Watson Losing Its Huge Wood
Biggest Trophy Most Confusing
by PHILIP WHITE
Jimmy Watson ran a restaurant and wine bar in Melbourne. He liked to serve good-value fresh young red by the jug or carafe. Upon the occasion of his death in 1962, his son and buddies organized an annual trophy in the Royal Melbourne Wine Show to ensure the wine bar had a good supply of such wine. The Jimmy Watson Trophy went to the best one year old red in the show – the restaurant would buy a barrel or two and serve it to the lucky clientele.
I didn’t drink this wine until the late ’seventies, by which time it was becoming a frail eucalypt-and-mudcake curio cursed by dodgy corks. I last drank it early in 2012: you could see some of the traces of glory there, but, as I say, the cork had brought it to its knees. If only Stoneyfell had a screw-capper in 1962!
The next year the big gong went to Coonawarra, to Mildara’s legendary Peppermint Patty 1962. This was a typical lighter style Coonawarra Cabernet: short of full ripeness, it reeked of the minty/eucalypty character of high foliage Coonawarra Cab from bush vines. Mildara went to great lengths to promote its victory; the Jimmy was gaining fame; the wine quickly sold out.
Max Schubert won the gong in 1964, with his Penfolds Bin 64 Kalimna Cabernet Claret ’63. This wine was much bigger and more intense than either of its predecessors, and must have been quite a bother to drink from barrel as a one-year-old babe. The next year, the judges went back to the true spirit of the Jimmy, and handed the big jug to Seppelts for their ’64 Great Western Shiraz, a lighter and more elegant wine than that Kalimna could possibly have been.
The meaning of the Jimmy went completely awry the following year. Max won it again – with a barrel sample of his 1965 Grange! Drinking a one-year-old barrel sample of Grange is more like sitting down to a bowl of ground-up road metal than slurping away at an easy young jug wine in a bistro. Sure, the wine may have been the best young red in the entire Royal Melbourne Wine Show, but it was never meant to be guzzled like a jug of Beaujolais. This strangeness was reinforced two years later, when Max and the Magill mob won it again with the ’67 Grange.
But it was in the intermediary year, 1967, that the weakness of the Jimmy Watson ethic became truly apparent. Awarding such a heavy gong to a barrel sample of unfinished wine left the faucet gaping for the sophisticators: Peter Lehmann and Brian Dolan sent in a barrel sample of Saltram Cabernet from 1966, and cleaned up. But before this wine hit the market, it was blended with Shiraz and sold as a Mamre Brook Burgundy.
People who never got to drink these wines at Jimmy Watson’s didn’t seem to care much about these strange errantries: wine shows were not the lavish promo/propaganda machines they have since become.
Perhaps the closest the Watson trophy got to its original spirit was in 1973, when the brilliant Brian Barry won it with a wine that was actually in bottle This was indeed a wine that was lovely to drink upon its release. It was one of the first big volume Australian reds made deliberately with a “cold soak”, in which the berries are left on their skins for a few days in a refrigerated tank. There is plenty of juice, but no alcohol. This permits the prettiest, most fleeting aromas, the lighter florals, to be absorbed in the must. These are water-soluble aromas, and are typically of the lavender and violet spectrum. As the tank is later let warm, the ferment begins, and then the alcohol-soluble aromatics, the more complex leathers and meats and jams and conserves, begin to evolve in the wine.
Brian’s delightful Jimmy winner came from the Riverland, at Berri Estate, and as I say, it’s perhaps the closest the trophy ever got to its original purpose. I last drank it in 2010, with Brian, at his birthday. Once again, its cork had not served it well, but for a while it showed a glimmer of the pretty young thing it had been when those judges nosed it in 1973.
This is still the only Murray Valley wine to ever win the Jim. Considering the entire basin is devoted to excess irrigation of vineyards designed to produce wines made to be consumed young, this is a devastating indictment of Australia’s vino-industrial complex.
The Watson went completely awry in 1974, when the John Glaetzer/Wolf Blass juggernaut took it away with another Langhorne Creek, but one absolutely stacked with minty eucalypt and sappy, sooty American oak. They did it three years in a row, with three consecutive vintages, and Mike Fallon, Blassie’s PR terrier, rung every inch of promo he could squeeze from that glamour gong. After that, the Jimmy jug was commonly regarded to be worth a cool million bucks worth of promotion and press, but it had absolutely nothing to do with wines meant to be drunk in a bistro as one-year-olds.
