Cruise the Yarra Valley’s wineries in a classic car


Of all the inviting picnic spots available in the forested hills east of Melbourne, none of us thought we’d be dipping into our feast from the bonnet of a car in the main street of the area’s biggest town, Healesville. But these morsels can’t wait. A triple cream delice de bourgogne is so unctuous we need a spoon, backed up by a ripe Gippsland blue and an aged comte from France’s Jura, plus Spanish jamon and piquant morcon sausage, muscatels, dolmades, olives and pickles.

It’s not us peckish picnickers who are drawing the attention of downtown Healesville this autumn afternoon, however. It’s our picnic table, the bonnet of a two-tone green 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Sedan that its owner, John Frostell, calls Lois.

A chap in a Holden almost as old as Lois gives us a toot, a woman stops to say her brother had a Chevy just like it, and there’s a respectful exchange of nods between Frostell and a man who parks nearby in the “opposition”, a burgundy Ford of similar vintage.

Frostell uses Lois, and occasionally her 1957 coupe cousin Lucille, to take day-trippers on jaunts out of Melbourne. Guests on d’Luxe Classic Car Tours can choose a destination and/or theme, and Frostell curates an itinerary. We choose the Yarra Valley’s mix of wine, food and scenery bookmarked by two artistic icons, all within an hour or so of town. 

Along the way, our host tells of a love affair that began in his teenage years, when he saw an article on the 10 best and 10 worst American cars and decided he wanted one of the best. In 1986 he bought Lucille.

In 2017, via eBay, he found Lois in the US. Apart from removing the asbestos brake linings before importation, Lois required only mild restoration. But Frostell did add Bluetooth audio, and we tour to the sound of his preferred playlist, mid-50s jazz.

The sport sedan is not a muscle car but a cruiser. “It has a lounge-room ride,” says Frostell, although it’s not that roomy in the back, and the sloping roofline means I must contort my 6ft-plus frame – metrics have no place in this car – to get in.

The vineyards begin at Coldstream, and at Coombe Yarra Valley, wine is just a recent chapter in this place’s story. Screened by a formidable hedge is the cottage and grand gardens purchased a century ago by diva Dame Nellie Melba. Tours inside the cottage itself are rare, as it’s still owned and used by the Vesteys, the British business family that Melba’s granddaughter Pamela married into. But the garage in which Melba housed her Rolls-Royces is now a restaurant with a morning tea selection of buttermilk scones and peach melba mousse. This connects to the tasting room through the stables, which store a dusty collection of Melba’s luggage; she’s said to have had 14 Louis Vuitton trunks. The soundtrack in the bathrooms, meanwhile, is that unmistakable soprano.

Our first tasting destination is somewhere I’ve wanted to try, Medhurst, established in 2000 by former Southcorp wines chief executive Ross Wilson. The modern tasting room looks out over vines, sculpture-dotted lawns and a full dam. Medhurst’s best seller is a deliciously dry cabernet/shiraz rose, and just as appealing is a wood-treated sauvignon blanc and a perfectly balanced pinot noir. But the eye-opener is the YRB (Yarra River Burgundy), an unusual blend of pinot noir and shiraz. Just out of Healesville is a winery suggested by Frostell. Boat O’Craigo, named by the owners for an ancestral business running a ferry in Scotland, has a deck with views across the vines to the Yarra Ranges. There’s a vast selection, so we cherry-pick varieties not normally seen around these parts. The Austrian classic gruner veltliner comes across as an aperitif style, while the gewurztraminer reeks of rosewater and tastes tantalising.

John Frostell takes tours of up to four people in his car; three is the more comfortable limit in the coupe. Tours are generally limited to a radius of 200km or a few hours’ drive from central Melbourne, and start from $450 a vehicle for a half-day tour and $810 for a full-day [and $960 maxi day].

In Healesville proper, across the street from gin superstar Four Pillars, Payten & Jones is a new experience for all of us; Frostell discovered it on Instagram only recently. Started by locals Behn Payten and Troy Jones, the winery is an open-sided shed be- hind the cellar door, which used to be a hairdressing salon. The place’s tone, from the cartoonish labels to the bushy-bearded winemakers, suggests more of a beer schtick. That’s because, having learned to make wine the traditional way, the school friends began, as Payten tells us, “experimenting and pushing”. Their wines can be murky and throw some sediment; it’s like “experiencing a band live”, says the website. A guided tasting with cellar hand Steve includes descriptions you won’t find in any review by Jancis Robinson or James Halliday. The chardonnay “has a bit of funk”, while the Browne’s Block pinot is “super-smashable”. That said, each wine is excellent.

We’ve lunched only lightly at Medhurst, so next is another place Frostell has just heard about, Kitchen & Butcher in Healesville’s main street. We drool over its sauces, relishes, charcuterie, cheese and freshly butchered meat while Frostell arranges our picnic pack, which goes straight outside to the bonnet.

The last stop is TarraWarra, not for its refined wine but coffee, looking over landscaped grounds just beginning to turn for autumn. Alas, we’ve left no time for TarraWarra’s other main draw, the architecturally stirring museum dedicated to art and sculpture in the contemporary mode favoured by its founders, retail icons Marc and Eva Besen. As we cruise back to Melbourne, Frostell confesses he’s once before treated guests to a bonnet lunch, but of pies, and nothing like the delice de bourgogne and morcon we’ve experienced. After 65 years on the road, Lois has turned a culinary corner.

Jeremy Bourke was a guest of d’Luxe Classic Car Tours.

Online article (KRM paywall).