Drink with a postmaster, ninja cat, Harley biker, and a snake

Ulrike in a 9-foot python skin as a boa at the Old Bush Inn in Willunga, South Australia.

It started with coffee at the Old Post Office. It ended with a python snake wrapped around my neck.

I was sipping wine with my new friend Mémé at a nearby cellar door when we got chatting with Leith and Sue at the next table. Leith is Willunga’s village postmaster. He told us and Sue moved into the historic Willunga Old Post Office and Telegraph Station earlier in the year.

They invited us to join them for a coffee and tour of their heritage home the next day.

Willunga’s Old Post Office and Telegraph Station

The Old Post Office in Willunga, South Australia.
The Old Post Office in Willunga, South Australia. A second-floor door leads nowhere, while a window next to it is blocked in.

While Leith made coffee, Sue led us through the 160-year-old building and pointed out odd features.

For example, the City council at the time taxed buildings according to how many windows they had. When it came time to build an addition for the new telegraph station, the builders added a large glass doorway, but blocked in a window space next to it.

Apparently, you didn’t get taxed for doors.

Wine, quince and a surprise

The four of us settled into the front verandah and Sue and Leith started telling hilarious stories about their days as tour guides and hosts in Adelaide.

Leith disappeared and then reappeared with tall flutes of sparkling red wine.

Sue, Ulrike and Leith at the Old Post Office in Willunga, South Australia.
Sue, Ulrike and Leith at the Old Post Office in Willunga, South Australia.

After the second or third bottle, Leith brought out a tray of local cheeses, home-baked crackers, and his very own quince chutney paste. He told us he named it “Black Ninja” after his little black cat.

Leith makes the quince in small batches, and local wineries snap it up to offer at their own cellar door tasting rooms.

Meme Thorne with Black Ninja Quince Paste at the Old Post Office in Willunga, South Australia.
Meme with Leith’s Black Ninja Quince Paste at the Old Post Office in Willunga, South Australia.

I told a few stories of my own and when Leith heard me say that I’d like to get on a motorcycle to sightsee South Australia, he made a call.

A few minutes later Brett arrived on his Harley-Davidson and asked if I wanted to go for a ride. Did I?

Ulrike on the back of Brett's Harley in Willunga, South Australia.
Ulrike on Brett’s Harley in Willunga, South Australia.

I jumped on the back and Brett roared us out of town, along the winding B34 to Myponga (map), and then north along the coastline back into Willunga.

When we landed I asked Brett what our top speed was. 160 kilometres per hour, he answered.

It was nearing 5 pm and Mémé begged off our spontaneous dinner plans, saying she needed to be  elsewhere.

Sue, Leith and I crossed the road to the Old Bush Inn, which locals call “the top pub” because there are two other pubs on the same road, on the same side of the street, further down the hill. Naturally, they are Willunga’s “middle pub” and “bottom pub.”

Leith told us it was “Rump and Red Night”—a roast beef dinner with a glass of wine for $18.

Brett whipped home and reappeared at the pub with a gift bag for me. I opened it and gingerly pulled out almost three metres (nine feet) of snake skin.

“I thought you might like it,” Brett grinned. “My Inland Python shed it.” Brett does welding, trailer repairs, and building maintenance.

It was beautiful. I gently looped the snake once, twice, three times around my neck like a boa scarf.

Brett promised to help me find a motorcycle of my own and we all settled in for a social dinner.

Biker Brett at the Old Bush Inn (the "top pub") in Willunga, South Australia.
Biker Brett at the Old Bush Inn (the “top pub”) in Willunga, South Australia.
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Frolic with an arty playmate

Meme Thorne and her personalized license plate near Willunga, South Australia.

I met Mémé my first week in Willunga. It was an opening for Aboriginal artist Gavin Wanganeen at Willunga Gallery, mounted at Hardy’s Tintara Cellar Door (winery).

Mémé Thorne is a well-established actor in Australia. She’s also an arts enthusiast, and at the Wanganeen opening she promised she’d introduce me to life in the area once she got back from a hiking expedition in Asia.

New Year’s Day I received a text from Mémé. She wanted to know if I was ready to visit some winery cellar doors to ring in the new year? I said Yes and she arrived in 15 minutes.

Magpie Springs and Small World

I climbed into Mémé’s custom-plated Honda and we headed to Avril Thomas’s Magpie Springs. Avril made us coffee and opened the gallery space just for us. It’s currently exhibiting Small World, a collection of 240 postcard-sized works by 200 artists from around the world. The show closes January 15, 2017.

Small World, curated by Avril Thomas, owner owner of Magpie Springs in Willunga, South Australia.
Small World, curated by Avril Thomas, owner owner of Magpie Springs in Willunga, South Australia.

The works are an even mix of local and international artists working in water colours, oil, acrylic, pencil, mixed media, and other media. It includes a beautiful piece by Avril Thomas, herself a portrait artist.

Paradox, a portrait by Avril Thomas, curator of Small World and owner of Magpie Springs in Willunga, South Australia. )
Paradox, a 4×6-inch portrait by Avril Thomas, curator of Small World and owner of Magpie Springs in Willunga, South Australia.

Avril toured Mémé and me around the property, including her studio. There she showed us all the envelopes that the small works arrived in, including a stamp-covered envelope from the USA.

Avril Thomas, curator of Small World and owner of Magpie Springs in Willunga, South Australia.
Avril Thomas, curator of Small World and owner of Magpie Springs in Willunga, South Australia.

Magpie Spring’s cellar door was not open for business, but Avril did show us a surprise in the corner of the property: an impressive bouldering/climbing wall. I used to live with a climber, and Devin would have been smacking his lips at this wall.

