“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)





21 April 2015


Big Bob McLean at our last long lunch together before his liver packed up ... tucking into his favourite tomato pizza at Roaring 40s in Angaston last year ... photo Philip White

Sir Lunchalot rides right on out:
Big Bob dies of liver cancer after 43 years preaching wine gospel

The Old Lion was thumpin'. One boofhead clocked somebody and swung at somebody else. A huge man lumbered through the pack, took the assailant under his arm and steered him to the bar. Sat him on a stool, bought him a beer. Put a cheap cigar in his mouth, lit it, and said "Now we're gonna sit here while you enjoy that. Then you're leavin'."

That was the first time I saw Big Bob McLean. He was living upstairs in The Lion, where he did a form of public relations for publican Ron Tremaine and worked as a crowd controller at the Redlegs Club in Norwood.

He was yet to be discovered by Sid Gramp and Tom Morris of Orlando.

It's difficult to explain what the Australian wine industry was like in those early 'seventies. By the time I fell into it full-time at the end of that decade, the big bouncer had done a stint wiring elevators and was national PR manager at Orlando.

There were almost 300 wineries in Australia: mostly little dirt or stone floor jobs with galvo. And there was the PLO: Penfolds, Lindemans and Orlando.

Penfolds was a secretive sort of a bluestone pile at the top of the Norwood Parade, with an even more mysterious satellite at Nuriootpa. It had sales blokes, and Max Schubert, who did the only PR I can recall, in his shy, gentle way. One got the feeling he did it without the approval of his employers.

Lindemans was an arrogant Sydney outfit. To be more precise, it started in Coonawarra, went up the River past Mildura and its Karadoc winery - then Australia's biggest - and grew even bigger-headed the closer it got to Sydney, where it had a shuffly little New South Wales PR/sales bloke called John Baxter.

And then there was Orlando. General manager Guenther Prass had sent McLean and his wife, Wilma, from Barossa headquarters at Rowland Flat to Sydney, where the competition was. He was the only national PR bloke in the wine business. And he was the first person I ever met who had a telephone in his toilet.

Happy days: Wilma McLean, having just completed the Giant Metwurst Limbo without spilling a drop of Riesling, at her 60th ... that's the author and Big Bob swinging the sacred sausage ... photo Milton Wordley

Although he had secret insecurities deeper than most of us, McLean was a jolly soul. He was the big fella with the neat beard - beards were a rarity then - and the gravelly voice; a champion backslapper and hander-out of cigars. 

And pourer of Pol Roger, which Orlando distributed. McLean called Pol "PR," as in "I'm off to do some PR," and in those days of naive wine industry references to terrorist organisations, we called his burgeoning belly the Pol Pot. He was Pol Pot. From the PLO. 

It was nearly impossible to attend a glitterati show of any sort in Sydney without Pol Pot shoving a glass of PR in your hand. I don't recall much mention of Jacob's Creek.

Sydney loved the impeccable bluff giant from the south in the blazer and perfectly-pleated slacks. And it quickly learned to love Pol Roger.

Hardy's were somehow getting bigger in the very early 'eighties, and stole a former tabloid editor, Bob 'Mechanical' Mayne, from the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, where he'd been doing PR from a snakepit of an office underneath something in the Royal Sydney Show Grounds. Mayne was moved to Hardy's McLaren Vale headquarters; McLean was moved back to the Barossa, where he seemed to shrivel somewhat. 

Nevertheless, Adelaide was taking control from Sydney. Adelaide was beginning to realise it was a wine town. 

Old bull young bull: McLean with Yangarra manager/winemaker Peter Fraser ... Bob gave Peter his first winemaking job at St Hallett in 1995 ... "You gotta meet this bloke," he said, "he's gonna go somewhere" ... Pete and Bob shared a dedicated fascination in the wine styles of the south of France ... photo Milton Wordley

The cocky Brian Croser was on the ascendancy in those early 'eighties. Like Burge and Wilson and Tim Knappstein, he promoted himself as a young winemaker, but better than the rest. Almost annoyed that he wasn't part of the family, he'd left Hardy's, done a stint as an academic setting up a wine course at Wagga Wagga and established Petaluma with the help of Len Evans, the former Mount Isa Mines storeman who'd magically transformed himself into a wine buff restaurateur at the infamous Bulletin Place on Circular Quay.

Evans wrote about wine in The Australian, ruled the Australian wine show system and somehow ran Rothbury Winery in the Hunter, where once I signed a receipt chit for a shipment of essence of oak chips, an illegal wine additive. It seemed enough to turn Sydney Harbour to Chardonnay.

