Mary Penfold

Mary PenfoldMary Penfold (1820-1896)
South Australian Wine Grower

Not long after settling in Adelaide, Mary Penfold wrote these three simple but words in her day book. That brief entry could not foretell the importance of the contribution she was to make over the next 40 odd years to Australia’s young wine industry. Mary’s management of the Magill Estate and her skills in viticulture and blending led ultimately to the development of Penfolds Wines, one of Australia’s greatest wineries.

Her contribution has often been overlooked, however, with most of the credit going to her husband. There is no entry for Mary, for instance, in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, but there is certainly one for her husband, Christopher Rawson Penfold. When Mary died in 1896, the ‘Adelaide Register’ wrote of her 48 years of residence at the Grange Vineyard but failed to mention her pioneering contribution to success of the wines produced at the Grange winery during that time.

Mary came to Australia from England as a young wife and mother. She had married Christopher Penfold, who was training to be a doctor, when he was 24 and she was only 15, which apparently was not so unusual at the time. It would appear that Christopher ran into some financial difficulties in the first few years of their marriage and in 1844 the couple decided to start a new life with their young daughter in the infant colony of Adelaide. With the aid of some financial support from relatives, the Penfolds established themselves on 500 acres of the Magill (originally Mackgill) Estate at the foot of the Mt Lofty Ranges. They built a stone cottage they called The Grange and where Mary lived until 4 years before her death. The Penfolds found the Magill soil to be fertile and easy to cultivate and they planted a variety of crops, including some French grape vine cuttings they had carefully brought with them from England. Christopher attached great importance to the medicinal properties of red wine and his and Mary’s original plan was to produce a wine tonic for the treatment of patients with anaemia.

The Penfolds initially made fortified port and sherry but soon found that clarets and rieslings were easy to produce and also sold well. They increased their grape cultivation and began to win prizes at local shows. At the same time Christopher’s medical practice began to grow and, as well as treating his many patients, he became required to attend inquests, conduct post mortems and certify the medical condition of those suspected of lunacy. He also became involved in the parish affairs of his local church, as well as the Burnside District Council. Through necessity, Mary began to take on more and more of the day to day work on the estate, including the cultivation of the vines and the blending of the grapes to create wines.

Christopher’s health gradually began to fail and, after a protracted illness, he died in 1870 at the age of 59. By this time, and largely due to Mary’s hard work, the Grange vineyard had grown to over 60 acres with several different grape varieties including grenache, verdelho, mataro (mourvedre), frontignac and pedro ximenez. The Estate was producing both sweet and dry red and white table wines with a growing market in the eastern Australian colonies of Victoria and New South Wales.

By this time the Penfold’s daughter, Georgina, had married a young civil servant, Thomas Hyland, who began acting as Melbourne agent for the Grange Estate wines. When his father-in-law died, Thomas seemed to have little idea that the winery was in fact run by his mother-in-law and wrote urging her to sell the property and business so that she could be provided with a pension. Mary, still only 50, feisty, and in sound health, would have none of it. Instead she proposed a formal partnership with Thomas, which he ultimately accepted, though remaining in Melbourne while Mary continued to cultivate and blend her wines in Adelaide.

In 1874, four years after Christopher’s death, a journalist from the Adelaide Reporter visited the Penfolds vineyard and cited the Grange estate as an example of sound agricultural management. He reported that Mrs Penfold used grapes of all kinds adding that “the uniformity which is so great a consideration is secured by blending the wines when they are two or three years old. This is done under Mrs Penfold’s personal supervision, not in conformity with any fixed and definite rule but entirely according to her judgement and taste’, concluding that ‘Mrs Penfold is aiming to get such a stock that she need not sell any which is under four years of age. There are now in the cellars about 20,000 gallons of wine of that age ready for the market but the total stock is close upon 90,000 gallons.’

Mary Penfold went from strength to strength, purchasing enormous oak and red gum casks in which to store her wines and experimenting with such varieties such as Tokay, Madeira. Frontignac, and Muscat. Grape stock such as this must have involved her in correspondence with wine growers all over Europe. Mary was known to take a keen interest in new methods of wine production and ways to avoid diseases like phylloxera. She had engaged a cellar master, Joseph Gillard, around the time of her husband’s death and in 1881 Mary, Thomas Hyland and Joseph entered into a further partnership agreement, under which Mary was to continue as winemaker and wineseller. By the time Mary ultimately retired in 1884, at the age of 68, the Penfold company had in store about a third of all the wine stored in South Australia and had even exhibited at the Colonial Exhibition in London.

It is truly amazing that, when she died in 1896, Mary Penfold’s remarkable contribution to Australia’s wine industry was largely overshadowed by the reputation of her long dead husband Christopher, whom many still regarded as the main founder of the Penfolds Winery. Writers about Australian wine have often overlooked that industry’s debt to Mary Penfold, although more recent publications have at last begun correcting this omission.

Further reading (entry for Christopher Penfold)

Susanna de Vries The Complete Book of Great Australian Women: 36 Women who Have Changed the Course of Australia (Pymble, Harper Collins, 2003)

Andrew Caillard  Penfolds: the Rewards of Patience (Crows Nest, Allen and Unwin, 6th edition, 2010)