Drinking Victoria: Andy Ainsworth

Published on 8 November 2021

Photo: Andy Ainsworth of Bar Merenda

Your guide to what’s in the glass from the people in the trade. 

Andy Ainsworth is a relatively new Victorian, having moved here from Sydney with his partner, Clare O’Flynn during the winter of 2020. They came seeking a life a little more connected to the land, with space to grow some vegetables and make a little bit of wine, and found exactly that in Daylesford where they have settled. Prior to moving down here, you may have seen him on the floor at 10 William St in Sydney or Brawn in London, places both celebrated as hubs of brilliant drinking and eating in their respective towns. Bar Merenda will be a reflection of all of the couple’s favourite wine bars from around the world, as seen through a distinctly central-Victorian lens.

Here’s some insight into where Ainsworth is coming from.

As far as I’m concerned, the defining place to get a drink in Victoria is… 
I'll offer two. The Radio Springs Hotel in Lyonville is my very favourite pub in the country, and a perfectly poured Guinness in the front bar on a cold winter's night is hard to beat. The other is Public Wine Shop in Fitzroy North. A takeaway/drink-in hybrid with an unwavering dedication to good farming practices and brilliant small plates of food. I can't wait to be back down to Melbourne, and when I am it will be my first stop.

When someone hands me a wine list in a restaurant, I'm always looking for a bargain. Something that may have been sitting in a restaurant's cellar for a few years that is hard to find, that no one remembered to mark up, or something that the sommelier bought out of love rather than "saleability", and is clearly taking a margin hit on. I want to drink something when I go out for dinner that I've never had before, and with such great wine programs in every corner of the country at the moment, I almost always find a winner!

The last three delicious things I drank were...
During the fruitful 2021 vintage of the autumn just past, I was lucky enough to work for one of Australia's great young winemakers, Joshua Cooper, in the Macedon Ranges. Although we'd wrapped up the vintage back in June, repeated lockdowns meant that our "end of vintage soirée" was delayed until October – a travesty! Josh is a great lover of fine wine and he treated us to some of the most extraordinary bottles from his cellar to mark the occasion. There were three standouts for me, starting with a Selosse rosé for apéro. Anselme Selosse is the reason for the term “grower Champagne”, and his rosé is the holy grail, so savoury and delicate. It was an epic match for Cantabrian anchovies. Then there was the 1997 Verset Cornas, which is the Tasmanian tiger of the northern Rhône. Noël Verset retired in the early 2000s and you very rarely see these bottles anymore. Exacting in its proportions, infinite in its detail, I think we all agreed it was wine of the night, but my memory is a little hazy. And the finale was a 1964 Vieux Château Certan. From a different era. Claret may not be the most fashionable drink among the thirtysomethings, but Joshua is right into it. And for good reason. When you drink something 56 years old that oozes fruit and charisma and is still very much alive, you're hooked. Down the rabbit hole we go. An epic night was had.

The Victorian spirit I’m loving most right now is anything bitter. I like to bookend meals with bitter drinks rather than sweet ones, and this category has gone bananas in recent years. The incredible vermouths from Maidenii and Saison are world class and I recently tried a couple of amari from Michael Ryan in Beechworth (at an excellent place called Bar Midland in Castlemaine) which were brilliant. Such epic alchemy goes into these creations.

There’s no better value on a wine list or in a bottle-shop in this state than the wines made by John Nagorcka of Hochkirch in Henty and Owen Latta of Eastern Peake in the middle of nowhere (aka Coghills Creek). Here we have two vignerons who grow their grapes with fastidious stewardship of the land (John is certified biodynamic and Owen practices thorough regenerative agriculture with no synthetic inputs), in cold climates, making their wines with no inputs other than a little sulphur (where it benefits), and who release their wines with great patience, often two or three years after harvest. Wonderful wines with sense of place, and they won't set you back much more than $40 at your local bottle shop. Kudos!

My favourite place to buy booze is Winespeake in Daylesford. We couldn't believe it when we moved here. A retail wine shop that is as good as any I've seen in the big cities. Extraordinary selection of Victorian classics, cult Burgundy addresses, Piedmont's finest alongside all the beers from Sailor's Grave and a wonderful range of artisanal cheese. I’m there about four days a week.

I’d love to see us making more amari and vermouth in Victoria. I‘m in love with the Italian culture of aperitivo and digestivo. A drink before you drink, and another after you're finished drinking: fantastic. I think Victoria is in the very beginning stages of creating an amazing culture around bitter drinks and I really hope it continues.

My guilty pleasure in the fridge/drinks cabinet/at the bar is yellow Gatorade. Something so artificial goes against all my principles, but drinking two bottles of it has been my cure for a terrible hangover since I was a teenager, and it still seems to work.

The best or most important change to the way we drink in Victoria in recent years has been…
Most definitely the attention given to where something comes from and how it is made. There are a lot of customers that want to know that their drink is made from ingredients grown without harmful chemicals and produced without artifice. There are also so many producers who are working hard to make the best drinks in this way. As this becomes the way we want to drink, the only challenge is separating the honest from the less so.

For me, the most inspiring person in the Victorian drinks world is all the grape-growers who have eschewed the use of harmful farm inputs such as glyphosate, in favour of soil health and sustainability, I take my hat off to you.

But I have to mention Pierre Stock and Jean-Paul Prunetti at France-Soir. With the most legendary of wine lists, unrivalled hospitality and a perfect steak frites, France-Soir is hard to leave. But when I do, after a long lunch, finally retire to the terrace on Toorak Road for a chat with Pierre or Jean Paul, I'm inspired by their absolute dedication to perfecting something seemingly so simple: serving people a plate of food and something to drink. It's been there since before I was bloody born and it’s my happy place.

Bar Merenda, 22-24 Howe St, Daylesford, barmerenda.com.au@bar_merenda_daylesford

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