"It's the connection to place that really delivers the experience now - five-star experiences are everywhere, so you have to create a distinct sense of place to make them unique."
Ainslie Lubbock is talking about the two dining spaces she manages at Pt Leo Estate on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, but the sentiment could just as aptly refer to the entire $50 million project. Every detail of this ambitious winery, restaurant and sculpture park is designed to highlight and enhance the unique beauty of the 134-hectare site and its stunning views of Western Port Bay and a distant Phillip Island.
Owned by the Gandel family, which made its fortune in shopping centres (including Chadstone), the previously private Pt Leo Estate is being positioned as one of the world's top sculpture parks and among the best regional restaurants in the country, with a former Rockpool and Eleven Bridge chef Phil Wood in the kitchen.
The estate's sculpture curator, Geoffrey Edwards, is the former director of the Geelong Art Gallery and senior sculpture curator at the National Gallery of Victoria. He compares the Mornington Peninsula park with the renowned Louisiana Museum of Modern Art on Øresund Sound north of Copenhagen, the similarity evoked by Pt Leo's coastal setting, art-specific landscaping and the breadth of its contemporary collection.
"Vineyards adding sculpture has become a thing," Edwards says, "but not with this absolutely single-minded brilliant vision and not on such a glorious site." Like-minded neighbours include Montalto Estate, with 30 sculptures among its vines, the art-focused hotel Jackalope with a seven-metre tall sculpture of its mythical namesake at its entrance, and the 100-strong collection at McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park at Langwarrin.
Tony Cragg's Luke (2008)
Landscaping by design firm Hassell divides the Pt Leo park into three outdoor "rooms" delineated by stands of indigenous flora. Winding paths from the cellar door follow two circuits of 30 and 60 minutes' duration to view more than 50 large-scale works by artists including Tony Cragg, Inge King, Robert Klippel, Jaume Plensa, Deborah Halpern and Akio Makigawa. Their works are placed in glades, in ponds and against immense backdrops of ocean - designed for "a sense of theatre and unfolding", says Edwards.
Except for a couple of sizeable works in a fenced-off paddock where Black Angus graze, all the sculptures are accessible and touchable and will be marked with metal plaques listing details about the work and the artist. A GPS-enabled app adds more offbeat background about the works.
Among the sculptural highlights is a geometric-organic work in bronze by British artist Tony Cragg, and a colossal nine-metre-high head - "like a sleeping muse", says Edwards - by Catalan artist Plensa.
A beautiful monumental work in powder-coated steel by Inge King called Grand Arch dominates a forecourt at the entrance to the main building, which houses the two restaurants and the cellar door. Designed by Melbourne architectural and interior design firm Jolson, the building is a curving, semicircular sculpture in itself. The lofty, neutral-toned space inside features timber, glass, metal and concrete, topped by a roof planted with grapevines that, when mature, will cascade down the sides of the entrance walkway.
The entry to Pt Leo Estate
Impressive as the building is, it's a drum roll for a view that demands immediate attention from the entrance: an almost 180-degree panorama visible through a wall of curved glass, punctuated by huge, colourful sculptures in the foreground and stretching to the ocean beyond.
To the left of the entrance is the cellar door, its central bar positioned slightly lower than normal so that the view is never compromised. To the right are the 100-seat Pt Leo Restaurant; it will be joined by a fine-diner by the end of the year.
"I suppose you could call the main space a modern Australian bistro because I don't know what you call a casual restaurant in Australia without making it seem too casual," says Wood. The approach, he says, echoes the philosophy of bistronomy found in modern Parisian bistros. "It's a simple, flavour-forward offering that mostly comes off the char-grill or from the ä wood-fired oven. There are some Asian touches here and there but more in the use of flavours like soy and mirin in dressing for seafood than overtly Asian dishes. We're doing oysters with coconut, vinegar and chilli dressing, for example, or scallops flavoured with apple, cucumber and black beans."
Rhubarb and apple tart with chardonnay ice-cream
There's an emphasis on Mornington Peninsula produce in the main dining room - Wood has his eye on the Black Angus grazing in the distance - but it won't be exclusively local. All produce, however, will come from within Victoria; "we don't need to look any further," says Wood.
There's a similar attitude to wine. The list in the main dining room will be all Victorian, including wine from Pt Leo Estate. It's available to the public for the first time; the Gandel family has been making wine for private consumption from the estate's chardonnay, pinot gris, shiraz and pinot noir vines since 2010. Sommelier Andrew Murch, previously from Melbourne's Rockpool Bar & Grill and Stokehouse, lists the family wine alongside a short, sharp list of Victoria's finest.
The cellar door
Those who come here for the sculpture rather than lunch or dinner will nevertheless be well fed. The bar-cellar door has the same opening hours as the sculpture park, and there are plans for coffee, wine and snacks to be dispensed to hungry art lovers in the field from a converted Airstream Silver Bullet caravan.
The Gandel family has been collecting sculpture by Australian and international masters for about 60 years. The quality and diversity of their collection, says Edwards, is unparalleled in Australia. Now there's a site to match the beauty of the art.
The sculpture park and cellar door are open daily 11am-5pm daily ($10 admission for those not eating in the restaurant). The restaurant is open from noon to 5pm Sun-Wed, until 9.30pm Thurs and 10.30pm Fri-Sat. Pt Leo Estate, 3649 Frankston-Flinders Rd, Merricks, Vic, (03) 5989 9011, ptleoestate.com.au