The name and theme of their festival reflects the area’s heritage. Italian migrants came to the valley in the 1940s and ‘50s to grow tobacco and many stayed on to grow grapes when the tobacco industry declined. Today, the Italian family-focused traditions are still evident. It’s the kind of place where siblings run the restaurant their parents and uncles used to own, or where the person serving you at the local pub turns out to be related to the owner of the restaurant you’ve booked that night. In our case, it was Rinaldo’s restaurant in Whitfield.
Earlier in the day, gazing out over the vineyards at Dal Zotto winery, we realised we were a few days early for the festival. Happily, it didn’t matter. Our host proved that life can be sweet any day of the year – that all you need is a sunny spot, warm hospitality and a cool glass of the sweet, bubbly stuff.
La Dolce Vita is a blend of sun, wine and Mediterranean-inspired food in a glorious, indulgent farewell to winter.
Another King Valley winery that made us feel like part of the family was Pizzini Wines, run by Alfred and Katrina Pizzini. Here, the whole family is involved; the Pizzini children have come back from the city to work in the business. Katrina runs the A Travola! cooking school, based on a dinner party concept where up to eight people cook, then have their partners join them for the results, washed down with plenty of their signature Sangiovese wine, of course.
Alfred’s father and uncles were Italian migrants and originally grew tobacco. Riesling vines were planted on the land in the late ‘70s by Alfred and his brother Ronaldo; in the early ’90s the Pizzini label was created.
These local wineries, along with others, such as Sam Miranda and the well-known Brown Brothers, were gearing up for visitors from Melbourne (around a three-hour drive away) and from further afield, who swarm into Milawa, Beechworth, Whitfield and Moyhu for the festival.
But it’s not all wine. With its wide roads, warm climate and pretty country towns decorated with blooming rose bushes and weeping willows, the valley is a welcoming place to explore. The region takes its cycling pretty seriously – it even has a cycle tourism officer. We hired some bikes from outside the general store and followed a route that took us past vineyards, rural scenes and rows of tidy cottages.
After some easy riding punctuated with stops for cake, coffee, cheese and other local produce from boutique shops around the town centre, we amped up the effort and rode up and down through the golden rolling hills typical of regional Victoria. The purpose-built Murray to Mountain Rail Trail – over 100km of sealed track, which links up the local towns – is designed for cycling and walking, and while we only experienced a short section of it, it was liberating to get some speed up and to see the countryside flashing by.
For some (more) sustenance, we visited Casa Luna, a cosy one-room restaurant in the foothills of Victoria’s high country. It felt like we were at a dinner party at a friend’s house. The passionate owners, Gwenda and David, work as a team – he hosts and eats with guests while she cooks up Italian-inspired food, such as quail cacciatora and Mt Bellevue Welsh black beef tagliata, matched with King Valley wines.
Just up the road, on a working cattle stud farm and vineyard, is the beautifully decorated and luxurious Mt Bellevue accommodation. It has sweeping views across the surrounding valleys. Hitching a ride on the back of a quad bike, I got to see the area from the property’s peak; the vast, rippled green land seemed to spread out forever.
Below, the buzzing country town of historic Beechworth is also brilliant for tourists. The main street is packed with art and craft shops and the town has ties with the infamous Ned Kelly gang. Ned is reported to have spent six months in the town’s gaol. Walking tours giving insights into what they got up to during their time in Beechworth run regularly.
The five-star Freeman on Ford bed and breakfast is in an old bank that was also, at some point in its interesting life, a convent. Now, decorated with an extravagant Victorian-era flourish crossed with Hollywood glam, it has got to be seen to be believed. Yes, it is unusual to find an opulent, double bedroom-sized ensuite lined floor to ceiling in marble in a small town country B&B – but somehow it made sense.
In another former bank, just across the road, is the award-winning Provenance restaurant. It serves ‘seasonal and regional’ contemporary food and has enough glamour and grandeur to make it worth dressing up for. Because by the time we ate there I understood that, festival time or not, life can be sweet if you let it be.
Where to stay
- Mt Bellevue bed and breakfast, Myrrhee
- Lindenwarrah Hotel, Milawa
- Freeman on Ford bed and breakfast, Beechworth