Friday 6 December 2019

The 2019 Maurice O’Shea Award: Robert Hill Smith’s speech in full

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It is dry July and thankfully McWilliam’s and the Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference have snuck this event in to disrupt the best laid plans of the god botherers and the wellness gospellers. I want to assure all of you that I didn’t embark on a Tom Gleeson strategy of winning this Logie nor will I use the event or the award to sully its reputation.

To be the recipient of the Maurice O’Shea means a lot to me, it will mean a lot to the family and it will mean a lot to all Yalumbaites. I loved Campbell Mattinson’s book, The Wine Hunter. I made my Yalumba team read it. They loved it. I wish we’d met him. He was a giant in our game and I only wish the current generation of winemakers and sommeliers knew more about people like Maurice O’Shea. He was gentle and kind and he had a great palate and a great sense of humour though he was shy, but once he trusted you, as Campbell noted, he was very generous. He educated true wine lovers and, to be frank, he really knew what tough wine growing and winemaking was all about. I think it’s wonderful that since 1990 the McWilliam family have honoured Maurice O’Shea in this way. I’ve also been privileged to taste many of his wines – thankfully I still have a few and they really are testament to the possibilities of greatness that we have at our fingertips in Australia.

There are many ways to share with you how I feel about this recognition. Obviously honoured. Pretty embarrassed. Exhilarated, excited, humbled, reflective. And especially also when I look at the last 18 people and or entities, corporations, brands that have been honoured in this way because you reflect and you salute them.

We are here tonight and at the AWITC because of the many pioneers in all their forms – with names that should be ingrained in every snooty sommelier’s mind in Australia and across the world. O’Shea really was a gem, but he was also a hipster before the word was invented. He blended Pinot and Shiraz. He labelled wines Hermitage Light Dry Red. And they’ve lasted until this very day.

I think in doing that we shouldn’t forget the many others – the McWilliams, the Hardys, the Gramps, the Angoves, the Wiltshires of Tasmania, the Seppelts, Cullens, de Purys, Cullitys and the fabulous late Col Campbell. All of our world, all moulding our wine reputation. We also should salute the boundless energy of one Leonard Paul Evans, the sharp determination of Halliday, Croser, Angove, Laffer and the wonderful lady, Hazel Murphy. We all owe them a world of thanks.

I’ve been lucky. I’m sure nobody out there – 443 of you, I believe – would disagree. I was born into wine, but I also happen to like its taste. I have loved it ever since my father Wyndham gave me my first glass of Yalumba Claret and Appelts Lemonade. I was nine years old. I didn’t analyse it. I was barred from other glasses until I was sent to boarding school when I could do it in secret without the lemonade, of course. Why wouldn’t you love wine? It’s global and it’s a wonderful fraternity. In fact we are all here as a family. There are some dubious genes in the place, but ultimately we are all a wine family. Our family is a wine family. AFD is a banned acronym in our house.

The world of wine is unique. It is so deeply integrated and attracts all sorts. Forget about varietal, gender and stylistic diversity, what about people diversity. What other game can attract so many different types – lawyers like Halliday, accountants, gamblers, doctors, cads, bounders, rebels, dreamers and pompous twits. But they are all part of our game and we engage them with such alacrity. It is fraternity of true believers and persistent optimism. Just have a look around your table. We are one big family with all the same problems that a large gene pool delivers, but we can laugh together over a decent bottle of wine. And that is a privilege.

It has changed so much. Once it was a lifestyle, certainly I don’t think O’Shea would have said it was a lifestyle, but for many of the older families in the game back to the 19th Century, it was a lifestyle. When I joined it we drank five bottles of fortified for every bottle of table wine. We threw port corks away at lunches. Stupidly we also drove home. But culturally we are lucky – the wine world has become part of the Australian psyche and our lifestyle. And we’ve come an incredibly long way. I can’t get through an address like this without invoking an Evanism because Evans wrote for Roy Rene and put a spin on hospitality at the time and the reality that 99 percent of work was profitless prosperity and our lifestyle. He penned the quatrain to the waiter who said, “What will you be having, Sir,” quietly picking his nose.

“I’ll have two boiled eggs you bastard, you can’t put your fingers in those.”

We have progressed. It is littered with characters and don’t we all need them. We have spawned an optimistic, exciting industry full of fun, challenges, disappointments, exhilaration and interminable bullshit.

