Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walker, John Keith (JK 'Johnnie') (1905–1987)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

John Keith Walker (1905-1987), wine merchant, restaurateur and publicist, was born on 14 April 1905 in Brisbane, elder child of Victorian-born Charles Thomas Murray Walker, smelter, and his Sydney-born wife Charlotte Amelia, née Creed. John attended Catherine Hill Bay Public School, New South Wales. The family moved to Sydney in 1915. He worked first as a telegram boy at the General Post Office and then as an apprentice coppersmith.

Borrowing £3 from his father as till money, in 1926 Walker became the lessee of the Lord Roberts Hotel, Darlinghurst. In this area, popularly known as ‘Little Malta’, he found there was a market for selling sweet wines as well as beer. In 1930 Walker bought into a wine bar at 87 Market Street. From J. J. McWilliam & Sons he purchased wine to sell to European immigrants. With his father, ‘CT’ Walker, he made a carbonated sparkling wine, Spango, initially in the Lord Roberts cellar, and from 1932 at Circular Quay, with part-time assistance from a Lindeman’s ‘champagne’ expert, P. Lasagna. Products included Charles and Jean Marcheur champagne, fruit-flavoured fortified cocktail wines and bottle-fermented sparkling wine. Scotch whisky producers urged him to find names other than Walker for his products.

A joint venture with the McWilliam family saw Rhine Castle Wines Ltd (1936) formed as a retail outlet that also sold the wines of Maurice O’Shea’s Mount Pleasant enterprise, in which McWilliam’s Wines Pty Ltd had invested. After vintage, Walker and O’Shea visited growers and makers at Pokolbin in the Hunter Valley to select wines for bottling in Mt Pleasant Wine Pty Ltd’s Newcastle cellars. Success at wine shows followed. Walker developed the high mark-up private wine trade. In 1939 with Gilbert Phillips, O’Shea and David Sutherland Smith, Walker founded the Wine and Food Society of New South Wales; from 1944 it honoured him with an annual lecture. Approached by the Sydney Beth Din in 1938, he organised McWilliam’s Wines at Griffith to make fortified muscat, and later sauterne and brandy, according to Jewish religious rites.

Rhine Castle Wines Pty Ltd had branches in three States by 1950 but Walker felt constrained by the McWilliam controlling interest. In 1952 he sold a family property, Ravenswood, near Penrith, to purchase the business outright for £29,000, ostensibly for his two sons, John and Peter, who were running the Melbourne branch. From 1957 he sold branches to former employees but retained agency and distribution rights.

From the late 1930s Walker had supplied free light lunches to wine purchasers at Rhine Castle cellars in the Royal Exchange building basement in Sydney. In 1957 he established the Bistro restaurant there; with stone floors, Australia’s first public open kitchen, and the novelty of ordering from a blackboard menu and choosing wine from racks in the bar, it transformed Sydney business lunches–-’a glass of wine, a plate of spaghetti and back at work in an hour’. Walker started the Angus Steak Cave in 1962.

Known to friends and family as ‘JK’ or Johnnie, Walker ‘radiated bonhomie, in the best British “inn-keeper” tradition’. Outgoing, ambitious, and with a love of life, he was a shrewd and energetic businessman and a born salesman who became the Sydney wine-and-food personality of his generation. Through his writing, lectures and (from 1960) international travel, he advanced Australians’ appreciation of wine and food and helped to promote the wines of the Hunter Valley. He celebrated the influence on Australian tastes of pre-World War I Italian families, noting, ‘we learnt that eating food and drinking wine went hand in hand’.

Walker had married Agnes Mary Monica Coll on 15 January 1927 at St Brigid’s Catholic Church, Coogee. In December 1978 he was appointed MBE. He died on 28 March 1987 at Potts Point and was buried in the Catholic section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. His wife and their daughter and two sons survived him; one son had died in infancy. The family holds Garry Shead’s portrait of Walker.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 2 May 1978, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April 1987, p 2
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 24 December 2003, p 39
  • J. Glascott, ‘A Table of Delights: The First Fifty Years of the Wine and Food Society of New South Wales (1939-1989)’, http://wineandfood.org.au/NSWnsw/nswhistory.htm, accessed 15 June 2010, copy held on ADB file
  • L. Evans, McWilliam Winegrowers A Centenary History, Evans papers (typescript, c 1985, State Library of South Australia)
  • private information

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Walker, John Keith (JK 'Johnnie') (1905–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walker-john-keith-jk-johnnie-15883/text27084, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 November 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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