A Very Special Day At Kalimna
by PHILIP WHITE
photography by RICHARD HUMPHRYS
IT WAS a day that belittled other days.
Of course Peter Gago, the current chief of Penfolds was there, an eager host, apologising for fluffing the speech he’d written on a plane that morning, as he never normally reads speeches because he doesn’t need to - he can enthuse about any aspect of the mighty Penfolds ship without reference to notes.
Penfolds purchased Kalimna at the end of the war, and in 1945, when Davoren returned, he was sent to live there in the elegant stone farmhouse in which we sat. “But back to the early days,” Beckwith said, giving us just a moment to realize he meant the thirties - before Penfolds owned any Barossa vineyards - and not the forties. “I nearly didn’t survive Lesley Penfold Hyland’s rules. I never smoked in the winery; only in the lab. When he came into the lab and asked ‘Ray, what’s that running?’ I said ‘I’ve just put out a cigarette, Mr.Hyland,’ he looked at Alf [Scholz] and said ‘Send that boy home. I won’t have him.’ ”
Heavy: The Penfolds crew in the lab in the fifties. Left to right: Murray Marchant, Gordon Colquist, Ivan Combet (father of Federal Cabinet Minister Greg Combet), Perce McGuigan (father of Brian and Neil), Jeffrey Penfold-Hyland, Max Schubert, John Davoren, Don Ditter, Harold Davoren (John's father) and Ray Beckwith. Ivan Combet's father was a winemaker, too, at Minchinbury before him.
He spoke of the distant locations from which Penfolds then took their fruit, and referred to the favourite varieties of the day: Grenache, Shiraz, and Mataro, in that order. They made mainly fortified wines, not only popular in the market, but capable of surviving the Australian summer, which was right at that moment sending beaumé levels past the thirteens in the ancient vineyards outside.
“My father had a hardware store which depended on reclaiming swamps along the Murray for the dairy industry, but there was no room for me there. So I studied wool classing at the then School Of Mines, and eventually got a letter saying I could get work at Plumbago Station. That was my first stride into the big world.”
“Colin Haselgrove and Roger Warren at Hardy’s Mile End treated me so well. They took me sailing. Colin took me into his home. We’d go to Balfours in King William Street and he’d get crayfish and mayo at 2/8d. They introduced me to sparkling wine in the basement at Currie Street. One day they gave me a sparkling Shiraz to disgorge and I came out looking like a blotch of vermilion.
“What about the natural yeasts? A small dose of SO2 suppressed their activity, then a two per cent addition of my culture to the freshly-pressed musts meant I could clear the tanks in five days instead of seven.
When the first International Shiraz Alliance - dumb name; it was a symposium - was held in the Barossa in 2004, this writer was contacted by James Lindner of Langmeil Winery. The stupid cost of the show prohibited most of the most exciting young small wineries from partaking, so they sought to mount a sort of fringe lunch event at a rock bottom spend, which they asked me to address. I suggested it was time somebody asked Beckwith to explain himself, and that's what happened. I shall never forget a table of Frenchmen from the south sitting with tears dribbling down as they listened to the great 92 year old matter-of-factly stand at a lecturn, and outline, for the first time in public, some of his discoveries.
"This is impossible," a Languedoc bloke muttered to me. "We use his formula every day. We have never heard of him. And he is here."
Much of the belated acknowledgement of Beckwith's achievements came through the constant niggling of that brilliant nerdy wizard Ian Hickinbotham (left), son of Allan Robb Hickinbotham, the founder of the Roseworthy wine science college. Hick Jr had heard his father speak of Beckwith; eventually they worked next door to each other, when Hick was at Kaiser Stuhl. Methinks some of that oath of secrecy may have softened at the boundary fence: Hick reveres Becky to this day. In the face of the Penfolds code of silence he harrassed the industry bodies and protocol wallahs of government until Beckwith finally began to be regarded.
In 2008 Beckwith noted of the attention he was suddenly getting “All these things have come only after the last few years. It’s a good thing I didn’t conk out earlier, otherwise I wouldn’t have known!”
A CLARIFICATION FROM IAN HICKINBOTHAM:
Regarding 'pasteurisation', I didn't get help from Ray (in fact, he had been warned off his friendship with me, which was really based on his respect for my father: unbelievable, when you think about it).
Extract (which really is the crux of it all) explains:
We relied on filtering to successfully remove the very active yeast that had made the ‘sparkling’ component by secondary fermentation, the same principle used by Orlando, but our effort was in vain. In about two months, we had to take back some 2000 dozen bottles from Burings, because yeast had re-activated and multiplied in bottles as a flocculent sediment.
At that time, I speed-read a lot of engineering as well as technical wine magazines. I read a letter in an American magazine by an important Professor Marsh, pondering why sparkling wine makers did not pasteurise in bottle as did Spumante makers of Italy.
Pasteurising was, and still is, almost a dirty word in our wine industry and was dismissed because of association with the cheap wines of Europe. However, the thrust of the article was that, because of the gas content in sparkling wines, the temperature needed to achieve pasteurisation was quite low. I decided to trial the technique. At the same time we encountered some luck: the local cannery had failed and we were able to buy pressure retorts from the receiver, offering £1000 to ensure success.
Roger Blake, our Technical Manager, had made sparkling wines for McWilliams Wines in New South Wales and he had an enormous capacity for work. With two old pulp filters, which were pressure vessels of a sort, we added temperature recorders, also from the cannery, and began searching for the critical temperature and the time necessary to hold the wine at the temperature at which we could achieve pasteurisation. Blake successfully established both the temperature and time at which we could ensure the killing of all yeast cells.
Note: The temperature Blake established - only 73 degrees, and the time, 45 minutes.