled 18 year olds lining up for the latest club, working girls scouting for business, smartly dressed couples making their way from dinner, and a number of homeless people minding their own business on the side. The Coca Cola sign marking the entrance to the area is a landmark in itself, with its own Wikipedia entry.

Bourke St Bakery

People visit Surry Hills from miles away to join the queue for their famous sourdough, sausage rolls or croissants, just to enjoy them in the park across the road or sit on milk-crates on the pavement. The bakery has been described as “the heart of surry hills”, and sets the standard for bakeries across the city.

All of these places are landmarks in their own right, unique places that form the cultural landscape of Sydney.  How have they managed to beat the other cafes, areas, restaurants, to imprint themselves on the Sydney psyche?

Mamak on Urbanspoon


Watching everyone else who is watching everyone else...

A quote from the weekly newsletter of Rev Graham Long of the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross...

"A lovely old guy who is a regular at Wayside has just sat at my table and decided I could shout him a cup of coffee. He's lecturing me about how much the Cross has changed in the past 20 years while I'm nodding and writing. I suspect that every morning here is the 'morning after the night before'. There seems to be lots of people walking up and down the street, observing others who are doing the same thing. Just over the road at Porky's there is a girl in the doorway, watching everyone else who is watching everyone else."


The Amazing Race

Channel Seven is looking for teams of two to take part in an Australian series of The Amazing Race. This is a rare opportunity to do something out of the ordinary – and have some fun!

Applications close on 6 September 2010.


"Sandy feet, bikinis and board shorts welcome"

Sandy feet, bikinis and board shorts welcome” declares the elegant script at the entrance to Manly Wine, the latest and most scenic addition to the Gazebo family.

The eclectic, arty and intentionally chaotic décor that Gazebo is known for stimulates the senses, with yellow roses jostling for space with plastic flamingos and mini television sets. The friendly staff in denim overalls, the massive bread baskets delivered to the tables upon being seated and the mismatched but comfortable chairs reinforce the message of ‘casual but quality’.

Despite the welcoming statement at the door, the crowd gathered for long Saturday lunches would look equally comfortable at an expensive restaurant or afternoon bar launch. A look-book of the latest winter fashions, there are girls touching up make up in the bathroom, strutting heels in the mid-afternoon, and no sign of sandy feet or boardshorts (though to be fair – it is mid-winter).

Ask any non-Sydney resident their impression of Sydney nightlife and culture, and you’ll often get a response along the lines of “pretentious, expensive, tacky…” (with particular emphasis from smug Melbournites).

Gazebo’s welcoming invitation, along with statements such as “We say no to… Door charges. Dress codes. Door bitches” at Pocket in Darlinghurst seem to be part of a growing trend in Sydney to reject the pretentious, the over-dressed and exclusivity that Sydney has long been renowned for. Small Bar’s proud admission that “we’re homely and intimate, and we don’t have tv screens, gambling or draught beer” is another example of ambiance without the fuss. In a funny twist, the smaller the budget, the harder to find and the quirkier the décor of a place, the more likely it is to be frequented by those it claims to exclude.

Challenging the dominance of establishments like Ivy , a pleasure palace planned and built during boom times but ironically opened at the same time as the advent of the Global Financial Crisis, the anti-cool, anti-establishment, anti-rules vibe is starting to dominate Sydney’s bars and restaurants, kicked off by the small bars spreading over the inner city since the change to the liquor licensing laws in October 2009. Larger bars like the Gazebos and The Village (formally known as East Village) are reinforcing the trend by creating small bar-esque, familiar and cozy environments within their larger venues.

With hidden bars like Sticky hosting old school gaming machines, table tennis at Dr Pong, and drinking wine on crates on the pavement outside The Shop and Wine Bar in Bondi, the focus is on fun, art and experience – with a serious disdain for those who take life too seriously.

The plastic pink flamingo has the best view in the house

Manly Wine on Urbanspoon

Gen Y ... can we have it all in the corporate world?

It's tough to have it all. We're Gen Y. We're young, ambitious, eager to succeed. We're educated, well-travelled and ready for a challenge. We are used to change, and have learnt to embrace it.

We also resent being chained to our desks, are wondering how we ended up staring at a screen all day, but find ourselves climbing the corporate ladder as we ponder this. We've survived a number of restructures, our titles have changed, and the excitement of corporate travel has fallen by the wayside.

We work hard and we play hard (when we manage to leave the office at a reasonable hour). We take for granted the excesses of the corporate card, but we're still saving to buy our first property. We want to take our 3 month mini-breaks to climb Machu Pichu and trek in Nepal, we value meaningful relationships, and we know money isn't the solution to our problems. But we still enjoy the lifestyle it brings.

As social researcher Hugh Mackay once told an audience at the Pyrmont Library, the mantra of our generation is "keep your options open". He told that "the generational ethos is bred into them: keep your options open, hang loose, don't get too committed too soon."

We've lost the idealism we had at university and know that we have to work to achieve our goals. But we know life is not all about work... we're "young professionals" in black and grey but we still care about music, edgy fashion and fabulous food. We still want to find meaning in the small things, cry and laugh reading non-business related books, and dance to daggy music like no one's watching.

So when we do manage to beat the clock, what are we doing?