Recycling an abandoned railway line, The Riesling Trail runs from north of Clare out at Stanley Flat to Auburn in the south. It makes its good-natured way past wineries, over bridges and through hamlets.
Flashing along on our e-bikes between the Mr Mick and Tim Adams wineries we overtake ambling families and dogs straining at their leashes, feel sombre by the Sevenhill cemetery, and gush at the former Penwortham station. Sometimes the trail takes a commanding view over the vines and moderate hills, and then with close rows of trees leaning in it becomes a leafy tunnel, all secret green and Famous Five thrilling.
The Watervale pub inspires contemplation of our deeply advantaged situation. Claire and I discuss our charmed lot, uncommon safety, and this opportunity to indulge in food, wine and wonder. It’s a high point during an afternoon of discovery. Last time I was here was decades ago on a Sunday watching the SANFL footy grand final (No, not a Centrals’ victory) on TV with a crew from Kimba. While the front bar’s skeleton is unchanged all around has been converted into a succession of remarkable spaces and the pub’s now a prettily realised expression of quietly engaging light and warmth and luxury.
Its menu is modern, and I suspect, of initial concern to many, a schnitzel-free zone. I have lamb cigars (who knew that sheep smoked?) and roast potatoes while Claire has a toasty which is elevated to artform. Sitting outside by a bespoke fire bucket, we receive table service from the owner, Warrick Duthy, and then two staff, both sporting French accents. I wander wide-eyed and open-mouthed about the boozer with its stylish rooms and nooks and Chesterfields, and the pub manages to suggest both the Clare Valley and Chipping Norton.
Despite an excellent exception in Pikes at Polish Hill River all the wineries only offer paid samplings with which I’d have no quibble however we’re mostly herded to a corner and asked to unromantically tick some boxes on a form (not unlike completing a breakfast order the night before in a country motel) before a paddle of five mean-spirited glasses is plonked in front of us while the winery staff otherwise unblinkingly ignore us.
This McDonaldsisation appears unstoppable. If I was attracted only to the product it might be fine, but I like to natter with the folk behind the counter, make some connections, and hear some stories. The narrative richness has been poured down the sink (or spat into a spittoon). If I’ve enjoyed myself, I’m likely to buy some slurp.
Our day would’ve been incomplete without learning (no, not learnings) about the trail, each other, and the wine. I’m not especially open to culinary adventure but had this instructive chat at Crabtree Wines on its hill overlooking Watervale:
Viticultural Host: Can I interest you both in a muscat?
Me: No thanks. I don’t like dessert wines.
Viticultural Host: Ours is great. It’s liquid Christmas pudding.
Me: Christmas pudding? I might try a splash.
And with a sip it was mid-afternoon on December 25. Belly-full adults like bears on the warm cusp of hibernation stretched in their chairs as regular blurs of kids dashed about and an album of yuletide standards (Frank Sinatra captaining his team here) drifted above our paper party-hatted heads. This evocative power is chief among the charms of wine and not a gift I often find in the generally global and utilitarian beer. I may try muscat again.
With its name a homage to Rome, Sevenhill is not simply a winery but a village founded by the Jesuit order around 1850. Among the striking church, former seminary and college, and majestic setting one notable detail grabbed us. On the narrow veranda as we pushed inside to the tastings room sits an untidy box bursting with sporting goods. Folks are welcome to help themselves and leap about on the large lawn while dodging the picnickers with a few dobs of a footy or a game of cricket (Dad’s hammy at persistent risk).
I love these heartening offers of civic glee.
Weaving our late-afternoon, bicyclic way back to the trail, we pass the Stations of the Cross, distributed among the scrub and beneath the gum trees. For Claire Sevenhill is evocative so we speak of and remember our Catholic pasts and family and childhoods and distant lives. Shutting my eyes (not typically recommended when riding) I could be frocking up at St Roses in Kapunda for Saturday night altar boy duty.
Minutes later my e-bike battery gives way and with a final blink is dead (days later in an Angaston pub my mate Chris asks if this could’ve been due to the extra load) and in an image of despair I’m cruelly forced to pedal. Claire finds this somewhat amusing and fizzes past with high voltage as I start to huff and puff. Effortlessly vanishing into the darkening distance, I’m unsure but hearing, “Climb every mountain/Ford every stream” she might have been singing (her lungs unchallenged) a taunting tune from Sound of Music.
While it’s been windless and cloudless dusk now closes in, and after thirty-four mostly delightful kilometres our bikes are wheeled down a sloping driveway to the hire company shed.