By the time Margaret River drifted into our consciousness in the 80s, you could do the slurp-and-spit fandango at perhaps a dozen vineyards, tops. Today there are more than 100 cellar doors and a handful of boutique breweries.
Yet four decades ago, there was no Margaret River in a tourism sense. The region's industrial mainstay, dairying, was struggling. The population was declining fast and the future looked bleak for those who remained. In 1966, John Gladstones, then a senior lecturer in agronomy at the University of Western Australia, published a report outlining that "a wine industry centred on, say, Cowaramup or Margaret River would have a number of practical advantages," because the area's climate and soil were similar to that of Burgundy. Within a few years, the first vineyards were planted and, despite producing less than one per cent of Australia's wine, the region is now responsible for more than 15 per cent of our premium output.
The wine business, in turn, has spawned a high end tourism industry - several of the state's newest five-star properties have opened in the region, including Windmills Break and Constellation Apartments, both unremittingly luxurious and both very, very sexy. For the spiritually inclined, Seashells Caves House at Yallingup offers yoga weekends, while the newly opened Gypsy Meadows Spa Retreat has a range of holistic treatments available at its Evolve Naturally day spa situated on a 30-plus hectare organic farm surrounded by national park. Even the local surf school, Blue Spirit Surf and Adventure Retreats, throws a bit of meditation, yoga and massage into its sessions. Margaret River today is so much more than just quality quaffing.
You'll eat consistently better here than anywhere else in the state, too. At the Leeuwin Estate winery restaurant, ex-Vat 107 chef Dany Angove has settled into his new executive chef role and is finally giving the place the consistency it deserves. Up the road at Dunsborough's Food Farmacy, Simon Beaton is producing intricate, labour-intensive fare that manages to tread the fine line between intriguing but not so out-there as to alienate the locals. A decade ago the enigmatic Beaton, once executive chef at Melbourne's Il Bàcaro, would've been lucky to survive his first down-south winter. This year, he's the talk of a region not exactly hard up for fine chefs.
Dianne Laurance, too, is finding the taste of commercial success particularly sweet. Founder and chairman of Laurance Wines, Laurance opened her large, mod-Med cellar door encircled by picturesque rose gardens in late 2006. Going against tradition, she sourced her sexily shaped wine bottles from a glassmaker in France. "He names his various bottle shapes after ex-lovers," she explains. "Ours is the Sabine."
The Perth businesswoman had always planned to do things a little differently - a strategy, she says, that didn't go down too well with traditionalists. "Sure, there were those who sniffed loudly and wondered what this city slicker was doing, coming down to Margaret River thinking she could sell wine." But Laurance has had the last laugh, regularly seeing a thousand visitors cross the winery's threshold at weekends. Plans are afoot for an oyster bar and this summer she began offering communal-style Italian dinners on the veranda - "you know, red-checked tablecloths, kid-friendly, the whole bit. And we start them early, so families can come along".
The environment is an ongoing preoccupation among Margaret River artisans. Organics and biodynamics are the latest buzzwords in a community that still relies heavily upon fresh produce for its commercial dollar.
Vanya Cullen has embraced biodynamics with the same infectious gusto that saw her convert her Cullen Wines vineyards to certified organic status a decade ago. Today, one of the family vineyards is certified biodynamic and the other is under conversion.
"Taking care of the land is intrinsic to what we do here," says Cullen. Named Qantas Winemaker of the Year in 2000, Cullen takes her environmental responsibilities very much to heart. Her winery is the first in Australia to go the carbon neutral route, offsetting carbon emissions by donating money to a volunteer organisation called Men of Trees. Cullen also pays a premium to purchase green power through the state's energy grid, generated from renewable sources.
"Biodynamics is similar to organics in that they're both about maintaining soil fertility by creating healthy, rich humus," explains production manager Trevor Kent. "But biodynamic agriculture is a bit more proactive in that it uses naturopathic preparations. It also acknowledges the importance of astronomical rhythms and the position of the moon, sun and planets when sowing seeds, transplanting, applying liquid manures and spraying fruit crops."
And then there's the biodynamic vegetable garden. "We're now growing most of what we serve in the café ourselves," says Cullen.
At Olio Bello, the region's premium organic olive oil producer (they took out Grower of the Year at the 2006 Australian Olive Oil Association awards) has hit upon a new way to exhibit its various oils. Since trading, general manager Adrian Spelt has been offering free oil tastings. "But I've always wanted to take things one step further," he explains, "to show people just how well our oils work with food." To do that, Spelt opened a small outdoor dining area where estate cook Renae Alexander is making her own organic fettuccine and offering it five ways, each showcasing a different Olio Bello oil. "There's mandarin oil in the chocolate cake," says Alexander, "and I use our lemon-pressed oil in the rosemary and lemon cake."
