Big shoes for Giant Steps

By Jane Faulkner
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Phil Sexton, owner and winemaker, Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps, Healesville, Victoria

Phil Sexton, owner and winemaker, Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps, Healesville, Victoria [©Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps]

Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps cellar door, Healesville, Victoria
Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps cellar door, Healesville, Victoria
Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps cellar door, Healesville, Victoria
Steve Flamsteed, winemaker and chef, Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps, Healesville, Victoria

Let’s start with the wine list. It features garganega, gruner veltliner Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and tempranillo that sit alongside less obscure varieties think chardonnay, pinot gris, shiraz and pinot noir. It soon becomes obvious this has been put together by wine lovers although the front-cover is a dead give-away as it states these are “wines we’d like to drink.”

And the “we” in question are the winemakers at Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander winery/cellar door/restaurant in Healesville. Bless them.

The list, the creation of winery owner Phil Sexton and winemaker Steve Flamsteed offers benchmark wines and drinks of interest (there’s also a fine selection of imported beers and cider too) to excite and educate diners. Don’t worry, Giant Steps is not at all serious and stuffy and it certainly isn’t trying to be didactic; these guys simply understand hospitality. It’s all about having fun while eating and drinking exceptionally well in a casual space.

That’s still usual for a winery. Too many tend to offer perfunctory food with a limited wine list of only the estate wines. But that’s not the Giant Steps’ way.

“Our philosophy is that while we are a group of winemakers with a strong focus in our vineyards that’s not all of it,” explains Sexton. “We are more than just winemakers; we are inviting people to our place, entertaining them as we would ourselves. We give diners what we would want (with the food and wine experience). And no, there’s definitely no silver service!”

Since opening in 2006, Giant Steps has gone from strength to strength offering one of the best wine and dine experiences in the country. Apart from the fact the modern building is as imposing as it is impressive: a wood, steel and concrete structure housing the cellar door/restaurant, it is very much a working winery so there’s a bird’s eye view of the barrel room from the dining room. Bit interactive really. Yet it’s the added extras that really set this place apart. 

At the cellar door you can taste the excellent range of Giant Steps wines from fruit sourced from Yarra Valley growers with an emphasis on single vineyard sites, for example Tarraford at nearby Tarrawarra, which produces outstanding chardonnay and pinot, and Millers vineyard at Dixons Creek for its shiraz, both of which complement Sexton’s eponymous vineyard near the Warramate ranges planted to chardonnay and pinot noir and more. The Innocent Bystander label allows the winemakers freedom to make wines from fruit grown outside of the valley but from regions producing top examples of varieties they want such gordo and muscatel from Swanhill and Glenrowan respectively that goes into their delightful and addictive Turkish-delight scented moscato. 

Also part of Sexton’s hospitality philosophy is to break down those barriers surrounding wine. “There can be a slight degree of intimidation when going to a winery and we’re trying to undo that,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you can’t pronounce cabernet sauvignon or tempranillo or if you just want a cup of tea. Fine, you can order one.” 

The beauty of Giant Steps, it is so much more than a cellar door. Sure you can taste its wines but you can also sit at the bar, take a table outside or inside (best spot is in at one the large booths flanking the large window looking directly into the barrel room) and order a Little Creatures pale ale on-tap. Or that pot of tea, or an espresso from beans specially roasted in-house. There are freshly baked cakes, pastries and loaves of sour dough to buy because Pip Hayes is the in-house baker. There’s also a wood-fired oven, which chef Jarrod Hudson has tamed to create thin-crusted pizzas with the right amount of toppings. Try spicy pork sausage, buffalo mozzarella and requisite brushing of garlic and chilli, or the perennial favourite mozzarella with tomato and basil. Hudson has trained in Thai cooking so you’ll find ingredients to reflect that say in the Buxton Farm smoked trout salad flavoured with coconut, pomelo and chilli. The menu offers something for everyone including plates to share or antipasto featuring sweet piquillo peppers stuffed with creamy tangy goat’s curd, carpaccio of ocean trout and San Daniele prosciutto.

These days, especially on weekends, Giant Steps pumps. Don’t expect a quiet lunch or dinner – it’s a bustling, friendly and noisy space filled with couples, families, winemakers and anyone else who enjoys delicious food and wine. Hudson quips “we’ve created a monster,” such is the popularity of the place.

There’s also a cheese maturing room that winemaker Flamsteed was instrumental in establishing. He’s another talented bloke. Apart from being a focussed winemaker blessed with a fine palate, he’s also a trained chef and cheesemaker, which means properly ripened cheeses are served at their best alongside lightly toasted apricot and walnut bread.

Back to the wine list for a moment. It also includes an extensive range of estate wines, including back vintages, and most are available by the glass. Plus, it’s a tribute to Sexton and Flamsteed’s magnanimity as they support local producers who make top Yarra Valley wines so perhaps you’ll see an Oakridge 864 chardonnay or William Downie pinot noir listed. A bonus too that the wines are extremely well-priced and if you fancy taking one home because you enjoyed it so much at lunch or dinner then you can as every bottle is offered as a takeaway. Beaut idea for a bottle shop.  

All this and more is why Giant Steps recently nabbed the inaugural winery of the year award in The Age Good Food Guide 2009*, an accolade that took the team by surprise. 

So is Sexton astonished by the success of Giant Steps? “No. Not really but I am just amazed at the way some people approach this game as there appears to be a focus away from the diner. But what we’re trying to do is look after everyone and welcome anyone.” It’s one reason why he doesn’t call the dining space a restaurant as it gives the wrong impression. But so does cafe, bistro or cellar door; it’s the sum of many parts. No matter what you call Giant Steps, you’re bound to have a great time especially gastronomically.



* Jane Faulkner is a reviewer, wine judge and country co-ordinator for The Age Good Food Guide.
 

Regions

  • Melbourne Surrounds (VIC)
  • Yarra Valley (Wine) (VIC)
  • Yarra Valley, Dandenongs and the Ranges (VIC)

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