INDUSTRY ICON: Don McWilliam presents the 2000 Maurice O’Shea Award to Wolf Blass. Don McWilliam died at the age of 83 on October 26.DONMcWilliam had many achievements during his lifetime in the wine industry, but the one he arguably treasured most was working on the 1954 and 1955 McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Hunter vintages alongside legendary winemaker Maurice O’Shea.
The work was hard, Don remembered, as there was no electricity at Pokolbin until 1957 and grapes had to be pressed and wine pumped by muscle power – but, as he rose up the corporate ladder, Don watched O’Shea’s genius shine through right up to his death from cancer in Newcastle in 1956.
The 20-year-old’s admiration for O’Shea was later channelled into McWilliam’s in 1990 establishing the Mount Pleasant Maurice O’Shea Award, which recognises outstanding contributions to Australian wine and has become one of the major events of the industry calendar. The award winners have included such wine greats as the creator of Penfolds Grange Max Schubert, Len Evans, James Halliday, David Wynn, Wolf Blass and Dr John Gladstones, the “founding father” of Western Australia’s Margaret River wine region.
Don McWilliam died at the age of 83 on October 26 at a Salamander Bay nursing home. He and his late wife Louise had retired to Port Stephens in 1998, and he formed firm friendships with fellow Nelson Bay Rotary Club members and his regular Salamander Bay veteran golfing mates and by chartering out his 13-metre game fishing boat.
He is survived by his sons Stephen and Chris and daughter Debra andhis funeral will be held on Monday, November 6, at 2.30pm at Salamander Bay Uniting Church.
As the company observed last week in announcing his death, he was “a great icon of the Australian wine industry and a driving force behind McWilliam’s”.
The family-owned wine company was born in 1877 when family patriarch Samuel McWilliam planted the first McWilliam’s wine grapes at the NSW Murray River town of Corowa and thus began a saga that has created one of the pillars of the Australian wine industry.
Don McWilliam was born in Sydney, the son of Keith Stuart McWilliam, who ran the Griffith-based family’s Sydney operation.After schooling at Sydney Grammar, a teenage Don joined the family firm on the factory floor, inserting corks and fitting capsules by hand.
When Don turned 18, he recalled, his father decided he should be elevated to managerial trainee. This grand title meant he had to dash to McWilliam’s Pyrmont headquarters every time the burglar alarm went off and was sent off to the various wineries, vineyards and cellars of McWilliam’s – most memorably working with Maurice O’Shea at Pokolbin.
The teenage bottling line hand of the 1950s, became a McWilliam’s director in 1957, company CEO in 1970 and chairman of directors in 1988. He retired as McWilliam’s CEO in 1993 and as chairman of directors in 2010.
He was a passionate supporter of the Hunter Valley wine industry and in 2011 was made a member of the Hunter Valley Legends of Wine.Former Mount Pleasant manager-chief winemaker Phil Ryan recalls Don had an abiding love of Hunter wines, especially the Rosehill vineyard shiraz reds.
Mr McWilliam was active in key national industry associations, includingAustralian Wine and Brandy Corporation and Australian Wine and Brandy Producers’ Association.In 2003 he was made aMember of the Order of Australia (AM).