Growing Grapes Might be Fun by Deidre Macken

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

When the time to retire from full time work arrives what does one do? For Diedre Macken and her husband Roger Johnstone the answer to this question came from an unlikely source. Encouraged by Macken’s mother Ann they decide to establish a vineyard on part of Cockatoo Hill a 100-hectare property outside of Yass in rural New South Wales. The chosen portion though has a major drawback. It is a junk pile. A place where old and useless machinery and other items from the property were dumped and obviously forgotten. The ground was more used to having sheep walk all over it rather than being tilled for the planting and growing of grapes that might one day become bottles of first-rate wine.

Macken’s memoir of this tree change for two urban Sydneysiders, whose journalistic careers have made them well known to Australian readers, tells the story of how the junk yard and its dilapidated dwelling has become a place where good grapes are now growing and well received wine is created.

The title though is ironic. While on the surface it sounded like fun the reality was that the place needed a lot of hard work to just make it habitable before the work of preparing the soil for the establishment of vines could begin. Another small but significant stumbling block was that neither Macken or Johnstone had ever lived or worked on the land. They also had no clue about how to become growers of any wine let alone good wine.

Though Johnstone took to the rural life like a duck to water Macken was not so enthusiastic. She preferred to be able to return to their Sydney residence as often as possible so she could still feel connected with colleagues and friends. She was also writing columns for The Australian newspaper while doing the commute between Sydney and Cockatoo Hill.

Her reflection on this is told alongside the story of how they both adjusted to the country way of life as well as picking up the skills needed to become seasoned wine growers. It raises the question of why two people who are regarded as being in their twilight years would even contemplate such a project when many younger growers have tried and failed in their quest to create a good drop.

Slowly but surely things begin to happen. New relationships are forged, valuable lessons are learned. As well as becoming the wine growers they would like to be they also learn more about themselves. This is especially true of Macken who, by the end of the book, is becoming accustomed to living life well away from Sydney and its familiar buzz.

Anyone who is familiar with Macken’s newspaper articles knows she likes to delve below the surface so feelings and introspection can flow through the written facts and words. This allows the book to be more than just a memoir. The Covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 caused Macken to come to grips with her changing life. Her story offers thoughts and insights that may help us rise to the challenges and changes that come our way.

Diedre Macken is a journalist, columnist and author. She has written for the Australian Financial review, The Sydney Morning Herald and its colour magazine Good Weekend, The Age and, currently, The Australian.

Growing Grapes Might Be Fun: How we made a vineyard out of a junkyard at Cockatoo Hill

by Diedre Macken


Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 176106 770 9

$34.99; 294pp

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top