By the time I got to compare these Rieslings at barr-Eden, it was obvious that their brave, foolhardy vineyard atop Mengler's Hill was everything the McLeans dreamed it could be ... photo Philip White
Having just bought the Bridgewater Mill, without really knowing what to do with it other than awkardly squeeze a posh restaurant and fizz factory into what Greg Trott thought may be a good little brewery for his in-laws, the Johnstons, Evans and Croser made McLean PR and marketing boss of Petaluma. Evans called McLean Sir Lunchalot. 

They moved McLean, his wife Wilma and their kids Adam and Sarah to a cottage on a small farm with a vineyard in Aldgate Valley in the South Mount Lofty Ranges. They put him in a Range Rover; he replaced the blazer and slacks with RM Williams' moleskines, a Drizabone and Akubra. The new era of 'smart country' wine fashion began.

Although they were blithely, unwittingly copying the wines of France, very few Australian winemakers had then bothered to visit that country in those days, largely because "the Frogs speak French, don't they?" and they didn't, like London, have cricket. But as foreign journalists began to learn about the new Australia and surrender to McLean's hospitality at the Mill, it didn't matter whether you were in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth or Adelaide - you could feel a movement. Evans pushed McLean to begin to think offshore and dream of the possibility of an international boom for Australian wine.

While these presumptuous colonial boyos were self-righteously pushing their high country cool climate dogma, things were also happening in the Barossa. Rough-hewn Aussies like Neil Ashmead and Robert O'Callaghan were beginning to prove that you didn't have to have a Petaluma-like steel wine refinery to make the sort of clean, sound wine that was becoming fashionable.

McLean at the "library end" of barr-Eden winery, with Stephen Henschke and Wilma ... the eyes have it ... photo Philip White

O'Callaghan had made a hero of himself and his Rockford Wines (secretly financed by Doug Collett of Woodstock in McLaren Vale) by forming the Barossa Residents' Association which put a halt to the Labor government's nefarious Vine Pull Scheme on planning grounds. Government eventually had to admit its taxpayer-funded bulldozing was a threat to the Barossa's amenity, for Bacchus' sake!

This destruction had, to a degree, been instigated by the likes of Croser, who preached as if the Barossa had no future: if you believed him, as the Labor Party obviously did, old-fashioned, warm climate winemaking was a thing of the past. Dead and gone. Lke the whole goddam Barossa. Along with its unfashionable Shiraz. As for Grenache? Cinsault? Carignan? Mataro? Pull 'em out!

Liking the idea of an influential neighbour down the road, O'Callaghan convinced McLean to return to the Barossa. With Karl Lindner, who owned St. Hallett, they seduced him with a share of that business. Lindner made him managing director. He swapped the Range Rover for a Jag and plunged into export and building St. Hallett. 

McLean got into local politics big-time, even convincing the powers that were to drop the Valley and concentrate on brand Barossa. He got onto the South Australian Tourism Commission as deputy chair and changed the way government thought about wine regions.

Calm before the storm: Bob with Wilma and Nicky Kaminsky aboard his beloved Bessie ... photo Paul Kaminsky
Lindner ceased waving his axe at the barely-yielding Old Block Shiraz vineyard, and McLean built that into a very Australian, utterly Barossa international premium brand. He added the phenomenal Gamekeeper's Reserve red blend, became an international traveller, and in place of taking them to the Bridgewater Mill, began hosting international wine writers at the fledgeling Pheasant Farm. 

Maggie Beer was more famous in London than she was in South Australia, thanks to McLean. Her daughters were still in the habit of ordering take-away pizzas which upon delivery were paraded through their own mum's restaurant and noisily devoured while the famous dregs of McLean's Wednesday Table wiped their lips and decanted themselves out the door.

To feed the phenomenal growth of St Hallett, McLean introduced the owner of Adelaide's Channel Nine, John Lamb, to the company. Lamb taught McLean how to grow a business even further, buying Tatachilla in McLaren Vale, forming the umbrella company, Banksia Wines and floating it successfully on the stock exchange in 2000. 

McLean claimed that as he left the Hyatt Hotel elevator after doing the closing sale deal with Lion Nathan boss Gordon Cairns in 2003, he bumped into Croser who was following him up, having just stretched Petaluma to bursting point by buying Mitchelton, Knappstein and Stonier. 

All these companies, and most of Australia's breweries and good cheese factories are now part of the leviathan Japanese transnational, Kirin.

McLean loved nothing more than sharing feasts with friends ... photo Milton Wordley
So what did McLean do with his money? Followed Wilma to the pinnacle of Mengler Hill already. She selected the old Polner property: a prime slice of those lofty Barossa tops; together they planted a radical back-to-the-future bushvine vineyard with no irrigation. In rock.

While the barr-Eden vineyard is an unlikely cross of what Croser preached was over with  the sort of lofty cool altitude atitude he pumped as the essential component of the Petaluma he sold, such things grow slow in rocks with no water.

