On the last Sunday of March—what may well have been the last warm Sunday of 2015—West Melbourne’s popular bottle shop and wine bar Clever Polly’s hosted its first birthday party. In that first year, Clever Polly’s has developed a reputation among Melbournians as the place to be for natural wine, specialty drink, and fine food; think of it as a nighttime inverse to the city's world class specialty coffee scene, well-trafficked by its rank and file members who consider themselves coffee pros by day, wine lovers by night. Owner Lou Chalmers talks about wine philosophy using much of the same intention as top coffee buyers: “In a nutshell, the main criteria that we now apply to buying wines are integrity, personality (terroir), and value. Oh and of course, they have to be delicious!” She speaks with passion and fervor about what she sees as a challenge within the Australian agricultural industry: a disconnect between makers and consumers and too significant a focus on the end product, rather than the process. Sounds familiar?
Clever Polly's first birthday party was not your typical one-year-old’s shindig. The evening started with 12 winemakers offering tastings. These winemakers are each in the throws of harvest, their busiest season, and so it's meaningful for them to come into the city to pour the fruits of their labor (Chalmers and her partners later thanked the winemakers with an impassioned speech atop the bar). With tasting stations scattered around the full-to-the-brim shop, each winemaker offered generous tastes of between one and four wines from their collections. Most were poured from bottles often scattered along the well-stocked Clever Polly’s shelves, but there were notable unicorns. Quealy Winemakers, for example, poured cloudy, still-fermenting 2015 friulano picked and pressed the day prior, from a plastic thermos. Similarly, the Chapter Wines team poured the first vintage of their winemaking collaboration with Clever Polly’s, a nero d’avolo fermented with moscato skins. Patrick Sullivan was behind the bar, pouring a blend of freshly pressed reds from a tap into glasses at first, and then directly into the mouths of a lucky few.
As a supplement to the wines, Clever Polly’s chef Renee Trudeau was busily slinging pork buns with plum barbeque sauce, roasted cabbage, and mayo served with sweet potato fries. Pickled jalapeño and a roasted cauliflower salad were also available for purchase. For those who simply wanted to pair their wines with a requisite snack, there was a notable hunk of Comté, sourdough bread, and dried grapes (from the same vines as the Chapter Wines/Clever Polly’s collaboration) on which to munch.
Perhaps the most surprising menu item of the evening, and most germane to Sprudge readers, was a coffee cocktail courtesy of Market Lane, a quality-focused Melbourne specialty coffee roasting and cafe brand. Market Lane’s Jenni Bryant was on scene mixing the cocktails for the wine-fueled masses, and was kind enough to share her recipe with Sprudge.
Market Lane Coffee Cocktail recipe, care of Jenni Bryant:
– 1 large ice cube (with fig slice inside)
– 65 milliliters of Market Lane's Ethiopia Duromina, brewed on the Espro Press.
– 25 milliliters rum
– 7 milliliters fig leaf—infused simple syrup.
The fig leaf that Bryant suggests using to garnish lent an interesting vegetal quality to the cocktail, which got sweeter as the ice cube melted, diluted the drink, and exposed the fig slice. It was clean, precise, and refreshing; the perfect little pick-me-up to keep the good times rolling.
Ah but why coffee at the wine party? It turns out that prior to her wine career, Lou Chalmers was a working barista at Proud Mary, another popular Melbourne roaster/retailer. These days she gets her daily morning coffee from Market Lane’s Faraday Street shop, a charmingly lilliputian coffee bar just down the block from Clever Polly's. A dialogue was struck, and Chalmers spoke often with the baristas in the lead-up to the birthday party. When one Market Lane barista suggested a coffee cocktail, Chalmers loved the idea, citing inter-industrial collaboration as the impetus: “If we share and support one another, each industry can help the other to move forward, whilst learning a lot from each other at the same time.”
The overlap between the natural wine and specialty coffee industries is evident, and the parallels are to do with not only a palate for terroir-driven products, but a shared philosophy among devout fans, many of whom quite rightly enjoy delicious coffees and wines with equal verve. Many regulars at Clever Polly's work in hospitality themselves, and the boutique coffee contingent was represented in strong numbers. “I think that the two industries attract lots of enthusiastic, experimental, and passionate people who value community,” Market Lane’s Bryant told me, and she's right, of course. Another party attendee (and Clever Polly’s regular) Nedim Rahmanovic of Twenty & Six Espresso agrees, saying, “I think both industries are interested in doing things on a smaller scale, and are interested in the source of the product. Who made it? Who grew it? In a growing society at times more interested in the bottom line, many of us are starting to ask these questions about our food, our wines, our coffee, our milk, etc.”
Like many of the producers Clever Polly’s features, Tom and Sally Belford of Bobar make (delicious) minimal intervention wines. They said that they extend their winemaking values to other areas of their lives, including their choice of a coffee roaster. “We seek independent suppliers and producers of the food and drinks we consume, the clothes we wear, how we furnish our home or any other aspect of life,” Tom Belford said. “There is a huge crossover in the boutique coffee and natural wine scenes. We are all small operations run by individuals or small partnerships seeking sustainable businesses with real human interaction, who build honest relationships with their own suppliers as well as their customers while taking part in business transactions which in turn fortify communities.” He said that visiting his local coffee roaster to purchase for their family is a rewarding experience, and for drinkers of Bobar wines, a visit to Clever Polly's is much the same.
The Clever Polly’s first birthday celebration was a room filled with mutual appreciation and a rollicking (if only slightly debauched) good time. The event made clear what those into both natural wine and specialty coffee already know: appreciating products that showcase complex flavor profiles dictated by the land and tender loving care by producers and makers is universal. The gap between progressive wine and specialty coffee isn't a gap at all; the scenes are borrowing from each other, sharing customers and enthusiasts, and inspiring radical experimentation and appreciation. It's not an accident that the World Barista Championship has been won this year by an Australian coffee professional inspired by Australian winemakers. There is a burgeoning call for more like-minded collaboration between wine and coffee, and here, in a convivial setting in West Melbourne, on one sunny Sunday in the crisp first days of autumn, was answer to that bell. Let there be many more.
Phylisa Wisdom is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne. This is her first feature for Sprudge.