Br John May receives Queen's Birthday honour
13 Jun 2016
One of the Clare Valley’s most respected wine industry figures has been named in the 2016 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Sevenhill Cellars’ Jesuit Winemaker Emeritus, Brother John May SJ, has been 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 May, who came to Sevenhill and the Clare Valley in 1963, said he was “deeply honoured” to be made a member of the Order of Australia.
“It is a great privilege to recognised in this way, as there are many other people in the community who deserve to be acknowledged because of their contribution and commitment,” he said.
“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. 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.
“We are all given gifts by God and, when I was sent to Sevenhill, my 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. 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.”
Br May’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 Jesuit Winemaker, Brother John Hanlon, SJ.
Br May’s first year at Sevenhill coincided with the start of a new era in wine production. The first hydraulic wine press was installed at Sevenhill in 1963 and in 1968 the first dry white table wine was made from Crouchen (Clare Riesling) grapes.
Br John, who was born in Sydney and became a carpenter after leaving school, joined the Jesuits in 1949, training at Loyola College in the Melbourne suburb of Watsonia. After working at Sevenhill from 1963 to 1969, he returned to Loyola College in 1969 where he was manager of a large retreat house and novitiate.
However, when Br Hanlon died suddenly in February 1972, Br May was recalled to Sevenhill to become the seventh Jesuit Winemaker in challenging circumstances on the eve of vintage.
In his early days as winemaker, Br May 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. However, Br May soon embraced the role of manager of winemaking and viticulture and he set about a determined and energetic program to guarantee the sustainability of Sevenhill.
This strategy involved improvement of the winery buildings and equipment and the vineyards were expanded using the best clones of varieties suitable to the Clare Valley in conjunction with the then Department of Agriculture (now Primary industries). Br May 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 Sevenhill partner distributors.
In addition to his work at Sevenhill, Br John contributed to the community in many ways, including chairmanship of the Clare Valley Tourism Association and membership of the Clare Valley Winemakers’ Association, Clare Region Winegrape Growers’ Association, and Vine Improvement and Landcare organisations.
He was a keen sportsman, playing tennis and table tennis and he “trod the boards” with local theatre group, the Auburn Players, for 14 years.
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.
Br John received the Jubilee Medal from the Australian Jesuits in 2006 and his contribution to the wine industry was recognised with life membership of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia in 2004. In 2014, he was named as 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.
His contribution to Sevenhill was recognised with the launch in 2008 of the 2004 Brother May Reserve Release Shiraz to coincide with the completion of his 45th vintage at Sevenhill. Made from premium fruit in limited quantity, the fifth vintage of this highly sought-after wine, the 2010 Brother John May Reserve Release Shiraz, was released in early 2016
Br John’s passionate advocacy of Sevenhill and the Clare Valley continues through his active role in the winery’s activities, including hosting visitors who are enthralled by his vast knowledge of Sevenhill’s winemaking and spiritual heritage.