It was about four months ago when around 350 locals living in a quiet spot near the Onkaparinga River and McLaren Flat first saw Chester Osborn’s plans to build a striking new tasting facility for the Settlers Spirits distillery that he bought in 2021.
Concept designs for the estimated $7.58 million project showcased a building reaching 12 metres high with a roof top bar, its off-white aluminium fins inspired by the natural shapes of clouds.
Many had their doubt over the choice of site – on a ridge at the 16ha Bamboo Ridge Vineyard site at 170 Whitings Rd – including Blewitt Springs resident Emma Dingle who fears the building will be visible for kilometres around.
“It’s going to be really visible,” Dingle says, “when we first found out a lot of the neighbours had the same feeling as me: ‘oh, they’re going to be able to see me put my washing on the line’ but ‘oh well, we live in a region of cellar doors’.”
When they started to look into the plan further, Dingle says they became alarmed about new parking for coaches, and the capacity of the building to host up to 550 people – including 50 in the ground-floor reception area and up to 300 in the first-floor tasting area.
Its rooftop bar is described as being able to entertain 200 people and the building is wrapped in a “static rippling wave” to embody the concept of the ‘Sensorial Surfer’.
A planning statement lodged with the Onkaparinga Council in March this year said this concept was meant to emulate “the process we go through when tasting wine ‘surfing the synaptic brain waves’” and also the region’s surfing culture history.
Dingle says she and other residents are worried that chief winemaker and viticulturist Osborn’s plans are not aligned with their own ideas for the McLaren Vale character and hills zone.
They began their protest with paper petitions then moved on to an online petition which has attracted more than 300 signatories.
An Onkaparinga Council spokesperson said adjoining landowners lodged an appeal in the Environment, Resources and Development Court about the “assessment pathway”.
It led to the Settlers Spirits project grinding to a halt.
Dingle says Blewitt Springs is a “small, tightknit community” and plans to continue fighting to stop the project. She insists the opponents aren’t anti-development, but are concerned the facility is too big, too visible from across the region and could be too noisy.
Their vehement opposition is what prompted Osborn to put the plan on hold as he reassesses.
He told InDaily he understands the concerns raised and now hopes “we can come to an amicable agreement”.
Osborn said the site was chosen as it is half a kilometre from homes.
He said bamboo growing on the site will be removed with native vegetation planted and the facility will showcase d’Arenberg wines made from the grapes growing in its surrounding vineyards.
It will also offer grand views of the region for those tasting 13 different gins, a range of whisky, rum and vodka and a new brand of beer to be made by Settlers Spirits currently housed in McLaren Vale.
Despite the hold-up, Osborn is pushing ahead with other plans to soon move the Settlers Spirits distillery production to d’Arenberg and sell the current tasting room, which operates from a house in Foggo Road.
Osborn says the community reaction to his latest idea is not unexpected. His vision for the d’Arenberg Cube, which he believes “changed the destination for tourists who would go to the Barossa as the favourite wine destination to McLaren Vale”, drew a similar reaction in its early stages.
“There was a lot of negative reaction from locals at the beginning; there are people who are cautious of change,” Osborn says of the bold building opened in 2017 that has since won best of tourism and design awards.
“(The cube) has really changed the place. I go to restaurants in McLaren Vale now and they say ‘you don’t have to pay you’ve done so much for us’. Restaurants are now staying open over winter as the tourists are still coming.”
Regional development dilemma
It is a development dilemma facing other wine regions.
In the Barossa, Seppeltsfield’s bid to build a $50 million 12-storey hotel in the Barossa that locals have dubbed “the slug” has triggered a long-running debate.
Now the luxury Oscar hotel’s approvals are in place, and a spokesperson for Seppeltsfield says “the final specs and tender are being worked through” with plans to start construction in the Barossa later this year.
Osborn hopes to find a similar pathway forward for a project that is meant to push boundaries.
He believes there are “some people who will be easily displeased” and “always want to be grumpy about it”.
“If you are going to do something you want to do it well, that’s my philosophy. If you want to build something in the tourism region and attract people you don’t want to build something minor or boring.
“I just think it’s another card to play that will help the region prosper and sell McLaren Vale, particularly its wine and it will tell the McLaren Vale story.
“In McLaren Vale, most grapes are sold outside the region and don’t end up with a McLaren Vale label on them. We’re hoping this will help with that imbalance.”
Local News Matters
Media diversity is under threat in Australia – nowhere more so than in South Australia. The state needs more than one voice to guide it forward and you can help with a donation of any size to InDaily. Your contribution goes directly to helping our journalists uncover the facts. Please click below to help InDaily continue to uncover the facts.