Some may have been tempted to call it The Grapes of Roth, but here I am at Roth's Wine Bar anyway, and it seems to distill the very essence of Mudgee. This town in the Central Tablelands of NSW is at the crossroads of heritage and happening, and if you can't actually see its colourful past from Roth's, you probably only need to stand on a bar stool.
Mudgee is one of those treasured places that didn't pull down its past to make room for its future. First settled in 1822, it has more heritage buildings per head of population than any other town in the state, and Roth's Wine Bar is a lively link between Old Mudgee and New Mudgee.
Bob Roth established Roth's General Store in 1923. It was general in the sense of not being specific with its stock list, and the wine bar grew out of the fact that the store had a licence to sell wine. It never occurred to Bob Roth that a wine bar should have hours any different from those of the store. Consequently, Roth's Wine Bar opened from 10am to 5pm on weekdays and from 10am till midday on Saturdays.
In the early days, the wines of choice were locally produced fortifieds, and while the rest of the world updated its drinking habits Roth's Wine Bar managed to avoid the need for change. The popular drinks here assumed their own pet names over the decades, and visitors are still alarmed to hear regulars ordering a couple of glasses of 1080. The name of this mix of white wine and sherry comes from the poison used in fox baits by the old Pastures Protection Boards and still by the new Livestock Health and Pest Authorities.
Behind the decorative street frontage windows - painted by hand by the nuns from the Catholic school across the road to shield the children's eyes from the depravity within - current owners Mandy and Simon Gilbert have created a bar as sassy as those in midtown Manhattan and as funky as those in the Soho district.
The appeal of the wine list is no surprise because Simon Gilbert is an in-demand custom winemaker who has had a hand in almost a dozen labels from Mudgee, Orange and the surrounding Central Ranges. There's a fine range of boutique beers too, and a regular clientele studded with local wine and food producers graze gratefully on tamarind almonds, roasted pistachios and spicy samosas with minted yoghurt. A venue for live music, art exhibitions, book club gatherings, even comedy nights, Roth's is a haven of conviviality, which pretty much goes for Mudgee in general.
Mudgee's easy charm recalls the Valtellina region of Italy, which, long before marketing slogans became slick and glib, enjoyed the motto "extraordinarily cordial to strangers". Its appeal, too, was built around food and wine, a foundation that for Mudgee is both a blessing and a blight. Visitors who have breezed into town for the weekend, sipped at a few cellar doors, enjoyed a Butcher's Benedict breakfast at the Butcher Shop Café, and taken home a chutney and a wine jelly tend to think they have done Mudgee. But any number of other attractions can be added to the cellar-door circus.
Mudgee will always be about wine, of course. The industry dates back to the 1850s when German vignerons settled in the region. Later there were Italian influences, and Australia's chardonnay obsession began here. Robust debate still exists about what Mudgee grows best. Robert Stein Winery & Vineyard hedges its bets with a range of 28 wines, Di Lusso specialises in Italian varieties and Vinifera in Spanish. Louee Wines is producing cool-climate varietals from one of the highest altitude vineyards in Australia. And Martins Hill, Broombee, Botobolar and Thistle Hill all offer the organic option. The Lowe Family Wine Co is both sustainable and adventurous and perhaps holds the key to what Mudgee will eventually be known for - zinfandel. You can tell a district with potential by the names it attracts, and Mudgee's winescape boasts the involvement of three big-money families - the Oatleys of wine, pastoral and tourism fame, the Paspaley pearling family, and the Cojuangcos who control the brewing and food group San Miguel.
It's a very different landscape that draws visitors to Mudgee's most dramatic attraction. Wollemi National Park created more international than local excitement 15 years ago when a tree, the Wollemi Pine - thought to have been extinct for 100 million years - was found happily growing here. The park's more spectacular attraction, however, is the Dunns Swamp waterway with sandstone canyons and pagoda-shaped rock formations that make it a mini-Kimberley. The area has considerable indigenous importance, and traditional birthing caves and art sites are accessible from maintained walkways. The wetland is also rich in native animal and bird life.
The name, Dunns Swamp, does little to promote its grandeur, but local operators Bruce Marshall and Tony Crease of Wollemi Afloat are doing a fine job of the management and sustainable development of the area. They offer waterway cruises, canoe hire and pre-set camp sites where visitors can drive into a prepared site with erected tent and all the necessities of comfortable camping - including a bag of marshmallows and a stick on which to toast them. It is popular with corporate team builders, families, and fathers doing a bit of adventure bonding with sons. "After they've seen Movie World and Dreamworld, they can always come and see Real World," says the droll Crease.
Dunns Swamp is a short drive from Rylstone, one of a number of small towns that keep the heritage of the district alive. The gateway to Wollemi National Park, Rylstone dates back to the 1830s and has a number of fine sandstone buildings dedicated to a civilised lifestyle that appears to revolve around gourmet foods, wine, a café society, arts, crafts, antiques and collectibles. Hargraves and Windeyer are loaded with the sort of character that recalls the gold rush days of the 1850s, and prospecting is still a favourite activity of visitors.
