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Friday 31 July 2015

Mudgee wine producers wave the flag down on the beach

Times have been tough in the Central West of New South Wales.

With competition from wines from trendy regions like Tasmania and the Mornington Peninsula, some grape growers in Mudgee, Cowra and surrounding areas have ripped out their vines and walked away from the wine industry.

The strong, however, have survived and prospered, with Mudgee wineries Huntingdon Estate, Robert Oatley Vineyard and Robert Stein all gaining five red stars in the 2016 edition of the James Halliday Wine Companion annual.

The Mudgee region is the third-largest grape-growing region in NSW and one of the oldest wine regions in the state. Encompassing the towns of Mudgee, Gulgong, Kandos and Rylstone, the district offers a melange of food, wine, art and cultural events for visitors.

Mudgee, meaning ‘nest in the hills’, is set amid rolling countryside and offers more than 35 family-run cellar doors to discover. The region is surrounded by several national parks and world-heritage bushland and landmarks, able to be explored on food, by car or by bike

The winemakers of Mudgee will wave the flag for their region's wines at two upcoming events, including the 25th annual Mudgee Wine & Food Festival at Balmoral Beach on Sunday August 9.

Held from 11am to 5pm, the event traditionally attracts thousands of food and wine lovers.

“It’s fantastic to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the festival this year and by all accounts it’s shaping up to be bigger and better than ever," 
says Mike O’Malley, a tireless worker for the Mudgee Grape Growers Association.

"With even more local providers coming on board in 2015 including Baker Williams Distillery, Mudgee Honey Haven and Murrungundy Pistachios, this event will again give festival-goers a unique opportunity to sample Mudgee’s finest, whilst learning firsthand about our world-class food and wine directly from the actual producers.” 

The longest-running regional wine and food fair in Sydney, Mudgee Wine & Food Festival at Balmoral Beach provides an introduction to the region ahead of its gastronomic event of the year, the Mudgee Food & Wine Festival, which runs from September 12–October 5.

“The Mudgee Wine & Food Festival at Balmoral is the perfect way to come down, reset your senses, and get a taste of the Mudgee Region. Showcasing some of our best food and wine producers, it really is the next best thing to visiting Mudgee itself," says Cara George, CEO of Mudgee Region Tourism.

Exhibiting wineries include Huntington Estate, Robert Stein Vineyard and Gooree Park Wines and free shuttle buses will be operating on a continuous circuit from Balmoral Beach to Military and Spit Roads via Raglan Street and Awaba Street throughout the day.

For further information on the shuttle service and a route map, please visit

For more information on the Mudgee region, check out

Thursday 30 July 2015

When a five-star hotel proves a major letdown

I was quite excited to be staying at the Park Hyatt Mendoza Hotel, Casino & Spa a few months back. 

It has a wonderful location overlooking a lovely central park known as the Plaza Independencia and boasts a beautifully restored 19th-century Spanish colonial façade. 

It is within walking distance of most of the Argentine city's many attractions and is billed as a "prestigious five-star hotel". As I'd always had great experiences with Hyatt before I expected something special.

The hotel claims it is "ideal for business and leisure travellers, including rooms with stunning views of the Andes mountain and the city of Mendoza". 

Not my room, which unfortunately was in a part of the hotel that was being renovated - and should never have been offered for sale. 

At first it was just some dusty workmen wandering the corridor. Then room doors had been removed offering views of work sites. And there was the sound of intermittent banging, along with the pervasive smell of solvent in the corridor. 

I was fortunate that I was on a busy schedule and spending minimal time in my room during the three-day stay. Mendoza is, after all, one of the Great Wine Capitals of the World and rather than staying among the vines we were driving to and from. 

My initial complaint fell on deaf ears. I asked to speak to the duty manager but he was "busy". Two minions displayed a couldn't care-less-attitude - even after my attitude changed from disappointed to angry. 

The room opposite had no door
Later, there was a note in my room offering (finally) to move me to an alternative room - which I asked to see, only to be confronted by more shrugs. 

It was all most unHyatt-like. As I had completely unpacked I declined the offer as it would have taken ages to pack and unpack again. I had only one hour of free time on a very busy schedule and I was checking out the next morning. 

