Wine is the new cult religion in the verdant Adelaide Hills, and its place of worship is here in the appropriately named ex-church Lost in a Forest, a name which is spot on for my current state of mind because, despite growing up in the Adelaide foothills, it's almost unrecognisable to me now.
I burst through the front doors - lost, and a little late, after a trip to nearby Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary. It's a place bound to the reputation of one John Wamsley, its previous owner, who hated cats so much he used to wear a hat made out of feral cat fur. LIAF co-owner Taras Ochota, who has met me here today, is quick to remind me and proclaim his love of cats. "In fact, I train mine to kill anything native," he grins devilishly, before taking me on a tour of his beloved pizza restaurant-slash-cellar door.
It doesn't take long for me to become a convert.
Sunlight shines through stained glass windows highlighting the artwork he commissioned Japanese artist Ryota to paint. "I told him to watch 'A Forest' by The Cure, gave him a can of black paint, showed him the beer fridge and said "see you in three dayss," Ochota reveals.
The clock's just struck midday so I'm offered a zingy margarita and a mezcal shot, in a glass lined with chilli and agave worm salt from the colourful, tiny bar, where bottles of spirits hang from low-slung ladders. It's going to be a long day. At the same time Ochota drains a can of his favourite tinny, Melbourne Bitter, while declaring his aversion of craft beer. His other favourite drink is the unpretentious JD chilled neat which he jokingly calls "sulphur free orange wine". Both beverages stick out like a sore thumb on the restaurant's drinks list, an otherwise greatest hits list of the Basket Range.
Ochota is at the top of the heap of natural winemakers who are continually pushing the envelope in the Adelaide Hills. Here at Lost In A Forest, visitors are fortunate to be able to try and buy all his wines but for most of the other winemakers, you'll have to make private appointments with prior to visiting. Gareth Belton from Gentlefolk is one of them, who's accompanied us today. He's spent the last few days covering his vineyard with netting as the weather has bizarrely turned to heavy rain and fog, which without the help of an organic spray programme, could wipe out entire crops.
Belton ditched a career in marine biology to become a winemaker, inspired by the makers in the hills. Lucky for us that he did, as his wine too is among the best you'll find here. He's collaborated with Ochota to produce 'Father's Milk'; a pinot noir made after they both became fathers.
Ochota, on the other hand, has a degree in oenology and viticulture, but in his formative years he played bass for punk band Kranktus and is still a bit of a rock dog. With his slight build, black skinny jeans and Chuck Taylor's, he could almost be mistaken for a more spruce Tim Rogers. I'm barely there five minutes before he recites the unintentionally inappropriate lyrics to a Dead Kennedys song.
No junk food, just earthly goods. I ate weird berries in the woods. Now I'm seeing colours, I'm getting higher. I think I'll start a forest fire.
All of his wines are named after bands or songs close to his heart. 'Weird Berries in the Woods' is the name of his gewürztraminer;. "Texture like Sun', his field blend, is taken from The Strangler's 'Golden Brown'.
"It's actually about heroin, so it's very subversive, which is what this wine is all about," he explains."Like the song at the time, it was written to destabilise the punk movement which was in vogue at the time. Also the yellow label is tricky to read… Like looking at the sun."
I'm here in early February, so conversation has turned to vintage, just a few weeks away, which would ordinarily be a very stressful time but the well-connected Ochota has turned it into a fruit picking party I'd like an invitation to.
"Ochota Barrels is all about being relaxed, organised, with a long lunch involving many open bottles from around the world and beer o'clock at 6pm. I'm lucky I have my wife Amber and dad Yari who is 76, and a machine, fitter than all of us. Louise Scholfield (Hellbound wine bar) helps out, and then there's the dark lord Duncan Welgemoed from Africola. He helps in the winery but mainly goes berserk in the kitchen."
The Ochota brand has also caught the attention of visiting rockers the Rolling Stones, who were in the middle of an Australian tour. Efforts to keep their visit on the quiet were quashed by a neighbour, who stopped by to return something she'd borrowed and was halted by superstar's security. Their ten-month-old Sage introduced Mick to their piano and he played and sang.
"We drank wine, lay around on lawns and then danced the afternoon away. It was such a gorgeous experience."
Maynard Keenan from US rock band Tool is also a fan, and spends time in the Basket Ranges to do a collaboration with Ochota.
"We became friends after visiting each others' wineries and fitting in making a bit of vino between his touring. We are now into our seventh year of this wine, from an insane little 74-year-old block we co-ferment with frozen gewurztraminer skins," Ochota explains. You can buy their 'Sense of Compression' Grenache if you've got a spare $80 and can find it, because the label's wines sell like hit records on gold vinyl.
Despite all this success and rock star association, Ochota remains remarkably grounded. In the afternoon, we drive back to his house which sits on a steep slope of the idyllic Basket Range, where shaggy, organic vineyards are separated by gums and farmers growing anything from raspberries to cherries, selling them in an honour system by the side of the road. Belton points out some of the favourite vineyards he leases, before Ochota escorts us through his "wine studio". We dodge chickens, a dog and two blonde headed toddlers to reach his kitchen. As we're seated around the long table, he disappears into the house and returns a few moments later carrying a large ginger cat, which he ceremoniously deposits on my lap. The cat, equally at ease with strangers, blissfully dozes off while we sip some of Australia's best cool climate wines.
I could easily see out the rest of the afternoon here in this light filled kitchen, working our way through Ochota and Gentlefolk wines and the names of people we no doubt have in common, in this place I no longer call home. Although I swore I'd never return, I've got to finally admit the Hills - and the city of Adelaide, around 20 minutes drive from here - has become a pretty cool place to be. At the very least, I can finally feel proud to admit it's where I'm from.
The writer was a guest of SATC.
Adelaide Hills is approximately a 20 minute drive from the Adelaide CBD and Adelaide Airport.
Mt Lofty House offers luxury accommodation at the top of Mt Lofty, an excellent base for exploring the region. Rooms start at $320 per night. mtloftyhouse.com.au