Obituary - Dr Ray Beckwith OAM
23rd February 1912 - 7th November 2012
While the future King of England and his Duchess avoided being seen to be drinking on a state tour of the Penfolds Grange winery at Magill on Thursday, my good friend Ray Beckwith, that company’s great wine scientist, died in an old folks’ home in the Barossa.
Beckwith was a genius.
And he was a hundred years old.
He didn’t even make the news.
Always a stylish fellow, Beckwith wore a perfectly-cut suit, with French cuffs on his shirt, and he ran an impeccable laboratory all his working life at the Penfolds winery in Nuriootpa.
He was always supportive, always curious, always thinking of better ways to do things. He loved to sit back and drink good wine and he was master of polite, bright, constructive discourse.
He could nut things out.
Ray Beckwith was born at Cowell in 1912. His dad made water tanks with a Scandinavian sailor who’d jumped ship from a grain cutter and knew about curving galvo perfectly. Ray was really pleased with the way they’d make three tanks which fitted neatly within each other to keep the transport costs down. They worked in silence – the sailor knew no English.
While he was still a primary school kid, the Beckwiths moved to Murray Bridge, where his dad sold hardware to blokes who were clearing the Murray mudflats for dairy farms.
By 1932 he had his Honours Diploma in Agriculture from Roseworthy. “It was the Depression when I graduated,” he explained at his 100th birthday. “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!’ In 1932?
“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 ... We shore 30,000 sheep in six weeks on six stands … When I got back 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 Allan Rob 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.”
Beckwith worked on sparkling wine in Hardy’s Currie Street and Mile End cellars, until Leslie Penfold Hyland heard his yeast paper read at a Melbourne conference, and offered him a job.
“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.”
Bacterial spoilage of wine was rife throughout the industry. It was common for 20-40% of all wine made to end up in the gutter or the stills. Beckwith isolated a Portuguese yeast which improved things by speeding the ferments, but was still frustrated by this plague.
“In 1936 I was at the University of Adelaide with Professor Macbeth, who gave me access to his private laboratory,” he would recall. “It had a modern pH meter, an extremely expensive device but deadly accurate, because of its glass Morton electrode.
“The intention was to see if there was any correlation between total acidity, pH and taste. I also tried the effect of various acid additions on the pH in wines. The means of adjusting pH was by Tartaric Acid, a natural constituent of wine.
“The results were graphed. Two were completed with dotted lines, and the third? The Professor had drunk my samples. Out of courtesy, I gave him a copy of my findings. I could claim no direct correlation of total acid, pH and taste. But John Fornachon had been engaged by the Wine Board to research Sweet Wine Disease, and I'd read his preliminary paper. 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.’ To me that was prophetic.
“We didn’t solve anything but we got a working knowledge of pH and its effect on the behaviour of wine. I remember coming out one day onto North Terrace which was decorated with thousands of flowers. It was the hundredth anniversary of the state.”
On the train home to Murray Bridge, Beckwith had a brainwave which would change winemaking world-wide. Forever.
“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 Leslie Penfold Hyland ‘I can crank this’ ... I broached the subject of acquiring a pH meter, telling him my vision of control. I held up three brochures. ‘Which is the best?’ he asked. I told him the best was the Cambridge unit with the Morton glass electrode ... ‘Get it,’ he said. I was impressed. It cost £100. My salary was £5 a week.
“To put the proposition into practice, I had to adopt a suitable pH level. Here I was in unknown territory. Using Fornachon’s raw data as a guide, I proposed a pH of 3.8 as a maximum for fortified wine.”
Penfold Hyland maintained an almost paranoid regime of secrecy in his company, and Beckwith was forbidden to speak of his discoveries, a fact which irritated him til his death. He would laugh with irony about being permitted to attend the horse races, provided he never talked to other winemakers. But gradually his ideas leaked, and that magic formula has since become the standard for winemakers all over the world.
When Ray started at Penfolds Nuriootpa, the local blacksmith’s son, Max Schubert, was stable boy and errand runner. It was Beckwith who convinced the Penfold Hylands to promote him to the position of chief winemaker in 1948. Within a couple of years, Max was scheming notions of his super-red, and in 1952 the first commercial Grange Hermitage was released.
Somehow, amidst all the brilliance and excitement of his 1936 discoveries, Ray had found the time to marry his sweetheart, Coral Lodge. A few months ago he recalled her with relish when he suggested the secrets of a good long life were “a good woman and good red. In that order.”
Ray’s astonishing list of discoveries and inventions continued throughout his working life: he tackled, and solved many problems associated with metal contamination, stability, oxidation and so on. From 1955 to 1976 he gave much time and energy to the Australian Wine Research Institute. He retired from Penfolds in 1973, when Max Schubert handed him his gold watch. In 1980 he was inducted into Barons of Barossa.
In 2004 Ray spoke publicly for the first time of his scientific achievements to a gathering of international winemakers at Langmeil winery in the Barossa, and in the same year was awarded his Honoris causa Doctorate at the University of Adelaide and was made an Honorary life member of American Society of Enology and Viticulture.
In 2006 he was presented with the Maurice O'Shea Award, and in 2008 the Medal of the Order of Australia. The Roseworthy Old Collegians Association gave him an Award of Merit in 2010.
Perhaps the best encapsulation of Ray’s attitude to his achievements came at the end of his famous Langmeil Speech, when he suggested his generation had unraveled the science of winemaking, so younger winemakers could now get on with the art of it.
“Many years ago Franz Liszt was asked to what he ascribed his success as a pianist and composer” he concluded. “Lizst said ‘There are three things. First, technique. Second, technique. Third, technique.’ I have paraphrased Liszt’s reply: there are three important things in winemaking. First, is vigilance. Second is vigilance. Third, you guessed it, is vigilance. Thankyou for your attention, and bon appetit!”
Ray is survived by his son, Jim, grandchildren, Samantha, Glen, Ian, Ross and Portia, and great-grandchildren, McKinnon and Ainsley.
Ray Beckwith's Langmeil Speech August 2004
Ray Beckwith's 100th Birthday speech
Ray Beckwith: who employed Max Schubert?
|Ray Beckwith, his son Jim, and the author ... photos Milton Wordley|