How Clare’s gourmet food and wine festival started around a kitchen table
In the lead-up to Clare Valley SCA Gourmet Week, trailblazing winemaker Jane Mitchell reflects on how a conversation around her kitchen table in 1985 led to the inception of South Australia's first gourmet food and wine festival of its kind.
When the Clare Valley SCA Gourmet Week kicks off from May 17 to 26, food and wine lovers from far and wide will indulge in more than 80 events including long lunches, tastings, vineyard walks and degustation dinners.
It is the 40th iteration of the annual festival, one of the state’s longest-running and beloved gourmet food and wine events of its kind – pairing wineries with chefs and restaurants.
And yet, it may never have been, had Clare Valley winemakers Andrew and Jane Mitchell not broken their number one family rule back in the 1980s.
“When we went home at night, we never talked about work,” says Jane, who was the second woman to graduate from Roseworthy Agricultural College.
Jane and Andrew established Mitchell Wines in the ’80s on the Clare Valley farm Andrew had taken over from his father.
They were among a growing number of new boutique wine producers in the region.
“We lived on the property and once we left the winery at the end of the day, that was the cut-off point of talking about work; you’ve got to keep your family life separate,” says Jane.
Despite this rule, Jane recalls an evening in 1985, when she and Andrew sat at their kitchen table with Peter Barry and Kilikanoon restaurant founder Janet Jeffs. The topic of discussion was how to put Clare on the map.
“We sat around our kitchen table, wondering how we could get more people to come to Clare,” says Jane.
“No one really did food or wine events back then. In 1984, there was a big gastronomy conference in Adelaide and I thought: ‘if these people come from all over Australia to this event, let’s try and do something for Clare’.
“No one knew what a Gourmet Weekend was. So, we brought top chef Peter Doyle over from Sydney and he cooked scampi and fennel. I was running around that morning, picking fennel off the side of the road.”
With an idea formulated around the Mitchell family table, the inaugural 1985 event was a raging success, characterised by singing, dancing, bonfires and picnics across the Clare Valley.
“At Mitchell Wines, we did 400 serves of food and we sold out within three hours,” says Jane.
An estimated 8000 people attended and were exposed to the Clare Valley’s growing number of boutique wine producers.
“It was like a big family picnic and people just loved it because they felt comfortable,” recalls Jane.
“We gave them a nice place to sit around the fire, have a glass of wine and live music. That’s what it’s still about, there’s no pretentiousness, just a lovely event.
“The first one was unpolished, but we soon got on top of that and within three years, we had set a standard of what it was going to be.”
It’s fair to say the event owes much of its success to Jane, who would drive into Adelaide before dawn to promote the event on ABC radio, bringing plates of gourmet food for the hosts.
Jane went on to run the Gourmet Weekend for 15 years.
“The original concept was that people would visit six wineries, with a small plate of food offered at each winery like a progressive dinner. But those days are gone and now most people buckle down at one venue. It’s really become a gourmet event.”
But during the ’90s, the event was growing out of hand with bus-loads of patrons having too much fun. It did not fit with the original concept.
With Jane at the helm, organisers changed the format to bring it back to a slower-paced festival focusing on gourmet food and wine experiences.
In the post-COVID editions of the festival, rather than a weekend, Gourmet has been spread across 10 days.
At first, it was intended as a safer way to thin out crowds across the week, but it has stuck – a new chapter in the festival that continues to grow its “gourmet” brand.
Jane’s daughter Hilary was about seven-years-old when the first Gourmet was held.
“I have a vivid memory of the whole crowd singing along with the guitarist to American Pie,” says Hilary.
With Jane now retired, the Mitchell children Hilary, Angus and Edwina are now taking the reins of the business.
The winery will again throw open its doors for Clare Valley SCA Gourmet Week.
“I think it’s going to be a huge success,” says Hilary.
Jane is still involved with Mitchell Wines, but is enjoying a less-active role.
“It’s good to be retired and able to sit back, totally trusting your three children and to feel proud and pleased that everything’s going as it should,” says Jane.
Jane still keeps her rule of no business talk around the dinner table, unless there’s a new idea too good not to share.
“We do still come up with great ideas around the kitchen table,” says Hilary.
Clare Valley SCA Gourmet Week runs from May 17 to 26.
Words Ben Kelly
Image: Mitchell Wines winemaker Hilary Mitchell with her mother, Jane Mitchell, who is a founder and stalwart of Clare Valley Gourmet.