Thirty nine years later and I’m a McLaren Vale Local

Even though this wine-growing region is barely past the fringes of Adelaide’s suburban sprawl, McLaren Vale still has the hallmarks of a country town. It’s not just the rolling hills and vineyard rows which designate the Vale as rural. It is its country ways which persist in the Vale despite its proximity to the city. Going shopping at the supermarket, inevitably you will bump into your neighbour, school friend, cousin, ex-boyfriend, mother’s best friend, former teacher, tennis partner, or plumber. It’s a challenge to escape the shops in a hurry. Being acknowledged as a Local is another country-town characteristic as rural as the half hour supermarket chat. But getting that acknowledgement is harder than you think. You can’t just live here. You have to be from here. And to be from here you have to meet a number of unspoken pre-requisites. You need to tick a few of the following boxes.

It’s not just the rolling hills and vines that make McLaren Vale a country area.

For starters playing sport for a local football, netball or tennis club will give you credibility, as will giving birth, or being born, at the McLaren Vale and Districts War Memorial Hospital. Having grandparents buried in one of the cemeteries will tick a box. If you’ve gone to school here, been married here (to a Local of course), had a business here (and sponsored the sports club you’re an active member of) you will be on your way to being acknowledged as a Local. Or, like me, you will reach Local status after living here for at least 30 years.

Playing sport gives you a step up the Local ladder. This is me, in the white, earning some Local stripes with the Smart family at Kangarilla. Circa 1988.

And if you’re a winemaker, then you are Local royalty, irrespective of your place of origin. Names like Petrucci, Scarpantoni, Maglieri, Mitolo, Grilli, Zerella and Vasarelli command respect in the Vale for building empires from a suitcase. And if you can trace your lineage back through the likes of the Oliver, Osborne, Lloyd, Paxton, Johnston, Kay, McMurtrie, Hardy or Hamilton lines, these names designate a special status as a multi-generationer, the most Local of Locals, and someone to be venerated in the aisles of Coles.

I know I am acknowledged as a Local because Paula Scarpantoni, the winemaking matriarch of McLaren Flat , said so one day to a table of ladies having coffee at the bakery. And when she did my heart did a little flutter and I’m pretty sure trumpets sounded. I had made it.

Now I proclaim myself a LOCAL at any opportunity I can. I think my obsessive need to drop the L word is a reaction to how I arrived in the Vale, as a newby, a fly-in, a city chick who had no idea how things worked down here. At high school, arriving fresh from suburban civilisation at the beginning of Year 10, I had zero credibility. I was uninterested in football, bookish, had poor ball skills and wanted to learn French. For the farmers’ kids at Willunga High School I was weird. I avoided being run out of the school yard by joining the local tennis and netball clubs, and there met people who became life-long friends (despite my inability to play any sport above B-Grade). I fell in love with the Vale, the scenery, the beaches, and the community. Who wouldn’t love finishing a hot day at school and heading straight to Port Willunga for a quick surf and catching waves with your mates and teachers alike. Or battling it out for premiership ranking on the mixed netball court with your besties, afterwards gorging on punnets of local strawberries picked just for the players. There were vineyard bonfires with kegs of port on offer and raucous vintage parties. Saturday tennis would be a day long commitment – a drive through the beautiful countryside to Meadows or Strathalbyn or Clarendon – and a good 5 hours of tennis punctuated by lavish afternoon teas which always featured the best CWA scones and cream puffs.

Friends at school, on the tennis court and for life. Me and two then locals Jamie and Nick Smart sometime in the late 1980s.

These days it’s me throwing the parties and lighting the bonfires and inviting the neighbours and the latest bunch of overseas winemakers staying next door. I love the clear nights of winter sitting around the outdoor fire with a glass of Shingleback red watching the satellites cross the constellations.

Me and some international winemakers here for the vintage, plus two of my neighbours. Rob Laffer of McLaren Vale Natives, a friend since school, helped me cook the BBQ that night. Community effort.

I love meeting friends at The Star of Greece for a coffee and then a walk on that beautiful beach, around the headland trying to find the Tjilbruke spring flowing from the rocks to the sea. There are the last minute invitations to tea at the pub, invitations which are last minute because people know you’re just down the road and you’re available if you’re available. When the neighbours’ dogs get out I know where they belong; they come to me by name. I’ve caught horses running down the road, using the belt from my jeans as a halter, returning them to their paddock as I know where they live. I’m always borrowing something from my neighbours – a trailer, a power tool, a helping hand to move furniture. Sometimes a box of wine will turn up at my back door unexpectedly, a thank you for some help I’ve provided another Local. When I stop for the half hour chat at Coles, we ask after each other’s families, we catch up with the gossip, we discuss our latest problem and often find an answer, a recommendation, or an offer for help. We wave as we pass each other in our cars in the main street.