My old-fashioned room certainly could have done with some renovations - but the wing should have been closed for the work. Alternatively some kind of apology could have been forthcoming (a bottle of local wine would have done the trick). 

Instead, I remain so incensed that I am writing about this long after the hotel should have faded in the memory - and I have made a note to avoid Hyatt properties where possible. There are no winners. 

Oh, and while I'm being grumpy; when I needed someone to call or hail a taxi there was no one on duty at the entrance to do that task either. Not exactly five-star service.  

Tuesday 28 July 2015

James Halliday, heavyweight champ of wine writing, says "never again"

James Halliday is the undisputed heavyweight champion of wine writing in Australia. 

He not only pens (literally) a weekly wine column in The Australian, and lends his name, and words, to a high-quality wine magazine, he also writes the annual James Halliday Wine Companion, the 2016 edition of which has just been released.

The annual is the undisputed "bible" of the Australian wine industry with producers knowing full well that a five-star rating from Halliday equates directly to increased sales. 

Since 1979, former lawyer Halliday has written or co-authored more than 70 books on wine, including contributions to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine and The Oxford Companion of Wine. A new edition of his Wine Atlas of Australia is in the works. 

Not for the first time, Halliday has spent much of the year writing not one, but two books. 

Released simultaneously with the annual is Varietal Wines, an in-depth look at the over 130 different grape varieties grown in Australia. 

"This is the last time - it almost killed me," Halliday says of writing two books simultaneously. "Thousands and thousands of words - I hate to think how many words."

And it is not just words; Halliday also still tastes for his annual, although he has assistance from Campbell Mattinson and sparkling wine specialist Tyson Stelzer. 

At 78, his workload is prodigious and the Brokenwood and Coldstream Hills founder rarely finds time to relax in his holiday home in Burgundy.

Over 8900 wines were evaluated for the new annual, which contains detailed tasting notes, ideal drinking windows and points. There are more than 1300 winery profiles (including 92 new wineries). 

Throw in vintage charts and cellar door information and this is an invaluable guide for anyone with even a passing interest in Australian wine - and a great Father's Day gift. 

My one criticism is that scores continue to be higher than anywhere else in the world with 98s and 97s scattered around like confetti. I guess it helps sell wine.

Varietal Wines is an equally fascinating book - but of interest more to serious wine lovers. If you want to know all about cinsaut or lagrein then you've come to the right place. 

Among the major awards announced at Tuesday night's annual launch:

Winery of the Year: Tahbilk

Winemaker of the Year: Peter Fraser, Yangarra Estate

Wine of the Year: Serrat Yarra Valley 2014 Shiraz Viognier

Best Value Winery: West Cape Howe 

Best New Winery: Bicknell FC 

Tahbilk owner Alister Purbrick said: “When my great-grandfather Reginald Purbrick purchased the Tahbilk property in 1925, he would not have been able to dream of receiving an accolade that means so much to our family and the broader industry as a whole. 

"To be able to continue his original vision for Tahbilk, and accept such an esteemed award from our own living wine legend, James Halliday, is a great honour. 

"I feel incredibly proud of all that the Purbrick family has achieved at Tahbilk over the generations and this award recognises our unswerving commitment to traditional winemaking whilst using innovative and sustainable viticultural practices."

Halliday Wine Companion 2016 is published by Hardie Grant on August 1. RRP $39.95. 

Varietal Wine is also published by Hardie Grant on August 1. RRP 59.95

Monday 27 July 2015

Now it is official: The story of Penfolds' new Max Schubert wine

At last it is official! Penfolds is releasing a new premium wine range; created to commemorate Max Schubert, legendary former chief winemaker and creator of Grange.

Max Schubert AM was Penfolds' chief winemaker from 1948-1975 and a pivotal figure in Penfolds history. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The new 2012 Max Schubert Cabernet Shiraz continues the Penfolds philosophy of multi-regional blending - and it is available under screw cap, unlike Grange. "It personifies a wine style that Max championed well over half a century ago," says the press release. 

The debut release is a blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon and 39% Shiraz from the Barossa Valley and Coonawarra and will retail for $450. Penfolds envisage it will be long lived, with a tasting window until 2045.  

