The list of places in and around the city of Adelaide which may rightly be described as being some form of ‘hell in paradise’ is much shorter than the list simply labelled ‘hell’. One place on the former must surely be the McLaren Vale region. At least on a long weekend in June with a wine festival going on.
The Girl’s family were down visiting and with three days to fill the attraction of drinking wine in a muddy paddock proved too much in the end. So we all piled into the car, Gran and Pop and Aunty and Uncle, and The Girl and I, and headed south on the freeway.
We arrived at the first winery at what we all thought was still an early hour for it but already there were people everywhere and you had to wait to enter. Still, while waiting in line you could at least appreciate the view, which took in much of the open valley and its rolling vineyards, golden now with the end of the season, and the brilliant blue and white of the ocean behind.
It was truly a beautiful place. Paradise. The kind you take for granted or dismiss outright living in Adelaide. Gran remarked that it reminded her of southern France and everyone except Pop, who said it was better than the south of France, took her word for it.
After snaking our way to the front of the line and paying the entrance fee, we each received a specially-branded glass, which was both very small and flimsy. Nevertheless, we were finally free to follow the smell of frying meat up the paddock.
The brightly-coloured food trucks were there and the young people were already lining up ten deep for burgers and pastizzi. Because there is nothing quite like starting the day with a lump of barely cooked meat and a heavy blob of melted cheese; they always settle well in the stomach, I have found.
I thought about getting a coffee but thought better when I saw the line, which was even longer than the line for the one and only portaloo on site. The irony was that after standing in one you could go and stand in the other for a slightly shorter time.
We lingered just long enough for Gran to start feeling queasy from the smell of the butter chicken ‘delectaballs’ simmering in a pot in the back of one of the food trucks before proceeding to the top of the paddock and the big tin shed which stood on it. It was then that we entered the pit of hell itself.
Once you entered you could barely move. You were suddenly jammed in tight, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, breath to winey breath, with more people than was comfortable or even logical to have in a tin shed. The noise was something else, all the shrieks of morning drunk laughter combining to form one wall of roaring sound, which left you deaf and disorientated.
Even though you could not see where you were in relation to the ‘free’ wine you were forced into jostling for position, nudging past people, even elbowing them out of the way to get ahead. And all the while, your hand and that crappy glass it held firmly out in front of you. This was in case by some miracle you reached the front and some person who didn’t really work at the winery and had already forgotten what they had been told about it earlier that morning poured you a splash of last year’s fine vintage. Not that you would even be able to tell it was fine since most of it was destined to be slopped over your hand instead of in your glass.
In the land of AFL, this was a different sort of scrimmage and it was madness. I extricated myself from it, deciding very quickly that I was not prepared to be groped multiple times by both women and men in order to receive a truly pathetic volume of wine, and went and stood in some mud. At least it had the sun shining on it now and I could stand there by myself and look around me and take in the whole operation.
There was the area with the food trucks. This was becoming increasingly busy as still more people arrived and lingered and slowly came to the opinion that yes, they did want a ‘sneaky pickle’ or some of that Chimichurri grill or those mouth-watering butter chicken delectaballs. At the top of the hill was the wine tasting shed and that was a human meat grinder now. And off to the side there was half a paddock with some hay bales in it.
That was it. That was the whole set-up.
Obviously, the smart people were the ones who had come at first light. They had already been to the food trucks and the wine shed and they were now sitting on the hay bales and eating their gourmet delights and sipping their Chardonnay. And they were, of course, laughing and carrying on and loving life in a very loud and proud way.
What paradise indeed, I thought to myself.
I looked at my watch. Twenty to twelve. Not even noon. Unbelievable.
Of course, had this been a beer thing, even a craft beer thing, then this sort of behaviour would have been considered uncouth, the way of the bogan. But because it was wine it was different; it was cultured to be drunk on Pinot Noir before midday, why didn’t you know? Just as long as you saved the bolder reds like cab sav for after lunch…
A woman in an unforgivingly tight dress and high heels shrieked as she slipped and fell trying to sit down on one of the hay bales. Her own group of friends laughed loudly and then one of them called the woman a drunk bitch. Ha, ha.
A young guy with a beanie and a neck tattoo turned on the sound system in the tractor shed and a Courtney Barnett song started playing from it. A baby in her mother’s arms started crying just as Courtney started rambling about her hipster problems in the inner suburbs of Melbourne.
The young guy then started dancing all by himself even though it really wasn’t that kind of song. He looked like he was trying hard to look like he didn’t care what people thought of his daggy dancing, at the same time as also trying to be cool and impress the two girls who were off to the side. It was a delicate act to pull off.
The group of middle-aged women continued to screech and laugh as they recounted how, just a moment earlier, their fat friend had slipped over. And what a classic story it was too.
The baby kept crying.
Yes, what paradise, indeed.
