Masters and Apprentices
The Australian wine story has been shaped by the genius and dedication of key individuals, whose influence is still felt today through the works of their protégés.
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton’s deferential words could doubtless be applied to all industry leaders, those of Australian wine among them. Oftentimes, however, it’s the intergenerational stories that steal the vinous limelight, enchanting us with the age-old rhetoric of knowledge and passion being passed on through blood. What we hear less of are the master and apprentice stories, the happy convergence of two people resulting in a material influence on the industry’s future. Today, Australia’s rockstar winemakers wouldn’t exist if not for the shoulders of the industry giants before them. So, who are the masters that lit the flame for Australian wine? And who were the apprentices carrying the torch?
THE LEGENDARY LEN EVANS
Australian wine will forever feel the waves of the Len Evans tsunami. Dubbed the ‘Godfather of Australian wine’, he’s largely credited for Australia’s ascension out of solely fortified wine into the formidable table wine industry we know and love today. At the time he got his hands on the industry, Australians drank, on average, just over five bottles of wine per year, four of which were fortified. By 2006, when Evans passed away, Australians were drinking 36 bottles per capita, with nearly all of it table wine.
‘Raconteur’ and ‘orator’ are words synonymous with his name, one known for eliciting not only deep respect and admiration, but fear and insecurity. Evans’ galling swagger and supreme confidence might have thwarted his career trajectory, if not for him having the raw talent and fiery passion to back it up. “He had the unbounded confidence to set new directions and all the charisma and verve needed to inspire others to follow,” says Sally Evans, daughter of Len. “A big personality with a great sense of humour, he was much loved by most, though perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea.”
Born in England in 1930, Evans arrived in Australia as a bright-eyed 25-year-old and threw himself into jobs such as a dingo-fence repairer in Central Australia and a car welder in Mount Isa before hitting the hospitality scene. Having climbed Sydney’s hospitality ranks in the 1960s and with the vinous flame well and truly lit, Len began feverishly writing about this new-found passion, which saw him become Australia’s first regular wine columnist, penning ‘Cellarmaster’ for The Bulletin. From there, he set up the Australian Wine Bureau, which was critical in promoting Australian wine to markets abroad. He also opened a Sydney restaurant called ‘Bulletin Place’ where he introduced Australia’s winemaking fraternity to European wine.
He became an uncompromising wine critic and wine judge, going on to chair the Royal Sydney Wine Show for 25 years. He founded Tower Estate and started Rothbury Estate with Murray Tyrrell, and started Evans Wine Company to import Australian wine overseas. In his seventies, he founded the now hugely coveted Len Evans Tutorial to nurture young talent and assure the future of wine judging in Australia. All these significant endeavours share one common goal - elevating Australian wine.
The impeccable taste of Len Evans.
Len Evans (centre), with his great wine judge mentor Rudy Komon (right) and colleague Frank Morgan tasting wine.
An out-of-the-blue phone call from a young Canadian man called Jeff Byrne began a mentor and mentee relationship of great influence. “My wife Bridgette and I moved to the Hunter Valley in 2000 for my wife’s work,” says Jeff. Being in the Hunter, with a freshly approved work visa and a background in science, Jeff figured some work experience in the wine industry made sense. His encountering Len Evans, however, was a naive stroke of luck. “I was given a few names of local owners and managers to speak with for any job opportunities and one was Len Evans, who had just started his Tower Estate project,” he says. “I had no idea who Len Evans was and on a phone call I asked him what his role was - he confirmed he was the chairman. Half-jokingly I said ‘that position sounds alright’. He didn’t laugh and replied rather firmly ‘that position is taken’.”
Loathsome of mediocrity, Len sought only greatness in everything he did, whether it was winemaking, judging, teaching, or drinking. But beyond the brass veneer and silver tongue was a man of generosity, nurturement, and tough love. “I enjoyed so much about working for him, above all his generosity to share stories, unobtainable wines and knowledge,” says Jeff. “He expected hard work, excellence, and wanted you to grow your wine knowledge and palate. He did this by sharing amazing wines and testing you on what you thought of it, where’s it from and the pedigree... never easy! But amazing.”
I enjoyed so much about working for him, above all his generosity to share stories, unobtainable wines and knowledge
Masterful Dr John Gladstones of the Margaret River
There’s no doubting the beauty of Margaret River, with its coastline of other-worldly blues, its terrain of myriad greens and its spectral underground caves. However, you’d never have tasted a drop of wine from this awe-inspiring region if not for the research and influence of agronomist Dr John Gladstones. A specialist in lupins, viticulture was a side interest for him, though one that turned out to be monumentally important for Australian wine. Through his interest, Dr Gladstones identified the Margaret River region as one suitable for producing premium wine. He wrote two research papers in 1965 and 1966 suggesting of its many similarities to Bordeaux and its potential.
First to heed his advice was a group of medical professionals with surnames now synonymous with the region. Dr Kevin Cullen and Diana Cullen were first to pull the trigger, planting an acre in 1966 which didn’t survive. As such, Perth cardiologist, Dr Tom Cullity lays claim to having planted the first successful vineyard in Margaret River in 1967, now Vasse Felix. Not far behind was Dr Bill Pannell of Moss Wood (1969), David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle (1970), Cullen again (in 1971), then Sandalford (1972), quickly followed by Leeuwin Estate, Woodlands, and Voyager Estate. “John is the reason we are here,” says Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines.
