Ray Beckwith: the science behind the wine
This is a story about instinct and passion, but also about tedious, solitary, methodical research. It is a great scientific adventure that in its own humble way mirrors the story of Watson and Crick, who unravelled the mystery of existence with their studies into DNA.
The difference, of course, is that there were two of them, but there is only one Ray Beckwith. And while Watson and Crick confined themselves to the serious business of the building blocks of life, Ray’s mind was occupied with something which makes life so darned entertaining. Wine.
Really good wine. What makes it tick, what makes it live on inside the bottle and get better with age. What makes a cheap bottle consistently good, a pricey bottle a coveted international icon.
It’s a story which gives pause to the wowsers who hold that alcohol is a lethal carcinogen and should be treated as such, a claim trumped by the fact that at (just) 100 years and three months of age, Ray’s tip for longevity is three or four glasses of shiraz is probably enough for the day.
Not that he’s a big drinker, and most certainly not one who would ever drive. He hasn’t driven for a while - he surrendered his licence last year when he was 99.
It frees him up to attend the regular get-togethers with his mates in a lunch club they call The Crusties, 10 octogenarian, nonagenarian and, in Ray’s case, centenarian ex-wine men who love a tipple and a tale.
Ray’s story is also the story of South Australia, told by a man who appropriately enough was born in the very same year as Adelaide’s Sunday Mail, 1912, for which this article was written to help observe its centenary year.
We have also chosen him because he takes us back to a different SA, when wine drinkers were generally regarded as poseurs or plonkos, when cars were rationed and could only be bought with the permission of the premier, when our river was near bursting and you could catch Murray cod without fail for your nightly feed.
We have also chosen Ray because he brings us to the modern day, as he was central to the creation of what is not just a great South Australian brand but a world brand - Penfolds.
It’s a name that through his groundbreaking research in chemistry and his obsessive commitment to quality control would become synonymous the world over with excellence and consistency in winemaking.
We’ve also chosen him because he’s painfully humble and, until very recently, was entirely unsung and unknown outside of an industry which reveres him as a genius and where his name is spoken in reverential tones.
“I just looked after the science,” Ray tells us as he sits in his sunroom at Nuriootpa, the Barossa Valley town he has called home since the 1930s.
“The people I really admire are the winemakers. They’re the ones with the real flair.”
It’s a typically modest statement, which glosses over the fact that in the past decade Ray has been awarded the Order of Australia, an honorary doctorate and a distinguished alumni award from the University of Adelaide, and Australia’s highest wine honour, the McWilliam’s Wines Maurice O’Shea Award.
The journey to being honoured by governors and vice-chancellors started a long time ago in the tiny West Coast town of Cowell, where Ray was born on Friday, February 23, 1912. (He has a copy of that day’s Advertiser framed on his wall: “New ladies’ gowns now in stock at John Martin’s” reads one of the advertisements.)
His father was a self-made businessman who had worked in plumbing, tank-making and gas-fitting, and in 1919 decided to up the family and move east to the river, opening a hardware store and settling in Murray Bridge. They had a 28-foot launch with two boats, and their store catered largely for the farmers on the Murray flats and the dairymen on the reclaimed swamps.
“As a boy, I’d go home after school and in my dinghy cast a line and come away pretty quickly with two or three Murray cod or callop,” Ray recalls. “They were wonderful days.”
Ray was a bright and diligent student. He attended Murray Bridge High, which was then the only agricultural high school in the state. He had a classical education and did six subjects in what was then called leaving honours: economics, physics, botany, chemistry, maths and geography.
He had not settled on his career, but did so well in his final year that he was awarded a part scholarship to Roseworthy College, which at that stage was part of the Department of Agriculture and not yet a campus of the University of Adelaide.
Roseworthy offered what in the late 1920s was regarded by many as a scandalous and frivolous subject: oenology, the study of winemaking.
“I enrolled in the diploma of agriculture, and it included this subject called oenology,” Ray says. “Now at this stage, you have to remember that oenology was only an elective subject and the reason for that was that some of the parents did not like their kids studying about wine.
“They looked down upon it, and disapproved.
“The attitudes were very different then. But it had piqued my interest. I wanted to do it.”
Ray had no fixed plans at this stage for a career in the wine industry. He simply wanted to forge a viable career. It was the bleakest of times, January, 1932, the middle of the Depression.
“I wanted to do a science degree at the University of Adelaide,” Ray says. “So my dad took me down to the Waite Research Institute and we met Professor A.E.V. Richardson. He looked at me and he said `Ray, there are too many BScs driving tramcars. Get a job. Forget about university’. So that’s where I made the decision to go and have a look at the wine business.”
