“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland)

Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin

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24 October 2014

CRITICISING WINE CRITICISM


 
There's a lot of bristly haggling about the role of 'wine writers' lately. I've always preferred to call  myself a wine critic and get on with it.

Ten years ago, Eric Beecher and Jane Gribble ran a hot little half A4 stapled weekly called The Reader. Deputy Editor Jane Nethercote called and asked about the nature of writing on wine. I was delighted at the accuracy they'd employed in publishing the quotes. That's rare. Anyway, given all the current hubbub about its politics, I dug this ten year old interview out.

I don't think any changes are necessary. All that's gone is the newspapers. And I don't attempt to taste nearly so much average wine these days. 

The Reader became Crikey and, in a way, InDaily.

Funny, eh? Nope? 

Philip White, Wine Writer 
The Reader, Friday 22 October 2004

Philip White is a wine writer, editor and broadcaster who has contributed to many Australian newspapers and magazines here and abroad. He has written the wine column in Adelaide's The Advertiser for 16 years. 

What do you think about the standard of wine writing in Australia and beyond? 

There's too much thespian vanity; not enough imaginative, attractive, intelligent writing. There's no poetry. The glossies are repetitive gastroporn. Nobody admits that alcohol's a deadly drug. Publishers want lists of brand names in bold face. Who writes about organics, or wine, environment, and salinity? Industrial grapeyards threaten our river and ground water like cotton and rice do. Surely water's gastronomically important? 

Is the wine writer's job just to find and recommend good wines, or is there a wider role to educate, inform, editorialise and entertain? 

The job is to sell newspapers by doing all that reliably. Few take your advice if your writing's not attractive. 

What do you say to people who say they can't understand a lot of wine writing? 

Who'd blame them? English lacks word specific to flavours and smells, unlike our vocab for colour. Winos revert to confounding, exclusive language. Like film crews: they develop a patois that gives them privacy on the set. I could talk about 'yeast autolysis' and nobody'd twig. But call a Krug 'nipple polish' and most readers get my drift. 

Speaking of thespian vanity .. photo Steve Hardacre, from  Made In Adelaide - The People - Including the Satchell Tapes (Marie Appleton, Savvas Publishing 1987)

What are your credentials? 

My mentors were all great winemakers: Max Schubert, David Wynn, Gerard Jaboulet, Jack Kilgour. All dead and gone, while their wines live on. In the '70s I was a thirsty writer, who gradually discovered my good memory for aroma and flavour. Now I taste over 6,000 wines a year, and constantly travel the vineyards. I have to get out and taste the dirt. 

Why become a wine writer? 

My lovely brother and cousin were killed on the way to my grandmother's funeral, so I stayed in the pub for four months. Eventually a mate suggested I apply for a job editing a wine magazine that wanted a writer rather than a wine snob. They pointed me at a bench of all the Jimmy Watson winners and asked me for my descriptions. I got the job. I could work and keep drinking. 

What are the most over-used adjectives in wine writing? 

Buzz words come and go. Mineral and minerality are currently over-used and abused. Which mineral do they mean? All minerals taste different. Once it was mercaptan, which nobody could define. When Bob Haupt was editor of The National Times he pinged me for using herbaceous, becuse it wasn't 'user friendly.' So for months I recommended only user friendly wines. 

Do you ever buy wine, or do you just drink all your freebies? 

I'll start the day tasting a dozen or so free samples, before dressing, and progress from there til I'm shagged. It all goes down the sink. It's lonely work. I can't wait to get to The Exeter for a drink at the end of the day: Campari, gin or vodka with bitters in the summer; whisky in the winter, maybe a wheat beer. I buy wine for special meals, or to accompany specific dishes. 

With so much free wine, and so many invitations to enjoy the hospitality of wine producers, how does a wine writer stay independent? 

The moment I recommend inferior drinks, my reputation wilts. The premium wine community is very small, and nothing escapes attention. I rarely accept free trips or attend extravagent launches - you'd get arse cancer from all that magazine food. Independence is elusive while you're friends with makers of the best wines internationally. 

How do you feel about wielding your critical power? 

Nothing pleases me more than seeing success bless a winemaker who's done it responsibly, cleanly, intelligently, and modestly. I search for them relentlessly, and urge my readers to share my joy in a glassful. Conversely, I hate cheats and greed, so to hell with those. 

