Barossa’s Bob McLean – Larger Than Life

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Barossa wine identity Bob McLean spent a lot of time over the past two years organising yet another community initiative – the Australian launch of the 26th Willi’s Wine Bar Paris Poster.

The venue was the Pheasant Farm, where Bob started The Wednesday Table, the last of which was held 21 years ago.

Bob died in Angaston Hospital on Thursday 9 April, 2015 – a week before the lunch.

He was 67. The show went on, and became a celebration of Bob’s life. His mate, Rod Schubert, revealed his poster, declaring, “A little bit of sophistication and a lot of rough edges”.

He could have been talking about Bob. Bar owner Mark Williamson was there. They auctioned a complete set of 26 posters and Tanunda cooper Peter John bought it for $36,000, with the money going to Foundation Barossa.

Job done. Another boost to the community that Bob was so engaged in. He told great stories. A one-time bouncer, Bob said, “I’ve never been a writer or a creative, but I know a story when I see it and I can talk and make people listen. A six-pack of Heineken and an ice bucket… my favourite way to get a meeting started.”

Bob was at St Hallett’s 70th birthday in September last year, and some of the best stories involving him are documented in a book launched on the night, written by his friend, Peter Fuller, called St Hallett Stories. Bob was in reflective mood in that book.

“Sure I’ve made mistakes – I could have spent more time with my family. That’s the sacrifice I made. But I am now surrounded by children and grandchildren and couldn’t be happier. I read a quote once: ‘If I became the man they all wanted me to be, I’d only be half the man I am’.”

And this about his ability to light up a room: “I knew I was a bit out of my depth. I used to be pretty nervous when I’d walk into a room, so I’d make a bit of noise to cover that up.” Bob called himself a “survivor”. “I can’t be a corporate raider. I just wasn’t brought up that way.”

Carl Lindner gave Bob 49 percent of St Hallett’s. Bob killed the apostrophe ‘s’ and Rod Schubert painted some art for the label. Bob bought a company car – a 1980 Burgundy-coloured Jag. He bought one for Stuart Blackwell too; same colour. He bought a third one for spare parts. During the pilots strike Bob loaded the Jag with 25 cases of Cab Merlot and SSB and drove to Melbourne to woo the trade. He put the Jag on the train and did the same in Sydney. Then drove home to the Barossa. During vintage he would rock up at dawn with a box of Apex pasties for the workers. When Peter Lehmann was ill, Bob drove him to Adelaide numerous times for treatment.

“Integrity is the thing you learn from your mother, not business school,” he said once. Bob saw the good in people.

“In a bar someone would say ‘I don’t like that person over there.’ And I would say ‘In that case it is best we get to know them’.”

Good friend and publisher Paul Clancy once wrote a magazine column that mentioned Bob – ‘Sir Lunchalot’ – often.

“I know the eulogies about Bob will be the predictable stuff the wine industry is good at – deifying its celebrities into false legends. He’ll be described as ‘larger than life’, a ‘marketing wizard’, ‘raconteur’, ‘bon vivant’, maybe even ‘bullshit artist’ and the cliche of them all, ‘a baron of the Barossa’. And he was all those things, no doubt about it. In fact, he cultivated that persona. And he’d love it all,” Paul said.

“But Bob lived in parallel universes and the one away from wine industry celebrity is where I knew him best. He was an ordinary, good bloke who was a generous mate and who loved nothing better than to be away from it all on one of his beloved wooden boats, Poacher, then Bessie, holding court with a few mates, a glass of red and a hunk of Schultz’s fritz, a great whack of Apex crusty bread and (wife) Wilma’s tomato chutney running between his fingers.

“There’d be an eclectic mix of music blaring in the background – anything from Willie Nelson, Queen to the Chieftans. Everyone talking rubbish. McLean loved the Barossa and loved the industry in which he was a giant in so many ways. But he loved his family, his farm and his friends much more. I’m sad today because a good man has gone too early. I’m sad that he didn’t get the opportunity to enjoy some of the fruits of his labour in setting up McLean’s Farm on Mengler’s Hill. He at least deserved that.”

Photographer Milton Wordley, who published A Year in the Life of Grange, interviewed Bob a week before he died, for his new blog. That’s when Milton took this black and white photo. It has been published in numerous blogs.

Just hours after Bob’s death, a letter from the grave was on Barossa Dirt. “I was never really a star at anything,” Bob wrote, “but I participated in everything. That’s the secret. You don’t have to be a star. Just participate.”

About 800 celebrated Bob’s life back at the Pheasant Farm – a week after the Willi’s lunch. Having two lunches was apt. At the family’s request, phones and social media were banned.

“It was a nod to Bob’s penchant for working the room,” a friend noted, “so we worked the room, not the phones.”

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