“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland)

Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin

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26 February 2012

RAY BECKWITH'S 100TH BIRTHDAY PARTY

Ray Beckwith and Thelma Schubert

A Very Special Day At Kalimna
The Man Who Wrote The Book
Gets On His Feet & Holds Forth
by PHILIP WHITE 
photography by RICHARD HUMPHRYS


IT WAS a day that belittled other days.

Not for its heat, which was the shimmering enamel blue Australian summer sort, nor its location, in the elegant old Kalimna homestead George Swan Fowler built beside his 1888 Block 42 Cabernet vineyard at the northern end of the Barossa Valley.

It could be seen as a big day for the people it drew away from their desks and vintage toil, or indeed their retirement: the cream of the Penfolds winemaking corps, past and present.  It could be regarded as a great day because of the delicious food Anne Oliver prepared, or the venerable and rare wines consumed.

No. The things that set that perfect day apart had to do with the manner in which humans of exceptional category can put their status aside to devote undivided respect to one they regard as beyond them: another whose achievements, intellectual dash and determined élan cannot be matched however they try, as those things have no need to be repeated, but only respected.  Indeed they are done, and they have forever improved the lives of the rest.

And it had mostly to do with the simple humility of Ray Beckwith, whose century of achievement we celebrated at that bright table.

Thelma Schubert, Sandy Coff (daughter of Thelma and Max Schubert), Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago, Ray Beckwith and the author.

92 year old Thelma Schubert, the elegant widow of Max, the creator of Australia’s most famous wine, was there in her wheelchair, embarrassed and apologetic that she’d hurt a foot and that the pressure bandage her nurse had applied lacked the elegance and grace due a lady of her standing on a day of such moment.

86 year old Don Ditter, the chief winemaker who took the Penfolds’ reins in the same year that Beckwith retired (1973), had come from his own retirement in Sydney to be there.  It was the first time I’d seen him, in the half a life since first we met, without an impeccable blazer and tie.

John Bird, the venerable winemaking rocker abbot of the Penfolds Magill Estate was there too, gingerly removing his own tie in gratitude of the good sense of his old boss.  It was very hot.

Retired Penfolds red master Rod Chapman was there.  All the pepper had gone from his thick mane, leaving only the salty silver.  And retired lab man Kevin Schroeter too: one of Beckwith’s stalwart assistants through all those decades of discovery in the Penfolds lab at Nuriootpa. 

And coming and going, as vintage had begun, was the throng of bright young things responsible for the great Penfolds wines we shall be drinking for the rest of our lucky lives. They all looked so big and strong and goddam healthy, and they sat in awe with the oldest of us.

Penfolds winemakers and staff old and new surround Thelma Schubert at the Kalimna homestead in the northern Barossa ... an unforgettable lunch came next.

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.

Somehow he felt that a speech fit for Ray’s 100th must be written.

Once Peter had completed his tribute and introduction, and it was time for the great old man to speak, there was no further need for notes.

“Don’t get up,” we urged as Beckwith levered his walking stick to hoist his ancient bones from his chair.  “Sit down, Ray.”  Most would not have minded if he chose to do little more than pass his gratitude.

“I can get on my feet,” he insisted, and did without much ado.  It must be a travail to have lived such a tall and upstanding life to eventually find one’s bones subsiding within one’s skin, but unless you hug him with unnecessary enthusiasm, as I recently did, Ray never winces.

“Careful Philip,” he warned on that occasion.  “It’s only bones in there now.” 

So speak he did.  As he launched, humbly, but with the clarity of the confident who have no need to gild any lilies, I couldn’t help comparing his complete trustworthiness to the savage megalomania and hubris which was that morning tearing our Federal government apart. Young bodies wasted on ignorant bully brains.

“It’s good to be here,” he commenced, having made his thanks and reminding us it was eighty years since he returned to Roseworthy College to commence his twelve month cadetship to study cultured yeasts.  He had already won his Honours Diploma in Agriculture; now he had his sleeves up.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” he said.  “I feel nostalgic to come here, because when John Davoren and Margaret came here to live my wife and I came here to welcome them.”

Ray Beckwith and his late wife Coral at his Penfolds retirement dinner in 1973.


Davoren was the Penfolds Hunter Valley wine ace who rekindled Edmund Mazure’s 1880s recipe and consequent brand name to create St Henri Claret in a traditional stylistic response to Max Schubert’s radically brash Grange in 1953.  Davoren’s father and grandfather had worked before him at the Upper Hunter winery at Dalwood.  He was manager of Penfolds Minchinbury at Rooty Hill, when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force and headed off to fight the Japanese in the Pacific.  

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.’ ”

It was very much in Mr. Hyland’s interest to have the eager young chemist in his lab, however, and fortunately for Penfolds, and wine lovers everywhere, Beckwith survived. 

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.

