Five minutes with a Legend: Kathleen Quealy

Published on 29 May 2020

Kathleen Quealy was dubbed the Queen of Pinot Grigio by wine critic James Halliday, but her interest and skills extend far beyond that particular grape. She works with many Italian grape varieties and also has a passion for skin contact wines. Kathleen received her winemaking degree in 1985 from what is now Charles Sturt University and in 1986 became the first woman to win a trophy at the Brisbane Wine Show. She established T’Gallant Wines with husband Kevin McCarthy on the Mornington Peninsula in 1990 and later, after selling T’Gallant, formed Quealy Winemakers alongside Kevin in 2006 on the family property in Balnarring. Kathleen was awarded a Legend of the Vine in 2016 by Wine Communicators of Australia and inducted into the MFWF Legends Hall of Fame in 2018.

The proudest moment in my wine career has been receiving formal organic certification of our vineyard. When we purchased our property in 2003, we began to cut out chemicals with clever organic methods. Our vineyard manager Lucas Blanck pursued a holistic approach and we converted our machinery to suit these new requirements. Our young winemaking son Tom McCarthy communicated directly with ACO Certification Ltd, and five years later we received accreditation. With our experience and machinery, we have rolled out these techniques to all our vineyards. They are not wholly organic but heading in the right direction.

The mistake that taught me the most was our finances. I spoke to my husband Kevin McCarthy and we both agreed our greatest mistake was not quite achieving the right mix of being zealous winemakers on a viticultural binge with old-fashioned financial prudence. Hopefully we have got away with it, aided by the natural conservatism that comes with age and accepting that we will have to keep working if we wish to keep what we have created. It is a family business and our eldest son Tom McCarthy has taken on the head winemaking role. I would not let him work here until he completed a postgraduate degree in business, so hopefully the next generation will be savvier.

My first job in wine was at the McWilliams bottling facility in Pyrmont, Sydney. It was January 1979; I had finished school a few months earlier and Bruce Tyson, who I think was McWilliams head chemist, allowed me to experience working in what I understood later was an incredible and technically advanced laboratory. Unfortunately it was a case of a swine before pearls, perhaps a bull in a china shop, and after a few weeks I was demoted to their bottling line. It was more my scene with noisy action, heaps of people and vast mechanisation. In fact, I still love a bottling line. But during my brief stint in the laboratory, my first task was to taste all of wine samples destined for analysis, a simple double-check I guess to contribute to correct results. At lunchtime there was always a bottle of wine from their most impressive cellar opened and discussed. McWilliams had the congenial, information-sharing culture that I have since experienced in the wine industry. My take-out from this dynamic wine business was to measure and record all your wine parameters and to advance your palate by tasting different wine every day.

The reason I got into the wine industry was I fell in love with winemaking as a youngster in Sydney. We lived in Haberfield, described by my Dad as the first suburb west of the city with backyards. Most of the kids we played with had Italian parents and grandparents with gardens and vine trellises. There were concrete laundry tubs bubbling with fermentation; a strange old person filling wicker bottles and flagons. I didn’t even understand what drinking wine was and yet it was love at first sight. In high school I met people along the way who would show me a label or tell me a tale. We visited the Hunter Valley on an excursion and I resolved to work in the wine industry, and signed up to the recently minted degree at Wagga Wagga.

The reason I stayed is because I still love it.

My mentors include a number of people including Gary Baldwin who accepted that I was not cut out for laboratories and let me work my first vintage as a “cellar rat” in 1980 at Arrowfield Estate in the Upper Hunter Valley. Dr Max Loder, viticulturist at Wagga Wagga (now Charles Sturt University) taught me and my college comrades an innovative and philosophical approach to viticulture and viticulture as winegrowing. Most importantly he planted the pinot gris vineyard at Wagga Wagga that we were to take the cuttings from to create pinot gris vineyards on the Mornington Peninsula.

Our business has pivoted through the lockdown by improving our online presence with our website and social media. We had professional photos taken throughout vintage so that we could share those stories with our customers. Our cellar door is conveniently located in Balnarring, where we welcome visitors to purchase wine and instead of a standard tasting, we take guests on a tour of the winery and discuss the vines and wines. We haven’t pivoted very much, but we have started pruning a month early and hopefully that will free us up at the other end of this crisis. Fortunately, fine wine improves with time, so six extra months in bottle will be a win for our customers.

If I could return to any moment in the Victorian wine industry of the last 50 years, I’d choose when we first began selling wine in the early 90s. There was less taxation, no fringe benefits, longer business lunches and dinners, and restaurants were simply more able to be profitable. Our wine business flourished because of all the generous sommeliers and restaurateurs who gave us the opportunity to showcase our wine in their spaces. 

But the most exciting development in the Victorian wine industry in the last five years is challenging the style of wine our customers want to drink. Wine was so straight for so long and now there is a plethora of styles to suit a wider range of people. From simple park wine to angst-ridden expressions of wine we didn’t even know we wanted, through to sleek versions of international styles and varieties.

Quealy wines are available for purchase online, with delivery to Australian capital cities and surrounding suburbs. See the latest on Instagram @quealywines

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