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Learning from the wine world of Max Schubert

"All winemakers should possess a good fertile imagination if they are to be successful in their craft."  So said Max Schubert, legendary Australian winemaker and the man responsible for Penfolds Grange , Australia's most famous wine.  Robert Parker, perhaps the world's most respected wine critic, has gone so far to say that Grange "has replaced Bordeaux's Pétrus as the world's most exotic and concentrated wine."

Not too shabby considering that when Schubert was appointed chief winemaker at Penfolds in 1948, Australia had about zero credibility in winemaking. So what can we learn from Schubert's extraordinary achievements?

Colour - "clear vision"

penfolds_grandeIn the 1950s, Schubert returned from France with the goal of producing an Australian red wine comparable with those produced in Bordeaux.  He developed Grange Hermitage beginning with the 1951 vintage and the first commercial Grange was the 1952 vintage, released in 1955.

However, in 1957 Penfolds ordered Schubert to cease production due to the high costs of making Grange.  However, Schubert kept innovating and even continued making the wine in secret.  Eventually, the head honchos at Penfolds realised the value of the Grange and production officially resumed with the 1960 vintage.

Nose - innovative

Schubert was also responsible for introducing several winemaking techniques to Australia. Some of these included:

  • use of refrigeration to control the rate of fermentation and thus the extraction of flavour from grapes;
  • using new, unseasoned small oak barrels to finish the fermentation and mature the red wine;
  • use of plastics; and
  • pH control.

He experimented at length with these techniques and more.  This innovation was responsible for the majority of the premium Penfolds red wines including Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz, Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz and Bin 389 Cabernet. Huon Hooke, wine writer and judge, said Schubert was "...a formally untrained man who learned by trial and error, by keen observation, by the seat of his pants."

Palate - "enduring"

Following Schubert's innovations, the Australian wine industry has a very keen emphasis on research and development.  It produces approximately 20% of the world's scientific papers on viticulture and oenology, even though Australia only has a relatively tiny share of the world's wine output.  It was stated more bluntly in Gideon Rachman's piece in The Economist called "The Globe in a Glass " - where John Worontschak, an Australian wine maker, says the success behind Aussie wine is that the industry is "...open to new ideas, and we're not full of pretentious bullshit."

Schubert passed away in 1994.  Legendary Australian wine writer James Halliday noted of him: "He was no more perfect than any of us, but he went as close to creating perfection in wine as anyone is ever likely to do."

Lessons for entrepreneurs

And so clarity of vision, persistence and innovation are yet again lessons for entreprenuers involved in commercialisation to take away from Schubert's remarkable accomplishments.

Too often inventors fail to take the necessary step of fully researching their product and opportunity. Their attitude seems to be  -  since I invented it, they will come.

There are lessons in the level of research conducted by Schubert. His creativity and innovation was ongoing.  His achievement was not the result of one, two or 100 "Eureka" moments, but rather the result of a career dedicated to continual improvement.

His achievement was not founded on a significant intellectual property monopoly over say a trade mark, copyright or patent. Instead he helped build a business from the application of his growing intellectual capital. Penfolds  then took the further steps of protecting that with branding and confidential information (eg over sources of grapes, mixes, methods of production etc). Penfolds, the enterprise Schubert helped build, today owns one of the most branded and integrated product lines in the world of wine.


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