94-year-old Ray Beckwith wins O’Shea Award

Seventy-one years ago Australian scientist, Ray Beckwith, joined Penfolds Wines. A little over a year later, with the blessing of Leslie Penfold-Hyland, he purchased the company’s first pH meter.

Shortly thereafter he found a cure for ‘sweet wine disease’, a malady destroying about thirty per cent of Australia’s fortified wine — the industry’s then major export earner.

Ninety-four year old Beckwith recalled in Sydney last week, ‘there was at the time a code of silence amongst wine companies’ that discouraged a co-operative approach to solving industry-wide problems – and probably accounts for why Leslie Penfold-Hyland head hunted him from rival winemaker, Thomas Hardy.

It was a good call by Penfold-Hyland. The talented young Beckwith found a means of defeating lacto bacillus, the organism identified by fellow scientist, John Fornachon, as cause of the foul tasting ‘sweet wine disease’.

Prior to Beckwith’s breakthrough, Penfold-Hyland’s struggle against wine infection had not always been scientific.

In an interview in February 1992, Grange creator, Max Schubert (an employee at Penfolds from 1932 and still a junior when Beckwith arrived) recalled, “A tremendous number of experiments with Leslie Penfold-Hyland… for instance, he’d be out somewhere shooting quail or something. He’d come across a different type of soil and he’d pick up a handful, put it in a paper bag… he’d say try that in the wine. So I’d mix it with gelatine or charcoal and he’d use the soil or clay to take it down the bottom… to get rid of the terrible flavour…”

In the same interview Schubert said, “we started to get on top of this when Ray Beckwith… introduced pH to the company and, of course, from that time onwards we were able to control these bacteria… I think Ray Beckwith has never got the credit he should have for the work he did regarding pH”.

Suspecting that “pH may be a useful tool in the control of bacterial growth”, Beckwith tested his theories in September 1936 using Adelaide University’s pH meter – even after “Professor McBeth had drunk my samples”.

Enlightened by Fornachon’s work and equipped with a pH meter at Penfolds from January, 1937, Beckwith, with encouragement from fellow scientist and friend, Allan Hickinbotham, determined that the maximum pH in fortified wine should be 3.8 (the lower the reading the more protective the environment).

And to reduce pH he introduced the practice of adding tartaric acid – a natural component in grape juice. This was the key to defeating lacto bacillus and sweet wine disease. Losses after that were nil.

It was a profound insight and one that continues to benefit winemakers around the world. But it was just one of several major innovations that’ve made Beckwith prominent in the global wine science world.

Broader recognition finally arrived on Friday, July 14th, 2006 when Beckwith accepted McWilliams’ Maurice O’Shea Award in front of six hundred industry peers at Darling Harbour Sydney.

Recounting an amazing 75-year association with the industry, Ray commented, “Winemaking is a special partnership between science and art. Science imparts the understanding and body, while art imparts the style and soul. I am proud to be part of an industry that gets both the science and art so profoundly right, and I feel genuinely honoured that my role within it has been recognised… I like to think my generation created an infrastructure for succeeding generations, something to build on. I will continue to take great delight and pride in watching the Australian wine industry continue its pioneering work”.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007