Climbing and bouldering wall at Magpie Springs near McLaren Vale, South Australia.
Climbing and bouldering wall at Magpie Springs near McLaren Vale, South Australia.

K1 Geoff Hardy Wines and D’Arenberg

We did a sticky beak at nearby the K1 Geoff Hardy Wines cellar door but they were closed for New Year’s Day.

“I want to see the Cube,” Mémé enthused as she steered her car north on Olivers Road. “I’m hoping it might be open by now.”

The D’Arenberg Cube is a radical structure that D’Arenberg Winery has almost completed. It sits atop acres of vineyards and it looks like a Rubik’s Cube, mid-roll. Adelaide’s InDaily.com.au calls it a “Willy Wonka’s Wine Factory.”

The Cube, a venue structure at D'Arenberg cellar door and winery near McLaren Vale, South Australia.
The Cube, a venue structure at D’Arenberg cellar door and winery near McLaren Vale, South Australia.

D’Arenberg wasn’t open either, but Mémé recommended I return there with someone willing to buy me a posh lunch.

Coriole Vineyards and Samuel’s Gorge

We had better luck at our next two stops. Coriole Vineyards‘ terrace restaurant was hopping and I was able to catch a few tastes of Coriole’s rosé and Fiano—an Italian-style white wine I hadn’t heard of before.

Coriole Cellar Door winery in McLaren Vale area, South Australia.
Coriole Cellar Door winery in McLaren Vale area, South Australia.

A few vineyards over, we parked under a tree at Samuel’s Gorge winery, named for the serpentine Onkaparinga Gorge that it perches over. It was busy here too, but I managed to sample a few reds including their Grenache, Tempranillo, and Mourverdre.

Staff pouring tastings at Samuel's Gorge cellar door and wintery in McLaren Vale area, South Australia.
Staff pouring tastings at Samuel’s Gorge cellar door and winery in McLaren Vale area, South Australia.

Red Poles (Brick Kiln Shiraz)

Ready for a snack to accompany our next tasting, Mémé and I rounded off the day with a garden table at Red Poles (Brick Kiln Shiraz). It’s a woody, funky, relaxed place with cheese and paté platters and a very tasty sparkling Shiraz.

Ulrike and Meme at Red Polles winery near McLaren Vale, South Australia.
Ulrike and Meme at Red Polles winery near McLaren Vale, South Australia.

As we chatted and chewed, Leith from a nearby table came over to say hello. He introduced himself as the Willunga Postmaster and said he and his partner Sue lived in Willunga’s old Post Office and Telegraph building. He invited Mémé and me for coffee the next morning and we gladly accepted.

The next morning that coffee date would lead us to more sparkling wine, homemade quince jam, a ride on a Harley-Davidson, and a gift of a nine-foot snake skin

(View these wineries on a map.)

Sample a cellar door: Kangarilla Road winery

Glass of Moscato wine at the Kangarilla Road winery near McLaren Vale, South Australia.

New York Times Magazine has proclaimed the term “cellar door” is “beautiful to the ear” and “purely harmonious.”

However, as a Canadian visiting one of South Australia’s nascent wine regions, I say that a cellar door (winery tasting room) is a place you can cycle to, sample wine, get back on your bike, pedal about 200 metres, and repeat.

In McLaren Vale, you can visit more than 75 winery cellar doors within a a few miles’ radius. This includes Red Poles winery, Wirra Wirra Vineyards, Hugh Hamilton Wines, Primo Estate, Salopian distillery, Leconfield Wines, and Pirramimma Wines.

I found this was true with McLaren Vale’s McMurtrie Mile a few days ago. It’s a rural road with a number of very eclectic cellar doors. My host Jared and I didn’t linger at any because, mysteriously, these cellar doors close in the ideal wine-sipping and tapas-tasting hours between 4 and 6pm.

I find this confusing as we in Vancouver have passionately taken to this time we call happy hour as an ideal time to have a glass before you head home after work. But maybe that’s just me.

Cycling to wine

To prove I am no weekend pedal-pushing sissy, I cycled up the Willunga Hill on a borrowed mountain bike. It’s a 250-metre ascent over 3.7 kilometres—challenging enough to be part of the route for the annual Tour Down Under road bike race.

Queen of the mountain: the crest of the Willunga Hill in South Australia.
Queen of the mountain: the crest of the Willunga Hill in South Australia (map).

I continued north along the paved, roll-y Range Road and then pointed the bike down a narrow laneway called the Kidman Trail. It was a steep gravel descent, but signs alerting me to the presence of koala bears kept me attentive.

Finally, I rolled onto the paved roads of McLaren Flats. The nearest winery was Kangarillo Road Vineyards and Winery and I had just thirty minutes before the clock struck five.

At the winery I quickly discovered that a “cellar door” is not a musty, rusty place with old barrels and cobwebs. The Kangarilla tasting room was positively arty.

The Kangarilla Road winery cellar door near McLaren Vale, South Australia.
Cellar door tasting room at Kangarillo Road Winery.

I sampled a rosé with strawberry and poached pear notes, a Pinot Grigio with hints of coffee and fresh cut grass, a Duetto with aromas of citrus marmalade and crystallized ginger, and settled on a glass of ‘Street Cred’ Moscato suggesting ripe pear and Turkish Delight.

After pouring me a very generous glass of the sweet white wine, the cellar door staffer invited me to relax on the sun deck while she and her colleague packed up and went home. I availed of her offer and spent the rest of my “happy hour” slowing savouring Moscato until the wind picked up and pushed me to dinner.