Victorian winemaker, David Sutherland Smith, of All Saints Vineyard, introduced the idea of Wine and Food Societies to Australia, founding a group in Melbourne. Following his example, The Wine and Food Society NSW was launched in the Rhine Castle Cellars on 9 March 1939, with the inaugural dinner held at the University Club in Phillip Street on July 13 of that year.
A history of the Society, written in 1993 by John Glascott, chronicles its founding and early days. Johnnie Walker’s Rhine Castle Cellars was located in the basement of the now-demolished Royal Exchange building on the corner of Pitt and Bridge Streets. Walker was a wine merchant and his cellars had for some time been the haunt of French wool-buyers attending auctions in the building above. Informal wine and cheese gatherings took place weekly, catered for by a French couple Jeanne and Henri Renault.
The founding members of the Society were J.K. (Johnnie) Walker, Dr Gilbert Phillips, Maurice O’Shea, Henri Renault and Gilbert Graham. Food was generally prepared at the Renaults’ home and brought to the Cellars, although the group did also venture out to hotels and restaurants. Within two years, however, the membership had grown to 30 and the Tuesday lunches took place in larger premises – first Aaron’s Hotel and later Marton Hall Restaurant. It was not unknown for lunches to stretch through the afternoon, finishing at around 5.30.
During the war years, the Wine and Food Society NSW found a new headquarters: its own restaurant. The Hermitage was opened in 1942 and remained the base for the Society for 16 years. Then, as now, the lunches were an exclusively male affair. As a concession, a “Ladies’ Night” was held every second month.
The Hermitage closed in 1957 and the Society moved to the Chevron Hotel in Potts Point, later relocating to the Australia Hotel. Although its primary purpose had initially been wine appreciation, food assumed increasing importance and a Foodmaster was appointed to consult with chefs about the menu.
By 1971 the Society had its own headquarters in the Australian-American Association building and the members began to take it in turns to cook for the luncheons. In a return to the Society’s roots, the members now meet at The Royal Exchange, Gresham Street, in a new building that replaced the original sandstone one that housed Johnnie Walker’s cellars. The tradition of members doing the cooking continues.