Winemaker Brian McGuigan on His Grape Expectations

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Feb 03, 2017

Despite Brian McGuigan’s best efforts to retire, the world won’t let him. The wine legend and football boss talks to Rosemarie Milsom as he prepares to give retirement another crack. 

Brian McGuigan still vividly remembers his first sip of wine. “I was seven,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was a sparkling Burgundy, which at the time was regarded as the epitome. It was made in Minchinbury [NSW]. There was a winery there run by a fellow by the name of Ivan Combet, grandfather of [former politician] Greg Combet. We’ve got photos of Greg, who was a little boy at our wedding.”

Almost seven decades have passed since that first tipple but McGuigan’s passion for wine has remained constant. “Wine’s been my life,” he says. On this idyllic sunny afternoon in Pokolbin in the heart of the Hunter Valley’s wine region – a two-hour drive north of Sydney – the industry stalwart and his wife, Fay, open a bottle of yet-to-be-released sauvignon blanc from their daughter Lisa’s eponymous label. They are attentive, seasoned hosts. McGuigan continually tops up my glass and directs my attention to a generous cheese platter in the middle of the 12-seat timber dining table. “Eat!” he commands jovially.

The couple’s single-storey home with poplar-lined gravel driveway is designed for socialising, thanks to its open-plan entertainment areas. Everyone from university vice-chancellors and politicians to sports bureaucrats and charity heads has mingled here. It’s an expansive yet unpretentious house, with paintings by Pro Hart and cartoon portraits of McGuigan adorning the walls.

Lured from retirement in 2014 to help rebuild the Hunter’s floundering NRL team, the Newcastle Knights, McGuigan is once again preparing to step away from the spotlight. Barely a week goes by when he isn’t being interviewed by local media about the impending sale of the club, which means plans to focus on his beloved cattle and to advocate behind the scenes for the region’s wine industry are somewhat sidelined.

Four generations of the McGuigan family have called the Hunter vineyards home. Brian, one of five children, began working in the industry as a teenager and seemed destined to produce wine – just like his father, Percy, and his grandfather, Owen, who began working here in the 1880s while also running a dairy farm.

Percy, known as Perc, worked in the nearby Branxton and Hexham butter factories before securing a job as a manager at the historic Penfolds Dalwood cellars near Branxton, the site of some of the first vines planted in the region by George Wyndham. Perc bought Dalwood in the 1960s then Brian and Fay, along with two partners, bought the vineyard from him in 1970 and established Wyndham Estate. “It was a tradition with Penfolds that the sons of the winemakers moved in and took their father’s jobs when it was time,” says McGuigan. “It was the way it happened.”

SEE ALSO: A Weekend In... the Hunter Valley

Brian and Fay met as teenagers on the train to school and married in 1964. Fay has been her husband’s greatest supporter and long-time business partner. She is eager for him to commit more wholeheartedly to retirement once his two-year tenure as the chairman of the Newcastle Knights comes to an end. It has been a demanding role. The Knights were battered and bruised with off-field drama that caused some sponsors and supporters to lose faith in the club.

“We’d been retired for eight years and were starting to have some fun,” says Fay. “When friends asked if we could come to dinner at short notice, we could. I have never said no to anything but this time was different. When I told Brian, ‘I’d rather you not do it’, he said, ‘It’s too late. I signed the contract last week.’” She sighs with mock exasperation.

Retirement has been a long time coming. In 2006, after a heart attack and stroke, McGuigan stepped down as chief executive of the hugely successful McGuigan brand, which grew into Australian Vintage Limited (AVL), one of Australia’s largest wine producers. He handed the baton to his younger brother, Neil, an award-winning winemaker who leads the ASX-listed company and also resides in Pokolbin, a pretty area dominated by the stunning Brokenback Mountain Range. The siblings see each other “every other day”. McGuigan was a director of AVL until July 2015 but is still called upon as the founder of McGuigan Wines for promotional activities.

AVL’s operations are now largely centred in South Australia – there aren’t enough grapes in the Hunter – and the company is the fourth-largest wine group in the country. “We process about a sixth of Australia’s fruit and just under 70 per cent of our wine goes overseas,” says McGuigan. “We sell about 10 million boxes in the UK and about two million in Ireland.”

Selling wine, he adds, “is very different to selling bricks or biscuits. It’s about an atmosphere, it’s about a taste, a package. Wine has a sizzle to it. Once you’ve got it right, you know how to replicate it but the challenge is that you always have a different raw material. The grapes this year from that patch,” he says, pointing to a spot on the table, “will not be the same as last year, because they are the product of their environment and that changes all the time. If the label is popular, you do not change it one iota. You change the process in order to turn out the product your consumer wants.”

