All Images Credit Watervale Inn
In a small town, hidden in the mountains of the Clare Valley, one of Australia’s most revered wine regions, a food revolution is quietly taking place. Two entrepreneurs have reimagined what dining should be and have created a mecca and destination for foodies. Yes, the ambiance, wines, and gourmet experience are exceptional yet the story of what is happening at the Watervale Hotel is just as delicious.
The Watervale Hotel is located in the heart of one of Australia’s most enchanting wine regions. The Clare Valley is where vineyard after vineyard is filled with cool climate grape varietals including Shiraz, Cabernet, Grenache, Semillon and a range of new alternatives led by Nero d’Avola, Fiano, and Vermentino. However this region is the land of highly acclaimed and world renown Riesling. It is a slow-paced bucolic region, made up of rolling hills, woodlands, farm paddocks, and miles and miles of vineyards. The trail of Riesling vineyards and wineries winds through the valley in small towns from Clare to Sevenhill, to Mintaro and Auburn. Watervale is a sublime destination surrounded by vineyards, wineries, and welcoming cellar doors more than willing to show off their latest releases.
The Watervale Hotel
Throughout Australia there are beautiful 100-year-old inns that are seemingly everywhere. Most are too small to continue to operate as viable hotels and have been repurposed as pubs. They often keep their title of inn but inside they have been transformed into the neighborhood watering holes where locals come for an evening of bending the elbow with their mates. The expectation after a day of work is to go in for a cold beer and the special of the day in the form of greasy cheeseburgers, fish and chips, or Australia’s national dish, breaded and deep-fried chicken snitties, which is Aussie for schnitzels. That is what one would come to expect when deciding to dine at these ubiquitous inns and pubs. However, the visionaries behind the Watervale Hotel wanted something completely different. They set out to create a one-of-a-kind ethical epicurean experience worthy of the two-hour drive from Adelaide.
Owners, Warrick Duthy and Nicola Palmer
The dreamers turned foodie do-gooders, Nicola Palmer and Warrick Duthy, came together as a couple and left their posts as the head of a family restaurant and running a wine company. After setting up their home in the quaint hamlet of Watervale, they happened upon its 150-year-old pub one evening and learned that it was up for sale. And, as they say, the rest is history.
They wanted something completely different and set out to create a destination for those who appreciate good food and wine. Their mission was also to champion healthy food that was sustainable and ethically produced. To ensure consistency, they decided to create healthy produce themselves and created Penobscot Farm, a several-acre farm at their home that includes orchards, and rows and rows of herbs, veggies, and produce all of which are biodynamically and organically grown. Fresh carrots, rhubarb, potatoes, and onions are harvest mere hours before they show up steaming, sizzling or roasted and full of flavor on your plate a few hours later. The freshness and nutrients create food that is not only good for you but oh so delicious.
The entrepreneurial duo created a destination that celebrates South Australia’s food culture which is first and foremost about wine. Warrick spent years as a wine executive at one of Australia’s top wineries, Killikanoon, and shares his passion with a wine list that celebrates local wines of the valley. Practically all are represented on his manicured list which he matches effortlessly with Nicola’s culinary creations.
The Watervale Hotel was founded in 1847 and through its 150 years has had a colorful history. In its early days, it was a stopover for bullwhackers transporting copper from the mines to the port. Clearly not the refined place that it is today, it was known then as a rough spot with bare-knuckle brawlers and even had a jail on-premise for its rowdy ruffians. The jail is still there, with its roughhewn walls and exposed rafters, and makes the ideal space for a refined long table private dinner, without the prison bars, leg irons, and locks of course.
Beyond the jail, Warrick and Nicola took this sleepy old country pub and well-preserved historical landmark and transformed it into a culinary gem for South Australia. Perched on a hilltop street corner, the outside looks as it did over a century and a half ago, with a wraparound verandah ideal for having a glass of wine and a charcuterie board while enjoying the view of the vineyards in the distance or watching the scenes of small-town life go by.
Indoors is something completely different. The perfect fusion of bold colors, hand-painted pressed tin cladding, as well as a mix of well-worn antiques that create a setting as you’d find on the cover of Town and Country. Fireplaces crackle in living rooms made for gathering with friends before dinner and elsewhere, once lodging quarters have been transformed into elegant art-packed private dining areas. There’s still the bar that has been slightly transformed but keeps its character from yesteryear as well as the locals that still come in for a frosty pint.
However, a walk through a hallway opens into a completely new and modern space filled with light, cozy tables, and floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the expansive courtyard. Facing the dining area is the kitchen. It is more than a kitchen; it looks more like a television set on the Cooking Channel and grand enough in size that it could be in the Waldorf Astoria.
In the show kitchen, guests may opt to dine at the counter to take in the food theater before them and see where the culinary magic happens. On stage is the team, led by Nicola, who dash about fixing a range of dishes that range from home-style cooking to fine dining gourmet. The copper-clad cookery gleams as pots boil, flames jump from pots, or tweezers place herbs in just the right place for presentation.
Outdoors is made for dining alfresco in the courtyard. Off to the side is a state-of-the-art wood fire oven that roasts meat and bakes bread to perfection. Adjacent is an enormous Argentinean-style BBQ where you’ll see, behind the haze of smoke, meats, vegetables, and fish dangling from hooks and chains over hot coals roasting, being grilled, rotisseried or smoked.
Any day of the week, the Watervale Hotel hosts locals and tourists for lunch and dinner with meals that range from family to fancy. Nicola creates a range of good food for her guests with plenty of fresh veggies from her garden and ethically produced meats from nearby. The degustation dinner is sure to impress the most finicky gourmand with such dishes as river mint cured ocean trout with pomegranate or the smoked chicken and pistachio ballentine.
The vegetables from their garden are noticeably better tasting and flavorful as you’ll taste in the smoked eggplant baba ghanoush and the delectable, charred cauliflower. Those fish and meats, just smoked and roasted a few yards away, make their way to the plate with an enormous 2 ½ pound and 2-inch-thick tomahawk steak to be shared, smoked whole trout stuffed with lemon and aromatics, or the lamb and carrot three ways, nothing short of ecstasy on a plate.
The wine pairing is on par with the food due to Warrick’s superhero-like wine knowledge and pairing talents. Almost all of the wines are sourced from regional winemakers with standouts being the 2021 Vickery Riesling which paired nicely with the ocean trout entrée and the 2018 O’Leary Walker Nero d’Avola which nicely complemented the earthiness and smoked flavors of the eggplant and charred cauliflower.
The Clare Valley and Waterford Hotel are an ideal travel destination worthy of a long weekend. With the endless wineries and places to explore, you’ll want to plan for a few nights to take in all the area has to offer. The Waterford Hotel, although not operating as a hotel anymore, does have a lovely guest house next door to the restaurant. The six-bedroom home is ideal for a group of friends traveling together or a family. It’s the ideal gourmand getaway with a full kitchen with modern appliances, formal dining room with table for ten, large entertainment room as well as an outdoor space with a long table for 12 and a barbecue grill.
When selecting our favorite restaurant, the first thing that we’ll discuss is how delicious the food is. Then we may consider how trendy and in it is, or maybe how fun or the décor. We may even think that the food is healthy. What the Watervale Hotel has done is to create a farm-to-plate culinary destination in the middle of one of the top new world wine regions. And in doing so, Warrick and Nicola have created a revolutionary gourmet experience that is good for you, your tastebuds, and the environment.