“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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30 September 2008

Men of Category

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SPEECH to the SOUTH AUSTRALIAN WINE PRESS CLUB at the EXETER HOTEL


by PHILIP WHITE – Wednesday 27 March 2002


I want to read to you the opening passage from One Man’s Ambition,the introduction to Wynn Winegrowers Diary, 1970, written by the late Walter James, who was a great and humble winewriter in Melbourne.


"When you choose to direct your life to the task of making money you may be sure that your success will arouse the admiration, and the envy, of a vast army of men who have had similar aims,” he wrote. “Should you set out not to make money but to make something really worthwhile in itself, your success will with equal certainty be rewarded with the admiration, and the goodwill, of men who really matter - men of category, as the Spaniards call them.”


He continues: "In some fields of productive endeavour, of course, you cannot achieve much without substantial means; it is only a little sad that so many men of ability as they reach for success and meet it are beguiled into allowing the means to submerge the aim and in the end are content to do, adequately enough, no more than a hundred others around them are doing equally well. Their obituaries describe these people as successful businessmen and they pass promptly into oblivion."


Among the businessmen who will pass promptly into oblivion in the near future are many of those we see running the great Australian wine industry.


And not to be unduly cynical, it IS a great wine industry. Again.


Just last night I was ploughing through some old Winestate and Wine and Spirit magazines, from back in the days when a Petaluma chardonnay was $7 and we’d give you a free bottle of Grange if you bought a $12 annual subscription. Australia hadn’t discovered shiraz then.


I read an interview I did twenty years ago with Frank Stone, a wine merchant from Atlanta. He was a man of category. He cursed Australian winemakers because he had never had one Australian wine shipper bother to visit Skinflints, his six wine supermarkets in Georgia, that were turning over $25 million a year of premium wine. He was also the President of an international wine education association with 1600 members, and he’d never once been contacted by an Australian winemaker or promoter.


Frank told me of the phenomenal success of the Italians in the United States, quoting figures like Villa Banfi, who’d gone from shipping nothing in 1975 to 17 million cases in 1982, and how the Italian government had got behind its winemakers and got some order into their promotion and made sure they went and visited blokes like Frank.


The people who’ve put Australia there beside the Italians might have taken twenty years, rather than seven, but they’ve done it - they’ve achieved some very grand things indeed, but even many of those will pass into oblivion.


Writers pass into oblivion, too. I remember Richard Farmer, the political journalist and major Canberra liquor merchant standing up in Len Evans Bulletin Place restaurant in 1984 to address the New South Wales Wine Press Club. “Fellow drug dealers”, he began, addressing an issue that has never really been faced since that day. Then he wheeled into a loud warning about Australia’s wine explosion being the result of the product being tax free, and said loud and clear that unless the industry got its shit together and grew up and lobbied, it would of course be taxed.


Now, thanks to the lobbying efforts of Brian Croser and Ian Sutton, we have an absolute dusie of a tax, but we don’t hear much from Richard since he penned Bob Hawke’s immortal line that by 1990 no child in Australia would be living in poverty. As a fellow writer, I think I know the sort of personal oblivion that might eat Richard right up....


In the same year - the apocryphal 1984 that my generation of bookworms thought we’d never ever reach - Nathan Chroman, wine writer from the Los Angeles Times was here, saying he didn’t think anybody in the world needed to make better wines than our best shiraz.


Gerard Jaboulet was here in the same week, handing out glasses of his La Chappelle Hermitage (1976 - $16!), from the French vineyard which is the very source of that shiraz, totally disbelieving that we were spending taxpayers’ money to uproot our best and oldest shiraz vines, not to mention nearly all of our ancient grenache. There was hardly a vine of cinsault or carignan left after that exercise. These just happened to be the varieties Gerard coveted from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the district which McLaren Vale now seems determined to emulate.


Funny thing about these “new” rousillon varieties, viognier, marsanne and roussane, that they’re madly planting to get more South-of-Francey: they were all down there growing brilliantly in the Vales when Ebenezer Ward was writing The Advertiser wine column in 1862.


Gerard Jaboulet has tragically and prematurely returned to the great silence, but I don’t think we can say he’s gone to oblivion. I don’t know about Nathan. He’s a writer. And so was old Ebenezer, who shared one or two of my human tendencies. He got his tab in the Yorketown pub up to 50 quid in 1880, perhaps because of his derision of the quality of the local fizz, and his irritating habit of calling repeatedly for Krug.


Coming a bit closer to today’s men of category, one chubby fellow who was on the National Wine Centre board buttonholed me and boasted of how he would win his Order of Australia Medal for getting the Centre up against all the odds and dangerous detractors like me. I thought immediately that he was a man who had become “beguiled into allowing the means to submerge his aim”. He will pass promptly into oblivion.


Mark Cashmore, the great Hunter winemaker and marketer, is a name we don’t hear too much of any more. Before he sooled his lawyers on me for calling him Mark Morecash in 1983 I asked him the following question: “Why have you changed the name of your blend of chardonnay and semillon from pinot riesling to semillon chardonnay?”


To which he honestly replied: “Pinot riesling doesn’t mean very much at all. Chardonnay’s not pinot chardonnay and I don’t think riesling in the context of pinot riesling means very much. I mean riesling is semillon and pinot is chardonnay, and we have more semillon in the wine than chardonnay, so it should be semillon chardonnay.”


Not to put too much of a mozz on the Hunter, but the notorious Murray Tyrrell beat that hands down when I rang him for a comment on one of his habitual imbroglios: “Philip”, he roared like an old Chev blitz starting up, “what these fellers in the press are saying about me is completely unfalse!”


