Wine, women and song – what could go wrong? Nothing, we're sure, but our chauffeur for the day looks wary. "Hi Simon," we chorus, as our driver from Hunter Private Tours rolls into the driveway. We're already giddy from breakfast mimosas. "Can you take our picture?"
"It's part of my job description," he dead-pans, waiting for me and my four fellow book-clubbers to settle on our best angles, rearrange our scarves and assemble in front of our Pokolbin weekender, looking as sober as we're going to get all day.
Kicking off a wine tour at 10am probably isn't the smartest idea but we're determined to squeeze in as many stops as we can during our second annual Hunter Valley pilgrimage. Ostensibly, the weekend is about discussing books (in this case, Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which tells the tale of an Icelandic murderess) but, in reality, it's more about sampling wine, wine and more wine as we criss-cross the valley cradled by the jagged Brokenback Range.
We launched our Hunter getaway concept last year. That time, our tour kicked off with a comical routine from the women manning Ballabourneen's cellar door. We continued on to Capercaillie, Lucy's Run, Domaine de Binet and Ernest Hill, with lunch at Blaxlands Inn. Our group, bigger that time, was enough to fill a mini-bus, which also contained honeymooners. Before returning to Sydney, we popped into Peterson House for a bubbly breakfast. Toasting ourselves, we agreed the weekend was a roaring success.
This time, to expand our embarrassingly lean knowledge of the Hunter's 140-plus wineries, we ask for other cellar doors, with a special request for Piggs Peake. We start at Hanging Tree, where two dogs bounce in to say hello as we sniff, swirl and sip. The photogenic property includes an almost-falling-down timber cottage and a blooming rose garden overlooking the dam.
At Eagles Rest, we take a seat in front of the fireplace and let a labrador puppy chew on our hands. We're already cranking up the volume: a visitor at the tasting counter clamps her hands over her ears whenever we burst out laughing. Forget Iceland, she looks like she could murder us right here and now.
To complete the canine theme, we call at Gundog Estate's cafe-style cellar door where dog-headed sculptures lounge on the seats of the former Pokolbin Schoolhouse. Gundog's winemaker Matt Burton is putting a new twist on semillon, adding texture to the region's classic varietal. With my taste running to sweeter whites, I snap up a few bottles of the off-dry semillon.
Finally, after a tasty Japanese lunch at Tempus Two's Oishii, we pose with the pig statue at Piggs Peake and toddle inside to add to our ever-growing wine collection weighing down the 4WD. It's time to turn for home. Simon gauges our mood perfectly when he pops on INXS and cranks up the volume to 11. "Live, baby, live!" we shout as we sweep past the vines one last time. Hunter Valley, we're warning you, we'll be back.
The book club travelled at its own expense.