Bob McLean : Barossa legend

Bob McLean : Barossa legend

“This dyin’ business is fuckin’ killin’ me …”

These were the last words Big Bob said to me when I called in on him and Wilma on April 1st this year, just three days before we left for five weeks overseas. I’m sure glad I phoned him a few days before to ask if he was up to the interview we had spoken about. “Sure,” he said, “but you better come quick.” I reckon he knew he didn’t have long. (5)  I have known Bob as a client, a good friend, a mentor and a great lunching partner for more than 25 years. If he was in town he’d often ring: “Ya got time for lunch?” On one occasion I replied: “Sure, but it’s Monday, one of my AFDs.” He replied, “No problem – only got one bottle with me, it’s only Riesling, we can share it.”

While I was at the winery on April 1st, a few people dropped in. Bob said to me, “They drop in all the time, can’t say no, but I really have not wanted to see anyone for months.” While we were finishing the interview, a couple more dropped in. Bob quietly called Wilma. She arrived a few minutes later with lunch. That was them, always the great hosts.

Big Bob's last long lunch, with Chateau Tanunda general manager Matthew McCulloch, the Riesling master Colin Forbes and Wilma.

Big Bob’s last long lunch, with Chateau Tanunda general manager Matthew McCulloch, the Riesling master Colin Forbes and Wilma. Photo  :  Milton Wordley.

How’s business, Bob? What are you doing now?

Are we talking about the last three to four months or the past three to four years?

The past three or four months, the vet tells me I’m dying! Over the last three or four years, I’ve been actively building barr-Eden vineyard to become an absolutely unique winemakers’ vineyard. I don’t want to be just a grape grower, growing grapes. It’s designed for the winemakers to come here – to look for quality – to perve on the quality and then fight for it.

I’ve been making a per cent for myself and then just slowly flirting with what I call the top young winemakers in the Barossa. There are a number making some great wine.

One of Bob's favourite wines. Charlie melton's 'Nine popes'.

One of Bob’s favourite wines. Charlie Melton’s ‘Nine popes’.

But I reckon my top senior man in the whole Barossa is Charlie Melton. Charlie is actually thinking outside the square; he’s thinking at the next level, whereas a number of other senior winemakers that I know, those that grew up in my period, are still living on their haunches. Their icon wine is still their icon wine. It’s good wine, but I haven’t seen anyone create anything that is really brand new. Without putting shit on anybody in particular, they’re all pretty good, but Charlie is already thinking about going higher and I really respect that because that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve broken away from that previous company; that’s got nothing to do with me now. My whole objective is to build a vineyard that is all about taste. Loved by winemakers because of the quality of the fruit, the terroir: everything about it.

So that’s been the last three or four years. I’ve even – tongue in cheek – stopped being a winemaker. Because I never was. I mean, I’m a dreamer, a storyteller. I think about things, create and get it done. We all get our hands dirty here, and we still make wines in here, in the winery. That’s where I think we’re going. Although I reckon we let a lot of our super super stuff go before we even get our brains around it.

In the last couple of months? You know – we all know – I have this wee infliction called a liver. Mine’s not so good right now. So I’m just preparing to make sure that this vineyard is viewed forever – that will be my legacy – to make sure that this vineyard on the mountain is viewed for ever as a winemaker’s vineyard. No matter who controls it.

As an off joke, when I planted it, I planted it as bush vines so you couldn’t get a mechanical harvester into it. You can’t mechanically prune it. There’s no water. It’s all rocks. It’s all dry grown. All got its own roots, all in the old original style. Apart from the Riesling, which is on high posts, like a post for each vine like the Germans do it, it’s what I wanted. The hundred-year-old style. What we farmers started with. Let the climate and the terroir create the wines.

I can get Mataro up here fully ripe – full of flavour – at 12 or under 13 baumé. It’s as if you can’t do that any more: you’ve got to have it bagging up in the western suburbs of the Barossa. But not on the mountain. 500 metres we are. The highest Mataro in the world.

We get the best grapes up here, in the crossflow winds.

Barr Eden vineyard.

Bob and Wilma’s barr Eden vineyard. Photo  :  Bob McLean

Andrew Jefford refers to ‘wine growers’ often. Is that you?

I don’t always agree with Andrew, but we brought him out here and I think he’s turned against us. But yes, I am a wine grower. I think Gibbo (1) was the first person to use that word that I know of. I suspect he tried to tell Andrew Jefford the academic, as well.

