|Interview – Diana Ramsay and Anthea Reeves
North Adelaide 14 January 2013
Notes: sections of text in italics are lead-in remarks.
Quotes are [D] Diana Ramsay and [A] Anthea Reeves
Frank Hamilton died when Sydney was just 15. Did Syd every say much about the business in his Dad’s time?
[D] He was too young to have known much of Frank’s winemaking skills and he ran off to sea after his father’s death. Besides, you didn’t talk about your parents, at that time, and we didn’t know to ask.
[A, D] Father went on a sailing ship, around Cape Horn to northern Europe; he sailed around both Capes, probably twice. The ship sailed from Port Adelaide to Sydney – it was a cargo ship, probably carrying wheat. He did two trips – he was away for two years. Suspect he had had enough by the time he got back. He was probably one of the youngest crewmembers; he was short and lithe and was sent up and down the ropes. The ship took wheat to the northern countries, Russia, possibly. I think the ship called in Indonesia [Dutch East Indies] before heading into the Pacific. He didn’t talk much about this time; I think he wanted to forget that part of his life.
In 1917 he entered the family wine business at Marion.
[A] He was largely self-taught as a winemaker. He had innate ability as a winemaker, musician and engineer; he was very versatile. Both of our parents were interested in the arts. Father played the piano, played it very well too. He bought a very nice piano, a baby Steinway grand form Hamburg. [D] It was a ‘no touch’ piano. Go and wash your hands before you touch the keys – after all it did cost him a lot of money. Reg Jr has it now.
[A] He had lessons from the mother of a musical friend of mine. He loved the piano. [D] We both [Reg and Diana] learnt piano. The teacher would come to our home. I was 7 or 8 and Reg was 5 or 6 when we started learning.
[A] I had to badger my parents to be able to have lessons. It was War-time by then and things were different. Father played music by Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven and had various albums of music. He maintained nobody composed music after Beethoven but ironically he did play works by later composers.
They do not have any knowledge of who took over the winemaking after Frank’s death but it is likely that Sydney assumed this role after 1917. John Seeck appeared on the scene in the early 1920s.
[D] Mr Seeck was a huge influence on Dad. He was a very interesting man; he was tall, an imposing figure. He was Tammy Fraser’s father. I recall his deep voice but no particular accent. As a small girl, it was just a nice voice; children just accept what they hear and don’t query it.
[D] He had a high regard for Mr Seeck and in Father’s way, he would question him, ‘Why are you doing it that way?’ - he wanted an answer. He often called on Mr Seeck as to how he should best do this or that.
[A] Father had an enquiring mind. He always had a purpose. He taught himself French and German in order to be able to read the [wine] texts. You had to know French – and German – because that’s where, he said, the good wines came from. With our soil types at the vineyard, he said the white [grapes] always did better than the reds – he was interested to take this further.
[D] He became interested in European wine styles. Dad would come home with a book to read – usually on something he was about to try. He would sit and read and study. He read a lot at that time, not so much in his later years. [A] He also read lots of poetry. He had a great sense of humour and got Punch and Bulletin; he loved those publications, especially the satire. He read a lot of Latin books; [D] he had a set of three large books on Greece, old buildings – Wonders of the Ancient World. He had a great interest in history, in fact, in almost any topic.
As to the personality of the siblings, [D] you knew they were brothers but each of them was distinctly different. Father had a keen intelligence – he always wanted to know what he was talking about. He would say to us, ‘That’s ridiculous, that’s not right, you can’t say such things.’ We were very fond of Uncle Bert, young Bert as he was known, and Aunt Nan.
[A] Father had a great interest in etymology and would relate words in English to their Greek and Latin origins – he made it all very intelligible.
[A] The brothers had minds of their own and I think each Board meeting was a rally. Father was the creative one with ideas and his ideas tended to cost a lot of money; the others didn’t like spending money. But, when it was spent, it was very useful [to the business] – like the cold cellar, for example. He was very forward thinking and could see what was needed to take them forward and he pursued what he believed in.
[D] I remember the cold cellar being dug. We were quite tall little girls and would go down into the cellar on the ladder that ran down the side of the wall. [A] Before this was built, we had the horrible, old cement tanks, below ground – they were not easy to clean. They were still in use when I came onto the scene.
[D] Dad was told he was crazy to spend all that money on refrigeration but he was proven right – he made better wine. Frank Hurren helped him in the design work. Frank lived next to Aunt Nancy and I played with his son, Frank. Father had discussions with Frank about his plans – they had similar interests. They also worked together on parts of the new distillery, preparing the design plans. Father loved chatting with Frank – he would tell Nancy to make them a cup of tea as they continued to talk.
