How Fay found her way

Family first: Fay McGuigan at her Pokolbin home. Picture: Simone De Peak

Family first: Fay McGuigan at her Pokolbin home. Picture: Simone De Peak

On a train to Maitland, two high school students are lost in conversation. While the old SMR railcar - royal blue with a broad yellow band - rumbles down the Cessnock colliery line, a bright-eyed girl is enthralled by an earnest young boy's magnificent tales of triumph and tragedy; rain, close calls with hailstorms, verdant spring times, bountiful harvests, and wine made by his family at a place called Dalwood, by the Hunter River.

I didn't like wine when I first went out with Brian.

Fay McGuigan

"I met Brian on the school train. He was going to Marist Brothers and I was going to Maitland Girls at Grossman House," Fay McGuigan says. "We became friends on that train and used to meet up every day on our way to school.

"After school, Brian went away for two years to learn winemaking, and, of course, in those days there was no Internet or mobile phones, so we used to write letters to each other," Fay says. "It must have been the right thing, because, I was 15 when I met him, we got married when I was 21, and then we didn't have our first daughter, Lisa, until I was 24. We've been together for almost 60 years."

The girl that boy succeeded in impressing on the train to school each day was Fay Lenard. Born in, "little old Cessnock" in 1943, to parents who "didn't drink wine in those days." Today, Fay McGuigan is, arguably, one of the most important women in the history of Australian wine.

"I didn't like wine when I first went with Brian," Fay says. "When we dined out, he'd buy me a small bottle of dessert wine because I didn't like drinking the dry styles ... He would have a dry wine and I would have the sweet wine. After some time, I suppose, out of embarrassment I forced myself to try the wines that Brian would drink. It didn't take long for me to acquire a taste for dry wines and now I love them."

After Fay and Brian were married, the couple moved onto the old Dalwood property, which, at the time was owned by Penfolds. This is where Brian and his siblings grew up; the place where all his impressive early morning train ride stories came from. Dalwood also happened to be the former home of George Wyndham who was one of the first people to plant wine grapevines in the Hunter Valley (c. 1828). In 1970, Penfolds sold Dalwood to Brian and Fay, and together, they revived the name Wyndham by establishing Wyndham Estate.

"Dalwood is the place where Brian and I first started to really work together," Fay recalls. "Brian looked after the overall business, and my job was to run the cellar door and restaurant and do the marketing to get people to visit.

"We did tours of the winery, and concerts with singers like Marcia Hines, which were very successful," Fay says, recalling the weekend hordes of people that flocked to the vineyard on the banks of the Hunter River. "We developed the reputation where people would say, 'don't go to Wyndham today, they've got 25 coaches', which was around 1200 people. But, we'd greet and feed them all, and pour our wines" Fay says. "We had it down to a fine art."

From 1970 to 1985, Fay and Brian built Wyndham Estate into an enormous business. As well as looking after the cellar door, the restaurant, and the marketing of it all, Fay began to explore the possibilities of exporting Wyndham Estate wines overseas. In Fay's words, "the company kept getting bigger", and in the wine industry you've got to have money in advance before you can even bottle a wine.

"The company got so big that we couldn't continue borrowing or putting in money, so in '85 we went public," Fay says.

This tactic kept the wolves from the door for five more years, until 1990. Around this time the formidable couple were suddenly struck by the profoundly tragic loss of their second daughter, Vanessa. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer at only 19, Vanessa died just weeks after her 21st birthday.

"She was growing up to become such a beautiful young lady ... so much to give and to live for," Fay says. "Brian and I were so occupied with fighting for Vanessa's life, doing all we could and hoping that we'd win the battle, that our partners [in the company] didn't know how to handle us.

“Plus, one of them was dealing with another issue that was threatening to make him bankrupt."

"He needed money so he went to France and sold his share of Wyndham Estate to Pernod Ricard. Before we knew it, it was too late."

