I had, for example, always been of the belief that Beckwith had given Max Schubert his job, but could never reconcile this with the fact that the infamously cranky Alf Sholz had first employed Max.
Revolutionaries: Ray Beckwith, left, Alf Sholz and Max Schubert
Sholz, the manager of Penfolds Nuriootpa winery for 47 years, was impressed by the craftsmanship of Max’s father, Carl, a blacksmith, and offered the son some work running messages and looking after the Penfolds Nuriootpa winery Clydesdale. Max was a natural with horses, but like, er, his cars he preferred the fast ones to the industrial haulers.
Following is a transcript of part of my conversation with “Becky” on March 1st, a week after his 100th birthday. We had been talking about his revolutionary work cleaning up the winemaking at Penfolds Nuriootpa after his brilliant discovery that pH manipulation would limit bacterial spoilage, and save unbelievable amounts of money for the Penfold-Hylands.
But Becky started with a discussion of Roseworthy College, where students worked the farm on certain rostered days of the week. You couldn’t make wine until you knew how to run work horses.
“I was glad of the practical experience on the land,” he said. “Hands on. And particularly working the horses. They’ve all got their personality you know. And I know with taking an eight-horse team you’d get up for about half past five to groom them and put the winkers and hames and collar on them. And you’d go down to breakfast then.
“I might add that one horse, he was a big upstanding horse, of course they were all Clydesdales, big upstanding Clydesdale, and if you didn’t watch out he’d put his front foot on top of yours. But he wouldn’t put his weight on it. He was just showing who was boss.
“Of course our vet was very good. He taught us in handling those horses ‘Put your hand on the shoulder, and if he moves you go too. Or else on the hip bone.’ So all these things, these little tricks, they count.
“So we’d have these eight-horse teams. I rather enjoyed that. But on some occasions, the team’d be a bit skittish. Somebody hadn’t handled them properly the day before. But after a little while they’d all settle down and so you’d go … ”
PW: When did you first meet Max Schubert? He was before you there [at Penfolds Nuriootpa winery]. He was in the stable, wasn’t he?
RB: Yes, that’s right. He started here as a lad. He used to feed the horse. I know that was one of his duties. And get samples. But he had left for Magill when I started in 1935.
He’d already gone?
Yes, but it wasn’t long before I’d met him. I might add that in those days, Penfolds wineries were separate entities. They didn’t combine. But there it was.
So having got through that problem, we’ve solved it, and put the [Nuriootpa] winery in good shape, but then the winemaker at Magill left to go to another job in New South Wales. Well. Ted Mead was the South Australian manager, and he wanted me to go to Magill to take that job.
As a winemaker?
As a winemaker. But I didn’t want to go. My wife didn’t want to go. And the manager here didn’t want to lose me. So we came to a compromise, and I would travel to Magill three times a fortnight. And believe me we had a bit of correcting to do.
Sgt Max Schubert AIF, Cairo, in the early days of World War II.
Down there. And the first thing we did was, with the approval of top management, was appoint Max Schubert as winemaker at Magill. He was the assistant to the blender, Alfred Vesey. So that was that. And then John Davoren, who was managing Kalimna, we transferred him to Magill to take charge of the fairly newly-acquired Auldana winery --
Which was just across the road --
Yes. Of course John Davoren was eminently suited to that. He’d grown up in the vineyards on the Hunter River, with his father was manager. He’d grown up with vines. After he returned from the war he went to Great Western, and did sparkling wine --
So you both had a bit of sparkling wine experience?
Yes. So with that behind him, he could manage Auldana, and we shifted all the table wines from Magill over to Auldana, and John carried on with building up the sparkling wine.
Now back at Magill, I was confronted with 50,000 gallons of flor base wine. Spanish flower. Flor base wine, and it was on the way to spoilage. Now I had to decide, ‘what am I going to do with it?’ … I could have put it through the still and that’s that. But it would have represented a monetary loss. Now I’d read from some of John Fornachon’s writings that under certain circumstances the flor yeast, the surface-growing yeast, will revert the process -- the oxidation process reverses -- so I thought ‘well I’ll give this a go.’
So I did my best and we cleaned up that wine to the best of our ability, we put it onto flor with Max Schubert looking after it, and lo and behold, we could market that wine without any real problem. And thinking back, we did all that. I didn’t tell anybody. You’d just go and – well, we did it.
Max told me once that he used to put flor yeast on red wine, and then cook it.
And use it as a base wine, in the Grange in some instances –
I wasn’t aware of that.
He showed me a -- well it was like an old gas bottle: it looked like a rocket -- he’d put the flor yeast on, it must have been very high in aldehyde, red wine, high aldehyde, then boil it, and then use that as a cordial …
Oh well, I wasn’t aware of that …
I think that machine will be still there somewhere. Nobody would know what it was. But sorry, I interrupt. Keep going.
Ray Beckwith having a quiet centenary resiner with the author. Photo Richard Humphrys
Well anyway that was the 50,000 gallons that we’d saved and were able to market. And then of course there was a lot of white wine that had been affected. So working with John Davoren and blending with some good wine, and going through the sparkling process we could market that, so we could clear that up.
All this took a long time. And then we come to the red wines. Well there was a whole swatch of them. They were not marketable. Not good enough. They’d been affected with bacteria. Mostly the acetic bacteria. And so I was making wine up here, with a low volatile acidity, and sending it down there, and we’d blend. But it took a long time. It took about three years to clear the deck. And we cleared it: we cleared the whole lot. And as I said we did all that but we didn’t tell anybody. So that was all sorted out.
So do you think that's what influenced Max’s tendency to like a bit of volatile acidity in the Grange?
Oh yes, I don’t … he does like that.
-- and Davoren didn’t like it --
And [Max] was of the opinion, as was the chief in Sydney, that it gives the wine, er, ‘vinosity’.
Yes. That’s right. So that was that. And after, Oh, say three to four years, I just pulled out. I just stopped going. And I’d only go to Magill on invitation then. If they wanted me for something. So er, ha. That ends that chapter.
Some explanations. John Davoren was aghast when Max first showed him Grange at Magill. It was brash, modern wine, with more raw American oak than anybody’d ever used. Max was soon balancing his act on managed amounts of acetic, or volatile acid: the acid of balsamic. If you let it, it will bloom in your wine, and after a risky peak, fall in a vinegary hoik. But in modest levels, it gave Max's edgy raw wine a built-in illusion of complexity and age.
So Davoren went back across the road to Auldana and made St Henri, using a recipe first developed by the great French winemaker, Edmund Mazure (pictured), in the 1880s in George Burney Young’s St George cellars at Kanmantoo.
Mazure’s secret was to ferment and keep the wine in 500 gallon oak vats for at least five years before bottling. One of the early St George Kanmantoo Vineyard Clarets was awarded the gold medal for Best Wine In The World at the Paris Expo staged to open the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889. It appears that wine was very much in the style of the St Emilions of the day, but was likely a blend of Cabernet franc, Shiraz, Grenache, Malbec and Mataro. That's an original label below.
The Rocket was actually a machine Max invented to hasten the influence of flor yeast on fino sherry base. He’d pack it with oak shavings cultured with the flor and trickle white wine through it, eliminating eighteen months of flor maturation in oak barrels. He made millions of gallons of sherry this way. It appears I am the only person he told about putting red wine through it.
To read an account of Ray's 100th birthday lunch, including his riveting speech, click here.