Five years ago, Robert Hill-Smith handed over the keys to the fine old winery in Angaston that has been in his family for six generations, and that he had run as chief executive since 1985. Taking up the position of chairman of the board didn’t decrease his enthusiasm, and (pandemic notwithstanding) he has continued to travel the world to promote Yalumba and Australian wine.
Yalumba, founded in 1847 by a Dorset brewer called Samuel Smith, is Australia’s oldest winery. Its reputation rests on a comprehensive portfolio led by the great Cabernet-Shiraz blends: the relatively-new £230 The Caley, The Signature and FDR1A, as well as single-vineyard offerings such as The Menzies Coonawarra, the Tri-Centenary Grenache and the Virgilius Viognier.
Such signature wines apart, Yalumba is also well-known for its prolific Y Series – the dependable range of a dozen popular varieties. Less well-known is the connection to the ubiquitous Oxford Landing, which was launched in the 1950s by Hill-Smith’s father Wyndham Hill-Smith.
Hill-Smith appears to be a popular boss (staff turnover at Angaston is famously slow) but he has an uncompromising business instinct. He was in his mid-30s when he took over as CEO, inheriting some 20 shareholders whom he saw as a drag on the business – “It was like I was driving a vintage car and everyone else was in newer models,” he said.
His branch of the family bought them out, leaving him in sole charge, and – in one version of events – leading to a falling-out with his cousin, the winemaker Michael Hill-Smith MW, something Robert denies. “There’s no antagonism between us”, Robert said in an interview in 2015. And while there’s a firm emphasis on family members working at Yalumba, there’s also a rule that states they must work elsewhere for at least five years before they can apply for a role with the company.
Hill-Smith’s legacy as one of the key figures in the modern Australian wine industry is assured. He was an early pioneer of Viognier as an important white grape, although he credits Yalumba’s veteran winemaker Louisa Rose with harnessing its true potential (“we were getting nowhere with Viognier until Louisa came along”). Through three decades he steered Yalumba to the forefront of South Australian winemaking. He put his weight behind Grenache as a fine wine grape (the Tri-Centenary is made from a block planted in 1889), built the Yalumba nursery into a formidable operation, and he continues to champion the preservation of old vineland.
The winner of numerous accolades, in 2019 he was the recipient of the prestigious Maurice O’Shea Award, following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Grange founder Max Schubert and the critic Len Evans. Presenting the gong, Jeff McWilliam of McWilliam’s Wines described Hill-Smith as “an inspiring and generous leader” and praised his “vast and wide-reaching” achievements.
As he approaches his 70th birthday in semi-retirement, his tastes and habits remain simple. Leaving aside occasional extravagant forays into horse racing (which he insists he was persuaded into) and a predilection for fine Burgundy, he says he is happiest on a beach in a T-shirt and shorts, fishing rod in hand – with a decent restaurant nearby, of course. Scroll down for his full Life Lessons…
What was your childhood ambition?
My recollections are that they were in three phases. In early childhood I wanted to be a farmer; then I wanted to be a to be a Test cricketer; and later to be involved in photography and the wine world. Two have delivered – wine and farming.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?
How big the world is and how insignificant we are.
What exercise do you do?
Apart from constantly walking around bookshops, I am lazy in winter; in summer I’m wild, with walking, Pilates, swimming and golf. The latter has become my new Everest – my handicap is 19.3 and as a mollydooker [the Australian term for a left-hander] I remain convinced we suffer from a global conspiracy when courses are designed. A vegetable garden keeps me connected at ground level and reminds me that my knees are ageing rather more rapidly than I would like.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?
I am an optimist and am frequently persuaded into buying shares in thoroughbreds, which I often regret. I also buy Australian art, which one never regrets. The latter live with me permanently for pure enjoyment, the former not always. My favourite and happiest horses have been the likes of Vintage Folly, Puncheon, Sipsmith and Cannubi. Artists I love and have in the house are Clarice Beckett, John Olsen, Garry Shead and even a ripper from Tim Storrier. All are Australian and all are brilliant.
If you could do any other job what would it be, and why?
I love Burgundy, so the idea of being Jasper Morris MW appeals, for a few weeks at least, for his fervour, and his ability to capture the people, landscape and wine of Burgundy. I’ve considered politics but I know it is not seen as worthy by the populace, so I parked that idea some time ago. The other worthy options, such as farming with a viticultural link, have more appeal. I enjoy the seasons and the earthiness of planting, working, and growing. It is humbling yet challenging, and forever intriguing.
What is your favourite restaurant – anywhere?
It can’t be a one-off but a place I frequent and feel at home in. So putting aside the obvious – our local oasis, the Vintners Bar & Grill in Angaston – it would be somewhere tranquil near the sea, such as the Star of Greece on the McLaren Vale coast. If urban and international, then take me to Ma Cuisine in Beaune, and give me the wine list and some time.
What luxury item (except wine or whisky) would you take with you to a desert island?
An optimistic fishing rod.
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
Compulsory education about indigenous Australians on all curricula.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
This is exciting and daunting at the same time. I’m leaving it to those I can still contact with an invitation rather those who have departed. I’m stumping for seven guests: Michael Parkinson, Barry Humphries, Sam Neill, Catherine Deneuve, Skye Gyngell and David Attenborough. The reserves are Dennis Lillee, Wes Hall and Mick Jagger. Aubert de Villaine [of Domaine de la Romanée Conti] is the sommelier.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
There are too many places to consider, so Australia will do. On the beach, near good pubs and eateries.
What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
My T-shirts and shorts, which mean summer.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Giant Twins by Golden North [a premium choc-ice beloved of South Australian winemakers].
What’s your secret talent?
I’m still looking for that.
When and where were you happiest?
On the ferry with my family, crossing the waters to Kangaroo Island.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“You are bloody kidding!”
What’s your greatest regret?
That I didn’t play more cricket, and that I’m not three inches taller.
What’s your current favourite box-set, TV programme or podcast?
Our Planet. We love David Attenborough for the same reason my mother loved [renowned naturalist] Jane Goodall. Orange is the New Black because I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with the dark side. And we watched The Dig [the recent film starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, about the 1939 discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure] last night and loved it.
What time do you go to bed?
11pm – or later.