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Wendler on Wine
5 August, 2008  
The day Doris accidentally shot Cyril

Cyril Henschke, maker of the wonderful Hill of Grace wine, was shot while he slept in his bed. In one of South Australia’s most celebrated trials his wife Doris was acquitted of the murder. According to wine man and barrister Gabriel Wendler the verdict ushered in a fabulous year of generous grape yields and superb quality reds


imageThe austere, anonymous village of Keyneton lies in the Eden Valley some 85 kilometers north east of Adelaide.

It is said Keyneton is near the Barossa Valley but not of it. Up to the outbreak of World War 1 Keyneton was known as the North Rhine district of the Barossa Ranges. It reminded folk of country near Aachen, in Germany.

In 1916, as a consequence of war, the name of the locality “North Rhine” was changed by legislation to “Keyneton”.

It is beautiful, patulous, rolling country. Its elevation is higher than the Barossa Valley ensuring a longer ripening period and higher levels of acidity in the grapes grown there.

Just before Christmas 1979 Keyneton’s anonymity vanished. A murder investigation was visited upon the village.

At about 4am on December 13, Doris Elvira Henschke (nee Klemm), wife of the maker of Hill of Grace and other wines rang her treating psychiatrist and announced: “I shot my husband”.

In the unique history of Australian wine this was to be a cataclysmic week. Only six days before Cyril Henschke’s shooting a colossus of Australian winemaking passed away in Ararat, Victoria. His name was Colin Preece.

Dux of Roseworthy Agricultural College’s golden class of 1923, and from 1932 director of winemaking at Seppelt’s Great Western Cellars, Colin Preece along with Maurice O’Shea and Roger Warren, was one of Australia’s great winemakers.

Besides improving sparkling wine production techniques Preece, between 1944 and 1964, created a sequence of private bin clarets, regarded as some of the most remarkable wines ever made in Australia.

On the December 14, 1979 Doris was charged with Cyril’s murder.

Coincidentally the notorious murder trial of opal miner David Joe Szach had almost concluded before the Supreme Court of South Australia. Szach was ultimately convicted of the murder of his homosexual lover, celebrity Adelaide lawyer Derrance Stevenson, whose body was discovered in a freezer.

Stevenson was once directed by Australia’s first female Supreme Court judge, Roma Mitchell, to remove his earrings before entering court.

Deftly fielding the judge’s order he promised to remove them only when the judge removed hers.

The Barossa and Eden Valleys were pregnant with gossip, speculation, and astonishment when Doris appeared before the Tanunda Magistrates Court charged with murder.

imageDavid Swain SM, an able but abrasive beak refused her bail. Some members of the South Australian legal fraternity always insinuated a porcine association when pronouncing the surname of this magistrate.

Doris’ solicitors wisely retained one of Australia’s most brilliant criminal defence barristers, the late L J (Jack) Elliott QC (pic).

Elliott’s first strategic move was not to contest an application by the police prosecutor to remove a name suppression order previously made by the beak. Elliott told the court:

“On our instructions the accused is entirely innocent and, in view of that, we are no longer seeking continuance of the order of suppression.”

Doris was remanded in custody and the committal was fixed for January 7, 1980.

During the two days of committal hearing the court was told that Cyril, whilst sleeping in bed, had been shot in the head near the left eyebrow.

imageThe previous day Cyril (pic) and Doris had attended an Australian Wine Board meeting where Doris acted as hostess to the wives of delegates.

That evening they attended a dinner at Kaiser Stuhl cellars. There was drinking.

At about 4.35am on the 13th police found Doris perturbed, crying, sitting in a chair in a passage of the house adjacent to the winery.

She was interviewed by a detective:

“Cats and parrots had been making a noise and I had taken a rifle to my husband so he could shoot them. I shot Cyril it must have gone off accidentally.”

They were “so much in love [and had] everything going for them”. They had planned to travel to Tasmania for a “lost weekend”.

The prosecutor candidly told the court there was no evidence of motive. The court also heard that since 1961 Doris had been treated by a psychiatrist.

Elliott made a powerful submission that there was no case to answer and Doris should not be committed for trial for any indictable offence let alone murder.

His submission failed. Doris’s next appointment with the criminal justice system would be close to the 1980 vintage.

On February 6,1980 Doris Henschke, 53, was arraigned in the Supreme Court of South Australia before Mr Justice Jacobs and a jury.

In a brave voice she joined issue and pleaded “not guilty” to the allegations pleaded in the indictment.

Her defence was accident. She made an unsworn or dock statement to the court, a criminal trial procedure lamentably no longer available in Australia.

