OTR reporter, Nikita Skuse, seeks out a sustainable tourist experience in the Barossa Valley that strays from the typical wine tour and benefits the environment. (Image source: Tscharke)

By Nikita Skuse | @nikita_skuse

Busloads of visitors come burling down Gomersal Road on a Saturday morning in their private tour buses, screeching ‘Mr Brightside’ in-between sips of mixed pre-drinks and filtered Snapchat stories.

One winery to the next and then the next, but no recollection of anything after the first. A blur of a day, remembered only by the remnants of discarded alcohol bottles lining the roads.

This kind of boozy wine tour is how many people recall the Barossa – if they have any recollection, that is. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself in this way on occasion, there is more to the region than this.  

As a Barossa local, I frequently spot this classic wine tour behaviour of not really seeing the region for what it is, only dipping your toes into a very superficial level of tourist activity.

Senior tourism lecturer at the University of South Australia, Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, says this kind of tourism is not sustainable. She explains sustainable tourism to be tourism that can operate indefinitely into the future in terms of social, economic, and environmental aspects. This doesn’t just mean being eco-friendly, but also putting equal importance on seeking out locally owned and operated tourist destinations.

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles encourages people to do their research before visiting a place and to continue to ask around once they’ve arrived about what the best local foods, wines and locations are. 

“Now, I know, this seems like the opposite of what a holiday is about, that I’m asking you to research and work to be a good tourist, but the thing is that you’ll have some of the best experiences when you do things that way,” she explains.  

With this in mind, I’ve set off on an exploration of my hometown, focusing my attention away from the regular, big-ticket pulls of regions that attract busloads of tipsy tourists, in search of quainter experiences that will give back to my community.

For my first stop, I find myself at Tscharke wines. Brand ambassador, Kristen Meier, escorts me into the cellar door where loud, modern music is playing: a grand juxtaposition to the traditional-looking German cottage we are sat in.

The gingerbread house, as it is affectionately labelled by locals, looks just so. Four walls and a triangular wooden roof, like the kind of home a child would draw with crayon. Wooden and stone furnishings inside and, the pièce de résistance, an intricate, circular stain glass window placed at the peak of the roof, hand-crafted by owner Damien’s wife, Eva.

The most surprising fact is that this incredibly detailed building was sent from Germany, where it was designed as a flat pack and slotted together after arrival – a far stretch from the usual Ikea shelving units we’re used to putting together with Allen keys and marital break-downs.

The gingerbread house. (Image source: Tscharke)

What is most attractive about Tscharke though, even more so than its idyllic, fairy-tale feel, is its sustainable focus.

The Tscharke team are certified by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) and are processors of organic wine, as well as recently having ventured into biodynamic practices.

There is a lot of nitty-gritty science behind these concepts, but what they boil down to is creating wine with the natural environment in mind, and taking a more holistic approach than most producers.

One of the more curious biodynamic practices that Tscharke undergo is the use of horn manure. This is where the manure of a lactating cow is stuffed into cow horns, buried for six months, dug up, mixed in a vortex of warm water and then distributed over the vineyard by hand.

Essentially, as bizarre as the processes may seem, the team at Tscharke are creating an ethical end product by making the most of what the Barossa environment provides them with.

Gesturing out the towards the vineyards, Kristen says, “We just want to be, in the most pure way, capturing what we’ve got out there and showcasing that in a glass.”

What’s even better is that people are loving it, with Tscharke taking out the Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices category at the 2020 Best of Wine Tourism Awards.

“We are so heartened and pleased to find that people definitely are now more increasingly approaching us because their own values personally aligned with our philosophy, which is lovely,” Kristen says.

Tscharke vineyards. (Image source: Tscharke)

A few kilometres up the road is Seppeltsfield winery, where the Barossa expansion of Adelaide’s JamFactory is located. JamFactory is a not-for-profit gallery and workspace that backs local artists.

Walking through the gallery space and out into the estate’s restored horse stables, I find large, dusty workshops with a handful of dedicated artists working away on a Sunday afternoon.

A middle-aged woman with tight brown ringlets that fall above her shoulders is sat behind a messy wooden desk, fiddling with something or other. Surrounding her are display shelves of handmade Jewellery – bright dangly earrings and dainty silver necklaces.

A black sign hangs above her workspace and reads ‘Recycle. Reclaim. Reimagine’. My curiosity sparks reading this, and I interrupt her work to ask about her story.