Everyone here in our game has had our mentors and we need them and so does the next generation. My father, Peter Lehmann, Len Evans, Peter Wall and Brian Walsh. All have encouraged me to embrace wine, but never with pompousity. As Evans would say, be generous, never celebrate pomposity and meanness. Grow the cake, don’t eat it. Today I think we’ve seen all the worthy things backed by professional framework we as the wine world are privvy to. Wine Australia, Australian Grape & Wine, ASVO, the AWRI and all the regional associations, we have a world class framework. And we should embrace it enthusiastically rather than throw stones. With all that we need to recruit and retain new wine consumers because the overfunded, public health lobby looms daily and dangerously, questioning our social licence to operate. And we ignore that at our peril.

Maybe we just need to get smarter on how to defend ourselves. I think we need to think smarter and how to get the next generation of consumers to become ambassadors and regular, considered wine drinkers. Because if we don’t, we may suffer from a rebellion against our own complexity. If we talk wine, I think we should keep the language simple, aspirational and make it fun. Because then we have a chance to make it relevant.

We also need to make great wine and recruit those believers. Our greatest wines are not supported overseas as they should be and I believe our time will come but the reality is we are not a part of that elite club and we’ve got elite wines but yet I don’t think the collectors, the knowledeable connisiours of the world see us as being a member of that club. We know we are, but perceptions are reality.

Our family has long believed it is our responsibility to serve our industry and get involved in it, give to it, not take from it. Indeed in my own time I have done in the early days with Hazel Murphy and selling wine overseas, working alongside the likes of Chris Hancock, Ross Brown, Gerry Hargeaves, Ian Huntley and many others, celebrating 10-case orders, gathering at a pub at night sharing our stories and giving each other leads. I’ve done my pouring and dancing in kangaroo and wombat suits in San Francisco helping Chuck Heywood out with tastings. Spent endless hours talking to MW’s as they’ve dozed off after a long English lunch. And I’ve taken a lot of sticks from the likes of Halliday, Evans, Richard Gregory Trott, Lehmann. And they’d always say to me, “What are you doing, what are you giving to the industry?” And I would tell them, even if it took 30 seconds or five minutes. And they would say, “That’s not enough, you’ve got to do more. Do more!” I’d say ok, I’ll do more. Then I’d meet them again and tell them what I’d done and they’d say, “No, you’ve got to do more.” But I’ve got to say that with all that, it has been a great driver.

The reality is that wherever you go in the world representing Yalumba, you are representing Australia first. And as I’ve written here and I don’t mean it unkindly, you can find yourself in a bar with a Kiwi or a South African where your patience can be tested, but you never know, you are still an ambassador for Australia and playing for Australia first and foremost. I’m very proud and thankful to so many at Yalumba, my own family, the late great Peter Wall, Louisa Rose, Nick Waterman, Brian Walsh, Geoff Linton and a myriad of others for their unselfishness. The truth is without them I would not be speaking here tonight. We’ve done our bit I can say over the years. We’ve built a trebuchet for Trott, we’ve helped out with the screwcaps evolution, from the early, early, early days with ACI and LBM out of France. We’ve worked on form-fill and seal theory and we’ve contributed in a myriad of other ways. Sponsorships galore, Tasting Australia, the Murray Bridge Racing Pigeons Association, the Angaston Hotel Ping Pong Club. We’ve been there. We’ve been a proud member.

Maybe it’s just my grumpy head, but I must say to the wider world of influencers, not many of whom are probably here, that to ignore the great historical wine names of Australia is to reinforce a latter-day snobbery that we can do without. Maybe it is my grumpy old head but I just can’t get my head around the plethora of wine lists in our wonderful eateries across our nation that refuse to showcase quality and Australian wine history in favour of unknown, overpriced, underwhelming wines from here and overseas in favour of margin and mediocrity. The great names of Australia and their labels are the very assets I think they should be saluting and endorsing with a nod to the pioneers of our wine history, not blocking them at the gate.

At Yalumba in our 170th year of family ownership our challenge is to morph from an old, grand, safe perception to an authentic, iconic, stylish and adored wine brand. No small challenge, let me assure you. But we have a great team, we love wine and we aspire to making great wines of conviction with all its Australian personality. I’m sure one day we’ll get there. A bit like Riesling – maybe not in my lifetime, but it will happen.

I want to thank everyone for this honour, for your tolerance in listening to this. I want to thank the generosity of the late Don McWilliam for conceiving of this award, which I think really is respected – until tonight, possibly. The six generations of the McWilliam family have made a continuous contribution to what we have as a wine fraternity and I hate using the word industry, but it is there, the wine industry today, they have been true believers in hugely generous terms in giving back. And I salute them and I think we all should, the wines tonight on the table have been superb. So congratulation­­­s to them.

And as I said before, the older I get the better I was. It’s onwards and upwards. Glory to Australia and its wine. Go you good thing. Thank you all.

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