First built in 1847 as the Stanley Arms, the Watervale pub originally served the bullockies hauling copper from Burra to Port Wakefield. According to new publican Warrick Duthy, it was a tough and dangerous place with hand to-hand fighting frequent and deaths not uncommon.
In 1861 the licensee died, leaving the hotel to his wife, Esther Greenslade. It was she who built the gaol immediately behind the pub and changed the name to the Watervale Hotel in an attempt to clean up the reputation of the establishment.
In January 1913, the hotel, then just a wattle and daub hut, burned to the ground. The then-licensee, another woman, Helen Forbes, rebuilt it in 1914 but this time in stone.
Fast forward to 2020, enter Nicola Palmer, Clare Valley born and raised, daughter of Dave and Diana Palmer, founders of Skillogalee, and wife of Duthy, himself a wine industry veteran and current managing director of Kilikanoon. Palmer is a chef and the third woman to have a significant influence on the Watervale Hotel.
The newly renovated pub, located on the high side of the road where the highway bends towards Clare as you pass through from Auburn, looks much the same as it always has from the front.
The front and side doors lead directly into what was the front bar and separate
ladies lounge. The space has now been opened up with the front half of the room filled with comfortable chesterfields and velvet parlour chairs while towards the back a long, well-stocked bar (there are 79 Armagnacs alone!) leads to glimpses of the new beer garden beyond.
Pressed tin is a feature of not only the ceilings but also the front of the bars throughout the establishment, some original and some sourced to mirror the patterns of the era when the hotel
was built. Palmer, formerly a jeweller, has hand-painted the bar cladding with a striking accent of turquoise, a painstaking and time-consuming job well-suited to COVID-induced isolation.
Much of the furniture in the pub was sourced via Scammells Auctions – no bleached ash stools or Scandilook tables here. Chairs and couches all have a comfortable, well broken-in feel that adds to the welcoming vibe of the place. The theme extends to a number of private dining spaces which have names such as ‘the purple room’ to match the suites that furnish them. Duthy says that locals have already embraced these spaces for family catch ups, using Watervale, in the heart of the Clare region, as the perfect middle ground to reunite with family.
“It’s private, you can eat and drink well and nobody has to do the dishes,” he says.
Duthy’s wine credentials are hinted at in the decor with sketches of the Clare Wine Show by local artist Harry Sherwin throughout the pub. Some of Sherwin’s larger paintings are also featured, along with many historical photos of the pub in various stages of its life.
A guided tasting at nearby Kilikanoon should be an essential inclusion in any visit to Watervale. Prior to dinner, Duthy took us through the Revelation Tasting showcasing six wines, many in possession of national and global awards, culminating in the 2013 Revelation Shiraz which retails for $550 per bottle and is the expression of the absolutely best shiraz produced in that year. The name is highly appropriate.
Back at the pub, the front verandah, once the walkway to the men’s urinal, is now a pleasant spot to sit with a sundowner, overlooking the kitchen garden on the opposite side of the street. From there Palmer sources herbs, some seasonal greens and flowers. There are plans to do more with the large site in the future but for now the focus is Penobscot Farm and the hotel itself.
The farm supplies herbs, fruit and vegetables to the hotel kitchens daily and is lovingly tended by local specialist Jared Murray. Penobscot Farm is organic and governed by biodynamic principles and rituals to heal the earth and enrich the plants. Murray is guided by permaculture design but insists that the farm designs itself, in line with the philosophy that permaculture requires empathy to the conditions.
The property is also home to Palmer and Duthy, who bought the rambling house before the idea to buy the pub came up.
“We bought the house then ended up buying the pub over dinner,” laughs Duthy.
Walking around the various vegetable beds and through the newly planted orchard, puppy Frankie gambolling at his heels, it is clear the produce is a big part of the venture for Duthy and Palmer. They also source as much of their other produce locally, using lambs from Martindale Farms and other cuts from Menzel’s Meats in Kapunda to supply the huge open grill at the heart of the beer garden.
Above the beer garden looms the old gaol, known as the Hell Hole. It has been restored as a large private dining space ideal for long winemaker lunches and Watervale food and wine experiences for passing tourist groups.
“We really have three different markets here,” explains Duthy. “Tourists, locals and winemakers.”
For this reason, the wine list has something for everyone. Duthy’s objective is to list wines from every producer in Clare and every variety grown, although that is still a work in progress.
After settling into the comfortable guest house next door that has capacity to sleep up to 12 people and its own private, dog-friendly yard, we head the few metres down the footpath for dinner.
An aperitivo of Kilikanoon NV Vouvray methode traditionnelle hits the spot while the picture window provides a live canvas of sunset colours. Frankie enthusiastically greets every local arriving for dinner.
Many local tradespeople worked with Duthy and Palmer during the renovation and they appear to be happy to make use of the result.
“The local tradesmen have really taken our brief and invested in it very strongly,” says Duthy.
Although the long bar overlooking the huge kitchen is currently not open to diners due to COVID-19 restrictions, we are allowed to perch at the far end, away from any food production or service but with a good view of the kitchen team in action.
Meals are whizzing out of the kitchen to the capacity house on this Sunday night. Huge tomahawk steaks, smoky from the grill, are sliced for sharing. Lamb Milanese, tiny tender cutlets of local meat encased in fine crumbs and shallow fried are Palmer’s sophisticated answer to a schnitzel. Whole trout stuffed with lemon and aromatics lifts easily from the bone, each delicate, pink mouthful redolent of the garden-fresh herbs picked just hours before.
Unusually for a pub, the star dish is not a steak or a pie but a simple Farm Salad. Palmer brings together a celebration of leaves and flowers from the seasonal garden, this night including broad bean leaves, red mustard leaves and nasturtium flowers in a cornucopia of colour and flavour.
The salad is served as a standalone course in their tasting menu and Palmer says at first people would leave it, waiting for the ‘main’ to go with the side dish. But now customers relish the ever-changing flavours in their own right.
The couple cite Alla Wolf-Tasker, who put Daylesford on the map with her Lake House, as an inspiration . Despite only just opening their doors, they are already planning new experiences for visitors, including a “six senses” tour of the farm, cooking classes using local produce, and guided tastings of both the food and wines of the region.
Despite the pub being open seven days a week, you are left feeling that this couple will never have enough time to share everything they love about living in the Clare Valley.
*The Adelaide Review stayed as guests of the Watervale Hotel.
Amanda is a journalist, editor and publisher who has dedicated much of her career to independent media in South Australia. She is currently editor and publisher of The Adelaide Review.
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