She comes out from behind her desk and introduces herself as Sue Garrard. Sue points to a wicker basket overflowing with old silver beer mugs, pots, cake tins and vases and tells of how she collects them from op-shops then melts them down and pours them into moulds to create her jewellery. She then points below to a collection of destroyed Tupperware containers, explaining how she cuts them apart to create more colour in the work.

Looking around at her jewellery on display, it’s hard to believe that each piece was once a kettle or lunchbox. I comment how great her work is for the environment and she simply replies, “Well, that’s the point.”

Back on the road and up to Nuriootpa next; on arrival, I drive up a gravel driveway to the Barossa Bushgardens. A Dr Phil lookalike named Trevor volunteers his time to give me, and a group of other visitors, a guided tour of the gardens.

He warns us in advance, saying that when he won an award last year his acceptance speech was timed, spending six minutes giving his thanks when he was allocated only a minute and a half. The warning was necessary.

Before he even begins the tour, Trevor spends 30 minutes alone (half of our time there) telling us, in great detail, his volunteer history with the Bushgardens. He’s the kind of excitable fellow that people enjoy listening to though, so no one seems to mind that we’re cutting into our tour time. We all just quietly laugh every time he says, “Ok, I should stop talking now and we should get going,” or “I shouldn’t spend time explaining this. Ok, actually I will,” and soak up all his giddy passion for his role.

He takes us all over the Bushgardens, explaining the importance of each plant.

At one point he stops and breaks off a chunk of a pigface plant and lifts it to his mouth to chew, then instructs us to do the same. It’s sticky and tastes reminiscent of the soursobs I would get told off for gnawing on as a child. He then suggests that anyone with sores try rubbing the gel-like substance from the plant on their wound, and a girl with large blisters on the backs of her heels takes some for the road.

Trevor puts a strong emphasis on the fact that each plant has a purpose. Every single flower or shrub or succulent has been chosen for the garden for a reason, and each has its benefits to the region.

As our tour finishes, I think about how I’ve taken the natural world for granted and feel guilty for not having taken more notice sooner.

Pigface plant at the Barossa Bushgardens. (Image source: Nikita Skuse)

Leaving the Bushgardens, I head out towards Angaston and stop at a winery called RedHeads. Having perhaps forgotten about our meeting, or maybe just being so busy he is running late, Alex Trescowthick, manager and head winemaker of RedHeads, bursts into the cellar door with apologies.

Alex looks like a typical Barrossan winemaker, which probably means nothing to many people who aren’t familiar with the type. A middle-aged man with blonde scruffy hair and a short beard to match. Black t-shirt, jeans and Rossi boots. A confident and casual way about him, but not too casual – a blend of professionalism and approachability. You can spot them all around the Barossa because they walk around knowing they belong, that they own this place and are responsible for its success. Some do so in a pretentious, uptight way; some, like Alex, don’t come across so vain, and, instead, they are simply proud.

He leads me out to potentially the tallest shed I’ve ever seen up close. Sheets of grey metal tower above both our heads and if I crane my neck back enough I can see what looks like miles and miles of solar panels lining its roof.

Inside the shed, past the barrels and vats and hoses, in the far corner, is an intricate electrical system. Six batteries the size of coffee tables lined up on the ground, a handful of boxes mounting the wall, and a small, bright tablet nestled between them are running the whole operation. RedHeads are 97 per cent self-sufficient when it comes to power, something that no other winery in the region can boast, and this system makes that possible.

It’s so good, in fact, that in the last power outage of the area Alex popped into his local bakery for lunch and was shocked to have to buy his pasty in the dark, coming from a workplace that had been fully functioning all day.

“Where have you been, living under a rock?” the shop assistant had asked him.

“Nah, just back in my self-sufficient winery,” he’d replied.

Alex Trescowthick, manager and head winemaker at RedHeads. (Image source: RedHeads)

As I call it a day, I realise I saw a side of the Barossa I had never previously seen, mostly because it was something I had never looked for. If I’ve lived here for 20 years and not realised that there was a whole world of sustainable tourism right under my nose, how can I point fingers at the tourists who have been just as oblivious as me?

Going forward, the way we all view tourism needs to change. Dr Higgins-Desbiolles made the point that we need to turn away from consumerism and the exploitation of the natural environment that we have become accustomed to as tourists because, quite frankly, we’re reaching the limits.

Do your research, plan ahead and think local. It doesn’t take much, but it means a whole lot.