by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in November 2007
Where once ran water, only woe, horror and rage now flood down the Murray. Suddenly, furious blockers picket our parliament like only the violent French would. Desperate to recall what it was like to manage a winery in hard times, the transnational grape refineries struggle to juggle their diminishing returns. Big family wineries are forced to pay their suppliers on delivery. Overhead, sprinklers squirt mindlessly.
“The wine industry will never be the same”, Peter Dawson, Hardy’s senior vice-president of operations, murmured at a party at Paxton’s in March.
It’s a lot worse now. Last week Dawson announced his company’s retreat from its refinery on the River in Victoria, to regroup this side of the border at its Berri Estates, where fifty new jobs might be created.
Never pleased with my thirty years of preaching that Murray Valley viticulture could not be sustained as it was, and that smart wineries should be concentrating their efforts on making better wines for more profit with less environmental and social destruction, Dawson finally announced that his company needed to shift its focus to more profitable wines. But he said “higher-priced”, not “higher quality”.
“The wine industry is not globally competitive at lower price points”, he said. “We should be striving to get all of our Australian wine into higher-priced bottled products.”
Hardy’s have always been prickly at my Banrock Station scepticism. While they market their award-winning property as an environmental triumph, one might ask whether it’s a broadacre big-cropping industrial grapeyard where slightly salty River water is pumped onto an ancient dried-out seabed full of much stronger salt. The little bags of sugar that grow are processed and refined to become what I imagine the senior vice-president of operations would call lower-priced softpack products, until they put it all in bottles.
Use some profit to take the sheep off an old station, and reeds and redgums return to the riverbank. An environmental triumph. Let a swamp develop, call it a wetlands. Another triumph. Then empty the wetlands to put more water in the River, when it gets really crook. Another triumph. 100,000 admiring visitors a year walk the trails, admiring the rejuvenated scrub and riverfront, but the reality of the vineyard is never made quite so clear.
Last week also saw the release of another of the endless scientific reports on the River. This finally put a dollar value on the natural filtration effected by one hectare of working wetland – a higher value than one hectare of productive irrigated land. That is a triumph.
The River has always washed itself. But because there’s been so much poison to be filtered and broken down by the reeds and the weeds and sedge, wetlands which are now being deliberately dried out may never recover. While the dirty water kept them alive, the concentrates now drying in their crusty beds may be too harsh for regrowth.
The whisky bottle was beginning its conciliatory wink when, miraculously, a bottle of O’Donohoe’s Find Tom’s Drop Mourvèdre Shiraz arrived. On its label is an 1896 photograph of the O’Donohoe Brothers’ Hillen Grove Condenser. Michael O’Donohoe’s grandfather, Tom, and his six brothers lobbed on the Kalgoorlie goldfields from County Cork. Traditionally, Irishmen knew how to turn cloudy weak ale into clear powerful poteen in a copper pot still. But O’Donohoes built a desalination business by distilling salty bore water. During the day, anyway. Scouring their photograph, I suspect tradition may have returned at night. Nice marketing.
The vineyard responsible for Tom’s Drop is an environmental triumph. Not only do they need less water, but Michael and Jan are probably cleaning river water by running it through their organic vine garden. “The vineyard is part of a polyculture of trees, vines, plants and creatures” their back label explains. “We endeavour to mimic nature, maintain diversity, and focus on the relationship between soils, plants, and animals.” The living soil below their organic mulch has not been disturbed by machinery for 26 years. They won their Level A Organic certificate in 1990. The crop is always below two tonnes per acre.
And where is this? At Berri. So there’s three examples of nice marketing. Which has the truest ring?
One acre of dirt can never produce more than one acre of flavour. You can squirt on plenty of water and spread your acre of flavour over twenty tonnes of sultana, or chardonnay, seasoned with pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide. Or kill the hose and the poisons, get that mulch going, and squeeze your acre of flavour into a tonne or two of living essence like Tom’s Drop. And guess what happens? You get better wine. For which people are prepared to pay more, because they’re not stupid.