“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





30 January 2013


Robert O'Callaghan - still very much centre screen in his PR spin and images - and his replacement, Ben Radford, at Rockford Wines.

O'Kolhagen Slinks To The Side
O'Callaghan Clings To Crafted
O'Crocodile Lies In Shallows


There’s a quiet transition afoot at one of South Australia’s star nuts-and-berries wineries.  After 29 years, Robert O’Callaghan, the founder of Rockford, is more or less stepping aside to make way for his winemaker of six years, Ben Radford, to take the role of managing director.

This transition business seems a textbook copy of the infernally slow but carefully managed transition from Mike Rann’s premiership of this state to Jay Weatherill’s: by the time the move is complete it will barely be news.

O’Callaghan has always been a painstaking schemer.  In matters vinous-bidness, he's matched only by Brian Croser in the control stakes.  He even seemed deliberately to slow the growth of Rockford to the point at which nobody was ever startled by change.  The whole thing was staged from the beginning.  Quiet funding from Doug Collett, the Woodstock Wines founder, and Richard Lindner, now owner of Langmeil, quiet stonemasonry by the master, Michael Waugh of Greenock Creek, quiet acquisition of a suite of grapegrowers (not risky vineyards, mind), quiet establishment of a mailing list, quiet building of the winemaker as local hero and social conscience, quiet investment alliance with a handy  refinery, Barossa Vintners, to make all the wines that cannot possibly be hand-shovelled through that famous wooden Horwood Bagshaw crusher.

And, of course, the quiet but stalwart accounting of Helen Martin.  Years and years of it.  Anybody who could successfully keep an eye on Doug Lehmann’s Basedow books – as she previously did – would be a likely ally for a fellow of O’Callaghan’s craft.

Back in the days when O’Callaghan answered to the name of Rocky – O’Kolhagen was also popular amongst the impish Barossadeutschers; Rocket O'Crocodile came later in the nickname division – he launched Rockford with a cutesy-pie watercolour wash of a label with vertical gold stripes across it like bars.  It glinted.  I recall comparing it to another bright new brand of the early ’80’s, Elderton. While they lacked any similarity of appearance, both labels seemed brash enough to offer something new, even if it were only attitude.

It wasn’t long before the wash went down the drain, to be replaced by Rod Schubert’s precise label with the gilt vine leaves.  Like all the best labels, that beauty stays put, all those years on.

Those were the days of the notorious Vine Pull scheme, when O’Callaghan launched the Barossa Residents’ Association, which through careful lobbying and constant public shaming of government, eventually managed to have that tax-payer funded destruction stopped on the grounds of civic amenity.  The wine industry was such a wreck there was little chance of stopping the uprooting on any sensible business basis, so the scheme was more or less brought to halt on the grounds of it changing the look and culture of the Barossa far too radically.

Nearly thirty years later, I’m still trying to get hold of a copy of the report written by Di Davidson and others who preached the Adelaide Hills gospel, declaring loud and clear that brave new cool climate viticulture would soon nudge aside much of the Barossa warm area tradition.  For some reason, this report, which led to much tax-payer-funded destruction and the expenditure of many millions from the public purse, has simply evaporated from all government files.  Former Minister Patrick Conlon promises me his staff scoured the archives for a copy for weeks, but all in vain. This report gave the Bannon Labor government the ammo it needed to heed the lobbying of the biggest wineries of the day, who were determined to modernise and industrialise Barossa viticulture to limit the number of growers they were forced to deal with. Thus came the Vine Pull; O’Callaghan’s stalwart opposition to it brought his winery many adoring buyers.

It’s hard to portray the scale of that destruction.  For two winters the Barossa was spooked by the smoke from smouldering piles of century-old Shiraz, Grenache, Mataro, Carignan, Cinsault and the like.  It was common to see gnarly men of the land weeping in their beer in pubs like the Greenock Creek Tavern, having just taken their pieces of government silver to bulldoze and burn irreplaceable heritage vinegardens planted by their great-grandfathers.

Counter to this image of winemaker as saviour,  O’Callaghan was also capable of brutal opportunism of a more overtly commercial type, like his attempt with Tony Parkinson, now of Penny’s Hill, to launch the first Tetra-pack wines in Australia: Angle Vale red in cute little boxes, just like pineapple juice for the kiddies’ lunchbox.

He repeated this contrast to his core small grower Barossa Shiraz philosophy a few years later with his release of the lucrative Rockford Alicante Bouchet, a simple raspberry-sweet rosé aimed directly at the sugar addicts.

But these precise marketing moves were always balanced to a degree by the cultivation of the image of the social saviour, if only on a rebellious Irish larrikin level.  Amongst all that smoke and chaotic destruction, Robert Hill Smith released Yalumba wines with a moderation warning on the back.  This was a voluntary move to pre-empt the wowser uprising of the day.  O’Callaghan was quick on the market with back labels contrarily boasting “Black Shiraz is the sort of stuff I was weaned on.”

Fame or that carefully managed larrikin infamy: it didn’t seem to matter much to the burgeoning Rockford fan club, just as long as everybody believed it was still true to its growers and them, its customers, and that O’Callaghan was a morally sound bloke who wouldn’t think of ripping them off.

A fifth-generation Barossa man, Radford managed some big winery operations in his years in South Africa, so he brings handy experience in large-scale logistics as much as his sensitive winemaking touch.  Rockford is not a little business. 