Do you ever get sick of drinking wine? Can you afford to? 

I can't afford to swallow most of the mono-cultural, industrial, refinery-made wine which 'makes the industry what it is today.'

photo The Advertiser - Celebrity Fridges - 1990
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23 October 2014

THE VINEYARD IS COMING OVER THE HILL

I put the little Sony on the table at the local boozer, The Royal Oak at Clarendon, pointed it across the road, pushed the button, and got this snap of the vineyard coming over the hill. There'll be no more green after this; just in the last two days, everything's turned brown.

A QUARTET OF POSH CHARDONNAYS



Kooyong Faultline Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2012 
$60; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap; 92 points 

There's not much of your actual fruit to sniff here: no peach or melon aromas or much of what you'd normally expect to find rising from a glass of your actual Australian Chardonnay. Hang on: Maybe there is some melon: the crinkly skin of the canteloupe, the rock melon which is what the Americans call a muskmelon. Oh yes, it also smells like rock, or at least the guano rock of Nauru: dry, sharp and acrid. Dusty, dry hessian. Burlap. Hemp. The palate is slender and edgy, with a hint of that melon. No, it's not canteloupe, it's more like honeydew flesh. Maybe a very creamy pear. The acid is not so sharp as to dominate that sinuous, almost brittle sensation; it's more of a squeeze of lemon on that fresh-sliced pear and honeydew. It's a perfect, staunch drink for chicken or snapper baked soft in their own juice or stock with a handful of fresh tarragon. Its sister, the Farrago ($60; 13.5%; 91+), is along the same lines, but perhaps not so crunchy and a little more lime-and-lemony, with a comforting whiff of grilled cashew. Both wines are best served cold from a decanter: it's really entertaining to watch them unfold and swell as they warm. 

Oakridge Guerin Vineyard Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2013
 $36; 13.4% alcohol; screw cap; 93+ points 

This Guerin Vineyard is rock'n'roll: its Pinot is outstanding, and this white's distinguished, to say the least. It has that edgy Nauru/burlap/superphosphate reek, like the Faultline, but more immediate flesh along those pear and lime/lemonjuice lines. It's more sensuous, without being fat. Somewhere between what seems to be increasingly called curvy, and what was once called slender, back when Australian humans could still boast a touch of that condition. It's fine of flavour, almost fragile, with pithy tannins leaning on the citrus acidity, and a really neat, slightly waxy texture. Once again, it's cut to accompany big baked fish or pale fowl, but it would also swim tidily beside the sort of toasty leatherjacket or brown-grilled garfish Shazza and David presented yesterday at the sublime Fino. Oooh hell that little Willunga joint rocks! But, really. Let's think of Chardonnay. These wines are near the top of what Australia makes of this tricky, lazy Burgundian white. I don't think they're close to either of the supreme Penfolds' multi-vineyard blends just let loose, like the Yattarna or the Reserve Bin 13A Adelaide Hills wine, but they're very good. Which makes me wonder: if this is the best we can do thirty years after the ebullient bulldog, Len Evans (below) announced that "Chardonnay will be the vanilla of the Australian wine industry" and urged its planting from everywhere from Burke to Blanchetown and even Piccadilly, from Hoddle's Creek to Horror Gulch, way down there in the Badlands,  well what? Why? The Oakridge Funder and Diamond Drive Block model ($75; 13.4%; 93++) is finer and longer, but fairly, ummmm, spendy. So what am I saying about Chardonnay? Unless you're growing it in the coolest bottom bits of southern Victoria or Western Australia, the highest of the Adelaide Hills, or Tasmania, you might be better off growing muscat or hemp. Forget bloody vanilla.  

     

THE BIRTHDAY OF ANNIKA BERLINGIERI

Today I lunched with two very important people: the tomato fetishist and Snotra of the wood oven Annika Berlingieri (left) and recyclatron artist Annabelle Collett, who made the trippy woven plastic artwork with the spoons and stuff. We went to our favourite restaurant, the astonishing Fino. Please go there and be healed ... photos Philip White

