“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)





16 October 2012


Ray Beckwith opens the mail ... photo Milton Wordley
Winemaking - The New Wave
A Speech by Ray Beckwith
Langmeil Winery 1 August 04


The Barossa staged a huge international Shiraz conference in 2004.  Because the cost was prohibitive, numerous small-scale winemakers simply could not afford to attend, so they held a sort of Fringe luncheon event at Langmeil Winery.  When James Lindner asked me to address this, I suggested that they should best invite Ray Beckwith, who was then 92 years of age.  I knew Ray was fit and well, but could not be sure that he’d agree to talk of his amazing life in wine, as he’d been sworn to secrecy by the fusty old Penfolds regime.  Fortunately for that rapt international audience, Ray was happy to speak.  He cruised in driving his V12 Jag, slung his sports coat over his shoulder, and strode into a room full of Shiraz winemakers from all over the world.  I have compiled this account using Ray’s original notes -- perfect copperplate, of course – and my notes of a few moments when he improvised, like when he said that at 92 he felt he could finally talk with impunity.  I am delighted that I finally found this important document after foolishly misplacing it years ago.  Philip White  16 October 2012

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thankyou for your invitation and welcome.

I feel at home amongst today’s winemakers.  I will remember them as perfectionists and optimists who defend their ideas passionately.

They’re always aiming at that perfect wine; that Nirvana.

I had a local hospital procedure last month at which they put the question:

“Do you have any allergies?”

My answer: “Yes.  Bad wine.”

I have chosen to speak a little about the science of winemaking, and a little about the art of it.  There can be all sorts of views; maybe controversial.

For the science side it was suggested that I talk of the early history of pH as a central mechanism in the growth of lactobacillus.  I know I’m preaching to the converted, but some of you may not be conversant: pH – small p, capital H – is about Hydrogen ion potential.  It’s a measure of the “active acidity” ... pH3 to pH4.

In the 1930s the wine industry was plagued by “Sweet Wine Disease”.  Nobody knew what to do about it.  It caused a lot of stress and financial loss, especially with our UK shipments.  This is the time I became involved here in the industry in 1935.  Dealing with faulty wine from earlier vintages was a challenge.  It was a very steep learning curve.  We tried all manner of treatments.  Some just went to distillation.  But the most successful was the refermentation of the older wines with must from later vintages.

It was important to be able to market the wine, but of greater importance was to adopt preventative measures.

What could we do about it?

Let’s look at the sequence of events in my experience.

At Roseworthy [College] Alan Hickinbotham interested me in pH.  At Penfolds, that interest continued. At Adelaide University in September 1936, in the day of Professor A. Killen MacBeth and Dr S. W. Pennywick, the Professor let me use his private laboratory and the latest Cambridge pH unit.  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 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.

I was travelling home to Murray Bridge on the Melbourne Express.  It was a crowded train, and I was sitting on my suitcase in the dim light at the end of a carriage, listening to that clackety clack, when I remembered I had a copy of Fornachon’s preliminary report in my pocket. He described the influence of various factors on the growth of bacteria: SO2, alcohol, tannin, acids, pH, et cetera.  I noted a clue there, and the penny dropped. I knew I must follow this up at work.   

So back at work, I made enquiries about pH meters.  Leslie Penfold Hyland visited and I broached the subject of acquiring a pH meter, telling him my vision of control.  I held up the 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. This proved okay over many years.  Other standards were developed for flor sherry, dry red and dry white, and, with fine-tuning only, stood for many years.

The means of adjusting pH was by Tartaric Acid, a natural constituent of wine. 

So that is a bit of history.

Before I leave this topic, a few random thoughts:

In those early days, secrecy was common among the larger wineries.  That offended me!  Thus the above findings were not published.  Other winemakers have told me that it was years before they caught on to what I had done.  As far as is known, this application of pH to bacterial control was the first in the world.  The work I did in 1936 was duplicated by a team in California in the mid-1980s.  The conclusions were similar.

So while I had been sworn to secrecy by my employer, at 92 I think I can now tell you, speaking of it for the first time publicly, what I did all those years ago, when pH was almost regarded as a load of rubbish to be thrown out the window.  I think of this today when I drink those luscious sweet whites, like Rutherglen Tokay.

There’s been a complete change in the exchange of information since those early days, which is all for the better.  Look at today’s functions, here, and elsewhere around the Valley – it’s a testament to that change.

I have gone to some length concerning the history of pH control, but there were many other problems to be solved, such as metal contamination, stability, oxidation and so on.

I like to think that my generation created an infrastructure for succeeding generations to build on, and get down to the real task of winemaking.


As we know the making of good wine starts in the vineyard, where great advances in management have been made over the years: such as canopy management for exposure to light and disease control; soil, water, crop limitation and so on.

Winemakers have their own styles. Hypothetically, say we had a vineyard of even quality fruit and three winemakers were asked to make wines from those vines.  The chances are that there would be three distinct wines. In making wine there is a multitude of decisions to be made and each one has some bearing on the finished wine.

Examples are: at what stage of ripeness will the grapes be picked?  To define “ripeness” can be the subject of debate!

At the winery: how much skin contact prior to fermentation; whether to settle and clarify white juice; the type of yeast used … for red wines, to plunge the skins, or use false head or rotofermenters … and the frequency?  The temperature of fermentation. Decisions on the malolactic fermentation, and so on.

This is what I call “The Art Of Winemaking”.  There is no hard and fast recipe – a judgement comes into play and the winemaker is trying to project forward to what the wine is likely to be. 

Because of the time constraint in-between courses, I have touched only briefly on this subject, but it IS THE ESSENCE OF WINEMAKING.

So we have science and technology on the one hand and art on the other.  To use an analogy – I think these are complementary – science gives the understanding – the BODY – while ART gives the SOUL to a wine.

Body, art and soul - Alfred Scholz, general manager of Penfolds Nuriootpa, pours a Great grandfather Port for Ray Beckwith, left, and Max Schubert in the 'sixties.
The winewriters now so evident play an important role in the sense of being a bridge between winemaker and consumer.  In their role of entertainment and giving information, I am sure we can allow them some poetic licence.  They accent more the art of winemaking.  Maybe the science remains in the back room.

In conclusion, wine, being organic in nature, is still subject to the ills of the past.  The same yeasts and  bacteria that caused such problems and losses are still with us.

A good motto is “Do not take anything for granted. Check. Check. Check.”  That constitutes a common thread in winemaking over the ages: the need for attention to detail.  

Many years ago Franz Liszt was asked to what he ascribed his success as a pianist and composer. 

“There are three things, he said.  “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!  

For more recent news on Ray, who's finally delivered himself into care, click here.


Rick Burge said...

For many years, my father Noel (R.D.Oen, Hons., 1938),
used to say he could not understand why Max S. got the publicity when Ray B.'s contribution was greater, yet now we know of the secrecy. My father said that pH awareness in Australia was paramount, both then, with fortifieds, and now with table wines. Just as a great photographer will re-assure themselves with a light meter, a pilot with an altimeter and a guitarist with a tuner, the pH meter gives a valuable insight into the season's potential greatness or otherwise. Australian wine has been a huge winner from Ray's work.

Blondie Atlanta said...

LOVE! What a charming brilliant human being. You are so fortunate to call him a friend all these years. Cheers Mr. Beckwith!