Inspired too by Evans and Croser the McLeans flirted dangerously with restaurant management at their posh Barr Eden nosherie in Angaston, which they closed after losing a lot of money. I thought perhaps they were far too honest to run a successful restaurant.

Always in businessman spirit but rarely in top health, McLean spent his last years patiently waiting for a commercial crop, which took a decade. The razor-sharp, stoic Wilma bred large meat sheep to control the vineyard weeds, and will continue to do so. They use no poison. Sarah is married to the architect Matt Bell; they have three kids. Adam works for Ben Radford at Rockford, in the winery. The McLean family will continue to run barr-Eden: it's business as usual.

Part of the barr-Eden vineyard under the vintage veil ... photo Bob McLean
There are around 2,500 wineries in Australia now. O'Callaghan is retired. Evans died years ago; Lindner has cancer. Croser is attempting a comeback from his vineyard way down the bottom end of the same South Mount Lofty Ranges that are home to barr-Eden.

Knowing his number was up, McLean turned his last interview, with photographer Milton Wordley, into his last will and testament. He literally dictated his own death press release

To read the interview in full, click People of Wine, Milton Wordley's brand new blog.

With time, I shall be sorely tempted to extend this reflection. The McLean story is even bigger than he was. In the meantime, I more sorely grieve a great man who I shall miss terribly and celebrate thirstily.

Well-lived, Wee Rab! 

Last portrait: Bob McLean the week before his death ... photo Milton Wordley ... Milton said that in 25 years of photographing Bob, this was the first time he'd forgotten to turn the glass to the camera so his brand was obvious


Anonymous said...

A lovely tribute Whitey.... thanks for a great read and wonderful words. Hopefully we can share a glass or two tomorrow.... cheers Brookesy

Kim Brebach said...

Good story, Philip, with all the usual side dishes.
Thank you.

Leigh Gilligan said...

Beautifully said Whitey. Captured the essence of a lovely bloke who has gone way too soon. Had lunch with him a few weeks ago at Fino Barossa and he did not miss a beat!

Sal said...

Beautiful, Whitey. Just perfect; of course. Thanks to you, and Milt, and that bloody great book, I enjoyed a memorable, quiet coffee and chat with Bob about life, love and family in Adelaide, right after the launch. Very grateful for that. Love to you, and all who knew him, for tomorrow and always.

Tim Johnston said...

Beautifully written piece. Without Bob McLean the invasion of Europe by Australian wine would have taken years longer and might not even have happened. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with him and Charlie Melton on the Murray River. I can say "I lived." He was a magical person.

Robert Joseph said...

Simply brilliant Philip - as ever! I'll be thinking of you all - and Bob and the family - tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Ah! Whitey, the Angels have hold of your pen again. A further fugue on the tunes this troubadour sang is a must if the spirit moves you. Ito all tomorrow, much love.Brooks-the Ancient.

@greenockbells said...

Thank you Philip. No one could have written that better because no one knew Dad better. Thank you again. xxx

Rick Burge said...

Philip, your piece brought back some wonderful memories. Earily, on the day Bob died, it was 4o years since I started work at Orlando in April 1975. Shit, we had some fun! As a freshly minted uni dropout, Bob's positiveness and enthusiasm gave me new direction - always encouraging and backing you all the way, and tactful with any re-aligning criticism. Will never forget the visit to Orlando of Pete Cook and Dudley Moore, and later Edward Woodward (Callan). He was always inclusive, no matter how important the guest was. Also, with Bob, you never heard "won't do that, it probably wont work", rather it was ' hasn't been done before, lets give it a go". He had a huge effect on everyone who worked with him. Thanks Philip for your wonderful piece.

Jayson Woodbridge said...

Philip, well said indeed!!

The week before Bob died he and I were having a glass of wine at our house and he told me the one thing he really regretted was selling his much loved classic Betsie his boat and second home on the Murray.

He was happy about the life had lived and enjoyed.

He will be and is very missed by us all.

Best as always,

Jayson Woodbridge

Michael Twelftree said...

Well done Whitey
a brilliant piece on a brilliant human being………….Gee's I loved the big fella……….it was so easy to listen, laugh and learn in his company
We had a great lunch at Charlie's a few weeks back, all tasting the 2015's fresh and fizz of off barr Eden, Bob did not say much, he just smiled knowing he'd passed the baton on a very special place.
I just hope every other newbie like me knows exactly how the path was laid before us, you guys did so much building the industry that is in front of us today and I hope that will always be remembered
Bob's greatest lasting memory is that every time from now forward when ever his name is mentioned I will smile, a big smile, that was Bob's effect on me.
Michael Twelftre

Mark Williamson said...

A great piece for a grand man. So much there that I did not know about Bob & Wilma. A real pleasure to read a thoughtful recollection from a true mate, so merci Phillip.