By Leonard Hurley
“The man who took a simple hillside
and bottled its green living beauty.”
The Wine Hunter by Campbell Mattinson
This is the remarkable and tragic story of a genius who had two great conflicting loves in his life. His family and his vineyard, but who was destined to live out his life torn between them.
Maurice George O’Shea born to a Kerry father and French mother was to become the father of the Australian wine industry. On an isolated remote hillside one hundred miles north of Sydney, in the Hunter Valley, O’Shea created a miracle, Australia’s first great wines. Without electricity and basic equipment this visionary, a man with an exhilarating dream, succeeded in making the perfect wine.
Maurice was born 1898 in North Sydney to John Augustus O’Shea (1868 – 1912), a teacher, of Clahanelinehan, Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry and Parisienne born Leontine Francoise Beaucher (1867- 1949), daughter of a French naval officer. On arrival in Australia John set up a successful business, the New South Wales Wine and Spirits Company, importing wines from Europe. Maurice attended the best Catholic schools in Sydney. John died in 1912 and Leontine, using her family contacts, sent Maurice to France to complete his education.
In 1914, at the age of sixteen, at the outbreak of World War I he arrived in France. Maurice attended a Lycée in Montpellier and later Grigon Agriculture College near Paris, studying viticulture and oenology. As a student at the University of Montepellier he studied science and lectured in analytical chemistry. His interests included mathematics, botany, history, and cooking. A lover of all things French, Maurice was particularly influenced by French wines and winemaking.
At the insistence of his mother, the well-read cultured Maurice reluctantly returned to Sydney in 1920. While attending a party with his sister, Leontine, the unsettled dreamer Maurice heard the notes of a Chopin piece being played by sixteen-year-old Marcia Singer Fuller. He fell in love even before he saw her. Maurice, the committed Catholic and “the gentle perfectionist “married the great love of his life, the beautiful, young, cultured and equally committed Anglican, Marcia, first in an Anglican ceremony, later in a Catholic church.
Maurice’s mother Leontine purchased hillside land, at his suggestion, in the remote Hunter Valley, west of Newcastle. Maurice knew that the volcanic soil of the Hunter Valley was particularly suitable for a vineyard and that the best shiraz vineyards in France were on sloping land.
This site was made for red wine. Its rich, red, volcanic soils were gravelly, granitic, held moisture but made the vines work hard to find it. He first planted, Pinochet Red, vines and this was the basis of his many great wines. The golden – skinned Semillon grape was used to make dry and sweet white wines. By 1925 two adjoining properties were added, amounting to 200 acres, which they named Mount Pleasant.
Maurice began a life of hard work, long hours, isolation, and complete dedication with an ambition to create Australia’s first great wines. He had to contend with difficult climatic conditions, extremely high temperatures, excessive rains, and hailstorms. Hunter Valley wines have a natural softness which causes them to mature more quickly than European.
O’Shea used blending techniques which he learned in France and with the use of oak barrels created red wines of great flavour, intensity, and longevity. He called his wines after family and friends or the grapes from which they came, Hermitage, Shiraz, Semillon.
He did not find it easy to establish a wine culture in Australia as the public preferred beer, fortified wines, and spirits to table wine. A short sturdily built man, with thick black hair brushed straight back, he suffered from extreme myopia, and wore very thick glasses. His eyes were so bad he never drove a sulky or a car.
He always travelled by bicycle, train or boat or hitched a lift. His poor eyesight had the effect of enhancing other senses, taste, and smell, thus giving him an uncanny ability to judge whether young wines needed to be blended to reach their full potential. Mild mannered Maurice, gentle, hospitable, droll, and shy had a great sense of humour and was much-loved.
He was a major purchaser of district grapes and wines for resale and blending. Local producers relied on his expertise and winemaking techniques. He was a man of remarkably high principles and standards and of great integrity. If he said a wine was good, you could believe it.
In 1932 the McWilliam family, recognising his great talent and potential, purchased 50% of the winery and the remainder in 1941. Maurice stayed as manager until he died. The remoteness, isolation, basic living conditions in an old, corrugated iron winery and Maurice’s long working hours proved too much for cultured Marcia. In 1937 after twelve years of marriage they separated.
Marcia left for Sydney with their only child, eight – year – old Simone. That was also the year that O’Shea sank his grief and longing and love into what many regard as the perfect wine, the exquisite dry red,1937 Mountain A. Maurice said, “That wine is my heart and soul in a bottle – it is the best wine I’ll ever make.” Others consider his 1954 Robert Hermitage his most famous wine. The separation of the loving couple was devastating for both.
They remained friends, neither of them remarried and Maurice regularly visited and stayed with Marcia and Simone in Sydney, later purchasing a house for them. Marcia got a job as a music teacher in a girls’ school and she and Simone often visited Maurice. As a master blender he was fearless in experimentation.
He continued to work on his winery building and created an international reputation for himself and Mount Pleasant. David Wynn, founder of Wynns Estate, said that “he established the standards for the Australian wine industry.” Dr Max Lake, winemaker and writer once wrote that O’Shea’s success with wine was “due in part to the fact that he was a true artist.
He used wines like a painter uses colours and textures.” Max Shubert, the hugely influential winemaker, and founder of Grange said he “felt humbled” in the presence of Osha’s wines.
In its thirty years struggle Mount Pleasant winery never made a profit. O’Shea took the long view of wine’s place in history from the earliest times through Greek and Roman influences on French – Irish – Australian nose for the nuances and art of wine making. Maurice was also a meticulous cook and his gourmet meals delighted his friends as much as his wine. He had no gas or electricity and he cooked on an old stove, a small oven with a faint reek of kerosene.
He understood “that good wine and good food are among the best things in life,” and “that wine assists assimilation of food, and the flavour of wine brings out the flavour of the food.” Marcia hadn’t lived with Maurice for twenty years but when he contracted lung cancer, she and Simone travelled to Newcastle to nurse him and stayed with him until he died in their loving presence on 5 May 1956, aged 59.
Winemaker extraordinary, Maurice O’Shea, was buried with his parents in Gore Hill Cemetery, St. Leonard’s, North Sydney. Today his grave is on the Sydney Heritage Route and is visited by many. Marcia, the love of his life, later went to live with her daughter in Adelaide and died there aged 84 in 1988.
The greatest honour in the Australian wine industry is the Maurice O’Shea Award, given every second year at a gala event, to whoever provides leadership and motivation in the industry. Today a bottle of Maurice O’Shea wine will cost you hundreds but if you can find an original labelled bottle it will cost you thousands.
Maurice George O’Shea, son of an Irish emigrant from Cahersiveen, singlehandly set the standard for winemaking. He left an indelible mark on the Australian wine industry establishing it as a worldwide global product.