"Max, of course, is one of the most revered in our history, a remarkable man who had an immeasurable impact not only on Penfolds, but the entire Australian wine industry," says the official release. 

From the 2013 vintage there will be a shiraz and a shiraz cabernet blend under a slightly different "Max" label. The release says: "Over time, other wines will be added to this range at different tier levels."

So the official announcement came a couple of weeks after I spilled the beans and it is still a mystery why Penfolds media-savvy owners, Treasury Wine Estates, kept the new wine as a secret before letting word slip out on their own website. 

What we now know is that fewer than 500 cases of the first release were made and that the wine needs a double decant before service. 

Saturday 25 July 2015

Not quite the Tour de France: Here comes the Wine Peloton

The Wine Peloton are a group of Australian winemakers who cycle prodigious distances to raise money for charity – and they are heading for Tasmania.

The group, who last year successfully completed the 7 Peaks Alpine Ascent Challenge and raised $40,000 for the Teen Rescue Foundation, have announced a new event for 2015.

Between November 22-28, the Wine Peloton will embark on a Tour of Tasmania, including Mount Wellington and Cradle Mountain – with the Huon Valley on the agenda for the opening stage.

The Wine Peloton will once again cycle in support of wine writer Tyson Stelzer’s Teen Rescue Foundation, which is dedicated to addressing the harmful use of alcohol among Australian teens through education and intervention.

“With an active and vocal anti-alcohol lobby which does not discriminate in its opposition to
different forms of alcoholic beverages, the wine community needs to demonstrate that it is
responsible member of the broader community, is being active in helping to prevent the
unintended abuse of alcohol and contributing to practical solutions to alcohol abuse,” says
peloton leader Drew Tuckwell, a winemaker at Printhie Wines in Orange, New South Wales.

Grapegrowers, winemakers, regional associations, retailers, distributors, marketers,
industry suppliers, wine shows and all businesses involved in wine are invited to pledge support as a partner, with sponsorship levels ranging from $250 to $5000.

Some of the stages will be over 200km long and Tuckwell, along with fellow riders like Andrew Hanigan from Derwent Estate, says the overall aim is to raise more money than last year.

For details contact Drew Tuckwell on 0421 757 747 or See

Thursday 23 July 2015

Meet the Tasmanian winery where you are greeted by a wine duck

Puddleduck Vineyard has two unique selling points; You can't buy the wines anywhere other than at their cellar door; and you may be greeted by a duck on your arrival. 

Puddleduck owners Darren and Jackie Brown this week unveiled a $550,000 makeover of their tasting facility, complete with a playground and a beautiful deck on the dam overlooking the vines.

The boutique producers now offer a range of tasting options and plan weekend music sessions on the deck. 

The couple reflected on the changes to the wine industry in Tasmania since they opened their Coal River Valley facility a decade ago. 

“We never dreamed 10 years ago when we opened our cellar door that we would become so popular," said Jackie Brown. 

"Our renovations have been necessary to cater for the increasing number of visitors to our door each year during this exciting time for tourism in Tasmania.” 

Visitors can still pay $5 for a tasting (refundable on the purchase of a bottle), or opt for a structured sit-down tasting, with a cheese platter if requested), using premium Plumm glasses. 

This year marks Darren Brown's 30th year of working in the Tasmanian wine industry. 

When he started in the industry at Moorilla Estate (better known for MONA these days) he was 17. “There were only eight vineyards in Tasmania and the state crush was 120 tonnes,” he recalls.

The Browns started Puddleduck in 1997 after they purchased a 15 acre property in Richmond. 

They have built their family-run business from humble beginnings to become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Coal River Valley - Puddleduck is currently listed on TripAdvisor as the #2 attraction in the Richmond area.

Puddleduck is a fun name but the wines are serious. The Bubbleduck sparkling wine (2012 is the current release) is outstanding and retails for $52, while the newly-released 2015 Riesling is another standout. 

Both pinot noir and chardonnay have strong followings.

What started as a part-time job for one now employs the equivalent of six full-time staff, plus vineyard dog Polly and Lucky the pet duck, who is happy to be stroked by visitors. 

