Simon O’Donnell’s father provided him with excellent sporting genes. Simon is the first member of the family to become a wine producer. “Mum and Dad didn’t drink and I didn’t drink wine till my mid-30s. I drank spirits occasionally before that. Then I discovered Heathcote shiraz.
“The first Heathcote wine I had was at a dinner party. It was a Jasper Hill Shiraz, so you could say that I started at the top. Since then I’ve had many an excellent Heathcote shiraz. Our first Heathcote Vines wine was the 2008 Shiraz under the Red Red Wine label.”
The Heathcote Vines vineyard, just north of Heathcote, is in the centre of the Heathcote Vines land development project, one of the projects of OTI Management P / L. OTI is O’Donnell Thoroughbred International, a company co-owned by Simon and his long-term business partner Terry Henderson. Simon and Terry have managed and raced horses for over 20 years. Land development is a relatively new part of the business.
“We didn’t set out to buy a vineyard,” says Simon. “We were looking for land to develop around Heathcote, and the vineyard was part of a two hundred and forty acre parcel of land that looked suitable.” The vineyard, originally planted by Heathcote Winery about twenty years ago, sits at the northern end of the development. Simon anticipates that roads and infrastructure for the development will start mid to late 2011.
“Tony and Mark Hunter from Sanguine Estate now look after our vineyard and make our wine. They are impressed with the amount of canopy as well as the amount of grapes we are getting from the vines. There must be some very good soil here,” he says.
Simon’s father, Kevin, grew up in Melbourne’s North Caulfield and played forty nine games for St Kilda Football Club in the 1940s. He played alongside two footballers who later went on to be great cricketers, Keith Miller and Sam Loxton. In 1963, Kevin moved to Deniliquin to coach football for one year, but never returned to Melbourne. Simon, born in 1963, and his three siblings, grew up in Deniliquin. Simon attended Assumption College in Kilmore where he played football in his senior year, kicking 100 goals in the season. He was recruited to St Kilda Football Club where he kicked 18 goals in 24 matches during 1982 and 1983.
Simon also excelled at cricket. In the summer of 1983 he scored 130 runs in his debut game for Victoria. He retired from football to concentrate on cricket, following in the footsteps of Keith Miller and Sam Loxton who also played for St Kilda before specialising in cricket. He went on to represent Victoria in 74 first class matches, and Australia in 7 test matches and 88 one-day internationals ( ODI ). He was an all-rounder, a fast-scoring lower order batsman with great strength, and a bowler with 108 ODI wickets to his name. He scored the then fastest ever one-day international half century, 50 runs from 18 balls, a record he held for six years. His one-day batting strike rate was 80.96 runs per 100 balls.
Asked about his most rewarding moment in sport he has no hesitation in nominating Australia’s World Cup victory in 1986 / 87, a win that led to a revival in Australian cricket under Alan Border and then Steve Waugh. In that World Cup series Simon was Australia’s most economical bowler. “It was a fantastic team achievement,” says Simon. The team celebrated their win, but were horrified when Simon was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphona, a form of cancer. Simon returned to Australia ahead of the World Cup team for treatment.
He won his twelve month battle with cancer, captained Victoria for five seasons from 1989 to 1993, led Victoria to victory in the Sheffield Shield in 1990 / 91, was named 1991 International Cricketer of the Year and retired from cricket in 1993. He joined the Nine Network’s cricket commentary team, hosts The Cricket Show, and is also involved in Nine’s racing telecasts.
Simon, his wife Rebecca and their four children moved to Kilmore in 2003. Rebecca is involved in the business, “she provides creativity when we need it,” Simon says.
Simon and his business partner Terry Henderson watched the development of the Heathcote area with great interest. “We could see the development that was taking place in Heathcote, and how the reputation of Heathcote region wine was growing. From being a quiet achiever in the wine industry it is now a highly reputable producer.
“We now have investments in a few main street shops, the Heathcote Mews development, and twenty lots in Warrowitue-Forest Rd. We were seeking to extend our land interests in the region when we found the Heathcote Vines land. “It’s really well situated, in walking distance of the Golf Club. It’s close to wineries, as well as to Lake Eppalock.
“We hope that city people seeking a weekend escape or a permanent lifestyle change will be enthusiastic about it. We think it has the lot. There will be fifty or so lots, from a quarter acre to nine acres. We’d love to see the nine-acre block on the Northern Highway developed to provide additional short term accommodation for visitors.”
Land development can pose many challenges, especially when part of the land is close to a water course. McIvor Creek runs through the land being developed. Addressing these challenges has led to a delay in getting the development under way, but Simon sees that as a bit of a bonus. “The two year delay means that we now have a full Lake Eppalock for the first time in ten or so years. Heathcote is positioned to be a key recreational area in easy reach of Melbourne. There’s fishing and boating, eating and drinking, a great golf course, forest walks, bike tracks, a perfect recreational mix. It’s great in all seasons. I love it here in winter. What’s lacking is visitor accommodation, we need more heads on pillows.
“People compare Heathcote with the Yarra Valley but it’s not a valid comparison. Both have great names for wine but Heathcote has other, different, strengths. The majority response I get from talking to people about Heathcote is ‘Great shiraz. Haven’t been there. Would like to go.’
“Heathcote needs to be seen as a destination. The way that wine destinations seem to develop is that first there’s awareness of the great wine from the place, second is an increase in public interest. Third, an increase in accommodation, and fourth, an increase in visitors.
“We all need to be inspired to get to that fourth stage. Both as a domestic community, and from a commercial interest, there are wonderful opportunities. What’s really important is that we all have the confidence to do what needs to be done, and the belief that it will happen.”
Simon’s business interests are all high risk. His horse, Bauer, came very close to winning the Melbourne Cup in 2008, until the photo finish gave the race to Bart Cummings’ horse, Viewed. Horse racing and breeding, wine production, land development, any one of those would probably be enough stress for most of us.
Simon loves being in the vineyard. “It’s Mother Nature at her best. Some things raise the spirit. That spirit never dampens, no matter what. For me, that’s the grapes. If I had to choose between horses and grapes I’d probably go for grapes. With horses, the pain continues.”
Simon has had many highs and lows, both in life and in sport. When asked what the stand out is in all of these, he has no hesitation in replying, “Still being here. Being here, to enjoy my kids growing up.
“Every time the word ‘cancer’ is mentioned it takes you back to where you were and that is part of what you live with. It also reinforces what’s important to you, what really matters.” Simon has recently joined fellow cancer survivors to make a DVD ‘Just Take it Day to Day’ for the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
Simon has enjoyed watching the area in and around Heathcote develop. “The town should be tremendously proud of what it has achieved. The wine industry, the Lake, one of the prettiest regional golf courses, the forests, there’s so much to offer visitors and locals alike. Growth benefits the primary producers as well as tourism and the wine industry. What’s important is that we have the confidence to grow what we have, and the belief that we can and will do it well.”