Sometimes you can get really famous for something, but be really good at something else – like Alex James, the guitarist from 1980s Britpop band Blur, who now makes cheese.
The Yarra Valley, just over an hour's drive north-east of Melbourne, is known as a weekend winery spot with flagship winemakers such as Rochford, De Bortoli and Chandon all planting their flag in a fertile valley protected by the nearby Yarra Ranges.
But a view of the valley as simply a wine destination alone is outdated, there is so much on offer now that you can spend an entire weekend touring the valley and not set foot in a winery. Like a well-aged red, there is now a depth to the valley.
To start my Valley-sans-vino tour I am grabbing a heart-starting coffee in Nancy's of the Valley, a retro-styled cafe with a locals-first produce policy including Tyrone's raw milk, a local passion project that finds its way into the Tyrone's latte. We are in the southern end of the valley at Yarra Junction and I am here to meet my guide for the morning Andrew Swan of Yarra Valley Cycles. Swan is passionate about the valley as the newest mountain biking destination in Victoria. In September this year, the region received $3 million in government funding to build 150 kilometres of mountain bike trails as well as stage one of the Yarra Valley Trail that plans to link the town of Lilydale and Yarra Glen.
But for now Swan and I are going to take a ride along the O'Shannassy Aqueduct Trail. This trail runs alongside the now-disused aqueduct that once carried water from the O'Shannassy weir to Melbourne's Silvan reservoir. It was an important supply of water for the young city and the trail runs for 50 kilometres and sits more than 300 kilometres above the forest floor with sweeping views of the valley.
Getting there involves some hills, but we are on e-bikes that have a small motor to help propel us. They are cheats' bikes to be sure, but you can dial back the assistance or turn it off if you're fit enough.
"One of the best things about the Yarra Valley is the diversity of terrain," says Swan. "One minute you can be in beautiful open grassland and grazing country with a backdrop that looks like a Hans Heysen painting, the next minute you are in towering gum trees and mountain ash."
Our morning ride certainly illustrates this diversity, on a flat roadside track we pass a local who is driving a horse and dray, then we hit the Warburton River Walk, a quiet bend in the Yarra River where you can find a platypus ducking for cover as you cycle past. Then we happen upon a school group floating down this bucolic section of Melbourne's most famous waterway on lilos.
For lunch we stop at the Home Hotel in Launching Place, where logs were launched into the Yarra to be carried upstream to the mill. Home Hotel is a proper country pub, updated but not overly primped, like some of more prime Yarra Valley real estate. I go for the "bastard" fries topped with ground beef, chorizo, bacon, onion, pumpkin, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapenos and a bunch of other things, topped with a fried egg – you can get a bastard chicken parmi too, if you dare.
Swan loads both the bikes into his car and sends me off for an afternoon of wine-free activities. We agreed no wine, but no one said anything about gin. Four Pillars is the Yarra Valley's award-winning distillery making gin that's charming the world. The cellar door in Healesville is as busy as any winery. Punters pack in to taste the Four Pillars range at wooden tables with bowls of aromatics to help visitors understand the flavours in the glass.
Drops such as Modern Australian Gin, a collaboration with Qantas and Rockpool, uses Indigenous ingredients such as quandong, and seasonal gins such as the Bloody Shiraz and Christmas Gin sell out in a flash.
Further down the road is Healesville's first small bar, Herd. Previously if you wanted a snack between cellar doors you could have a pie ... or a pie. But the guys at Herd have brought some inner-city swagger to the wine town.
"Now you can sample craft distilleries and breweries, hang out at a hip and happening bar or get tactile with some of the largest timber Giants at Wirrawilla Rainforest Walk," says John Knoll, owner of Herd, when I ask about the non-wine options nearby.
I could also take an early-morning hot-air balloon trip at Go Wild Ballooning; wander through a French provincial garden at Alowyn Gardens, designed by John Van de Linde and his wife Prue; or sample the amazing Persian feta at the dairy door of Yarra Valley Dairy.
And for families there is the must-visit Healesville Sanctuary, the regional outpost of Melbourne Zoo that focuses on Australian native animals whose large enclosures are sometimes indistinguishable from the surrounding bush
The network of roads that criss-cross the valley pass dozens of wineries, awarded and lauded, conglomerates and family-run affairs. You would be mad to deliberately avoid such great offerings but this outing is to prove that the valley has more to offer now than just a wine-bus trip; mix it up, stay longer or take a mid-week break when the roads are clear and the cellar doors are all yours.
My final stop is Meletos, a charming country home-style stay in Coldstream. Here you can drink Napoleone Brewery's crisp apple cider just metres from the trees that grow the fruit, and the same distance from your bed for the night at the 22-room boutique hotel, The Farmhouse.
Despite popular belief, the farmland in the Yarra is mostly used for cattle, not vines, and second on the land-use list is orchards and horticulture. When you come to visit just be sure you diversify, too.
FIVE SPOTS TO SAMPLE THE WINE (IF YOU REALLY MUST)
Italian wine specialist Soumah is family owned and located in a beautiful part of the valley, where the hills just start to form the towering Dandenong Ranges behind. It offers a rustic Italian restaurant with great plates of antipasto. Try the savarro, an unusual variety of white wine first recorded in the 10th century. 18 Hexham Road, Gruyere. See soumah.com.au
Located opposite Soumah on an equally hilly patch, this small winery is famous for its "Reverse BYO" where you bring the food and picnic among the vines. Hanrahan supplies the tipples from its cellar door. 3 Hexham Road, Gruyere. See hanrahan.com.au
With 243 hectares under vine, a cheese maturation room and a host of killer cabernets, this well-known winery is classic Yarra Valley. The De Bortoli story started in Griffith, NSW, but it opened its Yarra Valley operation in the '90s and it is now a great spot for a picnic. 58 Pinnacle Lane, Dixons Creek. See debortoli.com.au
Another big hitter and home to the Day on the Green concerts, Rochford is slick, huge and well worth a stop. Aim for a seat outside and peruse the Italian-heavy sharing menu with a glass of chardonnay in hand. 878-880 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream. See rochfordwines.com.au
Wild Cattle Creek
This small operator has plenty to offer with a great range of whites, accommodation and a cellar door restaurant – all with great views situated, as it is, just eight kilometres from Lilydale. 473 Warburton Highway, Seville. See wildcattlecreek.com.au
Paul Chai travelled courtesy of Yarra Ranges Tourism.
Meletos has a cider bar and restaurant. Doubles from $330 a night. See meletos.com
Nancy's of the Valley, see facebook.com/NancysoftheValleyYarraJunction;
The Home Hotel, see thehomehotel.net.au
Four Pillars Gin, see fourpillarsgin.com.au
Herd, see herdbar.com.au
Rent bicycles from Yarra Valley Cycles, see yarravalleycycles.com
Healesville Sanctuary, see zoo.org.au/Healesville