Nicola Palmer (right) hosting a tour of Penobscot Farm, where the majority of produce for Watervale Hotel is grown. Image by Adam Bruzzone.

Nicola Palmer and Warrick Duthy have spent the last few years building the brand of the Watervale Hotel in South Australia’s Clare Valley region as a haven for ‘ethical epicurean experiences’. The hard work is paying off, with the Palmer the hotel winning multiple awards, and building a reputation as a must-visit destination for anyone who enjoys good food and fine wine.

Last year saw the Watervale Hotel pick up a series of titles, including the W. T. Spurr AO Award for Tourism and Regional Promotion at the AHA SA Awards for Excellence. In the same competition, the hotel also retained its Best Restaurant – General Division Country title for the third year running.

Hotel co-owner and executive chef, Nicola Palmer, told Australian Hotelier what she thought gave the hotel such a cutting edge.

“A lot of hard work!” Palmer quips.

“But really, our ethics, the excellent and uncompromising ethics that we have for how we run the business.

“We’re trying to run a business in the way that we think it should be – for the sustainability of the earth. And the good product being on the plate. I’m a strong believer that just because we trade under a hotel license, and not a restaurant license, there shouldn’t be a cap on the quality of the food that goes out,” Palmer continues.

“We’re tourism-focused and we’ve made decisions to help build the brand, not reducing our product to be focused on cost and profit, over building the brand.

“You can be focused on cost and profit straight away and you may never build a good brand; but if you build a good brand, the profit will come.”

Nicola Palmer, co-owner and executive chef, Watervale Hotel

A major element of the way the Watervale is run is its symbiotic relationship with the nearby Penobscot Farm, which is also owned by Palmer and her husband and business partner, Warrick Duthy. Palmer explains how this improves the pub’s offer and fits with the venue’s ethos.

“Using the farm and the farm experience to help educate both our staff and our visitors to regenerative farming practices, how important that is, and how that relates to what they’re tasting on the plate.”

Palmer highlighted an event the pub hosted last year as an example of the Watervale Hotel’s commitment to working with its community.

“It was a women’s only event, where we invited 50 women living on Ngadjuri land to come and partake in a lunch, and buy a ticket, and their ticket paved the way for a Ngadjuri woman to attend,” Palmer says.

The event was held to celebrate Esther Greenslade, a licensee at the hotel over 150 years ago, who also owned a flour mill and shared bread with local Ngadjuri women and children at a time when the community suffered greatly as a result of European settlement.

At the event, Ngadjuri woman Aunty Angelena Harradine and Palmer symbolically broke bread together, before Aunty Angelena held an earth healing ceremony.

“Lots of the women were too scared to come to the event, but the talk around it since has created a lot more trust and interest – lots of Ngadjuri women are too scared to come back to this land, and so this was a wonderful stepping stone to open the door for conversation,” Palmer adds.

The Watervale Hotel has garnered a reputation for its dining experiences, and is a favourite stopping point for visitors to the Clare Valley.

This article was first published in Australian Hotelier’s 2023 Annual Industry Leader’s Forum, which you can read below.

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