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Thursday 19 August 2021

Farewell to a winemaker of distinction

Brother John May SJ AM, the long-serving winemaker at Sevenhill Cellars in the Clare Valley, died in August, aged 92. 

He was the seventh and final Jesuit winemaker at Sevenhill, a position he held from 1972 until his retirement from full-time work in 2003. The winery was established is 1851 by the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious order commonly known as the Jesuits.

I met him once and he was a very nice man - extremely dignified. 

“John’s engagement across the cellars, St Aloysius’ Church, and in later years the on-site retreat centre characterised Br John’s deep commitment to an active, but contemplative and devotional, faith,” said Jesuit Provincial Father Quyen Vu SJ.

“John was so committed as a Jesuit to his mission in winemaking, which was unexpectedly entrusted to him.”

Born in Sydney in 1929, as a child Brother John was an altar boy at the Jesuit-run St Mary’s Church, North Sydney. After finishing school, he took up a carpentry and joinery apprenticeship. 

Following work in the building industry, he joined the Jesuits in 1949 at Loyola College, Watsonia, in Victoria. 

He spent the next 14 years there, performing various tasks and learning new skills through the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

His first assignment to the Jesuit winery at Sevenhill began in 1963, when he was sent to work with Brother John Hanlon SJ. He was there for seven years.

It was Brother Hanlon’s sudden death in 1972 that led to his recall to Sevenhill. 

After arriving, he asked that the interim appointment be made permanent to ensure the winery would survive. 

Returning to Sevenhill as winemaker, without any formal qualifications, he relied on his gifts with his hands and the fact that, in his words, he had spent his previous period there “with eyes and ears open.”

Over time he took courses in laboratory and cellar procedures at winemaking schools and was assisted by the local community of winemakers in the Clare Valley as he honed his craft. 

He led the expansion of the Sevenhill vineyards, using the best clones of varieties suitable to the Clare Valley, and production grew from 80 tonnes to 500 tonnes per year by 1990.

Sevenhill’s sacramental wine distribution expanded across Australia to countries throughout south-east Asia. The range of table wines was developed, and a cellar door established, attracting up to 40,000 visitors per year.

He was a member of a range of industry and community groups, including the Clare Valley Winemakers Association.

“This service to winemaking and the local community has been widely recognised,” said Jonathan O’Neill, the general manager of Sevenhill Cellars.

“Brother John was inducted into the Clare Valley Hall of Fame in 2014; received a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2016 and became a lifetime member of the Winemakers Federation in 2004.

“What he would have been most proud of is what he did for the local community. John May was a great man, one of the truly great gentlemen of the Australian wine industry and community, who will be sorely missed.”

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