Puddleduck wines can only be purchased at the cellar door or online, and can only be found on one wine list; at Henry's at the Henry Jones Hotel in Hobart, where Darren's daughter is the maitre d'. 

It is a formula that has enjoyed great success, so much so that several hectares of new vines have planted in the hillside overlooking the cellar door. 

And visitors to Puddleduck are welcome to bring their own food to enjoy on the lawns while the kids enjoy themselves in the new playground - as part of the the winery's "Reverse BYO" policy. 

Puddleduck Vineyard, 992 Richmond Road, Richmond, Tasmania. 
(03) 6260 2301
Open daily 10am-5pm 

Wednesday 22 July 2015

New beginnings for Cygnet's Red Velvet Lounge

Eight months after its interior was gutted by fire, one of Tasmania's iconic eateries this morning re-opened its doors for the first time. 

Cygnet's Red Velvet Lounge, home of award-winning chef Steve Cumper, has a completely new look but Cumper says his food ethos has not changed.

The focus will remain on local produce like Huon Valley Berkshire free-range pork and wine from Elsewhere, but in a fresher, more stylish setting. 

Cygnet, 40-minutes south of Hobart, was badly hit by the loss of the RVL, and loyal customers raised over $40,000 to help reopen the venue, which is in a 103-year-old building on the small town's main street. 

The RVL serves everything from gourmet meals to coffees, freshly baked bread and house-made cakes, and has been a big drawcard for both visitors from Hobart and further afield in recent years. 

In previous winters Cumper has served free soup and bread once a week to locals needing a hearty meal. 

After eight months of dealing with insurance companies and designers, he opened the doors at 8am, his emotions a mixture of joy and relief. 

"There are obviously high expectations considering what we've done in the past, and we think people will like the tweaks we have made," he said, adding that local support had been the key to his deciding to continue with the business. 

“That outpouring of goodwill was really a validation that we should give it another go,” he said.

The new interior, seen here, was kept secret until this morning and while several staff had moved on to new jobs during the eight-month hiatus, a couple are returning. 

Cumper says the ambiance will be "casual" and the menu will feature "accessible country food that is welcoming", as was the case before the fire.    

The wine list will be "ultra local" with a focus on bottles from the Huon Valley and d'Entrecasteaux Channel, but there will also be a supplementary list with some quirky options and a cellar reserve list of individual aged bottles from a collector's cellar. 

Red Velvet Lounge, 24 Mary St, Cygnet TAS 7112. (03) 6295 0466. Open 8am-4pm Wednesday-Sunday and for dinner on Saturdays. Gourmet pizzas are made on Friday and Saturday evenings.   


Sunday 19 July 2015

Coonawarra and Tasmania hit the road

It can be hard to attract visitors to your cellar door if you are among the most remote wine regions in Australia, so once a year the winemakers from Coonawarra and Tasmania hit the road for their annual big city shows. 

The 12th annual Coonawarra Wine Tasting Roadshow event will be travelling to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth between August 9-19, aiming to catch up with wine lovers, writers, lifestyle journalists and trade personnel.

This year's roadshow marks 125 years since Coonawarra was established and no fewer than 26 wineries are involved, although not all have committed to all six cities. 

“John Riddoch was an extraordinary businessman, pastoralist and visionary, who conceived of the idea of the Coonawarra Fruit Colony in 1890 … and by 1895 the first vintage was produced”, said Cathy Hughes, wine industry officer for Coonawarra Grape and Wine Incorporated.

Riddoch commissioned a large tri-gabled winery and cellar, which was built of local stones and made ready for the third vintage in 1897. By 1898, Coonawarra wines were being exported to England and Europe.

“And here we are 125 years later living his vision of growing quality grape berries, and producing premium wines of immense distinction, especially our cabernet sauvignons, and showcasing them to the nation.”

This year's Coonawarra Roadshow itinerary features Brisbane: August 9 at the Lightspace; Sydney, August 11 at the Town Hall;  Melbourne: August 13 at the Town Hall, Hobart: August 14 at Hobart Function & Conference Centre, Adelaide: August 16 at the National Wine Centre, and Perth, August 18 at the Pan Pacific Hotel. 

