An understanding of excellence: James Irvine and his life in wine

Name: Marjorie and James Irvine
Current job title, winery & region: Marjorie and James Irvine at their Springhill property

Part 1: Working for others

By Valmai Hankel

A slightly modified version of this article appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of The Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal.

Like all professions, grapegrowing and winemaking are full of memorable characters, some of whom are regularly in the limelight, others of whom get on and do the job without starring frequently in the media. James (Jim) Irvine is one of the latter.
'I don't play guitar, tell tired jokes or wear long hair,' he laughs. Yet, Irvine's journey through wine has been an outstanding one, mostly full of proud and illustrious achievements but with some disappointments, hectic and varied, with sparkling wine and Merlot featuring prominently.
Irvine was brought up and educated in the South Australian countryside. Born in the small town of Blyth, not far from Clare, in February 1933, he spent much of his younger days in country bakeries, as his father was a successful baker. It wasn't until he was much older that he realised what a legacy he'd been given.
'I wouldn't call my father a perfectionist but he sure knew where he was going - an understanding of excellence. That was the legacy that I didn't recognise until I was well into the wine game, and found it relatively easy to describe characters, flavours, colours and textures to people, outlining the thing that I was doing with wine,' Irvine said.
Irvine's father, who died aged only 50, would throw away the loaves until he was completely satisfied with them. That 'understanding of excellence' has been a major part of Irvine's life.
'As a kid I got a feeling for the textures of the bread and the feel of it. This carried on into winemaking because there are wines that you taste that have texture, there are wines that have style, and they may or may not be together,' he said.
It was this 'recognition of excellence' that Irvine's father taught him. 'And tastes and flavours played a huge part in that,' he said. Working in the bakery as a young man also taught Irvine about the importance of customers to the success of the business, and also about the need for cleanliness.
Irvine spent the last couple of his schooling years boarding at Scotch College, a highly-regarded Adelaide private school. He had enjoyed studying geology at school, and applied for a cadetship as a geologist at Adelaide's Department of Mines. While waiting to hear if he had been successful or not his father suggested that he should get part-time work, and noticed an advertisement for a laboratory assistant's job. Irvine was granted an interview. It just happened to be with Bob Robertson, winemaker at Glenloth Wines, near Reynella, south of Adelaide. He began work at Glenloth in January 1951.
Like most people of that time Irvine's parents did not drink wine, but enjoyed their beer and spirits. Most wine drunk then was fortified. Irvine knew nothing about wine.
'I can't remember any other wines at all until I got into the industry and, of course, started to take notice of it,' he said.
Glenloth, named after the 1892 Melbourne Cup winner, was at the time a successful winery, with such a modern development as a weighbridge with a scale inside the office, not out in a tin shed. 'The place was beautifully designed for its time,' remembers Irvine.
Glenloth had both a cooperage and a distillery, and Irvine's first job was an unlikely one for a would-be winemaker - to bruise and puncture the mandarins for Glenloth Mandarin Liqueur. As a lab assistant he had to perform many menial, sometimes dangerous, tasks, but he learned a lot, especially the importance of attention to detail.
'I still think the better winemakers today - the younger crowd - are those that have been in the cellar and then gone to Roseworthy or Wagga. Because they seem to have a deeper understanding of what's required,' Irvine said.
He was dismissed from Glenloth by Bob Robertson's father, the strict and uncompromising Harper Robertson, in unfair circumstances: Irvine had decided that sitting for an exam at the School of Mines in Adelaide (he studied seven subjects there) was more important than collecting and delivering equipment for Glenloth's machine shop.
