Interview: Michael Hill Smith

michael hill smith interview People & Places Articles
  • Friday 21 August 2009

Communicators? Australia has a vatful. No other country can field a more skilled A-team to put across its message. The friendliest face in Australian wine evangelism, though, belongs to Michael Hill Smith MW AM: that smooth oviform cranium, those wide, crinkle-edged eyes and a ready stream of often self-deprecating jokes makes his the voice most likely to win over the sceptical or uncommitted.

Hill Smith was born to wine. He grew up in the Yalumba family ‘compound’ in Angaston. ‘It was feudal, baronial. When my wife Stacey first moved up, she was referred to as “Mrs Michael”. She’d only just lost her surname; now she found herself without a first name, too.’ He spent seven years at Yalumba, but the range of interests which has characterised his later career was already foaming. He was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, a wine judge, a wine writer, and later a restaurateur – and in 1986, he was itching to have a go at the Master of Wine exams. In those days, that meant moving to London for a few years. So when Robert and Sam Hill Smith (his second cousins) decided to stage a buy-out of Yalumba, Hill Smith says he felt a sense of relief. ‘I was always into wine, but strangely uncomfortable with the idea of dynasties. It was painful at the time but I don’t think any of us would have it any other way now.’ Hill Smith moved to London, became Australia’s first MW, and when he got back to Adelaide in 1989 he used the Yalumba buy-out cheque to found Shaw + Smith with his winemaking first cousin (‘in reality he’s my third brother’) Martin Shaw.

Shaw + Smith was a late-entrant Adelaide Hills pioneer. ‘I’d been involved in traditional Australian wines from a traditional Australian area for a long time and the idea of being able to do something new and modern was really appealing. Martin was Brian Croser’s right-hand man for seven years – and Petaluma back then was the Camelot of Australian wine.’ But there was a difference: Shaw + Smith quickly became known for its Sauvignon Blanc, a variety that Len Evans, in his role as Petaluma chairman, had always proscribed. Chardonnay, Merlot (for a while but no longer), Shiraz, Riesling and Pinot Noir followed.

Hill Smith and Shaw were in New Zealand at the beginning of 2003 at the start of a long overseas trip when Shaw felt unwell and headed home. Two weeks later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; 30% cent of sufferers are dead within a year, and 50% at five years. ‘It was a terrible, dark, bleak period,’ recalls Hill Smith. Winemakers Geoff Hardy and Steve Pannell helped out while Shaw had chemotherapy, radiotherapy and stem-cell treatment – he’s now been in full remission for five years. It changed Shaw + Smith, though: ‘Martin simply didn’t want to be making a whole lot of wine that he didn’t care about very much,’ said Hill Smith. ‘The day we decided to focus on Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Shiraz plus a hatful of Pinot was the best decision we ever made.’

The division of labour – Shaw making the wine, and Hill Smith marketing and selling it – works well: ‘In 20 years, I don’t think we’ve had a cross word.’ As a consequence, Shaw + Smith wines are now an Adelaide Hills reference. The Sauvignon is lean, long and unflamboyant (‘Martin would trade herbaceousness for palate length every day of the week’), while the M3 Chardonnay combines the cleanliness and precision of Shaw’s Petaluma background with the greater richness and warmth that vineyards in Woodside and Balhannah give compared to Piccadilly. The Shiraz (predominantly from Macclesfield, which is warmer still) is brisk, pure and refreshing, a distant Southern-Hemisphere echo of St Joseph, while the Pinot is still relatively simple, but pure-fruited and seductively drinkable.

Each is a model wine in the adept Australian tradition, though there are others in the Hills who are working in a more artisanal, non-interventionist way to create more challenging and perhaps more soulful wines. The cousins are at ease with their approach, though; the aim is ‘to make them better and better, and to create wines that rank as among the best of their type in Australia. Sounds easy. But if you’re actually going to do that, it’s a huge challenge.’

Australia analysed

Hill Smith, who received an Order of Australia medal last year for his services to Australia’s wine industry, seems mindful of his industry responsibilities when answering questions about what Jancis Robinson MW (in April 2009) called the country’s rapid status change ‘from revered to reviled’. When I ask what he thinks the country’s weaknesses are, he responds first with a joke – ‘Kryptonite!’ – before concluding that ‘I don’t see there being a lot of weaknesses. The winemakers I rate are passionate about their wines. They’re well-trained, dedicated, increasingly global... sure, there are some issues, but I really believe that it’s onward and upward.’ Issues? ‘Well, the mega-success of the mega-brands has obscured the fine-wine message. Australians like to tell everybody how successful they’ve been, and we’ve told the world how many billions of boxes we’ve sold. The theory was that people would trade up as they became more sophisticated, but it hasn’t worked. People have the perception that there’s more interesting wines from elsewhere. In reality there are just as many interesting wines from Australia. Then you have the American syndrome at the other end – expensive, ripe, high alcohol, cult collector wines which don’t offer value.’ But these are wines espoused by the world’s most influential palate: don’t they have some merit? ‘What can I say? The other 55 wine critics I respect internationally hate those wines, celebrating more restrained, more balanced Australian wines. But the debate’s been good. It’s meant that people need to take a stand.’

Australia has so far sold itself to the world as a national package – and many feel that this ‘Brand Australia’ message obscured the regional diversity that the country offers. The dominance of the four biggest producers (Constellation, Fosters, Casella and Pernod Ricard) is often cited as another check on Australia’s development. Could they be more helpful? ‘Branded wines from Australia could have more character than they do. That will probably happen anyway with our water crisis. But it’s not the fault of the big companies. They’ve just been hugely successful. They’ve sold a huge amount of wine to consumers who have joyously drunk it.’

Those responsible for Australian wine promotion are now actively pushing the regional message via a Regional Heroes programme which draws attention to Australia’s leading wine-growing locations and associates them with certain varieties. The Hill Smith view is that it’s the right thing to do. ‘The problem is that it’s a bit simple whereas the message is complex. And regionality is only worthwhile if you can actually see it in the glass. I’d rather see the promotion of fine wine as a sector, and regionality within that. Australia’s future lies in promoting fine wine – not critters and cult.’

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