Bob McLean made an impression. A rotund, bearded teddy bear with a soft-spoken wit, he also had a sharp palate and a preference for midday dining that earned him the nickname "Sir Lunch-a-Lot." Seems everyone I knew in Australia wine called him that.
Well, lunch in Barossa Valley or Adelaide won't be the same. McLean succumbed to a seven-month battle with liver cancer Wednesday in Adelaide. He was 67.
When I met him, in 1996, his office was literally in St. Hallett winery's dining room. It served his purpose as the managing director and marketing partner, but like all the greats of the Australian wine world, people like Len Evans and Peter Lehmann, he had a larger purpose for all those lunches. With visiting wine writers, like me, the talk was generally about Australia's history and potential, and the specifics that make the wines and regions what they are.
I learned a lot from those early lunches with Bob. Rambling on about Shiraz, he liked to quote Penfolds' veteran winemaker, Max Schubert, that the grape's distinct fruit character, often likened to blueberry or plum, should still be discerned even after it's aged in the bottle for years. And then he would pour a perfect example of a 20-year-old Shiraz with the fruit still hovering in the background of all the aged qualities.
An electrician by trade, and a onetime bouncer, McLean used his larger-than-life personality to edge into the wine business doing public relations and marketing for Australian wineries such as Orlando and Petaluma. For a while he represented Pol Roger Champagne in Australia. But his crowning achievement was to modernize St. Hallett.
When he bought into the winery in 1988, 80 percent of the meager 2,500-case production was dessert wines. But among the table wines were a few barrels of a Shiraz called Old Block, a blend of several dry-farmed Barossa Valley vineyards with 85- to 100-year-old vines. Four vintages of the wine were in various stages of completion when McLean and winemaker Stuart Blackwell surveyed the cellar. They decided to bottle the existing wines with minimal fining, no filtration.
Old Block 1986 was the first to catch the attention of wine drinkers, first in Australia, then worldwide. Old Block remains an icon of Barossa Shiraz, using gnarly vines planted decades ago to hew to a supple, silky style even as others went for bigger, more extracted character. By the time Lion-Nathan acquired St. Hallett in 2001, McLean and Blackwell had expanded exponentially into table wines, creating such distinctive labels as the Faith Shiraz and value offerings such as Gamekeeper's Shiraz and Poacher's Blend white.
After St. Hallett changed hands, McLean turned his attention to his own vineyard on Mangler's Hill, high in the hills separating Barossa and Eden Valleys. He made the wines in a middle-of-the-road style. And he never stopped proselytizing his region and his country's wines at every opportunity. Over lunch, of course.
For a chance to see McLean's personality and love of Australian Shiraz, take a look at his series of videos on YouTube.