by PHILIP WHITE - This was first published in The Advertiser in 2005
As paranoid chatter about Australia’s two-plus billion litres of unsold wine rises to delirium, and new experts appear daily to have their two bob’s worth in the media, maybe it’s time we began a conversation the wine business doesn’t particularly want us to have.
The industry itself seems dumbstruck by this stupid, utterly predictable situation. All their baying voices that talked it up are suddenly dumb. Those of us who were shunned for our bleats of warning over recent years could be forgiven for now feeling smug. But I feel sick. Sick at the inexcusable extravagant waste in field, stream, and home.
Wine hasn’t been mentioned yet in the War on Drugs, but maybe it’s time we sat back as a community and had a hard think about the total amount of recreational drugs we should collectively ingest each year. This must include alcohol. Learn to manage drug consumption as a whole. Get honest. Admit the war is lost. Start again.
Instead of following this sickening downward spiral toward cheaper, inferior, stronger, more dangerous wines, we should now, more than ever before, consider the nature and end use of most of the wine made in Australia.
When the Vine Pull words are uttered, people think of cute little ivy-draped cellars full of lovely old shiraz, pioneer couple weeping out the back, like a McCubbin tryptich. In reality, most of our wine is ruthlessly, skillfully grown and manufactured to compete at the bottom of the market, where profit evaporates. Broadacre, monocultural, water-wasting grapeyards. Sugar quarries for industrial refineries.
Much of the trouble with the voluble Riverland growers stems from the hyperactive response to the 2025 viticulture plan of the Winemakers Federation. This fairly conservative 1995 initiative was supposed to guarantee sufficient grapes to fuel the next thirty years of constant growth. But it included no pressure valve or review mechanism to measure new plantings or wine in stock, and the full quota was reached within just a few years. There is still no national vineyard or stock register.
There’s been so much planting in what they rather stupidly call “the cool regions”- by which they mean everywhere but the River and Griffith - that the big buyers are using more of that fruit once its price falls enough. Cool is better than hot.
Cut to Nepenthe boss James Tweddell, at his promotional dinner in his Hahndorf Vineyard last year. When I commented on the magnificent triffid aggro of his vines, he proudly pronounced two telling words. Jacob’s Creek. I could hear a big ouch up the River.
So, apart from a few dozen exceptional cheap brands, what exactly do these hot areas produce? Are they alcoholic commodities that could be better made from other sugar from other sources at lower prices? If, as a society, rather than an economy, we decide that we really do need all this alcohol, for us or for export, should it necessarily involve grapes?
What if the sugar needed for the production of all this alcohol could be more cheaply grown, with less abuse of environment and water resources, somewhere else? On the big, complete picture, could Queensland sugar cane replace most of our contentious grapes? Or palm sugar, on the Ord? Should precious Adelaide Hills land – our lushest food garden – be used to make barely profitable gourmet drug refreshments, for export to markets that don’t give a fig for its source, but buy purely on price? They could be drinking Andes Ridge or Amazon Creek tomorrow.
The incredible popularity of alco-pops stems partly from their lower strength and convenience, but largely from their wide range of flavours. One fridge offers a rainbow of whisky, gin, vodka, ouzo, brandy, bourbon and coffee and cream liqueurs pre-mixed with lemonade, squash, dry ginger, neutral beer, cola and tonic. Small bottles. Screw caps. Lower alcohol.
Compare that lolly box with the sea of half-hearted wine currently made in Australia. White. Red. Sweet. Dry. Wooded. Not wooded. Too alcoholic. You have be a tripper, or an uncomfortable nit-picking Virgo like your correspondent, to spot a difference in any of it outside of those few dull, endlessly repetitive parameters.
Different sugars can crop almost continuously in the tropics, meaning the manufacture could be spread more efficiently over the year, doing away with much of this vintage panic and the sickening lurches of perfectly natural vintage variation. Leave that difficult bit to the committed specialist artisans who make the wine we’d all prefer to drink.
Give the River a break. Distil a neutral alcohol, add antioxidants, fructose, water and the minerals and vitamins essential for keeping alcoholics alive, fruit it up, fizz it, screw cap it in small bottles, and sell it priced according to its alcoholic strength, with a hearty slice of the excise dedicated to the restoration of the health of the locals and their environment.
Research even healthier ways of chilling out or getting smashed. Maybe save even more resources and replace the alcohol with a safer drug that triggers less aggro; I know many mothers, fathers, police and health workers who’d suggest that was music to their ears. And some who won’t.