There’s no question that Brian Walsh is one of the most respected and well-liked people in the Australian wine community. He’s been part of the ebb and flow of Australian wine since the 1960s. From his first ‘temporary’ job working as a lab assistant at Walter Reynell & Sons to his role as a Director at Yalumba, Brian has gathered experience and expertise which today he shares with the Australian wine community in his role as Chairman of Wine Australia.
As we’ll learn in our latest story, Brian Walsh has had a fascinating life in wine, from a false start in McLaren Vale to becoming a key player in the rise and rise of Yalumba. But that’s not what makes him unique, many in the Australian wine sector have fascinating stories. What sets Brian apart and makes him special is his humility, his collegiate attitude and his desire to unite the community. Let’s meet the people and visit some of the places that have helped shape Brian into the person he is today.
‘For me, great wine starts in the brain. Yes, you need to have a fantastic site and vineyard and so on but really the wine starts with a vision or a hunch or an inspiration. It starts in the head and then you start to put the pieces together to work out what to do. Which leads you to the vineyard and everything else along the way.’
Brian Walsh, Chairman, Wine Australia
If at first you don’t succeed? Try, try, try again
Brian Walsh doesn’t come from a winemaking dynasty, but he did grow up in one of our most famous wine growing regions. He grew up in the McLaren Vale region where his parents owned the Aldinga Hotel, a traditional Australian pub where beer and fortified wines ruled the patron’s drinking preferences. While Brian helped out working in the bottle shop, counting the tills, cleaning glasses and mopping the floors he didn’t move into the wine game via the pub.
The Australian wine community was very different in the 1960s, a far cry from the world-renowned industry we have today. Sherries, fruit cocktails and fortified wines dominated the landscape, as Brian was well familiar with working at the family pub. His first exposure to wine came from his first ‘real’ job out of high school working as a lab assistant at Walter Reynell and Sons, now the home of Hardy’s in McLaren Vale.
McLaren Vale: History & (R)Evolution
Brian Walsh took the job on a short-term basis while the incumbent was studying oenology at Roseworthy College, with no plans to make wine his life work. Within three months he found he loved the work. He really enjoyed everything he was doing from setting up blending trials for winemakers to all of the laboratory analysis on the wines. Brian would listen intently to the winemakers’ discussions on the wines and then tasting the wines to discover what they were talking about. Listening and learning, gathering experience and expertise. Brian was on the road to a life in wine.
But here is where our old friend fate first steps in to shape Brian’s life in wine. As luck would have it the incumbent never returned. Next thing you know Brian took the job permanently and then worked hard on climbing the ranks over the coming years? Not so fast. When it was clear that the incumbent wasn’t coming back Brian expressed an interest in completing the same oenology course at Roseworthy. Makes perfect sense for someone taking on the same role.
But Brian’s superiors were a little gun shy. They’d just been let down by one employee and weren’t keen on being disappointed again. Out came the excuses for why Brian couldn’t do the course. Understandably these excuses didn’t cut the mustard for Brian. If it was good enough for him then why not good enough for me? He’d been a dedicated employee. He’d done all they’d asked of him and helped out wherever and wherever they needed. He had to make a stand. He walked out of the door and left Walter Reynell and Sons.
A sliding doors moment in Australian wine
For the next six weeks Brian worked as a labourer in the Willunga almond orchards. While not the most mentally stimulating, working during the almond harvest was good, honest physical work. All well and good but not something many make a storied career out of. So, once harvest was over Brian popped into visit his friends in the cellar. His old boss, Don Hughes, asked Brian what he was up to. Nothing much. Can you stay on to help with the end of vintage? Sure thing, I can do that. While he never got the qualifications that caused the separation,Brian Walsh been working in wine ever since.
Not getting his oenology degree almost become a blessing in disguise. During the course of his career he evolved into a winemaking manager rather than a pure winemaker. Leading the team and making sure everything was in its right place. This was most true in his time at Australia’s oldest family owned winery, Yalumba. They weren’t short on highly skilled and gifted viticulturists and winemakers but Brian’s ability to support the team allowed them to do their best work. It’s no coincidence that during his time at Yalumba the winery evolved into one of the world’s most innovative and renowned.
Brian Walsh in his role as Chairman of Wine Australia
Yalumba - Australia's oldest family owned winery
When Brian arrived at Yalumba in 1988 the business like many old family wine companies was transitioning from a fortified producer to a maker of fine table wines. Before long though a combination of hard work, dedication and innovation revived the winery and Yalumba entered it’s modern ‘golden age’. CEO and fifth generation family member Robert Hill-Smith’s astute sense of market and wine style along with Brian and the team’s ability to extract the best from the family’s vineyard and winemaking resources formed a formidable combination. They exuded a confidence and a positivity that was truly infectious, an attitude to work and life that became part of the culture at Yalumba that persists to this day.
When retiring is not really retiring at all…
After 25 years at Yalumba, Brian Walsh ‘retired’ in 2012 without any real idea on what he’d do in the next phase of his life. Rather than taking a back seat or moving away from the spotlight Brian has become a statesman for the Australian wine community. From his role as Chairman of Wine Australia to working with a number of small family wine companies Brian’s passion for bringing the community together to show our best to the rest of the world has never been stronger.
‘We’ve got to be proud of what we do in this country, and not try to emulate the wines that have inspired us. We seek inspiration not imitation. We need to be inspired but how will that manifest itself within our own land and landscape. We have to be true to where we are. Being true to your place, not just following fashions or trends, is a very important part of my philosophy in wine.’
From the family hotel in McLaren Vale to helping shape Yalumba into one of the world’s great wineries to leading the Australian wine community through one of its most exciting and challenging times, it’s been one heck of a life in wine for Brian Walsh. The inspiration he received from so many over the years has been translated into experience and understanding. Wisdom shared with current and future generations taking our premium wines to the world. A true legacy that Brian Walsh should be very, very proud of.
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