From Ballyvaughan to Barossa vintage

John McDonnell, from Ballyvaughan, Ireland, is believed to hold the record for longest time between vintages worked at Yalumba - a staggering 25 years!
John McDonnell, from Ballyvaughan, Ireland, is believed to hold the record for longest time between vintages worked at Yalumba - a staggering 25 years!

It’s a long way from Ballyvaughan to the Barossa – but it’s a road that’s been well travelled by Irishman John McDonnell over the years.

Mr McDonnell is a familiar face to those on the Aussie wine scene, having worked for Wine Australia for 15 years as “our man” in Ireland.

These days, his work folio follows the seasons.

For eight months of the year, he runs a hotel in the County Clare village with his wife Sarah, and he spends a couple of months in retail.

But the “quiet spell” in the first few months of the year has left a gap in the planner, so he thought why not come and work a vintage in the Barossa?

Mr McDonnell’s affinity with Australian wine and, in particular, the Barossa started back in the late 1980s when he first came to the region to study at Roseworthy Agricultural College.

Between study – he was at Roseworthy at the same time as Yalumba winemaker Louisa Rose – he worked vintage as a cellarhand at Yalumba in 1990 and 1993.

In ‘91, he worked the Melbourne trade scene for Yalumba during his break and in ‘92, the Sydney trade.

“So I’ve always had a good relationship with Yalumba and when I decided to come over for vintage, it was an easy decision to ask if they’d take me,” he said.

“It was a big ask – I’m 53 and live on the other side of the world – but they put me through the interview process and I got the job!

“I’m the only foreigner who’s travelled from overseas for vintage – it’s been a great experience.”

Mr McDonnell also has another remarkable claim to fame – he’s believed to hold the title of biggest gap between vintages at Yalumba, a solid 25 years.

He said he had enjoyed the work, as well as catching up with old friends and his old community.

“Australia is like an old pair of shoes – really easy to come back to.

“I’ve also enjoyed doing things like kegel, cycling up Mengler Hill and going to service in Marananga.”

A keen cyclist, Mr McDonnell brought his bike halfway across the world as a means of transport to and from work to his “home” at Vine Vale, where he has been staying with winemaker Tim Smith.

Australia is like an old pair of shoes – really easy to come back to

John McDonnell

On one of his first mornings in the Barossa – a balmy 38 degrees – Mr McDonnell was cycling through Marananga and saw the small congregation heading in to Gnadenfrei Lutheran Church.

Feeling in need of some spiritual uplift, he stopped to join the service, apologising to the pastor for his cycling attire.

The pastor replied, “God doesn’t judge you for the clothes you wear”, adding it had been a long time since someone rode their bike to church!

Mr McDonnell said he had been “really touched” by the welcome and hospitality he had received from people.

“Everyone in the community is touched by vintage, where they’re in the industry or not,” he said.

“If everything lines up this year, I’d love to come back and do another vintage. I think Sarah might come out for a bit too.”

Mr McDonnell, who has been working the midday to midnight shift, finished his last shift on Saturday night.

He’s currently enjoying a few days’ respite in Adelaide, before starting his journey home to Ballyvaughan – and his beloved Sarah – this Friday.