Robert Oatley, whose Rosemount Estate winery helped lead an Australian wine boom in the United States in the 1990s, died in Sydney on Jan. 10 at age 87.
Born in a Sydney suburb in 1928, the fifth-generation Australian built a successful coffee import business before he bought land in Upper Hunter Valley and started Rosemount Estate in 1969. By 2000, the distinctive diamond label on Rosemount's moderately priced Shiraz had found its way onto enough retail shelves across America to make Rosemount the second best–selling Australian brand in the U.S., according to Impact Databank.
Oatley built Rosemount into a wine juggernaut, successful with a range of wines at $7 to $15 and with his high-end single-vineyard Roxburgh Chardonnay and a McLaren Vale red called Balmoral, labeled Syrah instead of Shiraz to signal an aim for deftness over power. These generous fruit flavors and supple textures ushered in a big wave of similarly fashioned wines that allowed Australia to challenge Italy and France as America's leading source for imported wine.
In 2001, Southcorp acquired Rosemount, then Australia's largest family-owned winery, for nearly AUS$1.5 billion. As part of the deal, Rosemount's management team took charge of the combined companies. It was just one of several megamergers in Aussie wine in recent years—Southcorp later merged with Foster's, and in 2012 Foster's spun off its wine business into Treasury Wine Estates.
Oatley, however, regrouped his team and in 2006 started a new family-owned wine company, Robert Oatley Vineyards, focusing on regionally designated varietals. The current wines, crafted by winemaker Larry Cherubino, include several outstanding Chardonnays, including the fresh and vital Robert Oatley Chardonnay Margaret River Finisterre 2013 (92 points, $33).
Robert's eldest son, Sandy Oatley, is expected to continue managing the family's various interests, which include a horse farm in Hunter Valley, a series of nursing homes and properties, and resort islands on the Barrier Reef. Oatley's other son, Ian, and his daughter Ros are also involved in the business.
An avid sailor, Robert owned a maxi yacht (a sailboat more than 70 feet long) that has dominated the Sydney to Hobart race since 2005. The 100-foot Wild Oats XI has won eight times and holds the race record for fastest time.
Oatley is survived by his wife, Val, his three sons, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.