Port Willunga, one of our local beaches, on a calm summer evening.

So what is it that makes being a Local something special? Is it when you reach a level of interconnectedness that your knowledge of place helps define you? Is it when there is only one degree of separation between yourself and anyone else in the community? Or is it simply when a place is home more than any other?

Whatever it may be, I’m loving sharing my knowledge of this most beautiful of regions.

The family home is now a holiday house The Gums McLaren Vale rented to guests who are discovering my favourite spots, the best walks, bike routes, my favourite restaurants and of course, wineries. I tell them where to go to catch a wave, see a view, or have a picnic. I tell them about the farmers’ markets, where to get the freshest local produce, eat the best food, try the best wine. I make suggestions for a hike in virgin scrub and then a meal in the most sophisticated of restaurants, in the same day. Where to buy fruit from a fridge in a paddock or to take a stroll through the local history. All the things that make this such a precious place and make holding the rank of Local such a privilege.

This is my ute, backed up to Shingleback cellar door, about to load up. Shingleback is like my own personal bottelo. Buying wine comes with a lovely gossip from cellar manager David, or if I’m lucky owner Kym Davey. Love being a Local.
A couple of Locals on the lawns of vacation rental The Gums McLaren Vale

Bumped into Local royalty Joe Petrucci and his cellar door manager Alison Blair at Kicco cafe in the McLaren Vale shopping Centre just after finishing this post. The supermarket chat is an enduring part of being a Local.

A quick winter’s bike ride in McLaren Vale.

It’s winter and its cold and often blowy. I’m not getting on my bike much. But I’ve promised myself that every time I go and get the mail, I’ll do it by bike. It’s a quick 6 km circuit down to the post office and back and the hills are made easy with my e-bike (no, it’s not cheating!) I ride past horses I know by name – there’s John the big grey – past the dead Norfolk island pine where there are often black cockatoos perched looking out on the view. I ride past a block of Tempranillo grape vines, stunning red in autumn but bare now. I wave at the neighbour as he drives past. “I wonder when he’s going to burn his pile” I think. His bonfire stack is looking pretty impressive now. I take a low gear detour down a sandy track, yuccas on one side, shiraz grapes on the other. At Olivers’ Road I get off the bike and take a photo of some metal paddock sculptures, careful not to electrocute myself on the live stock fence remembering how my son learned that lesson he’ll never forget when he tried to pat the horse which is today grazing in the distance and artfully framed by the paddock sculpture.

I brave the hills of Oliver’s Road. The steep gradient isn’t an issue with the e-bike, but the lack of verge and the speed of the trucks carting sand from the quarry makes this section of the ride a bit hairy. I pull over on the way down Chalk Hill and snap the vista of bare grape vines, rolling hills and clouds as fluffy as pillow stuffing.

I’m soon in Field Street and nip to the post box to grab the mail. Then I’m back on the bike onto the cycle track skirting the back of the township. I didn’t bring any money today so I can’t stop for a coffee. I ride past the ancient bare pear tree and big fig on the track. These are covered in fruit in summer as they have their roots in the water of Pedlar’s Creek. If you get here before the birds and the other locals who know about these trees you’ll snaffle a bountiful harvest.

I follow the bike track to Caffrey Street and pause here to take photos of old almond trees covered in blossom. It was the Almond Blossom Festival at Willunga last weekend even though the almond blocks have almost all gone now, replaced by vineyards. It’s a short ride now up the hill to home, past Gary’s dog which always barks ferociously and threatens to jump the fence. I used to be frightened of it but these days I yell “shut up!” pump the e-bike up to high and shoot past at speed. I’m home now, and there’s my dog, also barking with excitement that I’m back. I let her out of her yard and she does her characteristic 360s which say “see, I’m glad you’re home, I’m glad you’re home.”

Astonishingly, the net tells me there are apparently 252 bike routes in McLaren Vale, including the Official Tour Down Under route.   Check out the routes here Maybe I’ll see you on my next post office run ….

Images of McLaren Vale available for purchase on Shutterstock; JM Smith portfolio