Tickets to each event are $45 per person (plus a booking fee) and will include a Coonawarra wine glass for use during the event and as a keepsake. Online tickets for the 2015 Coonawarra Roadshow can only be purchased from the Eventbrite site or via the link from 

Tasmania's annual Tasmania Unbottled roadshow has been given a new name, VIN Diemen, and a new look with the involvement of Dan Sims and his Bottle Shop Concepts team. I hate the new name but I'm assured it is hip and happening. 

VIN Diemen is billed as celebration of all the gourmet island has to offer, particularly wine, with names including Clover Hill, Tolpuddle, Glaetzer Dixon, Grey Sands, House of Arras and Stefano Lubiana among the 26 wine producers on show.

Tasmanian ciders will also feature; Frank’s and Willie Smith’s will be on hand to prove why the Apple Isle is Australia’s spiritual home of cider and Lark Distillery will be pouring its new Forty Spotted Gin for guests in Sydney and Melbourne, where there will also be music from talented Taswegian Neil Gibson.

Chef David Moyle, from Franklin in Hobart, plans to showcase Tasmanian produce for guests to enjoy over a beverage or two at the Sydney and Melbourne events. Tasmania’s famous fresh produce, including Bruny Island cheeses, will also be on offer for guests attending the Brisbane event.

Tickets are now on sale for $35 and include a take-home wine glass as well as access to all the wines on tasting. 

The dates are: Melbourne: August 16, Meat Market, North Melbourne, Brisbane: August 20, at the Lightspace, and Sydney: September 5, Australian Technology Park, Eveleigh. 

Tickets are available at 

Saturday 18 July 2015

Arriving in style for dinner in Bangkok

A year or more ago I was given a guided tour of a building site. A building site with a lovely setting on Bangkok's Chao Praya River, but a building site nonetheless. 

Now that building site has emerged, caterpillar to butterfly style, as the new Mango Tree on the River, the waterfront flagship eatery of the Thai group Mango Tree Worldwide. 

And this is a restaurant with a difference - with guests invited to arrive in style; on board a twin-Mercury-powered speedboat. 

While most hotels in Bangkok favour old-fashioned wooden ferries, this is a very stylish alternative way in which to arrive for dinner - and a very good option as road traffic is the Thai capital is no picnic. 

"Our new flagship enjoys a stunning location right on the river at Yodpiman Pier, in front of the famous flower market at Pak Klong Talat," says Mango Tree managing director Trevor MacKenzie. 

"It's an incredible location, with one of the best views of the Chao Phraya, the famous temples like Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) and the city skyline. It is spectacular and will be especially so at sunset when we anticipate bringing in diners.

"At rush hour, the traffic can be barely moving. So diners can drive or catch the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin, we'll pick them up at the ferry pier and whisk them down the river in short order and in high style." 

The journey from Taksin Pier, one of the biggest and busiest interchanges on the river, to Yodpiman takes about 15 minutes. This will be a scheduled service, so walk-in guests can also catch this speedboat to the restaurant although pre-booking is advised. 

Located close to Bangkok's historic Rattanakosin district, birthplace of the ruling Chakri Dynasty, Mango Tree covers four storeys, offering both indoor and al fresco dining, drawing on the four points of Thailand's culinary compass: Northern, North-Eastern, Central and Southern Thai favourites. 

Some of these are adapted for contemporary tastes or inspired by local and seasonal specialties and the restaurant uses only hormone-free meats and no frozen products. 

Guests can watch the sunset whilst sipping innovative cocktails and eating small bites on the third floor before coming down to enjoy modern Thai food in the dining room on the second floor, or in the open air on the ground floor. 

The Mango Tree group has a vision to open in every major world city and operates more than 70 restaurants and cafes in 15 countries in Asia, the Middle East, and the USA.

Mango Tree on the River is open daily from 3.30pm to 1am. 

# The writer was previously a guest of Mango Tree restaurants 

Friday 17 July 2015

All white on the night: Penfolds' victory turns perceptions on their head

Penfolds, established in 1844, is a winery inextricably linked with quality red wines. 

From Grange to Bin 707, RWT and St Henri, right down to the reliably good Koonunga Hill range, the Penfolds reputation for quality has been based on red wines, many of them made from shiraz. 

