Ever since I first saw “Stealing Beauty” with Liv Tyler when I was about 13-years-old, I have dreamed of living on a vineyard. Between the sun, the culture and of course, the wine, it seemed like an intriguing life.
I tried to stay on a vineyard when I was in Tuscany via Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), but got too caught up with traveling, having only three months to see as much of Europe as possible. Luckily Australia has plenty of great wine regions as well, and this trip I have plenty of time to spare from traveling.
I started looking for wineries to host me months before I arrived in Australia. In fact, I was looking at wineries before I even bought my plane ticket. WWOOF is a fantastic organization to go through for volunteering and cultural exchanges in Australia. It only cost $60 to register for a year and they send clients a large book filled with an array of different farms, resorts and more. Some of the first people I emailed were full and a few places fell through, but there are plenty of great places to choose from, so I just kept emailing until I found a match, Kancoona Valley Wines in Northeast Victoria.
Photo by Bobbi Lee Hitchon
Lena and Joe Birti own the 10-acre vineyard and live on it with their three wonderful children. Both Lena and Joe are second generation Italian immigrants of Australia, which means fantastic food, wine and even better family. Coming off three weeks of not eating much to try and save money, Lena’s meals are more than a treat. I think I gained back any weight I lost while traveling plus 10 pounds.
Located off Great Alpine Road near Myrtleford, this was one of the areas devastated by bush fires just a year ago. On the drive up here, Joe pointed out some of the areas that were affected, which weren’t hard to miss. Complete sides of mountains are still barren and black.
I’ve watched, photographed, learned some winemaking and tasted a few of their wines. Kancoona is one of the only wineries in Australia making preservative free wines. They plan to launch Australia’s first preservative free sparkling wine next year.
2/13/10-One perk of WWOOFing can be all the great meals. Photo by Bobbi Lee Hitchon
I arrived here Friday, February 12 by train, bus and automobile (in that order, so almost like the movie). I started 8 a.m. Friday morning from Southern Cross Station in Melbourne, where I took a V-Line train to Seymour, then a bus to Wangaratta and another bus to Mytleford.
The moment I walked off the bus in Mytleford, I had a good feeling. Myrtleford is one of those towns in movies that big city girls retreat to for some reason and first hate it then fall in love with it or a man, usually. It reminded me of “small town USA,” which only exists in Disney World nowadays. T here are tons of original bakeries, where the owners are actually working, older women with wicker baskets instead of purses and tiny cottages with giant rose bushes surrounding the yards.
I arrived around noon and my host family picked me up at 4:30 p.m., so I had some time to kill, which I was more than happy to do in such a beautiful place. I first went to the tourist information office, where two women with flower-print dresses and wide smiles were working, to see if they knew of any lockers were where I could put my bags down. They didn’t, but said, “You look like a nice enough girl, you can leave them here for the day.”
After three weeks in the city and 23 years in Jersey (gritty, but not always friendly), it felt nice to be in the Australian country side.
They gave me a map and some suggestions on how to spend my day. It’s not a big town, it actually reminds me a lot of Frenchtown, NJ, but more active. To add to the Frenchtown feeling, there is an Asian imports store in Myrtleford, Red Ramia Trading, that reminds me of Two Buttons, “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert and her husband Jose’s Southeast Asian import warehouse in Frenchtown. (Read my article about Two Buttons here.)
I found a cute bracelet and rustic notebook that had leather flaps with an elephant carved on it in the store.
Unsure what my hosts looked like, my eyes were wandering all around to catch a glimpse when I returned to our planned meeting point that day. I, on the other hand, stuck out with my massive red backpack, so it was Joe who popped out of his white pick up truck and questioned, “Bobbi?” as I walked down the road.
I met his family and Lise, a French WWOOFer that arrived a few days before me, at the grocery store, we drove about 30 minutes through the valley and up some mountains to reach my home for the next few weeks. Off the beaten track in an understatement. No wifi, wireless and mobile phone reception. It’s the complete opposite of the life I am accustomed to in the States, which is the point really. WWOOFing can put travelers in touch with an array of different experiences you can’t find in a guide book.
The winery is located on a hill with their house and a restaurant at the top looking down on the vineyard with a backdrop of mountains. It’s hard to believe this is the landscape I will be looking at the next few weeks. I have only been lucky enough to see places like this for a few days at best thinking to myself, “One day I am going to live somewhere like this!”
My life at Kancoona is country. Neighbors live miles away from one another, everyone is a farmer and heaps of cows graze around the area, but the cows are either pure black or brown and white, unlike the black and white ones in the States.
It’s really spectacular to run through the area, although not the easiest task. There’s no such thing as a flat road out here, but it doesn’t bother me because I’m usually so struck by the scenery.
Saturday was more of a lazy day. I learned about Lena’s family, how they came to Australia and how tough it was to survive in the untouched country at that time. Melbourne wasn’t even a fully functioning city then, so you can imagine how underdeveloped towns a few hours outside the city were. She said there was no running water, electricity, they slept on piles of hay and any food the family ate was either grown or killed by that family. Lena’s mom Maria came over later. She mainly speaks Italian, which is candy to the ears. I really enjoyed listening to Lena, her mom and Lise, who speaks three languages, interact.
That’s one of the best things about WWOOFing at Kancoona Valley. I get the Aussie-farm experience, but also the Italian experience that I missed in Tuscany.
Sunday, Valentine’s Day, we had some customers in the restaurant. I do a lot of cooking here, some work in the winery, play with the kids and help around the house and garden. It’s not like other WWOOFing host I’ve read about where people work hard for a few hours, then do their own thing. Here, I am apart of the family, whether it be helping with dinner or watching movies together.
It’s nice to settle down, leave my bags in one spot and not have to mark my food in bags in the refrigerator for a few weeks after running around for the past three weeks. I hit a bit of a physical and mental wall before arriving here, where I just couldn’t possibly walk through another park or see another sight, so this bit of normalcy is exactly what I needed.