by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in 2007
In three decades of writing about alcohol, I’ve drawn quite some flak from editors who don’t believe my theory that water is a fairly important gastronomic item. They prefer a drinks column to blithely praise lots of “product” around which the spacefloggers can sell ads. Some of these spats have been terminal.
There must come a time when water is seen to be more important than wine, and I’m not talking about rehydrating diddums after a night on the turps. I’m talking about the seven Richter hangover that’ll hit this whole state when the binge ends as the water runs out. If the Premier is to be believed, we may have to dissolve our Berocca in tequila.
To avoid this, he suggests building a weir at Wellington, where the country is very flat, and instead of bedrock, there’s about thirty metres of typical estuarine mud. Once Mr. Rann has found something to nail the dam thing to, it’ll be like our very own Cobby Station, but without the bad image of cotton or rice.
Keep it simple and true to purpose, and get that salty old river evaporating more efficiently before it trickles into the Lake.
A few years back I did a trip of the length of the Murray, by car, boat and plane, and recall vividly the site of the proposed weir. They’d let a dribble of water down the Darling, so the Murray was almost the colour of cream brick. It oozed into the green of Lake Alexandrina like a sluggish twist of pus. This new dam would further concentrate that terrible tincture, and then we’d drink it. Nice.
The winemakers of Langhorne Creek must love the Premier’s proposal. Delighted at the prospect of selling some grapes this year, into the hole in the premium bulk market caused by frost in the South-East, they suddenly hear government’s thinking of letting their Lake go briny. Er. It’s sometimes too salty for viticulture now; turn the river off and she’s cactus. To give the Lakesters their due, they’d almost got their little aquifer working again after they used it all up on irrigation, but it’ll never supply enough water to feed the huge industrial grapefarms like the monster Pernod-Ricard’s trying to sell. These need fresh Lake water.
We use up to 1000 litres of water, sometimes more, to make one litre of wine. This doesn’t include the water that evaporates from irrigation channels or overhead sprinklers. Then we sell that wine for the price of bottled water, and call it an export triumph. Doesn’t make sense. All overhead irrigation should be illegal, but it’s still rife in Murray grapeyards. Government should be buying that water and putting it back in the river. Do that, and there might even be enough to fill Mr. Rann’s dam.
It’s time we admitted that this dry old chip of a country doesn’t tolerate us moving water to anywhere it wouldn’t normally go. Every time we move water from one place to another, we make a mess at both ends. Every time we try to stop water going to where it usually goes, we make a mess of where we keep it, and damage the place it would have gone.
Until we get smart enough to solve these matters, we’ll have to learn to leave the waters to flow as they like. And if we want to grow something that requires a certain amount of water, we’ll have to find a place where that amount of rain falls at the right time of the year, and plant it there.
As for the unnecessary commodity we call wine, we should simply learn to make it with less. For many consecutive years, the volume of wine exported annually has increased while its price decreases. Turn those sprinklers off, get the yields down, watch the quality grow, adjust the price accordingly, and presto! You’re no longer competing to please Tesco, Woolies and Coles at such rude discounts there’s no profit. We might even regain our old reputation for high quality and innovation.
And water as a drink? Get yourself under the part of the sky from where it falls, and catch some.