Jimmy Watson trophy finally on track

The Jimmy Watson trophy is to wine drinkers what the Melbourne Cup is to once a year punters. We’ve all heard of it. There’s a buzz each year as the Melbourne show unveils the latest winner. And for the winner, especially if it’s a little known winery, victory can be a fast track to glory.

This year the coveted crystal and silver jug travelled to Tasmania for the first time, won by Nick Glaetzer for his Mon Pere Shiraz 2010, a blend from the Tamar and Coal River Valleys.

By my reckoning, it’s only the fourth wine in the trophy’s 50-year history to have been the final, bottled product at the time of judging. Until recently the line up was the domain of raw young reds not due for blending, let alone bottling, for many months. I detail below why this was so – and why it made the Jimmy Watson not only Australia’s best-known wine award but also its most reviled by critics, including me.

Even before recent changes to the class rules by the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria, and to the trust deed by the Watson family, bottled exhibits had represented an ever-greater proportion of entries. These had risen to 75–80 per cent of the total by 2009. The shift resulted from a run of earlier vintages, wines spending less time in oak, shifting the judging from July to October, and the show’s decision to admin two-year olds into the ranks.

This year, however, following sustained lobbying from within the industry and columns like this, the rules changed for the better. An RASV press release from June 2011 states, “New in 2011, the Jimmy Watson classes will accept bottled wines only and will continue to include one and two-year-old red wines. Wines entered into the Watson classes this year are eligible to be put forward by judges into other red classes, providing the wines with further opportunities to win varietal trophies”.

The latter change benefited Nick Glaetzer’s Mon Pere Shiraz, which went on to win a second trophy as best “Rhone style or shiraz”.

The trophy now rewards wines fundamentally different from those that triumphed in the early years – a shift from rewarding the big, bold and immature to the bright, fruity and approachable. It’s a natural progression. But it’s worth reflecting, too, on the trophy’s origins.

In 1962 Jimmy Watson, wine merchant, died. At his funeral, a hat passed amongst Watson’s loyal followers, raising funds to sponsor an annual “Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy” for the best one-year-old red wine at the Melbourne Wine Show.

There are those who still remember Jimmy with fondness – none more so than his son Alan as he presides, with his son, over the Jimmy Watson Wine Bar founded by his father all those years ago.

But somewhere along the way, the trophy took on a life of its own – a farcical, commercial life far removed from the world Jimmy Watson inhabited during his lifetime.

Alan Watson remembers his father as a wine pioneer – a man who cheerfully weathered the sneers of some fellow Australians for nothing more than encouraging the consumption of table wine with food. In those days wine was just plonk.

Bill Chambers, maker of superb Rutherglen fortifieds and long-term chair of judges at the Melbourne wine show, once told me that he recalled Watson’s Wine bar in the late 1950s. There were bottles everywhere as a leather-apronned Jimmy, a great showman, worked with two rubber tubes to bottle a hogshead of red before lunch – an enviable feat in Chamber’s view, and one Jimmy Watson was proud of.

In those days Bill Chambers worked up in the Clare Valley with the Stanley Wine Company. He remembers Melbourne Wine Merchant, Doug Seabrook, buying hogsheads of raw young Clare Valley reds, many of which he sold to Watson. By all accounts it was these vigorous young reds, and not only those from Clare, that interested him most of all.

In an interview some years back, Alan Watson told me that his father’s business was not originally a watering hole as it is today, but a bottle shop where the owner selected and bottled everything himself. But Watson’s great enthusiasm attracted a ring of disciples. They soon began bringing food to the shop and adopting a liberal interpretation of licensing laws that permitted patrons to taste wine before purchasing.

The clientele, enthralled by Watson, showman and extrovert, came from all walks of life. But with Melbourne University just up the road from Watson’s Lygon Street premises, academics and students swelled his ranks of followers. Eagerly they swallowed his message.

Dad tried to move the trade into another era”, reminisced Alan Watson. “He wanted wine to be seen as an everyday occurrence, something to be consumed with meals”. He also urged patience, encouraging customers to cellar the immature, purple, one-year-old reds that were the bulk of his trade.

Jimmy Watson was an educator of old and young alike according to Bill Chambers, long-time chair of the Melbourne show. “Students, professors, everyone brought their tucker down the road before heading up to Watson’s to drink wine. But he was a showman and I can’t remember him drinking much himself”.

Watson’s senior disciples, mostly academics and businessmen, gravitated to an upstairs room, eventually dubbed by Watson as “The House of Lords”. It was these most ardent and articulate followers who passed the hat at Jimmy Watson’s funeral, thus perpetuating his name in the Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy to be awarded to the robust, year-old reds he so loved.

For the next ten years the Jimmy Watson Trophy – now a household word amongst wine drinkers – remained unknown to wine consumers and of only minor interest to wine companies.

Bill Chambers judged in Melbourne from the early 1960’s. He recalls little fuss over the Watson Trophy until the Berri Co-operative’s success in 1973. Then, recalls Chambers, after an heroic celebration, winemaker Brian Barry boarded the plane carrying the Murray River’s first major trophy.

Perhaps we can link the trophy’s rise to fame more with Wolf Blass’s hat trick. He won it in 1974, 1975 and 1976 for his 1973, 1974 and 1975 vintages of ‘Dry Red Claret’. He renamed the wine Wolf Blass Black Label and used the Jimmy as its launching pad. He even proclaimed the triple victory on the neck label of his sparkling wine at the time.

Increasingly since then, to win the trophy was to harvest a windfall. For the hype surrounding each year’s winner virtually guaranteed a wine’s commercial success.

While no amount of hosing down seemed to quell trade or public clamouring for the winner, the fact remained that for most of the trophy’s history, the winning wine had not been the finished product.

This became the source of sustained and intense criticism, principally from those concerned with the integrity of show results. Awarding medals and trophies to unfinished wine simply magnified the chance of fraud, critics claimed.

Even the most meticulously honest winery blending a “representative” show sample across a range of barrels couldn’t say with certainty that what the judges tasted and what went into bottle were exactly the same.

The recent, welcome changes make this history and favour the continuing success of the fruity, easy drinking styles that’ve won in recent years. These are a long way from the wines that Jimmy Watson hand bottled in Carlton half a century ago.

While we won’t see inky, deep, raw wines like a one-year-old Penfolds Grange or Wolf Blass Black Label win the trophy again (as they have in the past), we can at last be assured that the Jimmy Watson winner we buy is the same wine the wine judges liked.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published 9 November 2011 in The Canberra Times