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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.