“Renegade: a deserter from one faith, cause, or allegiance to another; an individual who rejects lawful or conventional behavior.” That Webster’s Dictionary definition is hardly a flattering description to add to a man’s name. Especially when the man was a devoted and loyal, if not brilliant, servant to the company that is now smearing him on billboards and advertisements throughout the country.

Not that the marketing men at Foster’s have that intention. No doubt it is just some smart advertising whiz kid who has never looked at a dictionary who thinks “renegade” fits a man who quietly went on experimenting when his superiors had told him not to bother wasting his time searching for a way of making the great Australian wine. Perhaps they meant to call him a “maverick”, though even that fails to capture the essentially conservative nature of Max Schubert, the company man who kept at it and, in the early 1950s, created the Grange Hermitage, which helped transform Penfolds from being makers of cheap fortifieds into one of the great wine companies of the world.

In the years since Foster’s took over, with its notion of a virtual wine company that could mass produce and sell wine like beer, the reputation of Penfolds has slipped again. Promoters of Fast Moving Consumer Goods had no interest in brands like Grange, St Henri and Bin 389 or understanding of the heritage behind famous labels like Lindemans, Wynns and Leo Buring. At Foster’s, they trashed them all in the search for products that could be made and sold in the same year without all that nonsense of expensive small oak casks and patient cellaring and the attention of dedicated winemakers who were the successors of Max Schubert.

And then came the day when Foster’s realised that selling wine was not the same as selling beer and the company had to write off billions of dollars on the goodwill of the brands they had accumulated. So what to do now? Why, let’s go back to pretending that we are once again artisan winemakers. Resurrect that old bloke who invented Grange. Putting him on the billboards won’t cost us anything because he’s long dead.

So Max Schubert has made his comeback and he ought to be turning in his grave as he remembers the parsimony with which his employer treated his retirement. The loyal servant of Penfolds had always hoped his farewell would be celebrated in that old fashioned way with a good watch. A Swiss Rolex was to be his pride and joy but he just got a Japanese Citizen and for the rest of his life there was not even a free case of his masterpiece every vintage.

Think of that corporate meanness every time you see that renegade advertisement, for Max Schubert had plenty of reason to be a deserter from his allegiance to Penfolds. Perhaps the ad man was right all after all!

Disclaimer: Richard Farmer in a former life was a wine merchant who once sold 1971 Grange for $7.99 a bottle while his brother David, on a famous occasion, celebrated Max Schubert’s genius by holding a tasting with him and a few friends of every Grange ever made, which was a wonderful way to knock off $50,000 or so in a couple of hours. Richard Farmer still resents not being invited!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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