Meet Maurice O’Shea: a far sighted vine grower, a magician when it came to blending wines; a vigneron who could see the world in a wine glass.
O’Shea died in 1956 but I met him through his love letters along with stories of him which still ripple around the wine industry, tales told by folk near where I live in Newcastle NSW, and a transcript of a talk O’Shea himself gave to food and wine connoisseurs in Sydney in 1950.
Why was I reading his love letters? They’re in the Local Studies section of Newcastle City Library. As long as you’re a responsible member of the public you can pop in and read them anytime. Or you can read impressions of the passionate way O’Shea wrote, in the early 1920s, to his future wife, Marcia Fuller, in Campbell Mattinson’s The Wine Hunter, The Man Who Changed Australian Wine (2006) or Peter McAra The Vintner’s Letters (2007).
Love is lovely, yes. But when I went searching for O’Shea what I really wanted to know about was his work with wine. I was to speak about him at an event in the Hunter Valley NSW to honour his work at McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant, Pokolbin; the unveiling of a heritage cairn; one of four in a growing series of cairns which celebrate the heritage of Hunter wine growing.
Among the precious few papers of O’Shea’s in public or private hands (the reason there are very few extant papers remains a little shadowy) is something I confess I enjoyed more than the love letters. Sacreligious; I know. They are really very beautiful love letters. But when I was looking for the spark of a wine story to tell about O’Shea, to discuss with venerable members of the Hunter Valley wine industry – many of whom knew him personally or worked in the midst of what he created from the 1920s – what I was most pleased to find was the 7th Annual J.K. Walker Lecture: The Use of Wine in Ancient Times (1951).
It is a love letter from Maurice O’Shea to the history of his chosen field.
One of the key observations he made in the lecture was that a ‘remarkable trait in the human economy is man’s craving for wine’. Exactly! Strictly speaking we can live without wine but who would want to do that?
The core of O’Shea’s lecture which chimes with what I have found in researching wine history is how the long tradition of wine as we understand it comes to us via British and European culture through the two main streams of influence that are usually considered to have shaped western civilisation: the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. Here is what O’Shea – renowned among friends for the meals he prepared at Mount Pleasant – had to say in relation to the latter:
‘Both the Greeks and the Romans partook of only one large meal daily. The breakfast consisted mainly of a piece of bread dipped in wine, and the lunch was similar or was even dispensed with. Supper was taken in the late afternoon and was a formal meal. Guests often attended, and the meal was a preliminary to lengthy discussions of current affairs or philosophical subjects, for which clear heads were needed. At the commencement of a ceremonial supper an oblation of wine was offered to Bacchus from whom man had received the gift. Pure wine was poured on the floor or the table for the wine god, and a second offering …’ and so on. Bread and wine for breakfast; are you tempted? I don’t imagine O’Shea condoned pouring wine on the ground as an offering but I would not be surprised if someone one day tells me that he did, in all good humour.
Essentially though, you can see what I mean: O’Shea took the long view of wine’s place in history. For him Australian wine traced its past along the same main branchline as European wine; back to ancient sources of recorded history.
After I spoke about O’Shea’s far sightedness about wine at the Mount Pleasant cairn unveiling, Don McWilliam, himself a grand old man of Australian wine, chuckled. He remembers O’Shea as having the worst eye sight of anyone he’d ever met: ‘blind as a bat’, said Don, ‘blind as a bat’. You can see how thick O’Shea’s spectacle lenses were in the photo above. But O’Shea physical short-sightedness clearly strengthened his other senses. Such was the French-Irish-Australian’s nose for the nuances of wine and their age-ability, and his great capacity to imagine wine back through the ages and well forward in time that his styles have come to be considered exemplars of the art of wine.
You may have noticed the portrait of O’Shea shown above was taken by Max Dupain; an exemplar of Australian photography. The portrait is part of a series of shots created at the urging of the same Sydney restauranteur, Johnnie Walker, who held the annual presentations which allowed O’Shea to deliver his talk on wine in ancient times.
Workers at the basket press, 1950 at the vineyard O’Shea began to make his own from 1921.
Since O’Shea’s untimely death only two other winemakers have been at the helm at Mount Pleasant: Brian Walsh (1956-78) and Phil Ryan (1978-2012). As I write this, Phil is only days away from retiring from this role. This year he oversaw the unveiling of the heritage cairn to honour O’Shea at Mount Pleasant, a display which includes an old basket press.
The plinth constructed at the press contains a bottle with a McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant label which honours Keith McWilliam, the man from the Griffith-based McWilliam’s wine company who made it possible for O’Shea to continue his work at Mount Pleasant in difficult financial times. Phil also slipped in a reference to his own involvement at Mount Pleasant: the label shows the year he was born. Let me know if you visit Mount Pleasant and spot it!