The story of how an optometrist and a midwife ended up running a vineyard and an award winning retreat in South Australia’s Barossa Valley is as full of twists and turns as any novel. It’s also a tale of overcoming adversity. When Peter Milhinch and Sharyn Rogers set out on the journey that would lead them to Seppeltsfield, they couldn’t have foreseen just how rocky the path would become.
But as a guest, looking out at the vista of carefully tended lawns, flower beds and vines glowing gold in the autumn sun, you can’t help but feel grateful for their persistence. Seppeltsfield Vineyard Cottage is a testament not just to determination and perseverance but vision; an ability to see the potential in an ordinary house, a few dry paddocks and a derelict cottage.
That the dry paddocks are now a thriving vineyard owes its inspiration to Peter’s student days when he and his mates decided some cheap French Rosé they’d found could be much more intellectually stimulating as an accompaniment to their morning tea muffins than a pot of Bushells. Whether this theory proved accurate or not, it didn’t stop Peter from eventually graduating as a clinical optometrist, a profession he now looks back on with no regret whatsoever.
It was Sharyn who saw what lay beneath the dusty bones of the old ruin adjacent to the main house when they bought the property in 1993. You have to be a special kind of person to take on the challenge of restoring a run-down old settler’s cottage, someone with a kind of bifocal vision – the ability to look back at what it was and picture the lives of those it sheltered, as well as the capacity to picture it as it could be.
Tracing family history through records and old documents can be a dry experience, so it must have been a godsend to Sharyn and Peter when they received a visit from Edna Stapleton in 2005. Then 92 years of age, Edna remembered the cottage as the home of her grandparents Bertha and Andreas Zanker and a place she visited frequently as a child. Edna’s great grandparents, Louise and Christian Hemmerling, were the cottage’s first inhabitants, settling there in 1852. Then in 1878 her grandparents Bertha and Andreas Zanker moved back to the cottage, where they lived for many years, celebrating their Silver Wedding Anniversary there in 1909. Along with Edna’s memories came a number of photographs, including one of her grandparents’ Silver Wedding Anniversary, where a huge throng of rather short looking people are posed on the lawns outside the cottage. Historical documents are fascinating but it’s the memories of the people who lived it that really bring the past to vivid life.
Of course it’s not just this property that’s steeped in history. The Barossa itself is a rich part of our State’s heritage and it was thanks to one of its well-established traditions that Sharyn and Peter first met. Sharyn, a nurse and midwife originally from Whyalla, moved to the Barossa in 1985 to work at Tanunda Hospital. It wasn’t however until the 1991 Barossa Vintage Festival that she ran into a modest, quietly spoken optometrist who seemed to find her as appealing as she did him. There was only one problem. He was from Melbourne. Geographical challenges however, like others, are meant to be overcome and for the next four years they commuted between their respective abodes, boosting the income of the airlines, if not their own.
On one of Peter’s visits they came across the Seppeltsfield property and eventually purchased it in 1993. As a wine enthusiast, Peter could hardly have been torn too painfully between the offerings of Melbourne and the Barossa. Even so, it still took him another two years to make the final break, pack away his eye charts for good and take up residence in South Australia.
After 35 years of service to his profession and with fond memories of his early initiation into the delights of Rosé drinking, Peter decided it was time to transition from optometry to viticulture; a symbolic leap from darkness into light perhaps. In 1999 they established their 10 acre vineyard situated on the Barossa’s western ridge, sloping down to Greenock Creek which runs through the property. Half the acreage is devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon and the other half to Shiraz. This is an area renowned for iconic Barossa reds and Peter’s goal was to cultivate premium grapes for wines to match the best of them, as well, of course as make some Rosé, the inspiration for the whole venture.
The first harvest of fine Barossa grapes took place three years later. It was a watershed in more ways than one. Just as they were enjoying the gratifications of reaping their first crop, Peter found out he had cancer. Having steered their course safely through the hazards of a new venture, this must have come as a devastating blow. Life changes, whether of the sea, tree or vine variety, are not meant to be accomplished without challenges, but having to negotiate a setback of this magnitude would have bowled over any lesser couple.
Instead, they took a small sidestep and decided to make their first wine a Rosé, as its shorter maturation time seemed more practical in face of a suddenly uncertain future. Now referred to as their flagship Cabernet Rosé, it’s described as fragrant and crisp, with aromas of ripe berry, mint and cherry. (There’s a dessert you can make with it which sounds perfect for hot summer nights.)
Originally attributed to Horace, the aphorism Carpe Diem, translated as “Seize the Day”, has been appropriated by many causes over the years, perhaps to the extent its true meaning has been diluted. Not for Peter however. In the face of an unknown tomorrow, it seemed to him the best possible approach. So much so that he and Sharyn have called their wines “Seize the Day”.
Peter described his diagnosis as a wakeup call, but it was one to which he responded with alacrity, despite his illness. Since that time Peter and Sharyn have not only seized the day but turned it into many days of fruitful endeavour. Positivity has been its own reward, on both fronts.
Seize the Day wines, as well as the Rosé, now include Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz Cabernet, Fortified Shiraz and Fortified Cabernet. They are described in the James Halliday Wine Companion as “particularly impressive”, which is evidenced by the many awards and medals they have won. All the varieties are single vineyard, rich, fruit-driven, classic Barossa wines. Since the very first planting, Peter has been passionate about practising sustainable organic viticulture, based on the use of local resources and environmentally safe growing methods, resulting in strong vines with high disease resistance.
Although I love wine, I’m no expert and despite years of dedicated practice, I suspect my wine palate is still unsophisticated. However I can tell a good wine from a mediocre one, and I could have happily whiled away many mellow autumn afternoons sipping Peter’s velvety reds, all of which were smooth and rich with that unmistakeable Barossa explosion of flavour on the tongue.
As for the beautifully restored accommodation, as someone who’s made an unofficial career out of bed and breakfasting, I can say this has to be one of the very best I’ve encountered. Since welcoming its first guests in 2004, the retreat has won no less than four Qantas Australia Tourism and seven SA Tourism Awards. You can see for yourself how gorgeous it is on the Seppeltsfield Vineyard Cottage website. But nothing captures the feel of the place like being there.
Breakfast on the back deck overlooking the garden and the gently rolling, vine covered hills with nothing but the sound of birdsong to disturb the tranquillity would be heaven, even without the food. As for the food … everything has been thought of. You could enjoy a Barossa gourmet weekend without stepping outside the door, the supplies are so bountiful. Eggs from the property’s own hens (you can’t get fresher than that), double-smoked bacon, milk from local Jersey cows, cheese, paté, Maggie Beer quince paste, incomparable Barossa mettwurst, wood-fired oven bread, and the list goes on.
If by any chance you can drag yourself away from this nest (and you really should because the region has so much to offer), your hosts are very knowledgeable and unfailingly generous with their advice about local attractions.
Of all the highlights in a weekend replete with them, Peter’s personalised tour of his vineyard followed by a wine tasting would have to be my favourite. We learned far more about viticulture in the course of the hour or so we spent with Peter than we have over many years of visiting wineries and vineyards. Tasting the end product after such a fascinating glimpse into how the grapes are cultivated is especially rewarding.
Packing your bags to go home after a great holiday is always an anti-climax. In this case it was doubly so. Not only had we enjoyed a relaxing and indulgent weekend in a glorious setting, but Peter and Sharyn’s hospitality was such that they felt like old friends. Their story is an inspiring one and having experienced what they’ve achieved in the face of big challenges, it’s one I think deserves sharing and indeed experiencing first hand if you feel like tasting a sample of Barossa paradise (and some great wine as well).
by Anne Green