"Do you get many people up here to visit?" I ask Rick Kinzbrunner, the owner and head winemaker at Giaconda, as he stretches back on a rocking chair in his Beechworth house.
He purses his lips. "We try not to."
This, clearly, is not your typical cellar door. In fact the only thing that resembles a typical cellar door at Giaconda is that there is in fact a wine cellar with a large double door. Other than that, nothing is usual here.
Visitors? They try not to have too many. And that's mostly because there's no wine to sell. Giaconda's famed chardonnay, described by reviewer James Halliday as "one of Australia's greatest" might go for about $120 a bottle, but it's pretty much all sold before it even makes it out of the barrel. This is the stuff of myth and legend – you have to know someone who knows someone to even have the opportunity to purchase. So no, there's none available at the cellar door.
There's another reason, too, for Rick's reticence to fling open the Giaconda doors: he's a wine-maker, not a tour guide, and he's pretty much the only person here. This is one of Australia's finest vineyards, maker of some of the country's best wine, and it's owned, managed and staffed almost entirely by Rick and his small family.
He's a wine-maker, not a tour guide, and he's pretty much the only person here.
To score a visit Giaconda you need an appointment, and to have an appointment you need connections. You have to be a serious wine-buyer, or someone with some well-placed contacts. Today, I'm lucky, because I have the latter: the good people at the local tourism office.
And so here I find myself in one of Australia's best and most difficult-to-access wineries, a hidden lair in some ways, a house atop a hill with treasure buried beneath. After our little chat in the house on a cold, wintry day, Rick leads me down to that buried treasure, ushering my little family into an ATV and driving us down the hill to where a small pathway leads to those double doors set into the hill.
This is the Giaconda cellar, blasted out of solid granite, a long, narrow space lit with bare light bulbs that swing from wires, where the rock walls are still all knobbly and rough, and where oak barrels stretch down into the gloom. This is where the magic happens, where fermented grape juice becomes Australia's answer to France's Burgundian whites.
Rick isn't a tour guide, but he gives a good tour. He takes me down to the end of the cellar and shows me the secret passageway he blasted out of the rock himself, a narrow tunnel that leads up to a trapdoor near the house. He sits me at a table near endless racks of dusty bottles, and he opens one of those impossible-to-buy chardonnays and pours out a taste.
It's mind-blowingly good, with flavour and texture that builds and lingers forever. I would spend $120 on this wine, if only someone would give me the chance.
Fortunately, there are alternative options in Beechworth, and perhaps the best of them is directly across the road from Giaconda. There, a long dirt driveway leads up to the cellar door at Savaterre, another of Australia's most respected producers of chardonnay, and a pleasingly laidback and welcoming place.
When I duck across, the cellar is being manned by Scott Sharland, whose LinkedIn profile lists him as Savaterre's "Executive cow botherer". He gets plenty of people up here to visit, he says. He's happy to see them.
Scott pours out tastes of about six different wines, before offering up a list of bottles to buy. I'm in luck.
Giaconda winery is located in Beechworth, Victoria – visits are by appointment only. See giaconda.com.au Savaterre is also open by appointment, though these are much easier to score. See savaterre.com
At the time of publication, Regional Victoria is under Stage 3 restrictions due to COVID-19, which means visiting either winery (even if you can get an appointment) is not currently permitted.
See also: Twenty reasons to visit Beechworth