A Chat with the Palmers

After 30 years as owners of Skillogalee, Dave and Diana Palmer are heading in a new direction – but staying local! Their energy, hospitality and vision has made Skillogalee a unique and much-loved icon of Australian wine, and brought them a legion of wine-loving friends and fans. They’ll always remain an integral part of the special Skilly story.

You bought Skillogalee in 1989 while living in Canberra – what led you to the Clare Valley?

Dave: We’re from the UK originally but had been working in Papua New Guinea, where I was an economist and Di was a high school teacher, before we ended up in Canberra. In the background we had always wanted to do something in the country in hospitality. In Canberra we got to know our neighbours and we’d drop in and have a lovely glass of wine with them – from Skillogalee. Those neighbours were the son and daughter-in-law of the family that then owned Skilly.

So when it came up for sale we wondered if we could make it work – we knew the winemaking was done under contract, so we put together a business plan, convinced the bank to lend us some money at 19% interest, and went down to the auction.

That was the first time Di had been to South Australia. And at the very last minute we put up our hands at the auction, and lo and behold, we were the owners of Skillogalee – not really knowing anything about grape growing or making wine, other than how to drink it and which end of the bottle it came out of it.

But our impressions of Skillogalee and Clare were very positive. The views and the trees – Clare is unlike a lot of other places in Australia because we’ve still got fairly heavily wooded hills with these little vineyards tucked in amongst the trees. It’s a special place.

Di: And it just seemed like a good idea at the time!

A history teacher and an economist buying a winery in an unfamiliar part of the country – did you have moments early on when you doubted your decision?

Dave: Quite a lot of moments. One was when we needed to negotiate a contract arrangement – we thought we had an arrangement with the company that was doing the winemaking but they said they saw the sale as the chance to stop making our wines, so we had to go and look for someone else to do that work for us – and that was a rude awakening. We found somebody very good, we took a few bottles of our wine down to them and said, Please make wine like this!

How did you come to make your own wine here?

Dave: Making wine ourselves was actually thrust upon us. In 1999 the owners of the winery where we were having our wine made decided to stop making wine. We negotiated with them to lease part of their winemaking facilities and decided to see if we could do it ourselves.

So we went from having our wine contract made, to the next year trying to run a 2000 tonne winery and make our wine at the same time. They were exciting times! Then the owners decided they were going to up the rent by 600% – to cut a long story short we went full bore at building our own winery. It was the best thing we ever did because we got control back, and we didn’t have to work with big batches. It really was a good move.

Di: It meant we could pick one block and crush it and keep it separate. When you are doing it on a contract, they wanted the shiraz and they wanted it at the end of the day and it all went together, and the next day’s all went together and they made good wine for us – but our wine got better. Matthew Jukes said he couldn’t think of a more improved winery in Australia than Skillogalee after we opened the winery here in 2003.

How did accommodation come to be part of the Skilly experience?

Di: We bought the next door property because our wine was really very popular but off 50 acres we were running out before the next vintage was ready – and there’s nothing a restaurant hates more than having a wine on the list and it’s not available. We also bought the property with the cottages because there was a bore with a licence. The owners said, Here’s the bookings book, go for it!

Dave: So I went from winemaking and upgraded to ironing frilly pillowcases and counting slices of bacon.

Di: We also renovated Skillogalee House. And while both that and the cottages have been hard work, we feel there’s a real synergy of the wine, the restaurant and the accommodation. We have so many customers who have really strong memories of either staying at Skilly and eating at the restaurant or coming to buy wine and discovering there’s a restaurant. Without doubt the restaurant took the name Skillogalee across the world.

Everyone now is looking for something else besides just a cellar door and we’re very proud of the fact that we were the first winery restaurant in the Clare Valley and for eight years there was no other winery restaurants. We had the scene to ourselves for a while!

Many people have great memories of lunch on the veranda at Skillogalee or under the old olive tree. How did the restaurant evolve?      

Dave: What is now the cellar door was the only room that was occupiable – all the other rooms were full floor to ceiling with pallets of bottled wine. We didn’t even know there was fireplace in one of the rooms because we hadn’t been able to get to it. We had a lot of work to do just to discover what we could do with it. Then Di had the challenge of running the restaurant – which she did for the first eight years with only a double door display fridge and a four burner domestic stove!

It started off as good coffee and platter-type single plates and then we found that people wanted to book in advance. We upped the menu – and it never stopped. We often say that the restaurant has been open seven days a week 364 days a year for 31 years, and it’s been 30 years since we’ve had a blank day with no patrons. There wouldn’t be many restaurants around that can say that.

And it’s been hugely appreciated. So many people have been to the restaurant that when we travel overseas and we bump into someone at an airport and get chatting about where we come from – and they say they’ve had lunch at Skilly on the veranda – well, that’s just an incredible feeling. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Where did you find the energy to do that?

Di: We were younger in those days! I was 37 and Dave was nearly 40 and it was a new adventure. It was very exciting – we were busy creating and building. When we arrived the cottage had no garden like it does today and it was full of pallets of wine but it was a very historic cottage. I was really taken with its story.

It was built by John Trestrail, who came out from Trevarrick in Cornwall and married the daughter of the family which owned this land, and to stop him taking her too far away from them, the family gave him 50 acres to farm on. So he built the cottage and his wife gave birth to 17 children there, 13 of whom survived. The irony is that he was a lay Methodist preacher who used to preach the evils of alcohol!

