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Oakbank brewery sale settles as cellar door makes way for nursery

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The sale of the historic Johnston Brewery site in Oakbank will settle tomorrow, with winery O’Leary Walker making way for Blackwood business Karkoo Nursery.

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The nursery hopes to open in Oakbank in April and will maintain two shopfronts until at least the end of the year.

Clare Valley winery O’Leary Walker insists it is not abandoning the Adelaide Hills and is looking to establish a smaller cellar door on Wenzel Road at Oakbank potentially next year.

Karkoo Nursery owners Peter and Jane Rowat gained development approval from Adelaide Hills Council earlier this month to convert the 178-year-old former brewery site into a nursery and café.

The sale of the property is due to settle tomorrow with O’Leary Walker Wines moving the last of its equipment from the site today after closing the cellar door at the end of February.

Jane Rowat said while the site was virtually ready to move in, there was ongoing works required to protect the historic buildings against rising damp.

“We haven’t been able to get over there yet but as soon as we get the keys we’ll be full steam ahead,” she said.

“There’s not too much to do – there’s quite a bit of workable space but in the long term we’d like to do the place justice.”

The family-run nursery is being forced out of its Main Rd Blackwood site to make way for Mitcham Council’s $12 million Blackwood Hub development but will remain there until at least the end of the year.

Rowat said the new nursery would likely open next month with plans to include a café on the Oakbank site starting off small and developing over time.

“We’ve basically got all of our (nursery) stock ready to go, we’re just waiting on the keys and we’ll be rolling it all in there and running out of two stores,” she said.

“We’re going to start off at least with coffee and platters and we’re looking at getting in a woodfire pizza oven and just expanding on the café side as we go.

“We’ve got a beautiful big space there, it will be a great destination and I think having the hospitality side is going to help bring people in too.”

Brothers William and James Johnston established the original Oakbank Brewery in 1843 before its shift from beer to cordial in 1938.

O’Leary Walker opened its second cellar door at Oakbank as an offshoot of its main Leasingham winery in 2015.

Co-founder David O’Leary said a restaurant had initially been planned for the Oakbank cellar doors but COVID-19 shutdowns and a slow-down in business had put that plan out of reach.

“It’s not one of the greatest times for a small winemaker that sells a lot of its wine directly to restaurants,” he said.

“Oakbank is a terrific site but we needed to spend $600,000 to $700,000 on setting up a restaurant and we got approval from the council for a 44-seat pizza area and a 72-seat restaurant.

“But we thought it was probably better to invest in a cellar door on another site and just keep it simple rather than have such a big site.

“It really deserves a Lot 100 type setup at the brewery because it is a terrific site.”

The winery’s Adelaide Hills connection is through a 16-hectare vineyard jointly owned by O’Leary and his sister Sue Cherry in Oakbank, which supplies the winery with cool climate grapes for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

O’Leary said the plan was to sell the vineyard and enter into a long-term contract for the fruit grown there.

He said a 150-year-old cottage on the Wenzel Road site would then be converted into a new cellar door but the process would take at least 12 months.

“The Adelaide Hills is awesome and we’ve got no intention of leaving the Hills, it’s just a question of how we can afford to have a cellar door there,” O’Leary said.

“We’ve got a beautiful view from the vineyard and we can keep it small and simple so it’s probably going to be a better spot for us.

“I’ll be supervising the vineyard for that contracted period too.

“You can’t grow Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir in Clare and the Adelaide Hills is a terrific area for that so if you want to play in that area, which we do, it’s a no-brainer really.”

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