[D] He was great at redesigning things. He would say that that would work better there than where it is here. He had great imagination. [A] He built a little car – he understood how these things worked. It did catch fire, I remember, but we learn from our mistakes.
The first Ewell Moselle was produced in 1926 and came from Sydney’s determination to make a white wine with the finesse of (French) Champagne.
[D] No, he didn’t ever make Champagne although he did investigate it. We visited Great Western Cellars and he got a really good insight into how it was done, but I don’t think it really interested him. Champagne was one of those drinks you didn’t drink – you had a really good white wine. [A] Father was obsessed with cleanliness in winemaking – it was of prime importance.
[A] Harold Laffer (of Marion) was a close friend of Father’s. Harold bought a very nice car, a Morris. It was low to the ground and Father was very interested in that and wanted to know how it worked. [D] They discussed grape-growing – planting, pruning. ‘No, you shouldn’t do it that way, Syd. They need to be that far apart, and so on.’ So, there was a lot of chatter over a cup of tea at our place or Harold’s. We knew the family well, including his daughter, Wendy. Harold didn’t live on his property – he rode a bicycle to go to work. He was meticulous in how he ran his vineyard.
[A] We lived at one end of the Ewell Vineyard property – our orchard backed onto the vineyard. We had about 5 acres around the house, including an orchard, animal yard and some open land, and eventually, a tennis court. The core part of the house was already there with a cellar beneath it. It wasn’t a very big house but Father added to it.
[A] Our parents met at Glenelg after Mother’s parents moved there from Menindee, New South Wales – it was too hot there – and ran a boarding house for a time. They lived north-east of Broken Hill, at White Cliffs in the hotel where grandfather was an accountant. He didn’t get on very well with his father, apparently an irascible fellow, so left the property, Maidensville. In the summer, mother’s mother would take the children away from the hotel to a cave or dugout at the opal fields where it was cooler.
[D] We had a great childhood at the vineyard. We would often trot through the vineyard to the winery. The Sturt Creek in flood was always a great time – we would go back and forth during the day to see how much the water had risen.
In 1936 my parents went to Europe. I was sent to board at Woodlands – I had been a daygirl until then. I really loved the experience. Miss Quick from Marion – the family had vineyards there – also went to Woodlands and I would sometimes ride my pony next to hers going to school. She was very nice, a bit older than I was.
[D] Doings in the winery were always interesting to us. The winemakers at times would shout at each other, especially after a glass of red wine: ‘You can’t do that – why aren’t you doing so and so?’ Mr Seeck was hard of hearing, so that didn’t help matters. Father and Maurice Ou had a good working relationship. Maurice would refer things back to Syd – I recall these conversations. Maurice was a joy to be with – running along behind him to see what he was going to do next; I enjoyed that very much. Maurice had a sad end – he died in a nursing home at Oaklands.
[D] I think there was some prior contact before he came to us. [A] I don’t think he had been in France – he was in Asia during the War. He had a very nice wife, and pretty. She was French; she had a lot of style. They had a son and two daughters. Father liked working with Maurice.
Flor sherry yeast was introduced at Ewell by John Seeck, bringing the culture from Reynells.
[D] We had quite a few casks of flor sherry. Father had Babidges make some small, quality wooden casks for it. I don’t recall any casks having clear fronts – I think that was a bit advanced for us!
[D] Bert may have been working in the distillery in the late 1940s, not too sure. His wife, Gida, was quite a good businesswoman. His vineyard at Willunga was not a part of the company’s holdings. He probably got a push to plant that from the brothers or Aunt Gida – Bert was a shy man, a very nice gentleman and needed pushing along.
[D] Otto Mattner, the cooper – I recall the cooperage was always a busy place. The casks were important; they had to be of quality, the right sort of timber. The cooper’s work was very much an art.
[A] The boys would assemble at Granny’s for afternoon tea. I would trot off through the vineyards after school to Granny’s. It was quite entertaining being there. They would always ‘argue’ with each other and Granny would quietly chuckle away at them. Granny was a lively person, had a lively, active mind. She was a stoic person; you had to be in those times. [D] The boys would come in from pruning in winter and would stand with their backsides to the fire; ‘Mater, will you make us a cup of tea?’
[D] Mr Matson fired the boiler in the distillery and Don Purvey looked after the horses. Mr Matson lived in a house on the property, not far from our place. Matson taught me how to light the boiler one morning when I was going around with Dad. [A] Father was always there by 7 am – there was a whistle that blew – you could hear it all the way across the vineyard to our house. They pulled a cord on the boiler to sound the whistle. It was time to start work.
