McWilliams honours Jacob’s Creek with the Maurice O’Shea Award

Since its start in 1990, Mc Williams Wines’ Maurice O’Shea Award for historically significant contributions to the wine industry has been won by individuals: Max Schubert was the first winner, in 1990, followed by Len Evans, Ron Potter, and David Wynn.

McWilliams Wines stunned four hundred dinner guests at Sydney’s Regent Hotel this year by a magnanimous handing of the O’Shea Award to a competitor’s successful brand, Jacobs Creek.

In accepting the award on behalf of Orlando-Wyndham (owner of Jacobs Creek), Chief Executive Perry Gunner praised marketing man Stephen Couch and wine maker Robin Day for keeping the twenty-year-old brand fresh in the eyes of consumers and maintaining quality through years of phenomenal growth.

Well-deserved praise indeed for an Aussie brand selling 1.5 million cases a year overseas and half a million here at home — a big wine brand on a global scale.

Mr Gunner, unfortunately, failed to match McWilliams’ magnanimity. Not the slightest acknowledgement went to former Orlando-Wyndham chief, Gunther Prass, for his role in the birth of the brand in 1976 and its subsequent success.

In an interview with Gunther in 1991, he recalled that in the mid 1970s Orlando had been looking for a range of mid-priced, new-generation table wines. Of a handful of now defunct brands released together at the time (remember Lyndale Riesling and Fromm’s Moselle), Jacobs Creek Claret was the sole survivor, achieving volumes dreamed of by every wine company.

Chief Wine Maker for Orlando, Robin Day, assembled the early Jacobs Creek blends with technical director Mark Tummel. The two successfully created a red that went against the style trend of the time: instead of being big, tannic, and slightlty oxidised, Jacobs Creek offered drinkers fresh, generously-fruity soft drinking. These characteristics were made possible not just by wine-making techniques but by the arrival of high-quality fruit from a vast new vineyard area at Padthaway, an hour’s drive north of Coonawarra.

Thus, Jacob’s Creek Claret always had at its core ‘a nucleus of cool-climate fruit’ to use Robin Day’s words. That nucleus quickly grew and in 1977 included, for the first time, a significant proportion of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz from Australia’s foremost red growing area, Coonawarra. The 1977 went on to pick up several gold medals against far more expensive competitors. I seem to recall it retailing in Canberra for $1.99!

In those early years the brand was developed on a small budget by Martin Bullock, Mark Swann, and Stephen Couch in Orlando’s marketing department. They were assisted by Orlando’s very strong distribution base. But finally, high quality was at the heart of the brand’s explosive growth in Australia, then in New Zealand, and now in the U.K. where Orlando-Wyndham claims it is the No. 1 selling wine brand.

In the early eighties, Prass and his team decided on a little brand extension, the marketeers jargon for atttaching a successful name to a new product. Thus were born over several years Jacobs Creek Rhine Riesling, Nouveau, Semillon Chardonnay and Chardonnay. (From memory the chardonnay came after Prass and Tummel had moved on to Hardys).

Under Prass’s leadership, Jacobs Creek prospered and became a leading brand here and overseas. Does it denegrate the present custodians of the label to acknowledge his seminal role? Shouldn’t he share some of the industry applause?

The morning after the awards, I visited McWilliams Mount Pleasant Winery in the Hunter Valley. It was here the legendary Maurice O’Shea worked from 1921 until his death in 1956. O’Shea originally owned the property but stayed on after McWilliams bought a stake in 1932 and moved to full ownership in 1941.

Under Phil Ryan, the quality of Mount Pleasant wines, some made from vines planted by O’Shea, moves steadily upwards after what I see as a lull during the 60s 70s and early 80s.

It’s now a cliche that the wonderful McWilliams Mount Pleasant Elizabeth, a bottle aged semillon, is one of the great bargains amongst Australian whites. And the Mount Pleasant and O’Shea Chardonnays of recent years show terrific flavours, beautifully combining oak and fruit.

Watch, too, for the Mount Pleasant 1991 shirazes — spectacular reds that come along in the Hunter only once a decade. The O’Shea blend is especially good and should cellar for a few decades.

Perhaps the greatest treat of all, though, will be the release later this year of McWilliams Lovedale Semillon 1984. This is perfect Hunter semillon, so rich, mature, dry and delicate. It comes from a vineyard planted by O’Shea back in 1946 and in the past was released as Anne Riesling.