Fingerprints on History: The McWilliam’s Story
At the heart of the history of McWilliam’s Wines is a culture of innovation that’s not only ingrained in the company, but has rippled out through the wider industry.
Taste aside, why is wine so special? Is it because it’s the accumulation of much more than just simple liquid in a glass? Is it just where it came from and who made it? Or is it the sum total of its many essential components?
However elusive the answer to that question is, one thing is clear; when it comes to wine, history will always have a significant impact on the future.
Few families that have shaped the Australian wine landscape like the McWilliam family. The pioneering spirit that built the past has translated through six generations and has shaped a wine business that has innovation, drive and legacy stitched into its DNA.
The first steps of the McWilliam’s path were taken by Samuel McWilliam when he set foot on Australian soil from Northern Ireland in 1857. At that time, wine in Australia was well on its way, but it was all about fortified wine, and as there was no electricity or refrigeration, it was a tough and labour intensive way to survive.
However tough, wine became the future for the McWilliam family when Samuel travelled up the Murray River with his wife Martha and family and settled in Corowa. He called his property ‘Sunnyside’ and his neighbours just happened to be another famous Australian pioneering wine family, the Lindemans.
“The family’s fate was sealed,” describes Samuel’s great-great-grandson, Jeff McWilliam. “Samuel took what learnings he could from his neighbours and set about making fortified wines on his vineyard.”
Second Gen Pioneers
Around this time, the fortified industry was under threat, with phylloxera decimating Victorian vineyards. Two of Samuel’s sons, John James (JJ) and Thomas had the foresight to move from Corowa with the intention of establishing disease-free vineyards.
Just before the turn of the century, the brothers established ‘Mark View’ a vineyard and property in Junee, just north of Wagga. A few years later, Samuel passed away and his three daughters, Eliza, Rose May and Mary, returned to make wine at Sunnyside, becoming among Australia’s first female winemakers, further cementing the family’s passion for wine.
JJ and Sons Blaze the Trail
In 1913, JJ and one of his four sons, Jack, took 50,000 of their vine cuttings and headed to Griffith and became the first in the region to plant and establish grapes. This move solidified the McWilliam name as true pioneers and innovators, as such, the Riverina is now an undisputed wine powerhouse, growing 15% of Australia’s total production.
When asked in a newspaper interview why he’d chosen this region, JJ said, “The Riverina offers all a man has ever dreamed of – sunshine, great soils and water.”
Here’s the thing, when JJ and Jack arrived in Griffith, it was pre-irrigation, yet the father and son team was so determined that this was the future of Australian wine, they spent months carting water to quench their nursery vineyard.
Growth and Innovation.
As the McWilliam family grew and set deeper roots in NSW, the business evolved and the innovative nature of the family flourished. JJ and Jack toiled away establishing their vineyards and building the winery, which was completed in 1917. The winery became known as Hanwood and remains today as the family’ primary production facility and is still the beating heart of McWilliam’s.
Hanwood was built next to a planned railway, so the wine could be easily transported to Sydney, but after the state failed to follow through on construction, Jack’s brother Doug decided to build another winery at Yenda, where the railway was eventually built. With a direct route to the Sydney market, further innovation was around the corner.
“With the growth of production came the need to sell more wine. Jack and Doug’s brother, Keith believed the family needed to build their brand, so Keith, a bit of a self-taught marketer, decided to take on the job,” says Jeff.
“He worked with wine merchants, opened our Sydney cellars, he had trucks with our name on the side, going over the top to build the brand and promote what is now packaged, branded wine.”
Keith also opened wine bars in Sydney close to the city and transport hubs.
“People tell me they remember the wine bar at Strathfield station,” says Jeff.
“They actually got off the train, changed to another train and had a port or a sherry on the way through.”
Jack’s youngest brother Glen also contributed to the family’s innovation by designing and building ‘The McWilliam’s Drainer’, wine equipment that separates the juice from the skins and is still used today in wineries all over Australia.
Glen’s many achievements include bringing new table wine varieties to the region and making Australia’s first botrytis wine in 1958, a style that is now synonymous with Australia’s identity.
Investing in the industry
At the turn of the 20th century the Australian wine engine was fuelled by fortified wines, but there were small pockets of table wines being made. One was in the Hunter Valley. At Mount Pleasant, winemaker Maurice O’Shea was crafting distinctive wines that Keith McWilliam saw great potential in.
As Maurice had little means of selling his wines, and needed finances to continue, Keith invested in Mount Pleasant.
Maurice O’Shea went on to produce some of Australia’s greatest table wines, inspiring winemakers to this day. McWilliam’s maintains O’Shea’s legacy by making wines that carry his name and in 1990 initiated the Maurice O’Shea Award. Presented to an individual or group that has made a significant contribution to the industry, it is regarded as the most prestigious award in Australian wine.
It is a rare thing that a company will actively reward and promote its competitors. But the O’Shea Award openly reflects McWilliam’s commitment to an industry they have helped shape for over 100 years.
+ McWilliam’s Dinner Series
McWilliam’s, in partnership with Selector, is hosting a series of special dinners reflecting its iconic history and the wines creating its future. Canberra in October, then Brisbane in November with more cities to follow. Visit wineselectors.com.au/events for more info.