The brilliant Glaetzer's mantra at Wolf Blass thus became "No wood no good; no medals no jobs."
This seriously locked in the era when the Jim seemed officially to go only to wines that were completely overwhelmed by sappy raw oak. The on-again-off-again pattern set by Penfolds winning with hyper-woody Grange was now more or less etched into the handsome jug’s crystal. The freezing Melbourne show room reinforced this regime: it was so bloody cold for the judges that sappy oak was about all they could smell.
Once they'd won the Jimmy Watson, and released two new wines bearing its name, Ray "Silver Fox" King's Mildara marketers were all too eager to buy the front cover of Winestate, which I then edited. That's Jimmy on the wall, gazing down on the Mildara scam.
The perverse nature of the country’s major trophy going to an unfinished, unblended wine from barrel became most overt in 1982, when the Silver Fox, Ray King, dragged the gong off with a Mildara Coonawarra/Eden Valley Cabernet Shiraz blend.
Ray King's strictly non-identical twins made Mildara a vast amount of money. Below you can see Dr Bryce Rankine's rather brief summary of the whole smelly episode, published in the New Releases section of that June 1983 edition of Winestate. Rankine ran the winemaking school at Roseworthy College. I was rather more scathing in my editorial, "Is this a shambles or is it a shambles?"
King promptly released two wines. One, wearing a label never before seen, was called the J. W. Classic. This wine actually contained the barrel which had been entered in the show, along with a lot of other stuff. But it was released at the same time as another J. W. Classic, wearing a nearly identical label, but with a gold stripe across its corner, later followed by much stick-on bling in the form of little gold medals.
This wine was bottled in much greater volumes, and contained none of the wine which had won the trophy.
A. fter that, the Watson became little more than a dishonest rip-off and a sad emblem of how buggered the wine show system had become.
In 2012, the Melbourne show mob decided to make an attempt to get some of that bistro wine philosophy back into the Watson. They gave the gong to Bests of Great Western, for their tidy little Bin 1 Shiraz. I visited the winery a fortnight back in pursuit of a bottle or three.
The wine is elegant and easy, if a little tannic in the old “claret” style. I know it’s not the right variety, but the wine is close to a junior Bordeaux in its form, and goes rather dribblingly with juicy roast lamb and parsnips. It has little overt oaksap, and sports a tolerable alcohol level of 14%, if indeed the label is accurate. I rather generously pointed it around 92-93 with one plus sign, meaning it’ll be more fun in a year or two. Right now, it’s a jolly enough drink, beautifully made, and moderately priced.
But, seriously, if this was the best baby red in the whole Royal Melbourne Wine Show, Australia’s in the shit. One cannot help feeling that in their determination to get away from the jammy, gloopy, alcohol bombs of the last fifteen years, the judges have tried a little too hard.
The star international judge, former Wine Spectator editor, James Suckling, has just selected his top dozen wines of the year, from the whole world. He included this Best’s beauty, and has written the following on his blog:
"Most readers are not going to be able to find the Best’s Shiraz Great Western Bin 1 2011 (95). It was the top wine in this fall’s Royal Melbourne Wine Show, where I was an international judge. It won the prestigious Jimmy Watson Trophy. Regardless if you can't find it [sic], the wine underlines how the best Shiraz of Oz are [sic] no longer the undrinkable, monstrous, and jammy reds many think of. I found that all of the Aussie winemakers I tasted with at the RMWS despised such wines and judged them severely. Real Aussie Shiraz is balanced and refined, emphasizing drinkability and terroir."
A week or so back, Robert Parker Jr., the Maryland critic who was singularly responsible for our obsession with those gloopy alcoholic jambombs, packed up and sold his lucrative Wine Advocate business. It is indeed the end of an era.
But methinks that in our desperation to suddenly chase elegant styles the like of which everyone’s forgotten and a whole generation of winemakers have not yet made, we are repeating that old crime of mob rule.
While the anarchist in me sort of likes the perversity of Grange winning the Jimmy, let’s get real. If you want to drink a seriously beautiful wine of intensity and balance, stick to the Paracombe Ruben 2009. At $21, this delicious blend was in fact the highest-pointing wine in the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, whatever Mr. Suckling recalls.
Somehow, infernally, confoundingly, stupidly, it did not even win a trophy.