She told the court Cyril kept a .22 rifle as it was his habit to shoot wild cats and parrots in the cherry trees. A fortnight before the accident her domestic circumstances had been “nerve wracking and exhausting”.

One of her sons was leaving for England, a new house was being built and on the day before the shooting she had taken “half a tablet of valium” and another before a cellar wine tasting.

She took more valium before the dinner at Kaiser Stuhl and had “more than usual to drink that night”, including champagne and port. She had a “nightcap of ouzo together with her medication of five anti-depressants, a tranquilliser and a sleeping tablet”.

She also told the jury :

“I did not worry for a while that I could not sleep but the cats outside kept making a din… I could not get to sleep despite the medication I had taken. I was worried. I took one and a half valium to help calm me down. I wanted to awaken Cyril to have him go and scare the cats away.

I went out myself to try and frighten them away but they came back. I thought to myself, shall I wake him or not?. I went and got the gun from the laundry. I tried to wake Cyril by shaking his shoulder. I thought there was only one thing to do and that was get the gun. I thought I was helping Cyril by taking the gun to the bedside. I was very dazed and overtired from the tablets. I suppose I was dopey. I thought I would wake him when I touched him. I thought. He will curse me for this. I thought the gun was ready for Cyril to use, but not ready to go off like that.

If I thought it would go off like that I would not have taken it to him. I have never used a gun. I have never been interested in them. I got tangled up with the mat which Cyril used to put on his side of the bed. There was also some loose clothing about the floor. I must have had the gun facing him, but not deliberately. I had walked up to him holding the gun. As I was thinking, shall I wake him or not? the gun went off and I don’t know how.”

Doris said after the rifle discharged she climbed into bed and “snuggled up behind Cyril and dozed off”.

Finally, she explained that in 1974 she had had a car accident which left her with a nervous condition.

Her case concluded with testimony from two character witnesses. Iris Stevens, a District Court judge, and Bishop Renfrey, Anglican Bishop of Adelaide, a patrician churchman who lived in the manse next to St Peters Cathedral and drove a vintage Rolls Royce.

His attractive wife had a penchant for corduroy suits and naval strength tobacco. Both witnesses described Doris as “gentle” and “friendly”.

On February 9,1980, in just under five hours, the jury acquitted Doris of the murder of her husband.

The wonderful news ushered in a year of generous red grape yields resulting in superb quality red wines.

The 1980 Hill of Grace was one of the best not made by Cyril. Krondorf Winery won the 1980 Jimmy Watson Trophy with a ‘79 Cabernet and the first vintage of the fabulous St Hallett’s Old Block Shiraz was made by Rocky O’Callaghan

Astonishingly the Supreme Court trial had lasted a mere three days including a visit by the court to the locus in quo, at least a five hour round trip from Adelaide.

Today, no defended murder trial would finish in three days.

imageIt’s a wonder Doris was charged at all and put through the grinder of the criminal justice system.

There were no witnesses to the shooting and no evidence of motive. She co-operated with police and gave no incriminatory answers in her record of interview.

There was no evidence that her relationship with her husband (seen here) was anything other than normal and amorous.

She was a person of impeccable character. What reason was there to doubt her explanation that she was the author of a tragic, freak accident?

The nine hectare Hill of Grace vineyard lies directly opposite the Lutheran Church Gnadenberg, German for “Hill of Grace”.

imageThis vineyard was established in about 1861. It is predominately dry grown low yielding bush shiraz. From these grapes comes one of Australia’s iconic red wines.

Its label, along with the better value Mount Edelstone claret, carries the letters “C H”.

Unfortunately, Hill of Grace, like Grange Hermitage, has become a commodity, traded rather than drunk, and so driving its price to ridiculous levels.

In 1981 a bottle of Hill of Grace 1977 cost $5.70. Today the same wine will cost between $400 to $500.

The first vintage of Hill of Grace was in 1958 and so this year is its 50th anniversary.

In some years conditions such as drought or downy mildew did not permit the wine to be made, in particular 1974, 2000 and 2003.

Next to the Gnadenberg Lutheran Church is a small cemetery. The tombstones are modest and reveal German surnames. Lutheren religious refugees who left Europe to escape persecution and exercise their right of conscience over authority: Koch, Helbig, Rothe, Schultz, Munchenberg, Gottleib and Henschke – to name a few.

imageThe grave site of Churchill fellow, Baron of Barossa, admired and innovative maker of red and varietal white wines can be found in a corner of this cemetery.

His resting place is an arrangement of lichen covered granite gibbers in rectangular form.

On the corner of the last cornerstone is a small brass plaque, it reads: “Cyril Alfred Henschke, 1924-1979, Winemaker.”

Wine drinker, maker and collector Gabriel Wendler is a Sydney barrister at Windeyer chambers.