A charming individualist

The man behind Rockford's unique style loves to keep things simple.

Robert O'Callaghan is someone who is always doing something interesting - and usually totally original. The founder and owner of the Barossa Valley's unique winery, Rockford, is an irrepressible individualist, a creative spark, a mentor to many and a man who rows his own boat - or paddles his own steamer, to be more accurate.

One passion is Murray River paddleboats. He's rebuilt more than one. Another passion is building things from stone - he and friend Michael Waugh, who went on to establish his own winery, Greenock Creek, built Rockford's original stone winery buildings in 1984.

The Rockford fan club is called the Rock Wall Society. Every week about 16 friends of Rockford attend a Stonewaller lunch in the winery's purpose-built dining room. There, in the adjoining kitchen, professional chefs and gardeners Michael and Alison Voumard present an extraordinary meal for which they grow almost all the ingredients in Rockford's biodynamic garden. It comprises 0.8 of a hectare of vegetables and fruits, carefully planned to produce seasonal ingredients at any time of the year. They have ducks and chooks for eggs and to keep garden pests under control - no one could bear to slaughter them.

The garden is behind the little stone cottage where Robert and his wife, Pam O'Donnell, live. It was built by a pioneer winemaker, Johann Henschke, before he moved to Keyneton and established Henschke Wines.

"It's very special, rare food," says O'Callaghan of the Stonewaller lunches. "Michael and Ali are fanatical foodies. Michael takes two days to make his tortillas. They prep all day Wednesday to do two freshly prepared meals [on Thursday and Friday]."

"It's a shared table, like going to someone's home. There are 16 people from all over the country: three or four Stonewallers and their friends. ... It's food you won't see anywhere else - not restaurant food and not home-cooked food. There are four nationalities on every menu: Thai, Indian, etc. It's booked out a year in advance."

Earlier this year, I got the call to attend. O'Callaghan hosted it but the staff take it in turns. We're greeted with a glass of chilled alicante bouchet, which is Rockford's unique rose. I say unique because no one else makes rose from this grape and hardly anyone else in Australia even grows it. O'Callaghan uses the grape because it is bulletproof - in other words, it doesn't get diseased - and it ripens fully at low baume so he can make a naturally low-alcohol wine that tastes ripe.

As we settle in at the large table the first course, domatokeftedes (Greek tomato fritters), is served with 2003 Rockford Local Growers Semillon. This is a full-flavoured crisp white that's retained its delicacy and tightness remarkably after seven years, at the same time as it's acquired extra complexity from age. It is followed by jellied chicken with cornichons and 2009 Vine Vale Riesling. Biodiversity salad follows: an assortment of heirloom tomatoes and vegetables both rare and tasty. Poblanos rellenos (green chillies stuffed with squid, prawns and snapper) is served with Mexican broccoli and black beans, and roasted avocado leaves. Strange but fascinating.

The wine is 2008 Frugal Farmer - Rockford's new wine, a lighter-bodied red made from alicante bouchet, grenache and mataro. We enter more familiar territory with char-grilled eggplant and crispy Berkshire pork. This classic Thai dish is served with the legendary Black Shiraz, Rockford's rare and much admired sparkling red.

Then comes the climax: the 1991 Basket Press Shiraz with a Greek dish - baked eggplant and lamb shoulder. This is a real treat; one of the greatest vintages of this wine, served in the full glory of maturity. Truly magnificent.

Finally, blancmange with satsuma plums and pomegranate ice-cream, served with 1989 SWF (sweet white fortified) Frontignac. Then coffee and home-grown lemon verbena tea and we are left wondering where the afternoon has gone.

Last year was Rockford's 25th anniversary and the winery newsletter, The Rockford Rag, ran an article chronicling its history. Diehards already know the story: how O'Callaghan, the son of a Riverland blocker, worked for Seppelt before Doug Collett (of Woodstock winery) lent him a few thousand so he could set up his own winery. Of how he scrounged machinery and equipment other wineries were throwing out as they modernised. Of how every grape is forked from a truck-bed into a wooden chute that feeds an ancient Bagshaw beater crusher and Whitehill must-pump driven by a leather belt from a single-cylinder engine that goes "put-put-put" at its leisurely Rockford-style pace.

"It's kind of satisfying to look at it all and think back over the years," O'Callaghan says as we wander around the vintage courtyard at Rockford. It's about 6pm and the cellar-hands are rinsing out bins and giving the red ferments their final pump-over for the day.

"It's my favourite time of day. All the fuss and noise of crushing is finished and peace descends," he says.

It is unique and I hope it never changes.

This article A charming individualist was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.