When Dr Irina Santiago-Brown and her husband, Dudley Brown, started thinking about building a tasting room and boutique hotel at their Inkwell vineyard in South Australia's McLaren Vale, they knew it would have to set a new standard in sustainability.
Irina is one of Australia's leading experts in sustainability in viticulture. She was instrumental in developing McLaren Vale's Sustainable Australia Winegrowing program, and the Inkwell vineyard is certified organic. Any hotel and cellar door on the property, then, was always going to be as green as possible.
A couple of years ago, laid up after knee surgery and chomping painkillers, Dudley started thinking about using old shipping containers as building blocks for the project – the ultimate in upcycling. He realised that containers were the same proportion as Lego blocks, so he began stacking the colourful bricks on top of each other, giving his vision form.
"Dudley and Endone pills designed it," says Irina. "He sent his Lego model to a bunch of engineers and asked them: is this doable? He kept hassling them until they agreed to do it to get rid of him."
Last month, the Browns opened their tasting room and exclusive three-room accommodation. Not only is it made from 21 shipping containers, but it also basks in sustainability cred: much of the interior is crafted from recycled and repurposed materials (the tasting area is furnished with mid-20th century German school chairs; the tables are fashioned from old Japanese kimono-cutting tables), and the whole place is, in effect, off-grid for both power and water.
Coming up with a name for the new development was easy. Since establishing the Inkwell label more than a decade ago, Dudley has splashed his love of music all over the business, naming his wines after songs, albums or genres: the Inkwell viognier is called "Blonde on Blonde", the primitivo "Infidels" (Dudley's a Dylan fan, obviously); Inkwell's experimental label is called "Dub Style". And the vineyard is located on California Road.
There was only ever one option, really: welcome to the Hotel California Road. Such a lovely place.
There's more than just a consideration for environmental sustainability at work here: for Irina and Dudley, developing the tasting room particularly is also about the long-term viability of the business.
"It was not sustainable for us not to do this," says Irina. "We are a small wine business. We need cash flow. We need to sell wine. Building this means we are able to do that in the way that we want to do it."
A key to the experience at Hotel California Road is timed tastings: every 20 minutes during the day, Dudley or Irina will take visitors through the line-up of Inkwell wines, telling the stories of each one, giving people a good understanding of the background, growing and winemaking.
"It's something we saw at Rippon winery in Central Otago," says Dudley. "We got to visit loads of cellar doors on Irina's research trips through California, South Africa, New Zealand. We really liked how it focused attention on the wines, rather than just being a free-for-all at the tasting bench. It's about providing a greater experience for fewer people."
This approach fits, too, with the couple's business philosophy.
"We don't make much wine," says Dudley, smiling. "We worked out four or five years ago that all we have to do is find the 5000 people in the world who love our wines, and everything will be fine. Now, with the Hotel California Road, we have three rooms. That's 1100 nights a year we've got people here who we hope will love our wines. We're set."
3 tastings at the Hotel California Road
2017 Dub Style Tangerine Viognier [McLaren Vale]
Viognier comes in all shapes and sizes at Inkwell: as a "straight" dry white; fizzy and preservative-free in a can; and in this lovely manifestation as a rich and textural, amber-coloured wine, fermented on skins, with a beautiful flow of silkiness on the tongue. Dub Style is Dudley and Irina's label for wines that are a bit more out there than the "regular" Inkwell bottlings, or for wines made from grapes grown by other people. $26
2016 Inkwell Infidels Primitivo [McLaren Vale]
The red primitivo grape – aka zinfandel – can be a tricky beast. It needs to be picked fully ripe to avoid any tart, green characters, but not so ripe that it makes a porty, gloopy wine. This is an excellent example of a primitivo that was picked in the Goldilocks zone: intense black fruit and spice flavours, plenty of weight and chewy oomph in the mouth, but medium-bodied, balanced and moreish. $30
2015 Dub Style No. 3 Grenache [McLaren Vale]
Made from grapes sourced from an 89-year-old block of bush vines in Bethany, fermented with 100 per cent whole bunches, and an absolutely delicious illustration of why some people describe good grenache as "warm-climate pinot noir": translucent aromas of succulent red berries, open-textured sappy characters, and super-fine tannins. It has benefited, too, from a couple of extra years in bottle (most wineries are selling 2017 grenache at the moment). $35
by Max Allen
Published: 19 June 2018