Gulgong, 20 minutes drive from Mudgee, is a destination in its own right. At the height of its gold fever in the 1870s, Gulgong was known internationally and even billed itself as "the hub of the world". About 130 of the town's buildings, many dating back to the 1870s, are listed with the National Trust. The narrow, winding streets follow the tent lines of the original settlement, and despite the frontier-town image, culture has prevailed here, with the Prince of Wales Opera House, the Henry Lawson Centre, Cudgegong Gallery and the Gulgong Pioneer Museum being musts for the visitor.
Cudgegong Gallery is proof that there's nothing second division about the rural arts scene. It's aboutexposing a regional audience to the work of top Australian and international artists in totally professional presentations. It also reinforces a strong local ceramic arts community, embracing such acclaimed talents as Janet Mansfield and Chester Nealie. Like Gulgong itself in the 1870s, Cudgegong Gallery has gained an international profile for the high standards of its exhibition presentation and management. But director Lyn Cole is also dedicated to a program of community events that makes the historic old town hall building a stimulant for the senses and minds of both Gulgong and the wider region.
In Mudgee, too, the arts scene has been rejuvenated with the opening of Fairview ArtSpace in an attractive setting at the point where the town meets the vineyards. The layout of the turn-of-the-century homestead remains largely unchanged to allow the artworks to be seen within the scale of a family home. A busy exhibition calendar spans a variety of media and styles, and director Helen Harwood is actively promoting artist workshops, art appreciation dinners and lectures, and a cross-pollination of art, sculpture and music in the courtyard garden. There's always coffee and sometimes a wine tasting at the neighbouring wine centre to keep the mood convivial and informal.
Far from the glitz and glam of exhibition openings, Des Howard at Lue Pottery is defiantly still a potter in the brave new world of ceramicists. He digs and processes most of his own clay materials for an impressive range of domestic and decorative porcelain stoneware. Howard is both traditionalist and maverick. He insists his output is the product of custom and ritual rather than commercial discipline, and he does his bit to preserve old bush etiquette by stirring his billy tea only with a gum twig. But his workshop is a theme park of madcap innovation, and the indelible character of both the man and the place is well worth the ear bash.
For all the sensations of good living that inevitably grace places where wine is produced, Mudgee is not a fine-dining town. Instead, it has great cafés and bistros and pub food, and may well be the world capital of creative condiments and conserves in jars wearing gingham hats.
The monthly farmers' market and the annual Mudgee Fine Food Awards display the depth of artisan food production that exists in the district. Queen bee in this hive of activity is Angela Leonard, who produces a prized range of deliciousness under the Angela's Edibles label. Spiced pickled figs, lemon and mustard seed chutney, cumquat marmalade, beetroot relish - Mudgee locals are so proud and passionate about Angela Leonard's edibles that they drop seasonal produce off at her door. Demand far outstrips supply, but as the pragmatic Angela explains, "What do you expect… I've only got three saucepans." That pretty much sums up Mudgee's small producers - it is all made with care and pride and without compromise. Everything at the market is grown, reared, caught, brewed, pickled, baked, smoked or roasted by the stallholders themselves. Look out for Ormiston free-range pork, Leaning Oak sheep and goat cheeses, The Indian Lotus pickles, High Valley cheeses including a great Caerphilly cheddar and marinated fetas, Lakelands olives and oils, The Grape Alternative's wine jellies, and Mudgee Harvest's jams and pickles.
The Mudgee foodscape now has an appealing new dimension with monthly farm walks conducted the day after the farmers' markets. People interested in fresh local produce can take guided tours of producers' properties, learn about production and seasonality, and unscramble terms such as free-range, organic, biodynamic and home-grown. Producers include a native fish and yabby farm, a free-range pork producer, a vegetable market garden, olive and olive oil producers, a hazelnut grower, an organic wine producer, a cheese-maker, and a kitchen creating local preserves.
Many local delicacies also show up on the menus of Mudgee's eating establishments. Recommended restaurants are the Wineglass Bar & Grill at the Cobb & Co Court Boutique Hotel, Blue Wren Restaurant, and Deeb's Kitchen. Butcher Shop Café, Poppies, High Valley Wine & Cheese Co, The Clock Café and Bar, Kahve, Eltons Restaurant, and Bizzy Birds at Rylstone headline a lively café scene. The best pub dining is at the Oriental Hotel, famous for its prime Hereford rib-eye steaks, and the Lawson Park Hotel's Red Heifer Grill where favourites are the steaks and deep-dish pies. Roth's dominates the wine bar scene and the Mudgee Brewing Company now offers good food at its Church Street brewhouse.
Short-stay visitors can choose from a wide range of quality accommodation, standouts being The Tannery, a stylishly quipped and renovated 1850s cottage in town; Cobb & Co Court Boutique Hotel; Wildwood Guesthouse nestled in a valley on the vineyard trail; nearby Wombadah Guesthouse and Mudgee Homestead Guesthouse; and Evanslea with its cottages in a riverside setting.
With World Heritage parks and wilderness, historic villages, a vibrant arts scene, artisan food production and farm-trail foraging, Mudgee is definitely a short break rather than a weekend-only destination.