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One man and his winery

Tim Heald takes his place around the Stone Wall Table

27 February 2008

12:00 AM

27 February 2008

12:00 AM

When his father died, Rob O’Callaghan, the maker of Rockford wines in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, was mildly surprised to find that several hundred mourners turned out for the funeral. His father had not been a particularly high achiever and Rob had not realised the old man had so many friends. The priest explained all. When you found yourself with Rob’s father, he said, you knew that you were enjoying yourself. At this a throaty chorus of assent ran along the pews.

Like father, like son. Sitting next to O’Callaghan at one of his regular Stone Wall Table lunches you’d have to be the ultimate saddo not to be having the time of your life. Hirsute, stocky, disputatious, the ultimate Irish-Australian larrikin, O’Callaghan is not only good at what he does, he believes in milking life for the last drop of genuine enjoyment.

The lunches take place in the traditional dining-room of his winery and are restricted to 14 friends and good customers (nearly always the same) who are usually members of the Rockford Stone Wall Circle. They happen every Thursday and Friday and Rob and his partner, Pam O’Donnell, only attend a few. Their constitution wouldn’t allow more so the hosting is parcelled out among the staff. The meals are booked solid three months in advance and on this occasion included three wine buffs from Tokyo as well as my wife and myself and a smattering of Ozzie oenophiles.

We started with little yams, grown in the O’Callaghan garden, accompanied by a 1991 Black Shiraz — classic red fizz peculiar to Australia. Then we ambled across the yard to the dining-room where we supped a green and gingery squid and scallop broth and ate minced lamb in cabbage leaves with a fenugreek-flavoured butternut squash. First of all we drank a 1998 Vine Vale Riesling, and then a glass of 2003 Local Growers Semillon. With salty magret of duck, a cassoulet-like stew of white beans and an endive and radicchio salad there was 2000 Home Block Cabernet, before a mandarin jelly with a blood and navel orange salad and some 1989 sweet Frontignac. After that we drank Mexican organic coffee or a leaf tea infusion from a little man in Singapore who has his own growers near Darjeeling. Finally we tottered back to the log fire in reception for a farewell glass of port and a slice of Ballycroft Annwn cheese with sour apple and rosehip paste.

This banquet cost the participants A$130, which is a give-away £50 or so. Originally O’Callaghan didn’t know what to charge but decided that as it was a friendly affair everyone should go Dutch and he would pick up half the tab, leaving the guests to look after the balance.

Everything is home-grown or locally sourced and nothing comes from anywhere as incorrect as a shop. But it is the occasional O’Callaghan monologues which punctuate the repast that transform the show. These ostensibly explain the wine and food but are actually more like droll pieces of folkloric philosophy characterised by an early aside to the effect that ‘my customers don’t care very much what other people think’. This disregard for convention coupled with a rare and infectious enthusiasm for everything he does makes O’Callaghan very special.

While he admires the mass-production techniques of others, he strives for a different sort of perfection. This means that ‘bad years’ are not a disaster but a challenge and every bottle of wine he makes is an individual adventure.

For ten years he devoted every spare moment to playing cricket. (One great ambition, finally achieved on a rainy day in Somerset, was to play the game wearing a woolly sweater.) A subsequent obsession is vintage and veteran wooden boats. He loves pottering about in them and he and Pam have just acquired a half-share in one which they will moor on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. Their co-owner is the Rockford-wine-loving Commodore of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron.

A few years ago he acquired an interest in a 19th-century paddle steamer, the Marian, which was disintegrating on the Murray River. Now restored to its old self, this historic vessel plays host to occasional gastro-cruises up and down the once-mighty Murray river. These are booked three years in advance and are as memorable as the Stone Wall lunches.

The world would doubtless be impossible if there were many men like him, but thank heaven he exists, prospers and shares his enthusiasms.

Rockford Wines

Krondorf Road, Tanunda, SA 5352

Tel: +61 885632720

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