Why is the McWilliams Maurice O’Shea award important to Australian wine drinkers?

by Erin Ogilvie

The McWilliams Maurice O’Shea award began in 1990 to honour the late Maurice O’Shea, legendary winemaker to the quintessential Australian winery.  Maurice was only 17 years old when a trip to France in 1914 kick-started his love for wine and led to his family purchasing a plot of land in the Hunter Valley upon his return to Australia in 1921.

Maurice named this plot Mount Pleasant, and in 1932 the McWilliams family purchased a 50% share, having recognised his innate winemaking talent. Less than a decade later, McWilliams invested the remaining share, their financial support allowing Maurice to purchase the Lovedale and Rosehill Vineyards after which some of their iconic wines have been named.

Maurice was known for his skill with blending wines, and the sophistication and longevity he brought to simple table wines; his ingenuity helped to put Hunter Valley wines on tables across the country. Wine writer Campbell Mattinson released a book on Maurice in 2005 called The Wine Hunter: “O’Shea was, in the eyes of many, the greatest winemaker Australia has known – or, at the least, one of the ones who allowed us all to dream of real quality. He was the ultimate Australian artisanal winemaker.”

The inaugural Maurice O’Shea award was presented to the late Max Schubert, the creator of Penfolds’ infamous Grange, and the second to Len Evans, an early leader and communicator in the Australian wine industry. It can be awarded to an individual, organization or business that has had a substantial influence on the industry in “winemaking, cultivation, innovation and technology”. Wine great James Halliday has described the award as “the highest honour the Australian wine industry… can confer on one of its members”.

So why should a wine industry award matter to you, a wine drinker in Australia? By honouring those who propel the industry forward, this award continues to recognise those who are focused on making wines more accessible and better quality for the everyday drinker. Let’s take a look at some of the recent winners.

Australian Screwcap Initiative & the Maurice O'Shea award

2012: Australian Screwcap Initiative

This initiative has helped wine drinkers feel less intimidated by wine, and the award went to many within the industry that trialled, championed, and promoted a move to screwcaps. While overseas there are still some loyal to cork, our modern industry has backed a move to screwcap as it ensures less bottle variation and less money wasted on corked wine (check out the hashtag #fucork for more of the industry’s thoughts on this!).

Editor of Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine, Judy Sarris, says the move to screwcaps was a highlights of her two decades behind the magazine: “Speak to anyone who tastes many wines all the time and they always speak of the inconsistencies they encounter in wines under cork… Screwcaps mean the quality of wines is almost always as they should be, [and] Australia and New Zealand really did lead the way on that.  There’s less wine poured down the sink.”

This initiative helped to mark Australia as a progressive wine-producing country in the eyes of the world, serious about the quality of our wines. In the words of Jeffrey Grosset, who accepted the award in 2012: “The introduction of screw cap still represents the most significant advancement in quality and consistency of premium wine in recent times. We can lead the world and in this case that’s what we’re doing.”

Nick Dry accepting the Maurice O'Shea award

2014: Dr Peter Dry

As a viticulturist, Dr Peter Dry might have a lesser-known role to a wine drinker than that of winemaker, but no smaller influence. Also honoured with The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering award in 2001, for 100 most important technological innovations of the 20th century, he is recognized both nationally and internationally as one of the most accomplished viticulturists. Several of his 270 (!) published works are now listed within wine education courses.

The Australian Society for Viticulture and Oenology, of which he is a Fellow, states: “There are few viticulturists and winemakers in the Australian wine industry who have not been touched in some way by his work… Peter’s knowledge and experience spans the whole spectrum of viticulture research and practice. He has an ability to link theory and practice and a strong focus on practical outcomes.”

A key focus in his 40-year career was winemaking in the Australian climate, leading to the development of an irrigation technique called partial rootzone drying, allowing grapes (and other crops) to be grown with half the amount of previously required water. He was also a champion of introducing alternate grape varieties based on their suitability to the Australian climate. His knowledge and passion has helped to bring about some of the Australian alternates you now regularly enjoy at home.

The McWilliams Maurice O'Shea award in 2016 for the Len Evans Tutorial

2016: The Len Evans Tutorial

The Len Evans Tutorial is a wine education program, created by an icon of the Australian wine industry, to extensively train 12 industry members into wine show judges. On announcing the award, McWilliam’s CEO Jeff McWilliam said, “The tutorial plays a significant role in identifying and investing in talented professionals in wine, vineyard, hospitality and sales that are helping to shape the future of Australian wine.”

Each year, the selected scholars are put through the demands of show judging in a series of blind tastings, masterclasses and judging sessions, with the help of the nation’s top wine experts. Many of the graduated scholars now sit on the judging panels of our nation’s top wine shows. That means better palates tasting, assessing and awarding the wines you know and love (and putting on those helpful medals that help you choose a wine in the bottle shop). Since the first tutorial in 2001, there are now nearly 200 graduated scholars contributing to the industry across many areas: judges, educators, writers, sommeliers, wine bar owners…

In Len Evans’ own words, the Tutorial has resulted in “a well of talent, obsession, knowledge, thirst (for more knowledge) and passion for quality. If these people represent the future of the industry, then Australia will develop even further as a great wine nation”. Past scholars include wine writer Nick Stock, Chairman of Judges for the National Wine Show of Australia Jim Chatto, and Champagne Man of Australia Tyson Stelzer.

Robert Hill-Smith accepting the Maurice O'Shea award

2019: Robert Hill Smith

As a fifth generation descendant of Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, Robert Hill Smith has what few in Australia can boast: a long heritage intrinsically tied to the wine industry. However Robert has not once rested on his family name in nearly four decades. He was Managing Director of Yalumba from 1985 until 2015, when he became Chairman of the Board, and is a founding member of Australia’s First Families of Wine, a family-led initiative bringing together 12 of Australia’s best wineries to highlight the integrity and quality of Australian wine.

A natural-born but humble leader, Robert has spent his expansive career focused on the future. He developed the prestigious wine education program Working with Wine, and has made various investments in sustainability and the development of new varietal clones through the Yalumba Winery. In his acceptance speech, Robert described Maurice O’Shea as a “giant in our game”, with a great palate who knew “what tough winegrowing was all about”, and referenced him and many other winemaking greats who he owed thanks for shaping and promoting Australian wine into what it is today.

Robert says he was lucky to have been born into wine but even luckier to love it. Over his career, he says “we have spawned an optimistic, exciting industry full of fun, challenges, disappointments, exhilaration” where older generations mentor the younger: “My father, Peter Lehmann, Len Evans, Peter Wall and Brian Walsh – they all have encouraged me.”

A modern wine marketer, Robert’s success is in part due to his focus on never losing sight of the at-home casual wine drinker: “We need to think smarter on how to get the next generation of wine consumers to become ambassadors and regular considered wine drinkers. Because if we don’t we may suffer from a rebellion against our own complexity. If we talk wine, I think we should keep the language simple, aspirational, and make it fun, because then we have a chance to make it relevant.” And that attitude is one that benefits us all.