The Penfolds winemaking team
But Penfolds has just been named as International White Winemaker of the year by the International Wine Challenge (IWC) in London, an award you have to think would have surprised even the Treasury Wine Estates hierarchy.

Not that Penfolds do not make some outstanding white wines, including the iconic Yattarna chardonnay, but those whites have always been overshadowed by a massive portfolio of quality reds. 

The award was collected on behalf of the Penfolds team by senior white winemaker Kym Schroeter at the IWC awards dinner in London. 

Having joined Penfolds back in 1987, baby-faced Kym boasts over a quarter of a century of Penfolds winemaking experience. His willingness to look to Tasmania and other regions outside Penfolds' South Australian heartland for fruit must have played a key role in the award. 
Kym Schroeter

“The Penfolds team is truly honoured to receive such a prestigious award from the IWC," Schroeter said. "Being recognised as the best international white winemaker serves to demonstrate Penfolds ability to consistently craft white wines of the highest quality across a range of regions and varietals.” 

Gold medals were awarded to three vintages from its Reserve Bin Chardonnay range, including: Reserve Bin 12A Chardonnay 2012, Reserve Bin 10A Chardonnay 2010 and Reserve Bin 09A Chardonnay 2009. It also struck gold with Yattarna Chardonnay 2010 - while just two Penfolds red wines also received gold medals; Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2012 and Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2012. Penfolds Grandfather Rare Tawny collected a gold medal in the fortified category. 

Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago said: "The Penfolds winemaking team is delighted with this award from IWC which recognises our portfolio of white wines. Kym has done a terrific job in continuing the Penfolds tradition of innovation and pushing forwards the development of the white wine portfolio. It’s an exciting time for Australian white wines, particularly chardonnay, a variety now enjoying a new phase of seriousness, drinkability and durability.”

Wednesday 15 July 2015

How I sold my soul for a jar of Maggie Beer jam

I can't make up my mind about Maggie Beer. 

Having met her a couple of times, she seems like a lovely lady with a commitment to quality food. 

Her Pheasant Farm pate is absolutely outstanding and her range of ice creams are downright delicious.

It just that she is omnipresent in the media. Switch on the TV and there she is. Walk into any book store, open any glossy food magazine and there she is. She has a love affair with cameras.  

So when a press release arrived about her apricot jam my first thought was to ignore it. The last thing the world needs, surely, is another story or blog about Maggie. 

I sent a snide, ungracious reply saying that it was not possible to write about a product I haven't tried.  

But then I thought about how much I enjoyed visiting her Farm Shop café in the Barossa Valley; how good those pates are, the pleasure of her chocolate and salted caramel ice cream and the many times her quince paste has enlivened a cheese platter. 

So when the PR person ignored my grumpy nature and offered to send me a jar of the jam I caved. Pathetically. 

And it is darn good; chunky, fruity and flavoursome. No wonder she gets so much publicity. 

Ms Beer explains: “This is a jam for adult taste – made with apricots from our own heritage orchard; something that has been a dream of mine from our very first days in the Barossa. I love to spread this jam generously onto toast with lashings of butter, or team it with warm scones for a particularly Barossa take on afternoon tea." 

I used up the remainder of my jar with lashings of butter and freshly-made scones from Bees n Cheese at the Cygnet Market on Sunday. Delicious it was, too.

# The author is happy to declare he received a free jar of jam worth $9.95. 

Monday 13 July 2015

The Sofitel Wentworth remains a Sydney hotel classic

Travellers often want to stay somewhere hip and exciting, but sometimes it can pay dividends to stick with tried and true accommodation.

I would have stayed at the Sofitel Wentworth in Sydney multiple times over the past 30 years, including in its previous incarnation as a Sheraton, but the service has seldom been as good as it is right now. 

So many five-star hotels look great but get the basics wrong; long lines at check-in and check-out, staff who avoid eye contact and only want to help when there might be a tip involved. 

There are no such issue at the Sofitel Wentworth, where there were no queues - and the staff appeared uniformly switched on and ready to help. 