20 October 2014

SCOTCH TOO SWEET? ADD VODKA

As the current whisky sales boom continues, and in value (not volume) the USA sales of all whiskies appear to have surpassed vodka, there's one thing you can be assured of: To feed the growth, the enormous barrel stacks of ageing scotch in Scotland are being pillaged, so quality gradually drops as more compromises are made and we see many new brands suddenly appearing, sometimes at obscene prices. To cover the lower than ideal quality of many of these blends, it seems to me that the factories are adding caramel like never before. Caramel is permitted as a colourant. Handy, eh? - it makes a sweeter product for the bogan and costs a lot less than good oak. I've been adding a little neutral grain vodka, like Absolut, to the disappointing ones, in the hope it breaks that sweet additive down. It usually does, but if you try it, I reckon you'll find that sometimes the vodka makes the caramel seem even more obvious. Most scotch whisky, malted or not, and Irish whiskey is, after all, not much more than barrel-aged vodka. Have a play. On the other hand, within the UK, whisky sales are falling as vodka increases, perhaps influenced by this increase in simple caramel sweetness in blended whiskies, be they malted or not. Don't panic on behalf of the UK, however: The Guardian reports that scotch whisky exports are currently bringing the British economy £135 a second.

WE SMELL THROUGH ALL OUR ORGANS

Treeferns at the falls in Possum Hollow in the Mount Worth State Park, Strzelecki Ranges, South Gippsland, Victoria ... photo James Mead

 The falls of Possum Hollow: 
it's a feeling more than a smell
and it goes in through our skin
by PHILIP WHITE 

An apocryphal yarn has the linguistically fastidious, but physically filthy 18th century English writer Dr Sam Johnson entering a carriage to sit beside a noblewoman. 

"Dr. Johnson, you smell," she politely complained. 

"No, Madam," he said. "You smell. I stink." 

Bold new science is revealing that the human body is riddled with the sorts of olfactory receptors which we always thought were limited to our nasal cavities. Now we know these stink detectors are all over us and all through us, as common as the Doctor's offending sweat glands. These clever little aroma laboratories constantly monitor our condition and our safety: it appears that as they smell and sniff, they play a major part in monitoring and controlling all our major organs.

Victoria's South Gippsland was a highly aromatic place to spend one's first decade. Given the acrid heat of this dusty old continent, those wet Gippsland hills were almost un-Australian.

Our farm, on the edge of the Mount Worth State Park in the Strzelecki Ranges, was an organoleptic orgy. Decorative, and vegetable gardens after the British style, cattle, orchard, swamp, bracken, horses, dogs and florid Blackwood coppices offered a sensual rainbow of fragrance. Annual rainfall was between 1200 and 1500mm; summers rarely dry enough to see pasture brown off. It was moist, comforting, and heady - often too damp for cut pasture to become baling hay. We'd make silage instead, fermenting the grass to make a moist stockfeed.

One enemy of silage is oxygen, which causes buttery butyric acid to form. I find this acid alluring in tiny volumes in, say Hunter Semillon, but horrid when it overwhelms a poorly-made red. 

And there I was, detecting it as a toddler in cow tucker.

When we'd climb into the old Cyclops Rover and head over the range into the incredible Mountain Ash forest in Possum Hollow, with its floral canopy a hundred metres above, and its lyrebirds, treeferns and mighty waterfalls below, the smell knob wound right round to eleven. 

But even as an infant on my grandfather's mighty shoulders, I seemed to realise that the sensation offered by such a lush environment was more than aromatic. It was a rich, overwhelmingly natural feeling that came in through every pore. Its hypnotic seduction was more than enough to explain why little boys tended to wander off through the dense understorey in search of that secure, mystical nirvana called Lost. 

Few such intoxicated, curious pioneers came back.

Fifty years later, the opposite feeling, the one that makes me cranky and wish like shit that dear old Pop would appear and carry me out, is the wine show hall. As my organoleptic receptors reach the peak of their analytical proficiency, that heady cacophany of fruit, wood, ethanol, industrial chemical additions, cardboard, tea towels, detergents and whatnot is an assault I'll do anything to avoid, even without the sophisticated stink of other people. It is not natural, and has nothing to do with gastronomy. And it is not just a smell that goes into the nose. It is indeed a feeling. It is all over me.

Take Canberra. Man, that joint might mount an impressive annual Floriade, but if you climb from the flying cigar tube through the airport lounge into a taxi and thence to any government building, like say, the Federal Parliament or the National Gallery, you'll smell a wall of chemical stink so toxic it'll make a man's balls shrivel.

No wonder our National Capital is swarming with madmen.