Wyndham Estate was pried away from Fay and Brian in a hostile takeover within the same three months they lost Vanessa to an insidious disease.

"It felt horrific," explains Fay. "For 20 years we'd worked so hard to build up our business. I thought that we'd be at Dalwood forever. Then, all of a sudden, we'd lost our daughter and our company, all at the same time."

After some years of grieving and soul-searching, Fay and Brian decided to begin again.

"We had to move out of Dalwood, so we rented for a year in Pokolbin. We didn't know what we wanted to do," explains Fay. "Someone suggested we go into real estate, but Brian said, 'if I don't go back into the industry I know and love, I don't know how we're going to make it … '

"I said, 'well, if you're game, I'm game ... We'll do it again, but, this time, I'll only do export. I won't do the restaurant, or the cellar door. I'm 20 years older and experienced in export, so I'll focus on that'," Fay recalls.

Fay and Brian started McGuigan Wines in 1992 with Fay turning her sights towards export.

"In the early days of exporting with Wyndham Estate, I knew that it was important to secure a percentage of the market out of the country," Fay says.

"There were no textbooks or manuals to do such a thing, so I just went out there happily and just did it. For me, it was a great challenge and certainly very exciting to be able to travel to all these different countries."

Using her contacts and network connections around the world, Fay soon had McGuigan Wines selling wine to over 20 different export markets, including the UK and Ireland, Canada, the US, Fiji, China, and Japan. The McGuigan brand remains strong to this day.

"You need to understand the culture you want to sell to. You've got to respect the culture in order to know and understand it," Fay explains. "In Japan, for instance, they like sweet wine, but they won't use the word sweet to describe it, so, I quickly learnt that if I said 'this is a soft and fruity wine', which isn't a lie, they're more likely to enjoy it."

One time, Fay recalls, she and Brian had travelled to Japan to meet with their Japanese importers.

"In Japan, they seat who they think is the most important person in your company opposite the most important person in their company," Fay says. "So Brian sat opposite the head of the Japanese importers and I sat next to him."

A few years later, the same Japanese importers came to visit McGuigan Wines in the Hunter Valley, so Fay invited them around for dinner at their house.

"We set the table out just like the seating arrangements in the boardroom when we had visited before," Fay says. "This made a huge impression on them and strengthened our relationship even further. That night, after dinner, one of the representatives said, 'Mr Brian, tomorrow, we won't be needing you tomorrow', Brian said, 'oh, OK, how come?' He said, 'tomorrow, we just need Mrs Fay because we're going over the budget for the next 12 months'," Fay recalls, giggling a little ... "I just thought, 'yes, I've done it, I've cracked the market!'"

In 2007, Fay retired from McGuigan Wines. Two years later she was inducted as a Hunter Valley Living Legend. The award ceremony took place at the site where her first adventures with Brian and wine began, Dalwood, at Wyndham Estate.

"It was so amazing to be recognised with the Legend Award for all my work throughout the years, but to receive such an award at the place where we made our first successes was, for me, the most special part of the whole occasion," she says.

For almost 60 years, Fay has worked beside Brian, providing the fortification to his family's firm winegrowing foundation in the Hunter Valley. The couple live on Hermitage Road in the heart of the valley’s vineyards.

Even now, they remain a formidable force for good in the region with their recent donation to HMRI’s ovarian cancer research, honouring the life and love of their daughter, Vanessa. The McGuigans did not want to reveal the exact amount of the fellowship, only that it ran into the millions of dollars, and hoped it would prevent other people from going through the pain they went through.

"It’s unbelievable to me, how Brian and I worked together and spun off each other," Fay says. "We never felt overwhelmed, we always just enjoyed it. I remember it just being a lot of fun."

Just as Fay is saying this, her phone rings ...

"Hello, darling," says the voice on the phone [it's that boy from the train, again], "Oh, you're still in the interview? OK, no problem, my love, I'll call back ..."