The Sofitel Wentworth is an iconic luxury hotel in the heart of the Sydney CBD (you can walk just about anywhere from here) with 436 rooms and suites.

It could easily feel intense and rushed, but instead there is an air of dignity and calm, such as you find at classic London hostelries, 

The site has been host to a hotel since 1854 and the current edifice was built in 1966 and was the first five-star hotel in Sydney. In 2002, Accor became the new operators of the hotel, which has hosted royalty and big-name rock stars. 

The hotel offers all that you expect from a premium hotel. Most of the rooms overlook a central Garden Courtyard and there are extensive meeting and conference facilities, a health club, day spa, restaurant and a chic lounge that serves afternoon teas. 

All the rooms are non-smoking, a blessing, and my junior suite was extremely comfortable with a hugely comfortable bed, a thoughtful gift plate including chocolates and macarons, as well as reverse-cycle air conditioning, pillow menu, bathrobe and slippers, Lanvin bathroom amenities, mini bar, and TV with cable/pay channels. There is complimentary wireless internet access throughout the property.

I also had access to the rather excellent Club Sofitel, a quiet oasis which offers free drinks and canapes in the evening and an excellent buffet breakfast in the morning.

The hotel location is close to ferry, train and bus stops and only minutes from the Opera House, Circular Quay, The Rocks and the Royal Botanic Gardens.

But that is enough of my enthusiastic 
Club Sofitel 
gushing. What didn't I like? I found it tiresome that "Bonjour" is used as a greeting by all staff, but is the only French word most of them have. And I was not offered a morning newspaper at check-in, even though this is supposed to be available to all guests. Very minor quibbles.

Otherwise, I was extremely impressed. And double rooms start from $196 online depending on the season, formidable value when other five-star properties are charging two or three times as much.

The Sofitel Wentworth Hotel, 61-101 Phillip Street, Sydney 2000. (02) 9228 9188 

Friday 10 July 2015

What to do when the idiot in front reclines their airline seat?

We've all sat behind one of them at some time or another. The self-centred airline passenger who barely waits for the "fasten seat belt" sign to be turned off before slamming their seat back into full recline mode and "going to sleep". 

Never mind that you've not had the chance to eat yet; you are immediately squeezed into an even smaller economy class space than you had before.

If you are lucky the airline crew may ask the selfish fool in front to return their seat to upright until the meal service has been concluded.

Or they may not. 

Many cabin crew, particularly from Asian airlines, try their hardest to avoid any confrontation. So it is up to you to resolve the situation - preferably without getting involved in a slanging match of the style which recently cost a New Zealand man a $600 fine and a lecture from a magistrate.
Shane Diedrichs  appeared in Brisbane Magistrates Court charged with offensive and disorderly behaviour aboard a flight from Wellington to Brisbane last November.
The court heard he took umbrage when the man in front reclined his seat shortly after take-off and refused to move it forward again.

The court heard that Diedrichs became agitated and began pushing, kicking and kneeing the man's seat, making "violent gestures", and speaking in an aggression tone. 

I think he was perfectly within his rights to push, kick and knee the seat in front if he did not have sufficient space, but he probably went too far when he struck the reclining passenger's headrest and returned from his new seat to verbally abuse him.

Here's how he should have handled it. He should have asked the person in front politely to put their seat upright. If the passenger refused, he should have alerted the air crew to the fact that his space was being invaded and the stress was causing him to make jerky motions that he hoped would not cause problems for the person in front. 

But he had to remain calm and polite at all times and blame the person in front for causing his discomfort.

If the passenger in front was trying to sleep, he could have coughed and spluttered loudly in a forward direction, blaming his problem on increased claustrophobia. Politely, of course. 

In most cases either the air crew would have immediately moved him, or the dickhead sitting in front, to a new seat. 

In Diedrichs' case they should certainly have done their job and spoken severely to the person in front. But sometimes you simply have to take things in hand yourself. 

Thursday 9 July 2015

The inside story of the Qantas wine coup; a new direction beckons

It was the secret of which everyone in the Australian wine industry was already aware - but that didn't prevent Qantas from unveiling its new wine program with considerable pride and swagger.