[D] Dad got Matson to show me how to light the furnace. I was fascinated, though the fire was a bit scary. You used cotton flock – you went around to the back of the furnace with a ball of flock in your hand, dipped the ball in oil and held it against the opening and Matson light it with a match – there was quite a whoosh as it ignited. These days, a child would not be allowed in there.
The furnace was oil fuelled. A vehicle would come from Adelaide with the oil and drive around to the back of the distillery and unload the oil.
Vintage was always interesting. What was going where and for what? The grapes were unloaded by hand using nice big, wide garden forks with long prongs. It was hard work. We had a number of basket presses in the winery. Some grapes were very tenderly cared for and some others not so tenderly cared for – the bigger types, Doradillo, used for distillation wines. [A] I recall the crushers had steel prongs sticking out of them [may have been a destemmer].
In 1955 Sydney Hamilton sold his interest in the family company.
[A] Father took a parcel of land at Happy Valley, Happy Valley Vineyard, as part payment. I don’t know what the financial arrangements were when he sold his share. Uncle Ian’s part of the property, across the road from the office and on Sturt Creek, was sold at this time. That was the first to go and may have be part of the financial arrangements.
Father was sick and tired of all the squabbling – it was all very sad; he was very sad at signing himself out of the company. He really didn’t want to do that, but he had had enough of the arguments. It had been on the increase at this time, I gather – every Board meeting became an endurance test for him. He began to feel it just wasn’t worth it. I don’t think he had any idea of what he would do after leaving.
[D] He had grown up in the business and had developed it and then to find you had all these difficulties was very distressing for him.
[A] Happy Valley was a start up – he was doing something with that land. He fattened stock there, as well as running the vineyard. Di worked a lot with Father at this stage. Eventually it was decided to sell the land to a developer – we did look at doing the development ourselves but decided it was too complex. Happy Valley was probably sold in the late 1960s. Father went out into the Mallee and bought a property there, sandy country, and ran sheep. The property, Maratala, was near the Coorong. Before this he had a property at Parawa; he had cattle there and once some were rustled – he wasn’t very pleased by that!
From the mid-1950s Sydney was looking for suitable land for a vineyard to produce French-styled red wines
[D] Tasmania was my doing. I thought it would be a good place to produce good quality white wine. We looked at several plots of land there. [A] From the mid 1950s he was looking at land on the western side of the Great Dividing Range for producing a really good red wine. He did a lot of looking around and research. He came to regard NSW and the Hunter, in particular, as too humid for his purposes.
Why the Coonawarra/Penola district?
[D] I told him the soil there was terrible and it was. He was in his 70s by now and had to settle on something. He wanted good land to do good things. We both found Tasmania very interesting but I don’t think he wanted to go and live there. I know Mother would have been dead against it, after all, they were getting on in years.
Father knew the Coonawarra wines. He was a friend of Tony Nelson [Woodley Wines] and would have known his 1950s Coonawarra wines. He also knew Alan Hickinbotham Snr [his son, Ian, was at Wynn’s at Coonawarra] and visited his winery at Greenock. I recall going to his place once or twice and was not greatly impressed. He knew Hickinbotham from going to Roseworthy [Agricultural College] to talk to the oenology students.
Father was 74 when he started at Penola - not bad, really. He was up there on the scaffolding during construction of the winery and would get into the vats to scrub them out because no one else would do it thoroughly enough. He didn’t fall off the ship’s riggings all those years before so this was no problem to him.
After 1955 he didn’t make wine for many years – he didn’t have a winery. He did give advice to others, mainly on what to grow: ‘Don’t plant that, you won’t sell the wine.’ I don’t think he was involved in Bert’s vineyard at all but he did assist Richard in the early days.
Richard was a medical student when he started out, so his table was very full. He wanted to go solely into wine. He asked Father what he should do and he said, ‘I don’t think you should. Keep winemaking as an interest and concentrate on your medical career.’ I was sound advice, I think.
Father was pleased with what he achieved at Coonawarra. Mum was none too good [health wise] by this time. He couldn’t go down there by himself so I often drove him there. He still had ideas and was keen to do things.
Brother Reg’s involvement in the business
[D] Reg didn’t like the winery [business]. He didn’t like work really but wanted to be paid all the same. [A] His interests and abilities were in literature and language; he was fluent in French. He had a great sense of humour, the family sense of humour.
Father wanted him to be involved and he did try. It just wasn’t his thing. He didn’t like the idea of having to start from the bottom and learn the whole trade. That didn’t appeal to him at all.
15 January 2013