The Sudden-Death Bout:
Murdoch Hill & Frederick Stevenson

18 December 2019. Words by Sally Wilson.

While gearing up for the 2020 edition of the Young Gun of Wine Awards, we look back at one of the most controversial moments in the 13-year history of the showcase.

Over the journey there have been events of revelation, drama, upheaval, and massive celebration. Falling into the standalone category of ‘bombshell victories’ was the outcome of the Winemakers’ Choice award in 2015.

So surprising was the result that we’ve decided to tell the tale of what was the first and only split decision in YGOW history.

A rowdy group had gathered at Nomad in Sydney for the awards ceremony that year. There was every reason to celebrate. It was a strong contingent of finalists from across wine regions competing for the top honours.

Amongst the final 12 were the likes of Brendon Keys (BK Wines), Jarad Curwood (Chapter Wine), Luke Growden (Year Wines), Brendan and Laura Carter (Unico Zelo), Simon Killeen (Simão & Co), Adrian Rodda (A. Rodda Wines), Michael Downer (Murdoch Hill) and Steve Crawford (Frederick Stevenson).

Hopes were high, voices likewise, talk ricocheted across the tables. An undercurrent of anticipation was just discernible; there were a few beads of sweat emerging along with the competitive spirit. Wine glasses were at various stages of full.

But the volume dropped from cacophonous to quiet as chief judge Nick Stock and founder Rory Kent stood up to announce the Winemakers’ Choice winner.

The award is furiously coveted with each new edition of YGOW. Winemakers’ Choice is the ultimate form of compliment from amongst peers, a symbolic slap on the back in what is an exacting profession. Past winners at that time included Brendon Keys, who was again in the running, and James Erskine from Jauma.

The name of the next-in-line was eagerly awaited. All eyes were on the hosts, whose faces gave nothing away. There was the impression of a drum roll, of spotlights dancing on metallic confetti, as the envelope was gradually opened and the winner’s name announced.

Correction: …as the envelope was gradually opened and the winners’ names announced.

There it was, the now famous declaration of a draw on the votes between Michael Downer and Steve Crawford. But Kent, quoting Highlander, declared, “There can be only one.” As the shock and surprise of the result spread across the audience, Stock and Kent battled upfront about how to resolve the deadlock. It simply hadn’t happened before in the history of the awards.

With two names in the winner’s envelope, and a single trophy to hand out, they announced to a boisterous crowd the only way forward: a re-vote would take place, then and there, with the winner to take all.

In some forms of combat – fencing, judo, amateur boxing and Wrestlemania, for instance – they call this type of tiebreaker a sudden-death bout. But it’s not a phrase you often hear bandied around wine competitions.

Photo captured at the presentation on an eye-witness’ phone, of Downer and Stevenson fighting over the trophy.

At this point, we should spare a thought for the two winemakers.

Downer and Crawford, both from South Australia, had been pulled into an unfolding spectacle with no forewarning. The rules of play were new and unexpected. Compounding this was the ultimate dilemma: a sudden-death showdown now loomed between two very good mates.

They first met studying winemaking at the University of Adelaide and later “worked around the corner from each other” in Barolo, Piedmont. There was longstanding respect between them. Neither wanted the other to miss out.

But there could be only one winner. It was left for the other ten finalists to decide between Downer and Crawford in a second voting round. New ballots were taken and counted.

Disbelief and howls erupted from the crowd as Stock and Kent called it: votes were deadlocked for a second time.

The winemakers’ choice was unwavering.

No-one could deny Downer and Crawford the shared victory after that. They were rushed upfront to raucous applause. In such a dramatic context, it was all the sweeter for the trophy to be held aloft by two friends.

In the acceptance speech, Downer said: “I am certainly thrilled to be recognised by the other finalists and even more delighted to share this with good friend Steve from Frederick Stevenson. Steve and I haven’t decided how we will split this trophy; however, it seems to currently be in my possession.”

That remains the case to this day. “Michael took both the decanter and trophy back to his hotel prior to heading out after the presentations. I have since only seen the trophy photographed with Adelaide culinary types in questionable poses,” Crawford tells us.

A duplicate was made for presentation at the 2016 awards, but its current whereabouts is a mystery. Downer left with it, by all accounts, having scooped up a second, solo win with the Winemakers’ Choice that year. From there the facts get murky.

“I think it might still be at Murdoch Hill,” says Kent.

“Michael says it’s in the post,” says Crawford when quizzed.

Jokes aside, the historic draw speaks volumes about the camaraderie amongst emerging winemakers across Australia. “It was pretty funny, quite unexpected, but a beautiful thing all the same,” recalls Crawford. “Lots of interlocked arms whilst drinking that night.”

The coveted trophy enables winemakers to recognise and champion talent amongst their own. If the podium can be shared, it becomes even more meaningful.

Downer and Crawford continue to confer, despite working largely from different regions with different grapes. Downer’s base is in the cool climate Adelaide Hills with fruits like chardonnay, pinot meunier and cabernet franc, whereas Crawford works across the Barossa with heat-tolerant varieties including cinsault, grenache and montepulciano.

“We try and have a look at one another’s wines at least once a year,” says Crawford. “It’s always quite an open discussion, as we both have our things that we are working on.”

What advice do the joint winners have for future Young Guns of Wine? “Strap in,” says Crawford. “It is a pretty all-consuming path to take in making your own wines, but incredibly fun.”

“Take the opportunity to interact with your customers, enjoy the moment and have plenty of beers with the group,” counsels Downer.

The official result show a draw – or a tie – back in 2015. Today it looks more like a double victory.

Registrations for the 2021 Awards, the 15th annual edition, are now open – until December 18 (2020).

For the first time in our 15-year history, we will now be providing feedback to winemakers on their entries from the panel tasting. As well, we are creating a new trophy to recognise the best vigneron winemaker – that is, for a winemaker who is also managing the vines.

YGOW is open to young wine labels, as well as winemakers on the rise employed in established wineries.

Bringing together our audience of committed wine lovers, and complemented by our Wineslinger Awards for hospitality, Young Gun of Wine is the shortcut to all the cutting edge in wine.

We’re inviting all eligible winemakers to come get amongst it.