Guests were invited for cocktails and caviar canapés at Spice Temple in Sydney and then a dinner accompanied by some of Australia's finest wines at Rockpool Bar and Grill for the official announcement that Neil Perry's team of sommeliers and mixologists are taking over the Australian flag carrier's wine and spirits program with immediate effect. 

Perry has been the culinary advisor to Qantas for closing in on two decades now - and the new move sees his Rockpool group taking control of food and beverage across the airline's first, business and economy classes, as well as in premium lounges. 

The announcement means the end of 10 years as the Qantas wine selection panel for highly-regarded trio Steve Pannell from SC Pannell Wines, Vanya Cullen from Cullen Wines and Tom Carson from Yabby Lake, all three highly respected winemakers in their own right. 

The fact that news of Perry's team taking over had been common knowledge for some time caused considerable angst and attracted widespread criticism, particularly on social media. It seems obvious that the hurt felt by Cullen and Pannell, particularly, could have handled better. 

Leading wine writer Huon Hooke wrote: "Len Evans must be turning in his grave. Qantas has dismissed the wine selection panel he instituted and replaced it with a chef."

In fact, Perry's vastly experienced team will be doing all the tastings under his guidance. And, a major positive, for the first time food and beverages will be selected "holistically". And more focus on cocktails has to be a good thing, too. 

Pannell said he was upset the panel had been sacked because he felt they had been a positive influence on the wine industry, while Cullen took to Facebook to express her disappointment. Several leading winemakers and even other sommeliers were outspoken in their criticism of the decision.   

But old news is history and Qantas have confirmed their direction, with the new team holding their first tasting on July 20. 

The new team, named The Qantas Rockpool Sommeliers, features no fewer than 16 experienced sommeliers and mixologists. 

Among the group are the head of Sommeliers Australia, David Lawler from Rockpool Bar and Grill Melbourne, and Sebastian Crowther, one of only two Master Sommeliers in Australia, as well as head bartenders of Rockpool restaurants around the country.

The sommeliers will blind taste, review and select from 1,200 Australian wines and Champagnes over four days each year and provide tasting notes for the international first and domestic business cabins. 

They will also provide recommendations for wine in the lounges and, for the first time, Rockpool mixologists will create monthly cocktails to be served on board.

Gareth Evans, CEO Qantas International, said the group will provide an exciting new direction for the airline’s entire wine and beverage program.

“Qantas’ new holistic approach to food and beverage will mean not only matching our menus with the perfect wine, but with the perfect cocktail or champagne,” Evans said.

“We invest over $15 million dollars in the Australian Wine industry every year [and are the third-largest buyers of wine in the country], so we take the selection process very seriously. We are really proud to showcase Australian wine to the world, and we’ll keep supporting boutique Australian wineries as well as the iconic drops that have defined Australia’s global winemaking reputation.

The Rockpool Group team will also be involved in training Qantas staff, something the former panel had not the time for, and were certainly not well paid enough to undertake. 

Currently, over 2000 Qantas cabin crew have also completed an introductory, intermediate or advanced level of wine study. 

Neil Perry, the consumate professional as he worked the room, said his team’s expertise in wine and mixology will "offer the very best restaurant experience in the sky" to Qantas passengers. 

“Rockpool has worked with Qantas for over 18 years to design menus and we are thrilled to be working more closely to select beverages for the airline. We are committed to continue providing the finest Champagnes and the boldest wines from across Australia and deliver a restaurant experience on the ground and in the air,” he said. 

As under the previous regime, all tables wines will be Australian with sparkling wines from Champagne the only exception. 

“The Rockpool Group has some of the most awarded and industry recognised sommeliers and mixologists in the country, and they work with customers dining in the restaurant every day, so they will be able to offer valuable insight into customer preferences and wine trends,” Perry said. 

Experienced sommelier Lawler described the new duties as "an incredibly exciting opportunity", adding that "we have a talent pool that can be put to great use by Qantas - and it will be a challenge, but one we are looking forward to." 

Perry and Qantas officials paid tribute to Pannell, Carson and Cullen for their work over the past decade. "They did a fine job and selected some outstanding wines," he said. 

But nothing stays the same forever - and the pressure is now on Perry's brigade to perform. 

# The writer was a guest of Qantas at the launch.