He’d arrived right in time for the gold rush. Always a man with an eye for opportunity, he began selling mining equipment on the Victorian goldfields. After making a small fortune he moved to Geelong and became a storekeeper, where his nous for business saw his prosperity continue. In 1861 he had amassed enough wealth to fulfil his dream of becoming a landowner, and bought some leaseholds just over the border in south-east South Australia.
The area was already well established as a wool-producing region, but Riddoch’s knack for innovations, his pioneering spirit and his fresh ideas—such as his method of washing sheep before they were shorn—led to a great expansion of his fortune and reputation.
Now established as a man of considerable means, he joined the parliament. He led the push for a local railway. He advocated for the rights of local landowners and the Bindjali people. And, ever the entrepreneur, he was the first to connect the surging demand for South Australian claret with the area’s potential as a wine-growing region.
To bring his vision to life, he set up the Penola Fruit Colony, and encouraged investors to plant orchards and vines. When the first vintage was bottled in 1895, his hunch was vindicated by Professor Arthur Perkins, the state viticulturist, who recognised that the area’s terra rossa soils and maritime climate were ideal for the production of wine. Over time the name was changed from Penola to Coonawarra—either the Bindjali name for the wild honeysuckle that grew in the region, or the Kuunawarr name for black swan.
Since Riddoch’s death in 1901 at the age of 73, Coonawarra has seen booms and busts, droughts and depressions. It’s been influenced by all kinds of weather and conditions. Through it all the growers of Coonawarra have adapted, innovated and survived, reflecting John Riddoch’s family motto: ‘Never give in to misfortune.’