Gourmet Traveller Wine 2018 Winemaker of Year
Janice McDonald grew up in West Wyalong, sheep country in rural New South Wales.
A keen interest in science drew her to university studies in Sydney, and it was during this period that her fascination with wine unfurled. Under the influence of her sister & brother-in-law, she began exploring the flourishing independent wine bottle shop scene of the city.
“Every bottle of wine is a story. There’s an enormous amount behind it. The place where it comes from, who makes it. Aside from this is how you make it. I found it quite intriguing.”
What started as an interest soon gave direction to her scientific pursuits, and Janice began wine studies at the Riverina College in Wagga. Her first vintages cemented this passion and exposed her to the different regions and wine styles of Australia, including Margaret River.
“Margaret River Cabernet was one of those wines in style & flavour that really appealed to me, and there was nothing else like it in the country…I basically got in my car and drove across the Nullarbor.”
After a stint as assistant winemaker at Vasse Felix in 1985, her acquaintance & contemporary, Phil Sexton, convinced her to take up a brewing position at Matilda Bay Brewing Co.
“…the Americas cup came along & Matilda Brewing Company had the Sail & Anchor & the Norfolk [pubs] and we were just brewing all this beer for it, it was crazy…There’d be all sorts of people & nationalities. You’d do anything you could to hang out in Fremantle and watch it all.”
Five intense years later, after the sale of Matilda Bay, Phil Sexton founded Devil’s Lair winery and Janice jumped at the chance to immerse herself again in wine and make roots back in Margaret River. She worked as the Senior Winemaker there from 1992 – 2000.
In 2001, with her partner Stuart Pym, Janice founded Stella Bella, with its prestigious Serie Luminosa range.
“The idea that you can grow the grapes, determine what you want to grow, make the wines you want, design the label, sell it all in market – one of the attractions of this industry is vertical integration. Creative aspects: hands on, science background. All of those things were very appealing to me.”
During this period she was named Red Winemaker of the year for 2010-2011 by Campbell Mattinson & Gary Walsh in The Big Red Wine Book.
In 2011 Janice made what she calls the “easy” decision to join Howard Park as Chief Winemaker.
“The door opens & most people who walk into this place go ‘wow, it’s bigger than I thought it was”. Anyone I show around the place from a winemaking point of view go ‘wow’. It’s big and it’s complicated & there’s lots of wines, lots of layers.
“The thing which & has always been quite fun and it’s something not a lot of winemakers in this region get to experience is to be involved in making wine from the Great Southern and Margaret River, and it’s something I’d never really done before.
“When it all unfolded in front of me, that as a very exciting challenge. The Great Southern is still a frontier in a way because it is so less populated than Margaret River from a wine industry point of view. It doesn’t have the industry that we have, all the support systems. You have to go down there and forage for yourself. I have great respect for those who have have forged a winemaking path in that region.
“Going to the Great Southern is like when I first came to WA. It was very pioneering, in a way. People were independent, self-sufficient. It’s the same as Western Australia. It had to forge its own way because it’s a million miles from everywhere else. It makes people different. There’s a great self-sufficiency here that still exists.”
Aside from consistently outstanding accolades and scores for her wines, Janice always finds the intake of certain special parcels of fruit during vintage to be of great excitement & satisfaction.
In 2017 she took out ‘Best Australian Sparkling’ & ‘Best in Class – Australian NV Brut Blend’ at Tom Stevenson’s highly respected Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships in London, for the Howard Park NV Jeté Brut Blanc.
She credits Howard Park for allowing her to focus her love of wine.
“The resources are here, and the support and the passion for wine. There’s the appreciation and recognition that this is what you are doing.”