Irvine was just 20. He went back to his father's bakery, now in Eudunda, north of Adelaide. He well remembers the scent: 'You'd knock the dough down and [there would be] an incredible smell of yeast and gas - carbon dioxide. No wonder I ended up loving sparkling wine. The smell of that was just so beautiful'. Irvine was hooked on wine and began searching for positions in the wine industry. In January 1953 he successfully applied for a job as a laboratory assistant at Hardys at Mile End, adjacent to the city. This was to be possibly the most important time of his career, and the one which was to have the greatest influence on his working life. He was fortunate to work with two great wine men, unfortunately insufficiently remembered and appreciated today, Roger Warren - in charge of Hardy's technical branch - and 'a very quiet chief winemaker', Richard (Dick) Heath. Both were to become Irvine's major mentors. Warren, who developed Old Castle Riesling, Cabinet Claret and St Thomas Burgundy - best-selling wines of the 1950s - was a master blender.
At Hardys, Irvine spent about six months of the year at Mile End, then about three months' vintage either at the Cyrilton Winery at Waikerie on the River Murray or at McLaren Vale. At Cyrilton, Irvine learned how to handle large volumes of fruit in an efficient way.
'It was a place where the word 'can't' just didn't exist,' recalls Irvine. Jack Neilson was the manager, and 'a very good lateral thinker'. On one occasion the winery was full, with grapes waiting on the bridge to come in. There was no more room. 'Jack took a little walk for about 10 minutes around the winery. He said, 'You see that crusher pit over there. Take all the gear out'. This is a pit that's sort of four metres deep by about four metres long by about three metres wide. 'There'll be 20,000 gallons of wine in there tomorrow'. And there was,' he said.
He also worked at Hardys' champagne cellar in Currie Street in the city. Irvine recalls these days in the book, Bubbles, Bottles and Colonial Bastards by James Smith (Adelaide: James S. Smith & Associates, 2008). 'At that time the sparkling wine cellars were underneath the company offices…and one of my first jobs was in the cellars working with the men making sparkling wines. These old hands were in the habit of having a couple of glasses of sparkling Moselle for their morning tea. I went along with this on the first day, but the trouble was, when I got onto the double-decker bus to go home, I was so drowsy that I missed my bus stop.' The cellars were, probably accidentally, strategically placed. Trams running along Currie Street 'set up a vibration that shook the cellars. As a result, Hardys were able to get their wines down a bit quicker than many other companies because of this constant shaking!'
In 1959, Irvine was appointed manager/winemaker at Hardys in the Barossa. That year, on the way back from the Waikerie vintage, he was asked to call in at the company's Dorrien winery, between Tanunda and Nuriootpa. A ship's carpenter, Heine Weiss, had been looking after the place and had just died. Irvine returned to finish off the vintage, and discovered Semillon, Riesling and Crouchen (then known as Clare Riesling) in the cellar, as well as 'a lot of Grenache sweet red' and a little Shiraz. The whites fascinated Irvine because they were so crisp and wood aged.
'They were not deliberately aged, as such, but the vessels that they were put into were 2500 litres, or thereabouts. Big, old American oak casks. And these casks had a lining of about a centimetre and a half of tartrate, which had built up over the years, so that the wine wasn't really contacting wood'. Later in the year Dick Heath 'would call for the wines to come down on the tanker. So, they were separated out into Barossa wines and Eden Valley wines, and that's the first time I'd ever heard of Eden Valley as such,' he said. This was to be a significant discovery for Irvine.
At Dorrien, by 1963 or 1964 very little fortified wine was being made, but more and more reds. It was the Dorrien Riesling that impressed him. He noticed 'this incredible Riesling' in 1961-62.
'I said, 'This is just fantastic'. It would come in - the Riesling would be golden. Like little balls of golden glass. And you could see through them. And they were only about ten degrees of ripeness…way into the middle of April'. This was in the days before drip irrigation, and the vines were dry grown. At about that time Hardys acquired the first of the Willmes air-bag presses. Irvine was amazed at the amount produced of 'lovely, soft, free run of juice and soft pressings… The colour was beautifully green. The whole thing was a revelation'.