I don’t listen to those people. Don’t read them either.

If someone writes up Twelftree (2) or Alex Head (3) or Charlie, then my wines are in there. All these guys actually use my vineyard name: “fruit taken from barr-Eden Vineyard”. Signifies the top of the mountain. The Eden Valley stops right at this hill, right along the Yacca (4) line.

What was your early life like?

I was born in Clare. Early days were at Peterborough and Hamley Bridge. Went to high school at Maris Brothers in Adelaide. I must have been the ugliest kid in school. I loved every bit of my schooling, but not the study. I played football. Played rugby. I was never a star at anything, but I participated in everything. That’s the secret. You don’t have to be a star; just participate. My advice to everyone that will listen is to participate, learn teamwork and your natural leadership qualities will come out of that. You know the ones that you’re good at, and the ones that you are not good at.

When I left school my Dad says, “You’ve got to get papers son; you’ve got to have some papers.” It was like that in the early sixties. So like everyone I did the Post Office exam, the bank exam … did all the government exams. Went on to be a sparky.

Big Bob, larger than life at times.

Big Bob, larger than life at times.

How did you get involved in the wine industry ?

Just pure arse. I was working at the Old Lion Hotel for Ron Tremain doing PR. I was living there over the pub and being a bouncer at the same time at the Redlegs football club. Crowd control we called it. I was just larger than life. Like bull in a china shop. I mean I came out of the Ron Tremain and Bob Francis school of etiquette.

Ron taught me things. He taught me something about going into a room and about meeting people. The most important thing was like, you know, “I don’t think I like that person over there. I must get to know them. Those old things … you know: like the things your mum and dad try to teach you. But you don’t always learn from your mum and dad. You learn from your mentors. Ron also taught me how to write letters – ’cause I couldn’t. Even today I don’t write letters. I yell.

Anyway, Ron brought Sid Gramp down from Orlando with Tom Morris in 1972. He’d worked for MGM or somebody in Sydney. I think his wife had asthma or something and he had to come here to the drier air. He was the South Australia public relations manager for Gramp and Sons, based at Rowland Flat. He was a lovely man. He was a Rotarian and he taught me a lot of things about people; about communication. I didn’t join Rotary, but Tom taught me that you’ve got to go forward with your good information. You’ve got to teach people. The one person who will pick up what you say is the person who listens to you, the person that learns from you. That person will pass on everything you’ve taught them to the next person. But not only that; that person has to pass it on. The three moves: I have to teach you everything I know, but I also have to teach you to teach someone else. My job’s not done till you teach the next person. Double whammy!

Stephen Henschke with Bob and Wilma in the McLean's Farm / barr Eden tasting room. Photo  :  Philip White

Stephen Henschke with Bob and Wilma in the McLean’s Farm / barr Eden tasting room. Photo : Philip White

I’m sure the Aboriginals and the Indians – you know the cowboys and the Indians – have been doing it for ever. It’s nothing new, but nobody does it. Everyone teaches someone to make money and they all forget the basics and they lose it. The holy cow has fuckin’ moved. All that came from Tom Morrison – that’s ’72. That’s the first thing I learnt in the wine industry, and that’s not even on the question.

Back to the Old Lion. Syd Gramp and Tom Morrison liked the cut of my cloth, probably with Tremain’s recommendation. He would have said, “I’ve got nothing to give this guy.” Tremain came back to me about a year later, and said “I reckon I’ve got a job for you.” But he said “I reckon its a waste of time offering it to you” – that was a pretty big help – “it’s recognising your skills of passing it on, not trying to control.”

So then I went to Orlando. Started at the bottom of the pile. I was the assistant to the assistant to the assistant.

Then Tom finally left and went to work for his son, Terry Morrison, in Perth. Terry’s mentors were rich people. He didn’t learn from his father. He should have. Tom was my mentor. They brought me up here to the Barossa and put me in cellar door and said you’ll be good. So it’s not wine at all. I came up for a job; if you think about it, it’s people communicating. I go through people. Communications.

Bob pouring Pol for Orlando for New South Wales 'guvnr', Sir Arthur Roden Cutler.

Bob pouring Pol for Orlando for New South Wales ‘guvnr’, Sir Arthur Roden Cutler.

