Don Ditter, who stepped into the legendary Max Schubert's shoes as chief winemaker at Australia's Penfolds and improved the overall quality of the wines at a critical juncture in the company's history, died Dec. 16 in Sydney. He was 89.
Raised in Barossa Valley, Ditter began as a lab assistant at Penfolds' Magill Estate in Adelaide in 1942, rising through the ranks until he took over for Schubert in 1973, overseeing production of wines ranging from popular-priced blends to Grange. He retired in 1986, but remained a consultant to Penfolds.
During his tenure, Ditter oversaw the consolidation of Penfolds winemaking, which had been spread among three states. He also introduced critical innovations. In an interview with Wine Spectator in 2013, he explained how he started a system to triage every lot of grapes from all of Penfolds' diverse vineyard sources by both taste and chemical analysis. This evaluation and classification continues today with every fermenting tank and every barrel transfer, directing the grapes and resulting wines to the appropriate bottling.
"Around 1970 we got more analytical about how we did things," Ditter recalled in the interview near his home in suburban Sydney. "All the winemakers together tasted all the vineyards. Putting the sources into a hierarchy helped with the continuity of everything."
He also developed some of the critical components of the Penfolds range, including Koonunga Hill, Magill Estate and special bin bottlings. These came at a time when the Australian wine industry was in such dire straits that the government instituted a program to pay growers not to grow grapes.
Ditter also reintroduced Bin 707, Penfolds' high-end Cabernet Sauvignon. Launched in 1964, Bin 707 was not made from 1970 to 1975. "It had been taken off," he said, "because there was not enough Cabernet left after fulfilling the needs for Bin 389," Penfolds' Cabernet-Shiraz blend.
As chief winemaker, Ditter maintained the feisty attitude that Schubert established. Despite distractions from changes of ownership, Ditter said, "None of them ever told me how to make wine. They'd check, I'd explain and we'd carry on."
"They once asked for 100,000 cases of Grange," he recalled. "But I told them we could only make 7,000. And that was that."
His one regret, he said, was that he never had a chance to explore Merlot. "I became enamored of St.-Émilion," he shrugged. "I did make one vintage before I retired from the company, and wasn't happy with the results."
After retirement he remained an advisor to the company and worked with sparkling wines. "Now when they ring me up," he said, "I tell them they're making damn good wines. When I was there I never wanted to be somewhere else."