Wine Australia wows Sydney

Australia’s wine industry set up shop in Sydney last weekend. Between Saturday and Tuesday 270 wineries, representing 40 wine regions from across Australia, dispensed wine and information to 20,000 visitors at Darling Harbour exhibition centre.

By the time Prime Minister John Howard officially opened Wine Australia at 11.15 am on Saturday, exhibitors were thoroughly primed by three days of pre-event dinners and functions including the Wolf Blass Foundation International Wine & Health Conference.

For some, the starting gun cracked on Friday night when Len Evans hosted the annual McWilliams Wines Maurice O’Shea Award Dinner. 570 guests squeezed into the Regent Hotel Ballroom to applaud as Australia’s most celebrated wine award went to Hazel Murphy, a London-based Yorkshire woman for her part in lifting Australia’s presence in the UK wine market from almost nil 10 years ago to around 8 per cent now.

The Award was named after the extraordinary Maurice O’Shea, founder of Mount Pleasant Winery and wine maker there from 1921 until his death in 1956. O’Shea was a perfectionist, crafting fabulous reds many of which still drink well after half a century in bottle.

In winning the award, Hazel joins a humbling list of previous winners including the late Max Schubert (Grange and red-wine making techniques); Len Evans (everything); Ron Potter (wine-industry engineering innovations); the late David Wynn (Coonawarra, Adelaide Hills, flagons, the wine cask); Jacobs Creek (Australia’s first large-scale global wine brand) and James Halliday (wine maker, author and show judge).

The O’Shea dinner, booming exports, and Wine Australia coincided with a new wave of takeovers within the Australian Wine Industry – Rothbury and Coldstream Hills both having gone to new owners during the week, following prolonged takeover bids.

At the O’Shea dinner, Len Evans announced the completion of Foster’s grab for Rothbury Estate, of which Len was chairman and a major shareholder. In Len’s words, “I shall be at Cessnock CES next Tuesday seeking the position of Chairman.”

Len also announced that Coldstream Hills – an even smaller public company than Rothbury and headed by James Halliday – had finally passed to Southcorp Wines.

On the perils of going public, McWilliams Chief Executive, Kevin McKlintock (heading one of the few remaining big family companies) mused privately that whether you performed well – as Mildara Blass had consistently before its acquisition by Fosters – or poorly – as Rothbury had – you were a target.

Not that consolidation of ownership was an issue for those attending Darling Harbour the next day. Crowds surged through the display areas from the time the doors opened at 11am until closing time at 8pm.

For $30 a head Sydneysiders, overseas and interstate visitors (including many familiar Canberra faces), moved happily from region to region, tasting glass in hand, to sample what was undoubtedly the biggest and best range ever of Australian wine under one roof.

Exhibitors were generous to a fault. Top shelf wines were there aplenty. I saw Peter Douglas, Wynns Coonawarra Estate wine maker, dispensing the rare and wonderful John Riddoch Cabernet and Michael Hermitage. Across the isle Douglas’s Coonawarra neighbour, John Parker, served his magnificent Coonawarra First Growth.

Visitors tasted State-by-State, region-by-region, winery-by-winery — working around the continent, tasting a wide spectrum of wines from Queensland to Tasmania, from New South Wales to Victoria, to South Australia to Western Australia.

In the Vintage Cellars store in the forecourt, James Halliday, Jeremy Oliver and John Duval autographed books, while at other venues throughout the exhibition centre, numerous experts conducted well-patronised workshops, talks, etc on just about everything you ever wanted to know about wine.

The Prime Minister passed through rapidly, led by Len Evans. And Mildara Blass’s Hugh Cuthbertson was seen guiding Jeff Kennett through the outstanding Victorian display. Word is that Mr Kennett offered to double the space available when Wine Australia opens in Victoria in 1998!

Visiting UK wine writer Robert Joseph seemed stunned. “It couldn’t have been done better,” he told a crowd at Tucker and Company’s Great Australian Wine Dinner, held at the Opera House. “No other country could have put on this show because the wine makers would never have joined forces.”

This collaboration, Joseph said, was unique in the world and was one of the reasons for our international success: “Your wine makers compete but share the task of improvement. If wineries don’t share, the whole thing could be pulled apart.”

More next week on what’s in store for wine drinkers in the next century.