Following organoleptic science for 35 years has been frustrating: there's a dearth of good research. Fine art, architecture, urban planning and such have devoured a good slice of financial attention to please our eyes; the symphony and the incredible complexity of digital recording and playback is only the start of what we do for our ears; the textile industry, plastics, carpentry and so on are perfect indicators of how we reward our sense of touch ... and yet we know little of the two organs which just happen to be smack in the middle of the front of our heads: the mouth and nose.

Perversely, we now spend more time photographing our food than we allocate to the science of how we grow, make, absorb and enjoy it. Rather than properly learn about the building blocks that give us flavour and sustenance, we convert food to a digital currency that pleases and teases only the eyes. This is delusional, and the trigger for my 1980s invention of the terms 'magazine food' and 'gastroporn.' Perving on food photos does no more to help us understand flavour, smell and sustenance than a sesh of sadoporn assists inadequate males to understand women.

There could be a touch more honest punksterfication in modern gastroporn: the author savouring the coq au vin he made from a troublesome local rooster ... photo Satanika

But things are coming on in aroma science. In a discovery that gives me a rush of excitement nearly as good as the falls of Possum Hollow, Dr Hanns Hatt and his Ruhr University Buchum team in Germany have discovered olfactory receptors all over the human body. Those body management switches we normally imagine to be somewhere up our noses are actually in our hearts, lungs, livers and brains - all our major organs. Which includes the biggest organ of them all: our skin.

There was a frisson of juvenile excitement when Hatt's team discovered olfactory receptors in human testes and sperm. Once confirmed, I reported this here a year back, missing the simultæneous news of the USA National Academy of Science publication of a paper that showed that taste receptors in the testes of mice were so sensitive to destructive chemicals in the environment that they directly affected fertility by slowing sperm production.

Dr Hanns Hatt: smelling with his nose for a change

So Big Pharma and Big Agrochem can directly limit population. Combine all this with the lastest from Dr Hatt, and we're getting closer to understanding why Possum Hollow was a turn-on for little Whitey, and why the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of South Australia's wine show hall feels like such a threat to the bigger one. 

As Alex Stone reported last week in the Science section of the New York Times, Jennifer Pluznick, an assistant professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins University discovered in 2008 the vital role played by olfactory receptors in the kidneys of mice: they manage blood pressure and blood filtration rates in reaction to the smell of the blood.

There's more to smell than meets the nose ... illustration by George Grainger Aldridge from Wines of Great Depth (Evidence of Vineyards on Mars, Aldridge and White, 2013)

Amongst these and many other wonders, Stone reports that in June 2009, the USA National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health Journal of Biological Chemistry published a paper that showed that when exposed to the odorant beta-ionone, olfactory receptors in human testes reduced cancer cell proliferation. Beta-ionone is a primary factor in the bouquets of roses and violets, aromas which I just happen to find in some of the most beautiful wines.

Emory University's Grace Pavlath has shown that Lyral, a perfume made to smell like Lily of the Valley, influences olfactory receptors in human muscle to the extent that it causes stem cells there to convert to muscle cells and build new tissue. And now Dr Hatt reports that Sandalore, a synthetic perfume that mimics sandalwood, hits one olfactory receptor in human skin with such a blast that it hastens the repair of broken tissues.

All of which bolsters my suspicion that aromas go into us everywhere, and are much more important to our survival than the stuff that gets in through our ears and eyes. It begins to explain asthma, and how a few drops of lavendar oil on the temples and forehead can soothe headache and induce slumber. It will unlock the secrets of aroma therapy massage, and confirm the direct threat that ancient herbal and aromatic medicines present to Big Pharma.

Brilliant scientists like Hatt will explain why we pay such high prices to enjoy the thrill of certain wines and foods. [A $1-per-snap tax on food photographs would pay for their research.] They'll explain why the best way to enjoy great wines is at a picnic in their healthy, petrochem-free vineyards, where the whole body feels and inhales the entire locality's ambient aromatics, and combines those with what's in the glass, and what's in our bellies, infesting the bouquet of our blood, and surging it around the whole big stack of bones, meat and aromatic receptors which is what we call us.

Prepare for the post-nasal trip.
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12 October 2014

BREAKFAST AT CARAVAGGIO'S

Baco (1596); Óleo sobre lienzo; 95 x 85 cm; Galería de los Uffizi, Florencia; 
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio