by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in 2007
Having weathered the Tet Offensive cowering beneath a wire bed with a case of rum while the ordnance rained down in Vietnam, it seemed likely that the great Richard Beckett would approach wine and food criticism in a new manner if he indeed survived. This he did, writing the still unmatched Sam Orr column in the pages of Gordon Barton’s Nation Review in the early seventies. Those pages swelled with the larrikin work of McCullam, Adams, Ellis, Lurie, Leunig and Hepworth, but Beckett’s cranky Orr ruled supreme. His collected works, Roll On Brave New Bloody World were published by A&R in 1980. He died seven years later.
Beckett once summarized the wines of McLaren Vale by ranking them according to the affect each would have on dogs. One particular red was enough to drive a brown dog to drink; a neighbour’s would drive two brown dogs to drink; another would kill a black dog, and so on.
By the end of the eighties, winemakers had all become rock stars, their fat Labradors were pampered wowsers, and their wines tasted like carpentries. Gone was the winemaker who’d greet you on the dirt floor of his galvo castle in thongs, and hand you a glass of sump oil that would turn a Rottweiler vegetarian. Blokes who’d been animal husbandry specialists, tractor drivers, broke down dirt farmers and the like were suddenly making wine and carrying on like Keith Richards. Or Liberace. And there was more than one precocious Germaine Greer amongst the winemakers without penises.
Since then, there’s been a sickening turn to the worse. Now there are two main schools of winemaker. The best ones wear beanies. Apart from a few idiots who effect the women’s Akubra preferred by Prime Minister Howard, all the rest wear hard hats, steel-capped boots and safety glasses. It’s dead easy to pick their wines on the blind.
This hard hat wine is distinguished by grapeyards which strobe when you drive past them: great Nuremberg rallies of vines in laser-perfect grids.
Since nature is chaotic and fractal, and gastronomy is even more arcane and confounding, I ache for the return of non-strobing vineyards, in which the vines look like natural plants capable of producing something you would confidently insert in your body.
Now that the vignerons of the Old World have officially decided to copy our industrialised wine business, the incidence of strobing grapeyards there will increase exponentially. While many winemakers may die from autobahn prangs brought on by the grand mals triggered by driving the Bimmer too quickly past strobing grapeyards, we should smite the survivors by stealing their old non-strobing viticultural techniques, and reach back beyond the rock stars and the safety helmets and rekindle the old dirt floor and thongs epoch.
The Europeans are delighted that new laws will finally permit them to emulate Australian wines by adding oak chips, sawdust and splinters. I suggest we offer them a new product which will ensure their wines are even closer in style to our hard hat wines. This is the steel chip.
We should be manufacturing millions of tonnes of these. We have plenty of iron in the West, and a beautiful blast furnace at Whyalla. They could be in the form of little pellets, curly swarf, splinters or planks. We should flog these to Europe on the grounds that, when inserted into an oak barrel, they will add characters to the wine which will much more closely emulate the flavours we have perfected since Beckett turned up his Vegemite jar and carked.
Dr. White’s new patented steel chips can be re-used after washing them with a nice bath of caustic. They will never wear out, or lose their shiny, sanitary freshness. They can be handed down from generation to generation, outlasting even the centuries-old oak tanks of the Rhineland. They could even sport, in laser-etched bas relief, the winemaker’s trademark, which would add value to them in the secondary market. Like, dude, this wine’s made with ex-Margaux chips!
The weight of this new product will of course make the steel-capped boot essential for the Old World wine technologist. Their helmets and safety glasses will make them feel safer driving past their vines, and we could get on with forging beanie wines that would turn a black dog’s gizzards to gold and give the next Richard Beckett more reason to stay alive.