Skillogalee’s Rieslings have won many awards over the years – what’s the key to making an exceptional Riesling?

Dave: I think making Riesling is about picking the fruit at the very best time. You pick it at the right time, you handle it carefully and gently, you keep inert gas over it, and you are very careful to keep your winery clean so there’s no microbial interventions because that means you have to use more and more sulphur. It’s very easy to lose the delicate aromatics of Riesling.

So it’s about shepherding it through a very neutral fermentation and into the bottle without mucking it around. No oak, no extended macerations, no sitting on lees. It’s really just picking it in the very best condition you can and keeping it clean and fresh and through to the bottle.

Of course you can’t make good Riesling if you don’t have very special Riesling growing on your property. Skilly was one of, if not the highest vineyard in South Australia when it was planted, and they were told they were mad to plant grapes there because they wouldn’t ripen – but in fact that’s what gives a whole lot of quality and character to the wines.

You talk about the importance of knowing each individual block initimately – is there an example of that relationship which stands out?

In 2004 we found a little parcel of cabernet from the back of the vineyard which was just stunning. Everyone was just amazed at the intensity of it – we were getting less than a tonne to the acre but the aromas that were coming from the fresh fruit. It was dark, it was inky black. Just incredible.

It went through fermentation and got better and better, we put it into brand new French Oak and it was in it for three years, and again it got better and better and better. In the end we just couldn’t bring ourselves to blend it. So we decided to bottle some of it on its own and call it Trevarrick, which we did.

We didn’t think then about whether we would make another one but we just had to do it with that wine. It set a precedent and now we look through the various batches of each of the wines that we make to see if there is anything that stands out – and it’s surprising how often that happens. But it’s also surprising how difficult it is to find why it happens! I still have some of that 2004 Trevarrick in the cellar.

Which season do you love most at Skillogalee?

Dave: It’s the change of the seasons we love best. Autumn because it’s vintage and the leaves of the Valley’s many deciduous trees are changing colour. And mid-spring, when the vines have started to shoot. They will put on an inch a day if there’s good moisture in the soil. At that time of the year they’re looking vibrant and healthy, there’s lot of hawthorn and apple trees blossoming, and there’s a bit of sunshine to sit in under the olive tree.

What about a favourite spot?

Our favourite spot is on our veranda with a glass of wine at sunset. Clare really is a deeply-divided plateau – the whole place gets a great deal of its character from its altitude above the sheep and wheat country that surrounds it. When we see the sun dipping down behind the ridge we grab a couple of glasses and a bottle and we drive ten minutes up to the ridge in the Spring Gully Conservation Park and from there on a clear evening you can see about 90km to the coast, looking down the escarpment off the plateau.  

How much has the Valley changed since you arrived?

Dave: Enormously. When we came here there were 18 wineries in the local Winemakers Association and now it’s more like 50. But what hasn’t changed is our belief is that there are a number of styles and varieties which work well in Clare, and that the altitude and the coldness that are our predecessors were warned about are in fact one of the major benefits of making wine here. 

In a place like Clare you have this extended period for ripeness and ripe characters to build up. To have that early onset of colder nights I think allows the wine to retain balance so you get wine that is not too alcoholic, has lovely developed fruit flavours and has good natural acidity which keeps it fresh and clean and vibrant.

And it’s still a pretty nice place to live too!

What have you enjoyed most about your life at Skilly?

Dave: Definitely vintage time – but it’s also been about working hard to make something that gives people real pleasure and real memories. We can come home with a bottle of wine and say, Look what we made today. And we’ve met so many like-minded people who, as we do, enjoy spending time with food and wine. The thing we will find the hardest initially I think is the fact that after 30 years we have become so much a part of Skillogalee and Skillogalee is part of us – it will almost be like an amputation!

What’s next for the Palmers?

Dave: We’ve had a fantastic time here, living for 30 years right in the middle of the vineyard, without being able to see another human habitation. It’s creating one of the difficulties – we want to stay in the Valley because our children and grandchildren are here but we don’t want to move into town yet. It’s very hard to beat the scenic qualities and the feel of this vineyard with the hills and the trees and the Conservation Park behind us.

What do you hope the legacy of your time at Skillogalee will be?

Di: It’s about what we have built. People remember this place. We have created something that a lot of people love. We’re not the greatest winemakers in the world but we have always respected the fruit from our vineyards. Our wine is absolutely tied to this place in a way that makes our vineyard different to a vineyard 10km up the road or over at Polish Hill.

The very talented Kerri Thompson of Wines by KT will step into the winemaking role at Skillogalee from the 2022 vintage – how long have you known KT?

Di: Dave met KT in 1993. She’s a highly regarded winemaker and a really good friend of ours – she’s been making her wine here since 2006. We couldn’t recommend her more highly really. She knows all the little blocks and the different parts of the vineyard and she is absolutely ideal to take on the role here.

Skillogalee has a passionate following. Do you have a message for them? 

Di: We’d like to thank everyone for being so loyal. Our customers and their loyalty is the one of the things we love most about this place. We’re really grateful that so many people love Skillogalee.

Dave: We’re also immensely gratified that Simon has decided to take on all the elements of the business, which we think fit together very well. Simon is embracing them all and when he bought Skilly he told us he was so pleased to be the next custodian of the Skillogalee legend. That’s fabulous. 

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