Then in his early 20s, Ray sat down and wrote letters to every winery in South Australia.
“The replies were generally in the nature of “Dear sir, we regret ... ” he recalls.
Feeling frustrated and listless, Ray helped his dad with his hardware business and played footy for the Ramblers at Murray Bridge. What he really wanted was a proper job.
In July, 1932, he had an offer from the School of Mines to do wool-classing at Plumbago Station, a dot on the map near the pin-prick town of Olary on the Broken Hill railway line.
He worked as a shed hand and learnt on the job. The shearers did 30,000 sheep in six weeks and slept rough under the stars at the station.
When Ray returned home, there was a letter waiting for him from Professor John L. Williams, chief lecturer in viticulture and oenology at Roseworthy, offering him a cadetship. The letter took the form of providence, as Ray had been reflecting on his early studies in oenology during his absence and had developed something of an obsession with the behaviour of yeasts.
Yeasts, bacteria and pH alkaline-to-acid ratio would form the holy trinity of his pioneering scientific work. Except at this stage in the early 1930s, he had no idea this would be the case, and was simply following the first of a series of hunches that would revolutionise the way wine was made, here and abroad. The remarkable thing about Ray’s work is that he had no body of research to draw on in the wine industry.
“I decided I wanted to do some work on the efficiency of fermentation on a range of cultured yeasts,” Ray says. “I did this was because if you could get a yeast which was more efficient at conversion to alcohol, it meant for sweet wines you could use less spirit, and it was the spirit that carried the duty. I produced a paper which was read at a conference in Melbourne by John Williams. It was published by the wine and brewing journal and it also published all the discussion. The discussion was favourable.”
Around this time, Ray was offered work by legendary winemaker Hardys at Mile End with Colin Haselgrove. Away from Adelaide’s inner west, his paper on yeasts was causing a buzz across the industry. One of the men who read it was Leslie Penfold Hyland, who had a motor launch called The Vagabond at Murray Bridge, where he passed the summers. He knew Ray’s father - they used to park their boats together - and he sought him out at the hardware store.
“The end result was that I met him at the Adelaide Club and he put a proposition to me,” he says. “I started here at Penfolds on the 2nd of January, 1935.”
The wine industry was in a state of upheaval. A bacterial infection was running rampant, a sweet wine disease destroying as much as 40 per cent of all wine produced in SA. It was Ray’s first year in the industry.
“You never knew where and when it would strike,” he says. “The winemakers didn’t know what to do about it. There was turmoil.
“I wanted to change things. I went to Leslie Penfold Hyland and told him that I wanted a yeast propagation machine. He said you had better give me some line drawings, which I did.
“He did a bit of arm-twisting because we had to build this machine in time for vintage, starting in March. I wanted to introduce one of the yeasts I had worked with at Roseworthy. I called it A1.
“It had an origin in Portugal, which is the home of port. When the grapes were crushed, I would make a small addition of sulphur dioxide, which would suppress the natural yeasts and bacteria because my cultured yeast was acclimatised. It meant that the fermentation took off almost immediately. Instead of taking seven days to clear a tank, you could do it in five days. The net result was that we produced quite a good vintage, with no bacteria.”
In the 1930s, the wine industry was adept at the black art of reversing the spoilage of wine by adding good wine to a spoilt batch, in much the same way that a coagulated mayonnaise can be repaired with the addition of a fresh egg yolk.
Ray regarded this as “a crook way of doing things”. “Instead of trying to correct spoiled wine, I wanted to stop it from happening in the first place,” he says.
Ray got in touch with Professor Alexander Killen Macbeth, who was the Angas Professor of Chemistry at the University of Adelaide from 1928 to 1954. Prof Macbeth was a brilliant chemist - the chemistry buildings at the North Tce campus bear his name today - and he was a generous man. He was also party to what sounds like one of the great impromptu booze-ups in the early life of our city in the 20th century.
“I wanted to look at the question of spoilage but we didn’t have the equipment, so Prof Macbeth kindly let me use their private laboratory with all their brand-new gear,” he says. “As always, we didn’t solve anything, but I started to learn about the behaviour of pH under the influence of different acids. I expressed the results as a graph but for two of the experiments I was unable complete the graph, so I had to put dotted lines there and leave it blank. The problem was that the professor had drunk all my samples.”
“But as I was writing up my findings, I wrote the line `pH might be useful in the control of the growth of bacteria in wine’.
“And that was somewhat prophetic. That pH business had always niggled me. It just struck me that line, and it stayed with me.
“I told Leslie Penfold Hyland on one of his visits `I think I can crack this’. I told him of my vision and I asked him if I would be able to purchase a suitable pH unit. And he just looked at me and said `Get it’.”
