Ellis graduated as Dux of his winemaking course from Roseworthy College in 1971 and began his illustrious winemaking career at Krondorf and Yalumba wineries. In 1974 John went to the Hunter Valley to become the foundation winemaker at the newly established Rosemount Estate. Within two years John had put Rosemount Estate on the map internationally and made a name for himself as one of the young Turks of the industry. The next move came in 1978 when John, with his wife Ann Tyrrell, went to Echuca on the Murray River in Victoria, to help establish the Tisdall Winery. Tisdall quickly became a high profile and successful brand in the seventies and early eighties, enjoying something of a cult following.
Whilst finding the time at Tisdall immensely rewarding, John and wife Ann had for some time cherished the ambition to make a world-class sparkling wine, in the style of famous Champagne houses Bollinger and Krug. To do this John and Ann chose, in 1982, to establish their own winery at Hanging Rock in the very cool (ideal for sparkling wine grapes) Macedon Ranges Wine Region of Victoria. In 1985 and 1986, while establishing the new winery, John served as Executive Officer of the Victorian Wine Industry Association and then served as a VWIA committee member with early responsibility for developing Victoria’s Geographic Indicators program to define and register new and existing wine regions.
In the face of some criticism from their peers – accusations of copycats and not striving to produce a definitive Australian sparkler, the Ellises triumphed. The fact that a premium sparkling was not going to sustain them in the short term, meant that other wines were needed to fill out the portfolio. This lead to Jim Jim Sauvignon Blanc, which quickly gained a reputation as one of Australia’s best. So, now the portfolio had two premium whites and what it needed was a premium red to balance things out. Enter, Heathcote Shiraz.
John and Ann flirted with the idea of the Mt Camel Range as a sensational place to plant Shiraz. John Ellis was already making Mt Ida Shiraz for Leonard French and Dr Jim Munro. At that time, in the 1980s, there was little suitable land for sale in the Heathcote region. However there was an established vineyard available for lease, located on the southern slopes of Mt. Camel to the north of the Heathcote township. The opportunity to take on an established vineyard, and a good one at that, was too good to pass up.
The first ever Hanging Rock Heathcote Shiraz was the 1987 vintage, released in late 1988. And what a vintage it was, immediately claiming Gold Medals and compared with the current release Grange Hermitage by the Wine Press. And so the legend was born. Every subsequent vintage through to 1992 produced more great wine and added to the swag of awards. Hanging Rock Heathcote was now well established as a top Australian Shiraz and something of a cult wine.
Ann Ellis often says that she is very glad that her husband never worked for her father. Ann has two creative and determined men of the wine industry in her life, she is Murray Tyrrell's daughter. She was not only born into this business, the fourth generation in this famous winemaking family, but has worked in it all of her life. Ann has worked as personal assistant to Don Ditter of Penfolds. Penfolds also sent her to Adelaide for a time where she worked with Max Schubert and John Davoren. At the time when the whole Australian wine industry was shaking itself into new life and vigour, she was Cellar Manager at Bulletin Place for a chap called Len Evans. Today, as ever, John Ellis continues to work vigorously for the development of Wine and Food Tourism in Victoria. He is currently Chairman of Tourism Macedon Ranges and in March 2005 was invested as a Legend of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. In 2007 John received the Tourism Victoria Award for the Most Outstanding Contribution by an Individual.
In 2007 John received the French Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry's French Flair Award. This award honours those Australian individuals, organisations or companies who have made an outstanding contribution to the fostering of French- Australian relations through his work with numerous young French winemakers. John is currently a Board Member of the Winemakers Federation of Australia and Chairman of the WFA's Small Winery Membership Committee representing the interests of small wineries. In addition to being a senior judge on the wine show circuit for many years, John is currently Chairman of the Royal Hobart Wine Show and a Show Judge at both the Rutherglen and Perth Wine Shows.