To fund his buy-out of his partners at Langmeil, Richard Lindner sold his 25% share of Rockford back to the company some time ago, leaving Woodstock’s Scott Collett, son of the late Doug, with about a third of the shares and a deep determination to ensure that things remain steady as she goes.

“We’ve had plenty knocking at the door with offers to buy,” Collett said, but “it’s always thankyou very much, but no.”

“I’ve known Ben since he was a boy running around with my kids,” O’Callaghan said in his press release.  “He is a good winemaker – our wine has never been better – and a natural born leader.   He is here to stay.  This is a winemaking company and it is critical that it is run by a winemaker, someone who understands that wine is crafted, not produced. 

“I’m staying in the business but my role is changing.  I’m doing this to ensure the Rockford principles are held and doing it now because I want to be part of the transition and make sure it is done well.

And as for the new MD?  “I love Robert’s vision of keeping the traditional wine trade alive and preserving the skills and techniques associated with that tradition,"  Radford said.  “It is such an important part of the Rockford story.  That vision extends to our customers and having personal connections with each of them.” 

“When I first came to Rockford to help with the 2006 vintage, I didn’t realise it was a three month interview for the winemaker’s job.  You could say I’ve had a six year interview for this new position. 

“I’m here to work alongside Robert, carry on his very clear vision for Rockford and, of course, amplify it with my own vision for the future.”

Sounds like more of the same stubbornly gradual determination at Rockford



On the occasion of his birthday, my good friend and fellow guitarist, Joe Manning,  generously brought a collection of Rockford Basket Press Shiraz to lunch.  All these wines had been carefully cellared, but their condition varied according to their corks. Being a rather noisy big Saturday Table, the conditions were hardly ideal for a thorough analytical appraisal of such a respected suite, but for what they’re worth, here are my notes.  I should say that it was slightly confronting to be reminded of the old VA-driven house style of Rockford: the wines seemed rather quaint and countrified, and gave me the distinct feeling that Basket Press is best consumed at ten years of age. All bottles were tasted upon uncorking, then double-decanted before serving. Given the conditions, I should make clear the fact that I erred on the side of generosity in all these scores.

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 1995

At first pour this wine was flat, old, frail and simple, with acidity that was no longer harmonious.  It seemed to lose fruit in great globs.  After double-decanting, it revived to a degree, growing some ferny truffly earth and the type of chocolate flavours typically made possible in those days by the local cooper, A. P. John. 70 points on the first pour; but after decanting, and a dramatic, but short-lived jump in flavour, I bumbled around 88, just for a while.  Simple old wine with rather harsh acidity.

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 1998

Once again, this old frail seemed about ready to drop its flesh on the ground, and stand there teetering, trying to balance its angular acid bones.  Double decanting saw it draw a deep breath and thrust its chest out long enough for my sentiment to consider 94 points, but not for long.  “Firm, stainless steel rapier of acidity holds this soft old lush on the track” I wrote, “coffee/mocha/choco crème caramel … smells like dessert wine … reminds me of the Mexican choco sauce Cheong once made to pour over baked fish in the World’s End Hotel … stunning for a while … goes all umami-fishy and acetic in another ten minutes … quality falls as volatile acidity intrudes.  Osteoporosis.”  

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 1999
“More fruitcake and spice here than in the previous chocolate cake models”, I wrote.  “Mace, nutmeg and star anise here … the palate’s fleshy but it, too, seems to be separating from that whiprod of acetic acid.  Sad to have no more to taste – it’s obviously popular - can’t complain; it’s triffic: 92++”

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 2000
Although this was a really shitty vintage year, the wine followed the pattern set by its predecessors.  “All the above,” I wrote, “but with fresher balsamico amongst all that Parade Gloss boot polish and chocolate custard/chocolate ice cream.”  Another ten minutes after the decant, it took on the aroma of tight kalamata olives in balsamic, which led to the following confusing note:  “She might be a village idiot but at least she’s got freckles. 93.” 

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 2001
This wine had more volatile acetic acid, holding the house style, but with fresher whispers of coffee, cassis and marello cherries.  It also brought salt to mind, and maybe apple vinegar as much as balsamic.  After double-decanting, the cherries seemed to gather confidence, and managed to flatten that acid with chubby love and chocolate junket.  92.  

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 2002

“This one’s more delicate, yet cheeky and vivacious,” I wrote.  “It has the most drawing capacity so far … it’s in your face.  Perhaps the most desirable levels yet of volatile acidity and fruit: it’s cheeky more than authoritative.  Black pepper.  Chocolate.  Caramel.  Blackberry.  Shorter juniper tannins.  Spot on its fulcrum point.  92+++.”  

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 2003

Somehow this vintage was poured into my 2002, so I refrained from making a note.

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 2004
“Star anise!  Bright and whizzing creams and fluff, like confectionery and fairy floss.  Then the alcohol hits, reminding me that this will age in exactly the same manner as the others. Does it show some aspalgic acid?   Gigi thinks it has an asparagas character, which is close to the matter.  93-92+++”

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 2005
“All the right ingredients are here to ensure the survival of the house style, but the wine seems a little advanced for its age; it seems to suck oxygen into itself, growing more acetic and skinny as it does.  My company, however, seems deeply content, having become much more smoothly moderate and oozy as this very cool afternoon rolls on. 92.”  


Sal said...

Full-bodied, with bracing acidity.

Anonymous said...

Like a circular steel saw grazing freshly-polished tooth enamel ... Tzzinggg! Ace, man ... one of your absolute best ... x

ABOGAN said...

So where are the O'Callaghan lads? They both work in the wine business! Have they been cut out?