“There were some good wines made,” he said, “but there were terrible losses through bacterial infection.  No cellar would admit to having a diseased wine, but the reality was that some wineries had twenty per cent spoilage and some forty per cent so they said ‘Well let’s say we have a 25 per cent loss'," a vagary which reminded me very much of the reluctance of today's winemakers to admit the scale of the damage wrought by moulds in 2011.

“It was the Depression when I graduated from Roseworthy,” he continued.  “I rode through the gates on a bike.  I had been considering attending university, but Professor A. E. Richardson said ‘Forget university – get a job!’ A job? In 1932?

“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.”

Plumbago is half-way between the outback towns of Hawker and Broken Hill, about forty kilometers north of the Barrier Highway at Manna Hill.

“We shore 30,000 sheep in six weeks on eight stands,” he said.  Ten years ago he drove his V12 Jag back up there through the dust to have another last look.  “They still had the same mattress on my bed,” he chuckled.

“When I got back [from the shearing] there was a letter from Roseworthy offering me a cadetship at ten shillings a week.  That 1933 year we had a record vintage at Roseworthy: 2,400 gallons.  I was in the lab with Alan Robb Hickinbotham.  He unveiled the mysteries of pH.  I was always curious.  It was in the soils and it was transferred to the wines.  I did trials on the fermentation efficiencies of controlled yeasts.  That was very important in those days of fortified wines.  The higher the alcohol you could achieve before fortification the less spirit you needed and there was less duty payable.”

He then worked for a time on sparkling wine at Hardy’s city cellars.

Master Penfolds winemakers Rod Chapman (retired), John Bird, Ray Beckwith and Peter Gago swapping yarns, as winemakers do.  photos: Philip White.




“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.

“My yeast paper was presented to the Melbourne conference in 1934.  There was no money to send me to Melbourne so it was read for me there and consequently published.  Lesley Penfold Hyland spotted that and as they say, filched the young Ray Beckwith from Hardy’s.  Colin Haselgrove said ‘Ray, you take it.  There’ll be several years before we can offer you something like that.’ So as a young winemaker at age 23 on January 22 1935 I was at Penfolds with 105 twelve ton fermenting tanks.   I’ve got to look after those.

“The bacterial losses that the winemakers then put up with I just didn’t know what to do with so I gave Lesley Penfold Hyland a line drawing of a yeast propagation machine which he produced. I selected a yeast from Portugal. I called it A1.  It produced millions of gallons of wine.

Job done: Max Scubert hands Ray Beckwith his retirement watch in 1973

“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. 

“Natural yeast produced a foam which retained heat.  Nobody would admit to the huge amount of spoiled wines.  I kept thinking ‘Why would we make wines and then go back and correct them?’ Adding bits of spoiled wines gradually to new ferments got rid of some of it.

“In 1936 I was at the University of Adelaide with Professor Macbeth, who gave me access to his private laboratory.  It had a modern pH meter, an extremely expensive device but deadly accurate, because of its glass Morton electrode.  We didn’t solve anything but we got a working knowledge of pH and its effect on the behaviour of wine.  I came out one day onto North Terrace to find it decorated with thousands of flowers.  It was the hundredth anniversary of the state.

“I took a foolscap sheet and typed on it a very simple statement: ‘pH control may be a useful tool to control bacteria in wine.’  Later I was on the Murray Bridge train, and I went down to the end of the carriage so I could sit on my suitcase, outside in the fog.  I was having a smoke, listening to that clickety clack under the dim yellow light, and I remembered I had a copy of John Fornachon’s sheet on the affect of lactobacillus on wine.  I took it out and told myself ‘I can use this!’  That was my eureka moment.  I told Lesley Penfold Hyland ‘I can crank this.’  I held up three brochures for pH meters and told him which one was the best.  It was the one with the Morton glass electrode.  It cost several times my salary.  He said ‘Get it.’ 

“I got the machine, so I had to set some standards.  I decided a pH of 3.8 was the maximum allowable in fortified wine.  I set to work and converted the whole place to that standard.  I didn’t ask anybody.  I just went out and did it.  That of course made a great difference to the company accounting.  A lot of people did a lot of good work, and that made a solid platform on which this big business can stand.

“So there you had the science.  Now you can have the art.”  He thanked everybody for their attention and said “I shall remember this day forever.” 

One candle per century: red masters Rod Chapman, John Bird, and vintage logistics officer Liz Nash watch Ray cut his 100th birthday cake.  "Never let the knife touch the bottom," he said, then blew the candle out with a very hearty puff for a lad who's been a bit of a smoker in his day.
 
Then he sat down.  Realising he could justifiably continue for hours, but this was lunch, he left us dangling in 1936.  There was little need to go on with the detail of his subsequent 37 years of brilliant research and development at Penfolds, most of which was kept highly secret, which must have frustrated him terribly.  (Max Schubert, who had no qualifications, had to make, promote, and sell wine.  He could say anything he liked. But his wines were utterly dependent upon Ray’s secret, methodical science.) 

