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Purbrick, Eric Stevens (1903–1991)

by Fay Woodhouse

This article was published online in 2014

Eric Stevens Purbrick (1903-1991), vigneron and winemaker, was born on 4 August 1903 in North Sydney, eldest of three sons of Victorian-born Reginald Purbrick, company manager, and his English-born wife Dorothy, née Stevens. Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (1916-21), Eric read history and law at Jesus College, Cambridge (BA, 1925; MA, 1929). While skiing in Switzerland in 1928 he survived a fall into an ice crevasse. A romance subsequently blossomed between Purbrick and Victorian-born Marjory Mary Sutherland, who witnessed the accident. They married on 12 March 1929 at the parish church of St George, Hanover Square. Called to the Bar on 12 June 1929, he spent twelve months at the Inner Temple, serving a ‘pupillage.’ Meanwhile, his father became a member (1929-45) of the House of Commons.

When he returned to Australia in 1931, Purbrick took over the management of his father’s Australian investment property, the Chateau Tahbilk winery, established in 1860 and located on the Goulburn River, near Nagambie, Victoria. Intent upon turning its fortunes around after decades of neglect, he set about revitalising the winery. He mastered the craft of winemaking, established marketing and distribution networks, instigated promotional and advertising campaigns, and won awards at wine shows. If, when he took over the vineyard, ‘the name of “Tahbilk” stank in the nostrils of every reputable wine merchant’ (Purbrick 1964, 390), he soon brought the quality of wine back to that of its golden age of the 1880s. In 1934 his father made him the sole owner of Chateau Tahbilk.

On 22 August 1940 Purbrick enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. After cavalry training, he was commissioned in November 1941 as a lieutenant. He served (August 1942-January 1944) in the Northern Territory with the 2/1st North Australia Observer Unit and was placed on the Retired List on 4 August 1944. In 1945 he joined the Australian Red Cross and sailed for Greece, where he served as an honorary assistant commissioner (1945-46) and was awarded the medal of the Royal Greek Red Cross.

Wartime absence did not help Purbrick’s marriage and he divorced in 1950. Marjory subsequently married the grazier Douglas Thornley Boyd. On 25 May 1950 at the South Yarra Presbyterian Church Purbrick married a widow, Phyllis Clemenger Aitchison, née Smith, daughter of the late Brigadier General Robert Smith. She died in 1955 of tuberculosis. In 1958 he married Mary Dechaineux, née Harbottle, an actress and widow of the naval officer Emile Dechaineux.

From the 1950s Purbrick pioneered the naming of varietal wines. The distinct Shiraz and Marsanne varieties, so perfectly suited to the Nagambie region, became synonymous with the names Purbrick and Tahbilk. In 1960 Chateau Tahbilk’s renaissance was celebrated at a centenary luncheon attended by 250 guests, including the prime minister, (Sir) Robert Menzies. A history of the winery by Enid Moodie Heddle was published the same year. In 1974 Purbrick retired as managing director in favour of his only son John (b. 1930) but he remained as chairman. His grandson Alister took over as winemaker in 1978.

Purbrick made a major contribution to various wine industry bodies. He was president (1955-58) of the Viticultural Society of Victoria and a foundation member (1958-68) and president (1964-67) of the Wine and Brandy Producers’ Association of Victoria. The Victorian delegate (1948-68) to the Federal Wine and Brandy Producers’ Council of Australia, he was a deputy member (1950-64) of the Australian Wine Board. In 1980 he was made an honorary member of the Viticultural Society of Victoria and an honorary life member of the Wine and Food Society.

As a younger man and into maturity, Purbrick was handsome and athletic, and his energy appeared boundless. At the same time, he cultivated the persona of an urbane English gentleman, the effect enhanced by the ever-present pipe in his mouth. He had a sparkle in his eye, possessed a wicked sense of humour, and was fond of practical jokes. Survived by his third wife and his son, he died on 17 December 1991 in East Melbourne and was cremated. On 19 January 1992 his ashes were scattered among the original 1860 Shiraz vines at Tahbilk; a memorial service followed, attended by hundreds of friends and industry colleagues.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Romance in Switzerland.’ 18 January 1929, 12
  • Dunstan, Keith. ‘Vintage Character behind Tahbilk’s Grand Tradition.’ Sunday Age (Melbourne), 26 January 1992, 6
  • Halliday, James. ‘A Formidable Gentleman of Tahbilk.’ Weekend Australian, 20-21 June 1992, Weekend Review 14
  • Heddle, Enid Moodie. Story of a Vineyard, Chateau Tahbilk. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1960
  • Purbrick, Eric. ‘Australian Chateau.’ Wine Magazine (London, England), November/December 1964, 390-94
  • Woodhouse, Fay. Vintage Stories: A 150 Year History of Tahbilk. Tabilk, Vic.: Tahbilk Pty Ltd, 2010.

Citation details

Fay Woodhouse, 'Purbrick, Eric Stevens (1903–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/purbrick-eric-stevens-14880/text26070, published online 2014, accessed online 25 June 2017.

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