I’ve been wrongly bagged as a winemaker over the years. People always said I was a PR person. I’m more of a communicator than anything. When I was running hot in the ’70s, people wanted to know why I didn’t open my own PR thing or go into marketing. They said I’d kill it. But I’m not a marketer. Halliday still calls me a marketer and that’s actually been an impediment in my last five years, ’cause I’m not a marketer. I make things work but that’s not marketing, it’s problem-solving. It’s communicating. I get everybody talking. I can get enemies to talk. I can set things up: I’m not a bad adjudicator. I’m a good chair because I listen. My version of chair is that you shut up and listen and make sure everyone gets a say, everyone gets a fair go. I listen with my eyes and I watch with my ears and I learn everything out of those two ’cause I don’t read or write very well.

They took me to Adelaide to be the Orlando state public relations person, a new position. In those days it was a new position in the whole wine industry. We’re talking 1973-74. No one had had an in-house PR man before. Normally they would hire big deal PR companies to do press releases, et cetera. Somehow I sort of knew what I was doing: talking to people, talking to the trade, travelling, meeting, touching. Old-fashioned. Building a persona, which in essence becomes a public relations activity, but not PR per se. It’s all about communications: good communications. Something that Abbott lacks … Jesus, he could do with some help, couldn’t he?

What about the Pol Roger thing in Sydney ?

Oh, that was fun. Orlando had me up there. They did that because they didn’t want to keep the head office down here. That was just the politics of the game then. I got transferred to Sydney as the national PR manager for Orlando. So there I was, a country sparky climbing up the corporate ladder. Pol Roger just happened to be one of the brands that we had.

What about favourite wine styles – memorable wines?

Bob had a great palate and took his wine very seriously.

Bob had a great palate and took his wine very seriously. Photo :  Milton Wordley.

I could drop a name, but it’s not worth it – they were all just names and associations to me. My favourite wine style is Côtes du Rhône. Has been for donkey’s years. I like the cross. I’ve been making it for years.

I lead with Shiraz. Doesn’t have to be 100 per cent from my vineyard, just Barossa. Shiraz has got plum fruit. I love Mataro, because Mataro tells you that you’ve got savoury. I don’t want to go plum-sweet, baggy wine, but you’ve gotta go plum which should die down and then you’ve got the savoury, which is charcuterie; which is olives. It’s all those things. Then you’ve got Grenache, which in its early stages is very pretty. So you can drink the wine relatively young. As the Grenache dies off, it still imparts lovely flavour but not like that earlier pretty Grenache.

The Mataro stays strong: savoury; charcuterie; black Kalamata olives. Then the plumminess of Shiraz. All Shiraz starts like that – and then it goes quiet. Leathery. Dry. And then you’ve got this lovely straight flavour and that’s what blending great wine is about. Charlie’s Nine Popes falls into that style, I love it.

Varietal wines go up and fucking down. All these jerks running around looking for these poofy varieties … bless them! They can do whatever they like. But what have they got? Up here at 500 metres we’ve got Shiraz, Grenache and Mataro and it’s already alternative. Most of it down on the valley floor to the west gets hot: baggy, over-ripe short flavours. Ours are long flavours; we pick late. Just picked ours today, weeks after the valley floor.

Favourite Bars?

One that’s open. I don’t have one that’s fashionable. I could say Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris. Loved it, but I’ve only been a few times. The Universal was good in its day. It’s like, if I was taking you out for a drink, I would work out what bar you like ’cause you’re the most important person. Gets back to communication.

Bob and Wilma, what great hosts. A family lunch in the winery. L-R Mick Wordley, Philip White, Peter Fraser, Robyn Wordley, Annabelle Collett + Big Bob.

Bob and Wilma, what great hosts. A family lunch in the winery. L-R Mick Wordley, Philip White, Peter Fraser, Robyn Wordley, Annabelle Collett + Big Bob. Photo : Milton Wordley

So really Orlando, Petaluma, St. Hallett led to here. Why at the top of the hill?

It’s the quality of the grapes. We get the best grapes up here in the crossflow winds. The climate. Wilma selected the territory. Wilma bought this, I simply paid for it. Wilma is the total influence .

Barr Eden vineyard. Photo  :  Milton Wordley

Wilma with Adam and Peter Fraser, Yangarra chief winemaker at barr Eden vineyard. Photo : Milton Wordley

Is it different running your own company as opposed to being a shareholder at St. Hallett and an employee at Orlando and Petaluma.

