Published on 16 October 2018

Meet the custodian

Francis d’Arenberg Osborn (d’Arry) is an Australian wine legend and at 91 still lives in the home he grew up in, mows his own lawns, is semi-retired, and enjoys good company. Onkaparinga Now introduces you to this humble patriarch who is affectionately regarded as the custodian.

d’Arry’s memoir reflects that of the McLaren Vale wine industry, transitioning from a fortified and bulk wine producer to global distributor and leader in sustainable wine production. He’s an influencer, not a follower, and has been awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, a Patron of the Australian Wine Industry, a Medal of the Order of Australia, the Jimmy Watson Trophy, the title ‘Legend of the Vine’, Bushing King, and a 2018 City of Onkaparinga Civic Award for going above and beyond to serve his community.

d’Arry, what was it like growing up in McLaren Vale in the 30s? 

It was a lovely place. We’d play tennis and go fishing, and being the boy around the place, I’d milk the cow and we had Clydesdale horses to manage.

And school? 

We used to ride our bikes to school which kept us pretty fit as young people. I went to the local schools and have been around local families all my life apart from one year at Prince Alfred College when I did matric.

As a boy you played A grade tennis and cricket. What did competitive sport teach you? 

To be a good sport; to respect others. And being very active kept me in good stead for later in life. I’m 92 this year and going well for my age but unfortunately had to give up fishing a few months ago because it was hard getting in and out of the boat.

You were 16 when your father became ill and you had to manage the business. How did you cope? 

I matriculated, which Dad wanted me to do, so when I left school in 1945 I came home, but all I ever wanted to do was work with Dad. He’d suffered a terrific lot of illness in the last years of his life so naturally I was doing a lot at a very young age. But vintage was a challenge because you were flat out picking and crushing the grapes and working in the winery, and then you had to keep the books and pay about 10 to 15 people.

Did you have support? 

Our neighbours helped me a lot, then the first tractor came in 1947, which was a great joy for me.

d’Arry you’re a third-generation winemaker with over 70 vintages; do you have a special wine? 

I married Pauline in 1958 and the following year changed the name from Bundarra Vineyards to d’Arenberg. Then in ’67 the d’Arenberg Burgundy won 50 awards and in ’69 it won the Jimmy Watson Trophy, which put us on the map.

And now? 

We now send wine to 90 countries and have them on Emirates and Qantas as well as the QE2, so I’m very proud of that. Some of my staff still get to go from Adelaide to Perth on the Queen’s ship to talk about the wine and I once went from Christchurch to Sydney as a guest wine lecturer. I really enjoyed that.

Highlights of your career? 

One of the things I did do was get involved in committees as a young man. I was on McLaren Vale’s hall and parks committees but it wasn’t until Dad died in ’58 that I got involved in the wine industry. That was a lifetime of interest for me and I was on the executive of the Wine and Brandy Association and the Chamber of Commerce for many years.

d’Arenberg is a progressive wine producer yet you foot-tread all your grapes. Why is that? 

Chester [winemaker son] introduced foot-treading but I think it’s a waste of time quite frankly; we have auto fermenters that could do the job just as well. But it does improve the wines quite a bit.

What are your thoughts about the Cube? 

I resisted it. It was going to cost $11-million and ended up costing 16, but it’s created a huge interest in d’Arenberg and McLaren Vale, which Chester knew it would.

You are known as McLaren Vale’s custodian because you protected Grenache when other producers grubbed it in the 80s vine pull scheme? 

We’ve always loved Grenache, so instead of pulling them up we planted more. We now have about 96 acres and our oldest dry grown vines are 102-years old and still productive.

You’ve had a tenacious work ethic all your life, where does that come from? 

It’s good to stay busy; it keeps me going. I don’t do much; I get the mail, go through the accounts and meet lots of people, which is nice.

Words of wisdom? 

Not really. But I’ve always been grateful to have good people around me.

Francis d’Arenberg Osborn (d’Arry)