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How a teetotaller Jesuit Brother became a winemaker honoured by the Queen

Jesuit Brother John May

Fruit of the earth: Jesuit Brother John May among the vines he planted at Sevenhill Cellars.

A JESUIT with a nose for a good wine was the toast of one of South Australia’s heavenly vineyard regions recently when the 2016 Queen’s Birthday Honours were announced.

Br John May, winemaker emeritus at the Jesuits’ Sevenhill Cellars in the Clare Valley, was admitted as a member in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) in recognition of his significant service to winemaking, through contributions to professional associations, to regional tourism and to the Catholic Church in Australia.

Br John, who came to Sevenhill and the Clare Valley in 1963, said he was “deeply honoured” by the award.

A teetotaller when the Jesuits first assigned him to Sevenhill, Br John developed a taste for fine wine that helped the winery produce a line of medal winners over the years.

Asked which wine he had to toast his Queen’s Birthday honour, Br John said he “didn’t do a great deal about” the announcement.

“We had some ‘bubbles’ – a Jansz sparkling wine,” he said. “We did have a drink of St Ignatius which is our flagship red wine – I planted the grapes to make it.

“The first release (of the wine) was in 1991, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of St Ignatius (founder of the Jesuits).”

Br John said “we are all given gifts by God” and, when he was sent to Sevenhill, his commitment was “to exercise all my talents for the greater glory of God”.

“Being a Jesuit, our motto Ad majorem Dei gloriam (For the greater glory of God) has been my guiding light,” he said.

“Having devoted my life to the Lord, I do not expect to be honoured for my work which, for me, has always had its own rewards.”

The talents he was expecting to be using at Sevenhill included his skills in building, welding and construction work but a new talent blossomed.

Br John’s first vintage at Sevenhill in 1963 came soon after he arrived from Melbourne as a young Jesuit Brother to work as an assistant to the then winemaker Br John Hanlon.

“I was sent there as understudy to my predecessor, and spent seven years learning from him,” he said.

“In 1972, he died suddenly and I became winemaker overnight.

“It was bit of a shock (but) I had a good memory and had made a lot of notes (working with Br Hanlon).”

Br John said cooking for many people at the Jesuits’ Loyola College in Watsonia, Melbourne, proved good preparation for winemaking because it “gave me a good palate”.

“For winemaking, you need a good palate, a good nose and a good memory,” he said.

Jesuit Brother John May

Fruit of the earth: Jesuit Brother John May among the vines he planted at Sevenhill Cellars.

All of these, combined with Br John’s building expertise, came into play from the day he took over as the seventh Jesuit winemaker at Sevenhill on the eve of vintage. 

In his early days as winemaker, Br John was supported by the tight-knit Clare winemaking community, whose co-operative spirit ensured that one of the region’s valued wine assets was guided and supported through a difficult time.

Br John embraced the role of manager of winemaking and viticulture and he set about a determined and energetic program to guarantee Sevenhill’s sustainability. 

This involved improving the winery buildings and equipment, and the vineyards were expanded using the best clones of varieties suitable to the Clare Valley.

Br John also devoted considerable effort to developing Sevenhill’s sales network through expansion of the cellar-door operation, and interstate and international distribution of Sevenhill wines through partner distributors. 

In addition to his work at Sevenhill, Br John contributed to the community in many ways, including chairing Clare Valley Tourism Association and as a member of the Clare Valley Winemakers’ Association, Clare Region Winegrape Growers’ Association, and Vine Improvement and Landcare organisations. 

He has been a keen sportsman, playing tennis and table tennis, and he “trod the boards” for 14 years with local theatre group, the Auburn Players.

Br John retired from winemaking in early 2003, with his stellar career distinguished by the emergence of Sevenhill’s reputation for quality table wines, the growth of its cellar door and visitor recognition of Sevenhill as an important location of religious and heritage character. 

His contribution to the wine industry was recognised with life membership of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia in 2004.

In 2014, he was named an inaugural member of the Clare Valley Wine Hall of Fame as one of six recipients of Legends Awards presented by the Clare Valley Winemakers’ Association.

He also received the Harry Dowling Award for excellence in regional tourism at the 2005 South Australian Tourism Awards.

Although retired as Sevenhill’s winemaker, Br John hasn’t gone far.

“I live (next door) and I come to work five days a week,” he said of his ongoing involvement, which includes hosting visitors to the winery and helping with the Jesuits’ retreat house there.

Br John said it was a great privilege to be recognised with the Queen’s Birthday honour, “as there are many other people in the community who deserve to be acknowledged because of their contribution and commitment”.

“I have been fortunate to be part of the development of Sevenhill and the Clare Valley’s wine industry and to be closely involved with the parish and the community,” he said.

“Along the way, I have received wonderful support from many people and I hope that I have been able to contribute in the same way.”

Written by: The Catholic Leader

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