Diana Cullen and her daughter Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines (Image credit: F. Andrijich).
His honest and enquiring scientific mind is an authentic gift to the wine world
Now an icon of Australian wine herself, Vanya was only a child when Dr Gladstones released his seminal findings and set her parents on the path. “His knowledge of climate and viticulture in Australia is unprecedented,” she says. “He and his wife Pat were friends of my parents, and the reason why they planted grapes instead of lupins.”
It didn’t take long for Dr Gladstones’ findings to be proven right, with accolades and awards raining down on the region not far into its journey. Cullen, Vasse Felix, and Moss Wood all won major awards on the wine show circuit throughout the 1970s. In contrast to the slower build of Australia’s older regions such as Hunter Valley, Barossa Valley, and Yarra Valley, Margaret River shot to fame on the global stage.
“His honest and enquiring scientific mind is an authentic gift to the wine world,” says Vanya. “His book on viticulture and climate is the only book of its kind, and has created the most valuable source of information for Australian vineyards and climate. He recently updated this book - amazing at ninety years old.”
The early, heady days of Margaret River were shaped by Dr John Gladstones' researchers.
A SURE THING WITH PHILIP SHAW
The cool, high pastures of Orange in New South Wales have a long history of viticulture, but it was the planting of the 47-hectare Koomooloo Vineyard in 1988 and 1999 by Philip Shaw that put it on the map. A school excursion to Roseworthy at the age of twelve sparked the flame for Shaw, inspiring him to experiment with winemaking at home using lemonade bottles, raisins, water, and baker’s yeast. A mere two years later he was working in iconic South Australian wineries such as Penfolds and Wynns.
After graduating from Roseworthy in 1969, Shaw quickly climbed the ranks at Lindeman’s where he played a material role over a 13-year tenure before becoming head winemaker at Rosemount Estate in 1982. He took Rosemount to great heights, winning a long list of awards on the international stage for his winemaking prowess. Eventually, he resigned in 2003 to work with his now-mature Koomooloo Vineyard after years of selling the fruit. Philip Shaw Wines released its first commercial wines in 2004, going on to great success.
The rise of the Philip Shaw name made him a draw for young talent. Among them was Debbie Lauritz, current head winemaker at Robert Oatley Wines. “As I was perusing what available positions there were for assistant winemaker roles, one job in particular sparked my interest,” she says. “The job was based in NSW but would not provide any information on what region or what company, other than that it would be working with Philip Shaw. That was enough for me. I got the job and ended up moving to Orange and working for Cumulus Wines, for which Philip was the chief winemaker at the time.”
Philip’s mentorship of Debbie was one of supreme generosity with his time and knowledge, but also, and perhaps most importantly, his hospitality. “Even during the busiest weeks of vintage, you’d get a call to swing by on a Sunday afternoon to Philip’s place,” she says. “There could be five people or 50 people, Philip would bring out interesting wines to taste and discuss, cook up an amazing feast, and introduce new people to each other.”
Debbie credits Philip for instilling in her the importance of what’s in the glass, above all else. His advice always leant towards honesty. “Never go into a tasting with a preconceived idea, that this will be better or that will taste like so. Just because it’s expensive or from a particular region, doesn’t mean it will be good,” she recalls. “I remember an expensive Bordeaux came out and went straight down the drain before anyone really tried it. ‘Faulty, can’t drink it’ said Philip. He then raved over a neighbour’s $20 Cabernet blend.”
Philip Shaw Wines in Orange, NSW.
Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines.
THE BAROSSAN KNOWLEDGE OF Robert O’Callaghan
Mention Rockford Basket Press and the image of a brown, angular-shouldered bottle flashes into the mind of any wine lover, its label popping with red and gold vine leaves that gracefully adorn a gnarly old Barossa vine. It’s a label that causes a Pavlovian-like response, but rather than salivation, it triggers the warmth of nostalgia. We have the tenacity, grit, and passion of Robert O’Callaghan to thank for these feelings. A man who refused to surrender in the cold face of adversity and pushed on with belief, not a penny to his name.
Despite the oversupply and ‘vine pull scheme’ doom and gloom of the 1980s, Robert O’Callaghan took a ‘lemons and lemonade’ approach and began collecting the treasure that was other men’s trash; crushers, pressers, pumps and whatever else he could get his hands on. Staying small and simple, Robert built strong relationships with the right growers and even stronger connections with his customers, facts that remain true today. But, despite this simplicity, he needed help. “I did not apply for the job,” says mentee and now-lauded winemaker, Chris Ringland.
“Robert telephoned me at home one morning in June 1988 and asked if I could come into the winery that day to complete a bottling blend that he was partway through working on,” he says. “I jumped at the opportunity and worked with him for the next 18 years.” Wine drinkers all over the world have been the benefactors of Chris’ learnings at Rockford over that time.
“Robert taught me how to make soft, full-bodied red wine that ages gracefully, sometimes for decades. Gentle handling, basket pressing. Ageing the wines most often in older barrels or vats. I have transplanted these approaches to my work in Spain.” Local knowledge, meet global impact.
The master and apprentice story is one that must carry on for the betterment of Australian wine. For now, however, raise a glass of amazing Australian wine to the giants whose shoulders we owe so much to.