But that’s enough of that. I know what dear Walter James and David Wynn were thinking of when they conspired to write that paragraph I read to begin. They were talking of the true cycles of wine, and how so few of us ever really get to see it properly, gloriously, wholesomely occur; if not our very short lives, at least our concentration is too short to plan a flavour, and spend a year or three selecting the ground which will deliver it, then another one preparing it for the action. We might endure the few years it then takes for a crop to appear, or even stick around for another four or five so the fruit begins to show some complexity of flavour, but will we still be paying attention when those wines reach their maturity another ten years on?


How many decades of close attention does it take for a true believer to feel knowledgeable and comfortable about his terroir?


I interviewed M. Derallier-Dubrez once, and thanked him for the beautiful colour advertisements he’d been placing for his Quelltaler Estate, which was part of his Remy Martin empire. But I also voiced concern that the stylish ads were too subtle for Australians, and asked him how long he thought they’d take to reflect real change in his sales. This was in 1983, and he was nearly eighty.


“Aaaah M’sieu”, he said from his wheelchair, “I am planning for the year 2020.”


Remy foundered with its debt after buying Cointreau, and Derallier-Dubrez, who is still a man of category, sold Quelltaler to Wolf Blass, who sold it to Foster’s, who shut it down, ripped its tanks out, then put them back and opened it again. Perhaps their new 75,000 tonne wine percolator at Bilyara’s not big enough. Whatever will the shareholders think?


Since our staunchly anti-gambling Prime Minister has insisted on Australians becoming the world’s biggest investors in the stock market, the popularity of wine as a sheer investment property has boomed. I don’t mean the idiots who buy the stuff like gold bars at auction, and lay it down and wait til it’s too old to drink, at which point they sell it on at a grand profit to some other dunderhead who’ll repeat the dumb cycle - I’m talking about the nature of a wine industry which has become dependent upon short-term investors for its survival.


What happened to Seppeltsfield without its family? Why are our heritage wineries, like Saltram and Quelltaler, under constant threat of closure in the name of shareholder interest? How could empires like that one which the Wynns built, over three generations and a whole century, continue to survive this deadly slow cycle, if their sole duty was to return value for money to their impatient but faceless shareholders, who are scattered about the globe avoiding tax?


The two systems, on the face of it, seem totally mismatched. To me, a wine which is good value for the shareholder is a terrible wine to drink, and, conversely, as Richard Farmer said on that tumultuous day in Sydney: “Small vineyards are a rich man’s hobby.”


How can shareholders imagine or learn or care that their fast buck comes at the expense of salinated soil and buggered river systems, somewhere else, and how can their managers afford to let on? How can they possibly conceive of the patience required, the foresight and drive to establish a vineyard like Coonawarra?

Of course the sad truth is that Coonawarra had already passed into oblivion when David Wynn bought the old Riddoch cellars and vineyard land there for £22,000 in 1952. One year the farm’s being sold on its value as sheep grazing land, the next Wynn and his winemaker, Ian Hickinbotham walked in and by 1954 they were directing the first deliberately induced and managed malo-lactic fermentations on earth. I’ve tasted that wine many times. It’s still delicious, and the Frogs still can’t believe it.


Like Wynn, I don’t think Hickie will be in oblivion when he goes. They’re what those Spaniards call men of category.


And so, I believe, might the Oatley family be. The plans Philip Shaw unveiled for the replanting and refurbishment of Coonawarra in my piece in today’s Advertiser are unlike the sort of thing you hear from a publicly-listed company. The previous regime was certainly less likely to chop yields and short term profits so dramatically. What will make the Oatleys serious men of category, who will not pass quickly into oblivion, would be to see them carry on with the plan I like to imagine them following. Like frighten the investors off, get the price down nice and low, then buy the whole thing out and delist it. I’ve done my bit.

South Australia was enjoying a spectacular wine export boom exactly a century ago. Ernest Whitington, writing in The Register of 1903, reported:


“At present time the vintage is in full swing .... new, clean and up-to-date appliances have taken the place of old-fashioned and dirty methods, and the results in every case have been most gratifying”. He went on to explain that the state’s wine production had gone up fourfold in the previous decade, and the export trade had “gone ahead by leaps and bounds. Wine has grown to become one of the staple products of South Australia”, he wrote, “and there is no knowing what dimensions the industry will develop. The possibilities are almost illimitable.”


But within thirty years, the war, the wowsers, changing public tastes, stupid government intervention, and a wave of investors who knew nothing about wine, at both the British and Australian ends, saw that boom go a complete gutser.


Our sale of strong alcoholic wines to fatten up the ration-starved Poms after the next war worked for a while, and we enjoyed another boom. “McLaren Vale furruginous wines” were pumped for all they were worth: smooth and alcoholic, and yes, in some instances, even grown on ferruginous soils. But suddenly the English felt they’d put on sufficient condition: they’d had enough, and flocked, en masse, back to the lighter, more accessible, less heady stuff from just across the Channel, and Australia’s great wine business belly flopped again.


Men of category are what we need more than anything, right now. The wine industry is suddenly in the hands of a generation which has experienced no surplus, no collapse, and indeed has faced very little inclemency at all in this golden age. All its investors are fairly new; many of them are in it only to avoid paying tax.


What we need is people who are determined and wise enough to make something really worthwhile in itself, people who will not let the money submerge the ambition. Because there are plenty of people who really do matter in Australia, people of true category, who will reward such enlightened endeavour with extremely valuable admiration, delight, and goodwill. And you never know: their children, and their grandchildren, might even drink.


Thankyou very much.

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1 comment:

Andrew Graham said...

Until you started to talk about Phil Shaw and Rosemount, I though this was speech was given in Septmeber 2008, not 2002 - it seems our industry is still plagued by the same problems 6 years on