Across the road from Dorrien is a tiny cemetery, called Siegersdorf (Victory Village). Irvine thought that it would be appropriate to call 'that fancy Riesling Siegersdorf Riesling, because it's the finest Riesling that I've ever seen'. But not everyone agreed with the use of the German name supplanting that of a First World War British general. That first, 1963, Siegersdorf Riesling was a great success. Old Castle had been the stalwart Hardy Riesling for years. Created by Roger Warren and 'carried forward', as Irvine says, by Dick Heath, Old Castle included 'Hunter wines and all sorts of things'. Heath, on first tasting what was to become Siegersdorf, said that it couldn't go into Old Castle. 'It doesn't look anything like Old Castle. We'll have to bottle it on its own'. Irvine was delighted.
Less well-known is that for a time there were Siegersdorf reds, fermented on oak chips in the barrel. But they didn't meet with the success of the Riesling, and most of them went into Hardy's Cabinet Claret and St Thomas Burgundy. There was also one Siegersdorf sparkling made from Eden Valley Tokay grapes (Muscadelle).
In 1966, Irvine was appointed Hardys state manager in Victoria. He was unenthusiastic about the job, as it entailed marketing wines: he would much rather have been making them.
'What it did do was make me again realise the importance of consumers at different levels…If you're prepared to listen, the consumers will tell you a lot of things…there was no excuse to make wines that were not stylish, and not pleasant, at any price bracket,' he says. While in Melbourne, Irvine was a member of several Victorian Wine and Brandy Producers' Association committees, and also lectured at the William Angliss Food Trade School.
Back with Hardys in McLaren Vale in 1969, Irvine described himself as 'the dearest glass washer, most expensive tourist guide that you could ever see'. He decided to move on, and by January 1970 he found himself appointed managing director/winemaker at Krondorf in the Barossa. Krondorf, previously Glen View, had been bought the previous year by Melbourne sharebrokers, Irving and Co. As he recalls, Irving and Co. 'put the money in…and we were able to take up the most modern of the equipment all down the line'. The new winery was named Augustine Barossa Valley Estates, with some wines bearing the Krondorf label Their success was instant, with Krondorf wines winning their first gold medal under Irvine's hand in July 1970, and a total of 253 awards in about two-and-a-half years - probably a record for a small winery. Irvine is quick to acknowledge the help he received from winemaker Marco Litterini for the first three vintages, and also from Roseworthy students, whose job was 'not to come and wash floors and wash tanks…but to actually do what they were going to be trained to do'. This included laboratory work, and actually making wine 'rather than just be press operators'. The students included some now-famous winemakers, among them John Ellis, Andrew Wigan and Daryl Groom. Also at this time Charlie Melton was one of the winemaking staff.
In 1973, Dalgety Wine Estates bought Krondorf, Saltram, and other wineries. Later that year Irvine was sent overseas to look at bottling halls, and returned with technical ideas which were incorporated into what became Vinpac bottling hall, near Angaston. He was national marketing manager then national sales manager - 'a sideways downward thing' - with Dalgetys until 1978. Irvine remembers with horror that a few years later Dalgetys were selling Krondorf wines in Melbourne at a dollar a bottle instead of $10 - 'they bloody near broke my heart'.
When Dalgetys sold out to Seagram Australia in 1978 Irvine became national public relations manager with Seagrams until 1981. For these seven years Irvine wanted to get out of public relations and back into winemaking. The opportunity came in 1981 when he was made redundant. While it may not have seemed so at the time this was a blessing, as it was the catalyst which drove Irvine to establish his wine consultancy that year. At last he was his own boss, and could follow excellence his own way.

This story will be continued in the next issue of the Wine Industry Journal.

Much of the information in this article comes from a transcript of an interview (OH 692/73) with James Irvine, conducted by Rob Linn on 17 June 2002 for the 'Treading out the Vintage' Oral History Project, funded by the Wolf Blass Foundation and held in the J.D. Somerville Collection, State Library of South Australia.

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