One of the most interesting of the region's produce-driven developments is The Providore, a hill-top organic café and food store that opened its doors early last year. The café serves simple, homely fare made from whatever's growing out the back in the 50-plot vegetable garden. "Just look at these eggplants!" says proprietor Patrick Coward, pointing gleefully as we walk around the garden. "Like everything we grow here, they're huge and full of flavour." Inside, the food store sells funky kitchenware, a big bunch of quality consumables - fresh bread, vacuum-packed spices, organic produce - and oodles of useful takeaway fare. Lining the walls are jars of preserves and condiments made in The Providore's open-plan kitchen. Better still, all of the stuff made in-house - from the shiny lemon curd to the just-made zucchini relish - is on offer for tasting.
At Wildwood Valley, the food offer comes giftwrapped in a sprawling, laid-back guesthouse owned by Sioban and Carlo Baldini - she a local chef who trained with Neil Perry at Bistro Mars and he a restaurateur from the Tuscan town of Cortona. With the last rays of sunlight wrapping themselves around the eucalypts, Wildwood's Friday-night guests kick back as the scent of good things waft across the evening air: garlic, rosemary, baking mushrooms. Gathered on a large deck set back from the property's pretty gardens, they drink local red and eat hot, crisp pizza from the wood-fired oven.
"How could we not love it here?" says Sioban, balancing her small blonde son Giacomo on one slender hip. "I look out of my bigkitchen window each morning and there's Smith's Beach below us in the distance. It's such a beautiful spot."
Part boutique hotel, part pensione, the property has five bedrooms, each with a private bathroom. A separate two-bedroom apartment has its own cooking facilities. Downstairs, a large communal dining area opens out onto the garden. The occasional kangaroo pops in to say hi. The feel is at once relaxed, homely, welcoming.
The Baldinis have since added two self-contained cottages to their 120-hectare property. The pick of these is Honeybee, which offers a king-sized bed, sun lounges on the deck and complete privacy.
Longrain executive chef Martin Boetz, one-time mentor to Sioban, is a regular visitor and guest chef. Boetz believes there's a pulse here that has nothing to do with wine. "You could easily come and do nothing but beach-sit for a week." Not that he does anything of the sort. Guests decked out in smart black pinnies gather around the kitchen workbench to watch Boetz do his thing. Later, they adjourn to a large, heated gazebo where they eat an indecent amount of mod-Asian fare and blather on into the wee hours. "Wildwood seems to do that to people," says Sioban. "You come on your own and end up with a whole bunch of new mates. Watching everyone chat away at the communal breakfast table, you'd think they'd known each other for years."
A few minutes' drive away at Canal Rocks, four-wheel drives and boat trailers line up in the car park like fillies at the Melbourne Cup. Twilight nurses the rocky outcrops as the ocean does its thing. You don't swim here - it's much too dangerous - but the view, particularly at sunrise, is well worth the early start. Around the coastal corner lies the much more gentle spot of Bunker Bay. On a fine day, the ocean here is speckled with surfers and body boarders. At the Bunkers Beach Cafe, chef Hamish McLeay serves up quality Mod-Oz fare within metres of a beach that calls to him every morning. "Some days it's hell," he says, only half joking. "The sea is so close you can smell it. I just want to be out there."
At Moondance Lodge, a large, elegant retreat that specialises in nature-based luxury, the Harvest Moon restaurant offers estate-grown produce, some of it organic. A particular pleasure here is new chef Rob Gibb's Sunday brunch, taken looking out across the property's lake and old-growth jarrah forest.
Local chef Andrea Ilott, formerly executive chef at Clairault Wines, opened The Larder on the Margaret River town site's main drag last year, and is specialising in the booming holiday home market. "Basically you've got all these people coming here who want to eat well and who see cooking as very much a part of that pleasure. So I've got a changing array of meals they can cook themselves."
Quality sourcing means The Larder is bursting with good things, including Ilott's wonderful condiments, spice mixes and various take-home fare. And because she isn't in the slightest bit parochial ("I'm looking at what's good, full stop, not just what's good and local") Ilott's range is wider and more sophisticated than most. "I think one of the special things about Margaret River is how it just keeps on evolving," says Ilott. "We're still learning to embrace change. But we're getting there."