After the week in Brisbane, we loaded up the minivan for our drive back to Sydney to catch our flight back to Canada. We had taken the drive north along the coastal route over three days. For a change of scenery, we planned the drive south on the inland route, over two days. The New England Highway is a two lane highway, with only a few major settlements between Brisbane and Sydney. Driving past farms and pastures, the altitude gradually rose.
Stopping overnight in Armidale, we were rudely reminded that July is Australian winter, with an overnight temperature below freezing. From the middle of the Northern Tablelands, the second day of driving through mountain ranges, leading to gradual descent.
We were making good time on the second day. I calculated that if we aimed for one of the most northmost wineries in the Upper Hunter Valley, we could arrive in time for a 2 p.m. tour. A brief stop at the Muswellbrook Visitor Information Centre clarified directions to Cruickshank Callatoota Estates, since they had moved within the previous year. Off the main roads onto side roads, we navigated up a long drive to find a modest operation, with a small tasting building.
We were welcomed by one of the partners of the estate, who said that the scheduled time was just for publication, and tours can be given on request. He explained that the business is essentially run by two partners year-round, with itinerant help to work the land, and bring in the grapes at harvest time. The winemaking process begins with grape vines run through a destemmer.
When the harvest is brought into the main processing building, the grapes are put into a press where the juice is separated from the skins.
Fermentation happens in stainless steel tanks, followed by aging in oak casks.
Wines styled with less of an oak flavour are matured in larger casks.
The mechanics of bottling are straightforward, although the speed would be amazing.
The resulting bottles still needed labels to be applied.
At the completion of the tour, tasting was to be provided by the other partner. Cruickshank Estates bottles both red and white wines, with many varieties winning awards. They have a reputation as “no headache” wines, as the amount of sulfites used in the process is low.
I was surprised at the high quality of the cabernet sauvignon. Since Ontario is of the world’s largest importers of French wine, I asked if Cruickshank wines would be available back home. He said, no, that he didn’t like the price that the importers would pay. Most of the wine is sold and consumed in Australia.
While tasting wines, we had a revealing conversation.
Cruickshank: What are you doing in the area?
Me: We’re returning from a conference in Brisbane.
Cruickshank: What kind of conference?
Me (thinking that my interests are really obscure): Systems science.
Cruickshank: I know the man who invented system science!
Me (in disbelief): Really?
Cruickshank: Sure. Russ Ackoff. I’ve known him for decades.
It turns out that the winery is a superannuity fund for retirement. John Cruickshank had a prior career as a management consultant in Australia, and thus had become good friends with Ackoff on tours of the southern hemisphere. He said that he would mention me to Russ in his next letter.
We also heard the story of the winery being moved. Strip coal mining is a big business in Australia, and Cruickshank got an offer for his property. Rather than fighting the mining companies, he chose to negotiate a price so that he could relocate the winery and start over.
From Denham, there was a choice of two routes to Sydney: (i) southeast to Newcastle and then southwest near the coast on the Sydney-Newcastle Freeway, or (ii) directly south to Sydney. Having taking the first route on our way north, I chose the second for our way south. This is how we discovered why tourists are generally advised to take the main roads.
The New England Highway had been a two lane road, so I didn’t anticipate that the road could be much worse. Driving south from Wollombi, we were probably on stretches of the convict-built Great North Road, by Yengo National Park. I was amused when we crossed a temporary wooden bridge across a brook. Then we crossed another temporary bridge … and another. We started driving up and down narrow roads on hills — in a minivan with right hand drive! When the pavement stopped and we were on a dirt road, I wondered if we should turn back. We then encountered a blind curve on an uphill incline with only one lane, and had to pull over to let trucks going the other direction pass. I didn’t know exactly how far we had to go, but as we found ourselves on a paved road along a ridge and could see the mountains to the west and the sea coast in the distance to the east, so we continued in a southward direction.
With the sun setting, we followed signs back to the Freeway, and rejoined the multi-lane traffic. We thought that we would have an easy route back to Macquarie Park, but ended up in a traffic jam for an hour. At the end of a school holiday weekend, perhaps the mountain route had been the right — if nerve-wracking — choice.
We ordered the largest sushi tray available as an appetizer to a variety of Korean dishes.
The Korean shops are in a few short blocks, so strolled around looking at windows at night.
The drive from Brisbane to Sydney is long, and our sons were especially patient in riding in a minivan packed with luggage. With planning and good luck, the journey added to our memories of family time together.