We knew he could have explained his vital role in developing fining agents and his leading pasteurization work that Ian Hickinbotham refined next door at Kaiser Stuhl, revolutionizing Australian sparkling wine.  He could have gone on about his new technologies in quality control, his inventions and methods and discoveries in chemistry, microbiology and machinery.

He could also have explained how his forensic yeast research, combined with his pH discovery and his insistence upon an accurate meter to measure it, made possible Ian Hickinbotham’s deliberately induced and managed malolactic fermentations in the Wynn’s Coonawarra Clarets of 1952 and 53. Like the pH discovery, this was a world first. 

No need to go on.  There was fellowship at hand. Which we had in buckets.

Beckwith opening the extensions to the Penfolds Nuriootpa winery grape reception facility in 1972, the year before his 
 retirement.

In spite of him virtually inventing the winemaking recipes used internationally to this day, Beckwith was afforded little recognition until very late in his life.  He had been sworn to the stifling secrecy that dominated the Penfolds industrial culture until Ross Wilson and his SA Brewing bought the wineries of The Adelaide Steamship Company from the beleaguered John Spalvins in 1990, and even then it took years for Penfolds people to talk openly.  

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."

Exactement.

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!”

That special day raced off far too quickly.  The time came for the old man to head back to the modest Nuriootpa home he shares with his elderly son Jim, who’s been ill.  Ray still does his own basic housework; the laundry and stuff.  He gets a carer’s pension for looking after Jimmy, while the Penfolds vintage logistics wiz, Liz Nash, who lives nearby, keeps an eye on the both of them.

She probably has to tread a little warily. When asked the secret of his long and unprecedented life, Beckwith said “Secret? A good woman and a good red.  In that order.”

These are things he has in common with Max Schubert.  They are not a secret.

Two of the great noses of history: Beckwith, left, with Max Schubert in the old entertainment room at Magill, where the young White learned to grow a bit of a nose of his own, thanks to grand gentlemen like these. It was in this room, over a bottle of Max's darling Bin 60A that the conversation wandered around to the lasses.  Max sagely stroked that mighty hooter with his forefinger and said "You know I'm all in proportion, Philip."

TIMELINE: Dr Arthur Ray Beckwith OAM (RDA 1932)

1912 - Born at Cowell, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia; educated at Cowell and Murray Bridge Primary Schools and Murray Bridge High School
1931 - 1932 - Honours Diploma of Agriculture at Roseworthy Agriculture College in South Australia
1931 - Max Schubert becomes stable boy and errand runner at Penfolds Nuriootpa
1933 - Cadetship at Roseworthy Agriculture College
1933 - 1934 - Assistant at Thomas Hardy in Mile End, South Australia
1935 - 1960 - Assistant to the Manager at Penfolds Wines in Nuriootpa, South Australia
1936 - Discovery: “pH may be a useful tool in the control of bacterial growth”
1936 - Married Coral Lodge of Willaston
1948 - Max Schubert becomes chief winemaker at Penfolds
1955 - 1973 - Deputy Member of Council of the Australian Wine Research Institute
1960 - 1963 - Chief Chemist at Penfolds Wines 
1963 - Technical Supervisor for South Australia for Penfolds Wines
1964 - 1973 - Branch Manager Penfolds wines Nuriootpa
1973 - Retired from Penfolds
1973 - 1976 - Member of Council of the Australian Wine Research Institute
1980 - Inducted into Barons of Barossa
2004 - Speaks publicly for the first time of his scientific achievements to a gathering of international winemakers at Langmeil winery, Barossa
2004 - Honoris causa Doctorate, University of Adelaide
2004 -  Honorary life member, American Society of Enology and Viticulture
2006 - Maurice O'Shea Award
2008 - Medal of the Order of Australia
2010 - Award of Merit Roseworthy Old Collegians Association 
2012 - Damn fine lunch at Kalimna!  

Former Penfolds chief winemaker Don Ditter, Becky, the author and John Bird having a quiet resiner before Birdy took his tie off.


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.

8 comments:

TVST*R said...

If you're saying that nobody heard of this dude until he's 92 I'm impressed. Why aren't the rest of them like that?

longrun said...

the clarity of message within that wonderful b&w pic of our wine pioneers - the nose is all!

Anonymous said...

truly wonderful writing it's how history should be told

MOTIONAL said...

superb as usual

Anonymous said...

thankyou for a beautiful story about a man whose name should be right up there

Anonymous said...

Whitey, you are on fire! Great tribute and lessons to be learnt.

Anonymous said...

Whats that black thing hanging from your trousers in the last pic Whitey ? Is that your secret with the girlies ??

Philip White said...

Part of them.