One by one the members of my party started getting spat out of the meat grinder at the top of the hill. Gran was the first one out and she looked quite ruffled, her hair all out of place. She staggered toward me with a limp that wasn’t there before.
‘Why are you standing in the mud?’ she asked me.
‘Just taking in the view,’ I replied.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
‘Paradise,’ I said.
‘I think the girl just got out alive,’ she then said looking back at the shed.
‘One of the lucky ones,’ I said dryly.
The Girl finally spotted us and came over. ‘Why are you standing in the mud?’ she asked me.
‘Taking in the view,’ I replied.
‘Of the shed?’
‘It’s a fine shed. But smaller than you think once you get in there.’
‘Anyway, I got you a tipple,’ she said and reached over and handed me her glass. ‘It’s Pinot, I think, I don’t really know, I couldn’t hear what the girl said.’
I downed it in one swallow. ‘It’s good,’ I said and handed back the glass.
‘I’m glad you liked it,’ she said and gave me a look.
I shrugged my shoulders in defiance.
‘I think your Pop made it out,’ said Gran and started waving both arms.
He too had a limp going that wasn’t there before and it took him a while to come over to us. ‘Nice place,’ he said hobbling up.
‘Paradise,’ The Girl and I replied in stereo.
‘Right, so that was that,’ he said flatly.
‘What’s the time?’ asked Gran.
‘Quarter to twelve,’ The Girl replied.
‘So what do we do now?’ she asked.
Good question, I thought to myself. What the hell are you meant to do now? The Girl and I shrugged our shoulders.
‘Why are you standing in the mud, son?’ Pop asked.
The Girl and Pop went off to get Pop a sausage roll while Gran and I stood in our places and listened to the music. The organisers of this event must have spent their entire budget on the hay bales, I concluded half way through another indie rock/folk number. Why have a live band and the ambience it creates when you could have hay bales and Triple J’s Hottest 100 blaring out from the tractor shed, they had pragmatically decided.
The Aunty and Uncle finally came out of the shed at the top of the hill. They looked contented too. The Uncle was carrying a carton.
‘What did you get?’ asked Gran as they walked down to us.
‘The Moscato,’ the Aunty replied.
A carton of Moscato. One whole carton of sweet white wine. I thought about that for a second. It made no more or less sense than everything else about this place or this day so far.
The Girl and Pop came back and we all stood around for a bit longer while Pop finished his sausage roll. Then we left.
Since our arrival not one hour before the top car park had filled up and the people had to now park at the bottom and walk up the steep drive. Driving down we passed them all: young mothers pushing baby strollers, grandchildren pushing grandparents in wheelchairs, a man with a broken leg and on crutches tottering up. The young and old, the fit and frail, they just kept coming and coming and coming…
But why? Why did they come? And so many. I guess because, just like us, they had nothing better to do. That was the truth of it, all right.
We didn’t go home but drove on, deeper into the vineyards and farther away from the city. The place we finally came to was on the very edge of the region and it wasn’t one of the big wineries. It had a completely different feel to it. There were still people there but less, and far fewer of them seemed to be pretending, for the sake of their Instagram followers, to be having the time of their lives.
We bought a bottle of the sparkling white and sat on actual chairs around a table under a fig tree and listened to the music, which, remarkably, was not coming from a tractor shed but from a stage with people on it who were hitting and strumming musical instruments connected via electrical cable to an amplifier. Then, as you do, we proceeded to have a disagreement among ourselves about what type of music this actually was, Gran being adamant that it was jazz and the Uncle and I being fairly sure it was the blues…
The afternoon threatened to turn pleasant. The weather was mild, the white wine just sharp enough, and the music, whatever it was, wasn’t the kind they would ever play on Triple J. This was more like it. I could see the point now, I had to grudgingly admit. A lazy afternoon with wine and music and people, not too many but just enough, and all different-looking too.
The afternoon threatened to turn pleasant until, that is, we got up and wandered off looking for the food trucks and discovered to our collective dismay that there weren’t any. The sole provider of food stuffs at this venue was not in a truck but under the sort of pop-up marquee you get at Bunnings. How very un-hipster and uncool.
With bubbles in my head and not much in my stomach, I was in no position to be fussy and in the end settled for the usual. My $5 cup of chips was perhaps the most pathetic ever sold to anyone outside of a state football league game.
Sitting on the damp grass because some different-looking people had stolen our chairs and eating my stale chips I couldn’t help but think of those plump and juicy butter chicken ‘delectaballs’ on offer at the first place. Their spicy smell came back to me hard and I had to wash it down with another mouthful of the sparkling white.
The band suddenly stopped playing — either half way through a song or at the end of it, it really was hard to tell with the blues, or jazz, whichever — and walked off the stage. Someone somewhere then flicked a switch and the same Courtney Barnett song started blaring from the sound system.
Somewhere a baby in her mother’s arms prepared to cry.