It was the first time pH was used to control bacteria in wine in Australia. It was a discovery that would not only lay the foundation for Penfolds’ famous consistency, which can be seen today in its everyday brands such as Koonunga Hill and Rawsons Retreat, but which would allow the creation of its flagship product, a brand that has probably done more to associate SA with excellence than anything else the state has ever produced - Grange.
The year was 1947. Penfolds’ winemaker at the Magill vineyard had taken a position in the Hunter Valley, and Ray was asked to transfer from Nuriootpa. He didn’t want to go. He loved Nuri and, most importantly, the love of his life, his wife Coral, whom he sadly lost to Alzheimer’s in 1996, didn’t want them to move.
“She was a wonderful wife, a selfless person; she looked after us well,” Ray says.
“When I was awarded my AO, the governor said to me that a good wife and good wine will serve you well, and they did. So that was that. We didn’t want to leave Nuri. We were staying put.” The Beckwiths would not budge, but neither would the company.
As a compromise, it suggested Ray could commute. At the time, he was driving a Morris 840 with a cruising speed of 37mph (60km/h), so darting back and forth was out of the question.
Determined to secure his services, the company arranged to get him a new vehicle, and asked him to work three days a week at Magill.
“Of course in those days after the war, you couldn’t buy a car without a permit,” Ray recalls.
“And who was issuing the permits but (premier) Thomas Playford.
“So my boss went to see him and he said `Well, I’ve got one car left, a Dodge with a DeSoto badge, and I was going to give it to a farmer on the east coast’. But he gave it to me instead.” It was at this point that Ray became partner with the man who would become Australia’s most famous winemaker, a maverick and visionary who was doing things which no one in Australia had ever tried, and for which he would initially earn ridicule.
His name was Max Schubert and he was about to invent Grange, released in its first experimental vintage in 1951.
With typical humility, Ray refuses to take any credit for its creation, opting to stand in the background in his white lab coat, saying the art belonged to Max.
“I spent quite a lot of time talking to Max about what I call preventive oenology,” Ray says.
“We have preventive medicine. But if you think about setting up wine so it is safe from bacterial attack, you have preventive oenology. I set some standards for Max because he was keen to get into red winemaking and he grasped that with both hands. He never let go, and he never got into trouble. Max knew what happened in the mid-1930s with all these wines going crook, so he was very receptive to what I had set up.
“So my part was the science part of it, his part of it having gone overseas to the Bordeaux area, and to Spain to look into flor sherry. It helped him set a vision of what he wanted, the science meeting the art. And he set about making his red wines.
“That was the beginning of Grange. I just gave him a pattern to follow, but it was his vision, and he made a wonderful job of it. He never wavered.
“Grange is totally Max Schubert. I was just in the background. A lot of people didn’t understand it. They would say `Schubert, we congratulate you on making a dry red port’ and he would go off with his tail between his legs.
“But he also got some understanding from a few people who knew what he was trying to achieve. But a lot of people didn’t understand it. The marketing people didn’t. He was ahead of his time.”
While Ray downplays his role in the creation, not just of Grange but of such a consistently excellent suite of wines across the entire Penfolds range, the company’s chief winemaker, Peter Gago, pays him a special compliment.
Gago says Ray isn’t just a scientist. “He was a wine chemist by definition, but he was a winemaker,” Gago says. “We rode the wave in those days and no one else came close, and much of it was credit to the work Ray did, all of it in-house. Without Ray, we would not have progressed as we did.
“He put in more than a career’s worth of ground-breaking work and the industry would not be the same without him. Ray was working in a day when these family-run companies were a step removed from tyrants in their manner of operating, and he had to go to the boss and ask that he be trusted on his instincts for experimentation.
“It wasn’t like today where you could say `Well, we tried that and it didn’t work’. If it didn’t work back then, you would be out the door.”
As Ray sits in his sunroom at his home, which he shares with his son James, who also worked in the wine industry, he looks back on a century-long life which was characterised more than anything by a sense of curiosity. He just loved what he did.
He loved the convivial and collegiate nature of it all. He loved that for decades at Penfolds he didn’t even have a title.
“None of us did,” he says, reflecting a point Peter Gago makes passionately about the collaborative nature of work at this special winery.
Ray can barely bring himself to identify a favourite Penfolds wine. “If you asked me if I preferred blondes, brunettes or silverhairs, that would be an easier question,” he says with a laugh. After a long pause, he stumps for the Bin 389 cabernet shiraz, because it tells the story of his career.
“The 389 is a versatile wine. You can drink it tonight or in 20 years and it is consistently excellent,” he says. “It’s a terrific example of the merging of science and art, I suppose.”
Cheers to that, Ray Beckwith. Scientist, and winemaker.
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