They are all different but really, no, the rules are the same. I’ve been lucky, I’ve always set the rules even within corporations. I’ve always been able to back my decisions.

One of my sayings is don’t rip anyone off. I’ve never done a deal yet that fucks anyone over, ever. Its equal-equal, win-win.

It’s generally acknowledged you had a big influence in establishing Brand Barossa over twenty years ago. How do you see it now?

That’s a good question. But is it about the Barossa or Australia?

I’ll give you Barossa first. The Barossa is still a mile in front of every region in Australia, including the area I absolutely love going to, McLaren Vale. Every one of them is playing catch-up. They don’t know how we get things together every time. We’re tight because we are a peasant community, even with our absentee landlords. All their employees live here. We don’t all run to to the city for our games, we are a peasant community, and bloody proud of it.

The Barossa does not change a lot, but I can tell you in my opinion, there is more great Shiraz that will come out of the Barossa for $70 a bottle than will come out of any other region in Australia. It’s private school in other regions; it’s peasants up here.

The Barossa has not lost its ground, but it has lost some of its PR skills locally. The other guys are working on it.

I do believe I was very influential in getting the Barossa together. I pulled the Charlies and the Rockies together and then they all came. The minute I walked into Adelaide, I only talked Barossa. The minute I walked out of Adelaide into Sydney or Melbourne, I talked only South Australia: not only the Barossa, but in particular Coonawarra and McLaren Vale. I knew the regions, I went out and learnt the regions. Not many do that any more. As soon as I was offshore, I talked only Barossa and Australia. That’s what we are known for over there.

There is a general assumption that the wine industry has done it tough over the last five to ten years. How do you see it ?

One of Len's books, courtesy XOUM. Photo by Steve Christo, SMH.

One of Len’s books, courtesy XOUM. Photo by Steve Christo, SMH.

Yes, it has been, but that’s because the corporations are fucking hard. That shit all filters down.

The people that are actually focused on building their vineyards are going okay. I do not know a single grower that’s doing that who has found it really hard. But I reckon we are only talking three to five per cent of the industry.

In my opinion, the current national marketing campaign is spending too much time concentrating on food. Cath Kerry used to tell me off all the time: “You winemakers never think about food matching!” Now we spend all our time making the wine fit in with the fucking chefs’ food and ideas. All those chefs think they are winemakers.

Who has influenced you?

Besides Tom Morrison, Len Evans.

Len came and saw me before he died because he knew he was dying, whereas I’m not going to see anyone.

Brian Croser has dropped a couple of one liners that have helped me. I know that people tip shit on Croser, but I reckon he’s okay.

Jon Lamb from Channel Nine and Banksia helped me learn to think about business.

Passions other than wine?

Besides Wilma and the kids, Bessie the boat.

Wilma and  Bessy the boat.

Wilma and Bessie the boat.  Photo  :  Bob McLean

Anything else you want to say?

I’m not dead. Yet. But this dyin’ business is fuckin’ killin’ me anyway.

It’s quick!

It’s a bit hard to tell all my friends that, as I’m dying, I miss the bloody boat … So don’t tell them.


[1] Rob Gibson, Barossa grape grower/winemaker and founder of Gibson Wines. David Wynn had coined the term ‘winegrower’ in the 1960s.

[2] Michael Twelftree of Two Hands Wines

[3] Sydney-based winemaker of Head Wines of the Barossa Valley

[4] Yacka, Yacca, grass tree, blackboy: Xanthorrhoea

[5] I conducted this interview with Bob McLean in his barr-Eden winery on McLean’s Farm on Wednesday 1st April, 2015, three days before I left for 5 weeks overseas. Bob had been ill with liver cancer for months. He died just before lunch in the local Angaston Hospital on Thursday 9th April, while I was in London. This post is a real team effort. My partner, Anne Marie, transcribed the interview on QF9 on the way over here. Philip White supplied some photographs and volunteered to “have look at it”. He subsequently created a great read from the over-an-hour’s interview. Sally Marden in New Zealand then volunteered to proofread it. She and Whitey both knew Bob very well, and worked together on the Grange book; together they did a great job. John Nieddu retouched Bob’s glasses. Wilma checked it and emailed back. “Love it, thanks, that’s our Bob xxw”, and finally Simon Perrin, who looks after my website, posted it on the blog. We are all gunna’ miss him : Milton Wordley, Madrid, April 21st, 2015.