For 40 years, Fay worked in the export arm of the business. “It’s built on face-to-face relationships and loyalty,” she says. Adds McGuigan: “You can build relationships with people but not with corporations. Corporations don’t have personality.”

The chair of the Hunter Valley Wine & Tourism Association, former NSW politician George Souris, attributes Australia’s export success to the hard work of the McGuigans, “who pioneered the export orientation of the wine industry decades ago”. He also credits McGuigan, who is on the association’s board, with helping to transform the Hunter vineyards into a tourism destination. “He brings people together. Anytime there’s a glitch, I ring Brian and he’ll take someone to lunch or organise a meeting. He’s a fireball of energy and you can’t help but admire him.”

McGuigan’s passion for the Hunter is boundless. It’s what prompted him to accept the position with the Newcastle Knights. “If the Knights do well, the district does well. They sell lots of Holdens and Fords on a Monday and Tuesday. If the team doesn’t do well, there’s negativity in the community. How the fans have stuck with us, I don’t know. The people in the Hunter are beautiful.”

McGuigan is also an enthusiastic ambassador for the Hunter, which features more cellar doors than any other region in Australia as well as some of the oldest vine stocks in the world. Famous for its semillon and shiraz, the area was once a four-hour drive from Sydney in the pre-freeway era. It was always a popular destination but once visitors arrived, there were few amenities. “You could barely buy a lemonade and a sandwich,” recalls McGuigan. “We were the first winery to offer meals [in 1972]. You give people what they want and then they love you. That’s the key to being successful – you don’t give people what you think they want.”

Today, the Hunter Valley is a food destination and its top restaurants routinely receive accolades. Another example of McGuigan’s foresight was the launch, in 1995, of the Hunter Valley Cheese Company at the McGuigan Wines cellar door, which includes a factory and tasting rooms. “It just made sense,” he says. “The use of cheese by Australians has come so far in 40 years – it’s incredible. The only cheese we could get as kids was the Kraft block with the blue label and silver wrapping.”

Lisa McGuigan has followed in her father’s footsteps as a winemaker and although she has left Pokolbin to live and operate her business in inner-city Sydney, she regularly heads north to visit her parents. “When my friends need advice, I bring them to see Dad. He’s great at knowing what the right decision is, especially when it’s about a deal or an opportunity. He’s really good at seeing things that other people can’t.”

Since the devastating loss of her only sibling, younger sister Vanessa, who died at the age of 21 in 1990 after a two-year struggle with ovarian cancer, Lisa has watched her father try to mend his “broken heart”. Vanessa was treated in Sydney but spent her finals days in the Calvary Mater hospital in the Newcastle suburb of Waratah. At the time, the hospital was administered by the Catholic Church and was on the verge of closure. McGuigan became chairman and during his decade-long leadership, a $342-million overhaul saw much of the hospital rebuilt. “I took it on not to run it but to build it up,” he says.

The McGuigans also donate a significant amount of money to leading cancer researcher Nikola Bowden at the Hunter Medical Research Institute. Bowden is investigating the role a particular protein plays in identifying chemotherapy resistance in ovarian cancer.

“She’s a lovely person, so smart, and she’s coming through with results,” says McGuigan. “Whatever money she needs, she gets because we have confidence in her. When you get a hero like Nikola, you follow them to the end because they’re going to make big changes and we don’t want families to go through what we went through.”

Framed photographs of Vanessa take pride of place in the informal dining room of the family home. Other shelves are lined with magazines displaying interviews with Lisa. The McGuigans are a tight-knit bunch and it’s clear that Brian is their linchpin. “He’s commanding, impactful and vibrant,” offers Lisa, who – like her father – began working in the winery as a teenager. Is he a control freak? “I’m trying to be nice,” she says, laughing.

McGuigan’s propensity for hard work is well known and while Fay hopes that, post-Knights, he will relax and focus on his cattle – the couple has properties outside of Rockhampton in Queensland and in the Hunter town of Dungog – it’s hard to imagine the businessman standing still.

He recently completed his first Variety Bash, an 11-day fundraiser he tackled with his doctor brother Louis and friend Colin Jordan in a 1967 Chevrolet Impala. The car was repainted in army-green tones and the trio dressed in fatigues for the entire off-the-beaten-track adventure. McGuigan relished being the “five-star general”.

He doesn’t do things by halves. “You’ve got to win,” he says. “You’ve got to come through for your family, your staff, your company, your region. You’ve got to lead from the front. If you don’t go hard, you can’t expect others to go hard.”

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