by PHILIP WHITE - 22 JUNE 2006 - This was the author's last column in The Advertiser. He was quite rightly sacked. You can't have too much of this sort of writing going down.
Nearly a thousand of these columns ago, when the wine industry barely rated a mention in this newspaper’s pages other than in the Food and Wine section, the acrid whiff of burning vines was fresh across rural South Australia. The brutal reality of a stupid glut and the waste it incurred was still fresh. Whole communities were hurting.
Now that the wine business gets daily mentions in general news and the business pages, the smell of glut panic again tickles the sensories. In all those reams of comment and industrial bluster, how many times have you read anything about gastronomy? Quality? Pleasurable, responsible drinking?
Let’s get this nailed, once and for all. The wine glut is NOT good for wine lovers.
The quality of wine drops. When you have huge wine refineries chopping hundreds of millions from the value of unsold wine in stock, of course prices plummet. Medium-sized makers who generally produce wine of higher quality find themselves forced to chop prices to keep their shelf space. This forces cuts in production budgets, and quality eventually, inevitably follows.
Several of our favourite medium-sized companies find themselves in this awkward spot. If medium-sized is between a 100,000 tonne crush, and 10,000 tonnes, we’re talking about Yalumba, Peter Lehmann, Angove’s, and Kingston Estate. Interstate, the list includes De Bortoli, McWilliams, Zilzie and Brown Brothers. Families with proud histories of supplying good reliable quality. They don’t like any of this. They’re forced to become something they’ve always strained to avoid.
As the sickening downward spiral accelerates, wine moves away from gastronomic pleasure and health, and sails determinedly towards recreational drug manufacture. Pure and simple.
This comes at the expense of our water resources, our environment, our health, our sense of community history, the appearance and amenity of our countryside, whole rural economies, and thousands of grape-growing families with kids to educate and buy shoes and socks for.
Right now the politicians we have elected are running away from this terrible mess. Politicians come and go. A proper planning and development span for any serious quality wine business is longer than the life of three governments. Politicians introduced the extravagant tax breaks for vineyard investors that led to much of Australia’s glut.
And the regimes they swap for votes ensure that right now, because they have flat country and unlimited water, cotton growers in NSW and Queensland are planting thousand-acre monoculture vineyards. Cheap water and huge scale makes the fruit cheap; they’re getting contracts!
When I introduced Prime Minister Howard at the opening of the O’Leary Walker winery a few years ago, he immediately laid claim to the wine boom. “It’s the low interest rates that my government guarantees that makes this growth possible”, he boasted. Now his Ministers say the glut’s nothing to do with them, they won’t share blame, and the wine industry should sort it out.
Equally at fault are the banks, who will not lend money for viticulture without ridiculously extravagant water rights, meaning higher yields, less flavour, and withering profits.
The big company execs who fly hither and thither, dropping in to beg for further plantings of this and that, should take a bow, too. Their job is to maximise profits for shareholders, who also come and go, as fickle as governments and bankers.
Then there are the wine industry councils, who knew this was coming five years ago. They roll over for the biggest companies every time. In this testosterone-driven business, big is always better.
Short of jailing all these bastards, what can the thinking drinker do? Chase $3 bargains through the megastores at the expense of the responsible, hard-working premium producers who are the last bastion of quality and gastronomic pleasure?
And what can we politely suggest our wine industry should attempt? Try improving quality, for a start. Try educating our massive export markets that Australia means quality, and get back into the business of making an honest profit through intelligent, honest effort.
And the poor bloody grapegrowers? The geniuses in the wine industry councils are suggesting growers should prune their vines to avoid any yield at all next year. Again, no mention of quality. Next year might be the best vintage in a century.
Nobody has suggested we work as a country to prune as we always should have: responsibly, with expectations of modest yields and the healthy anticipation of the improved quality inherent there.
My parting shot: the Feds should pay the least profitable, most water wasteful growers to pull up and go away, then buy their water rights and put that water back in the river. The remaining, sensible, serious growers would pay a modest levee per tonne to repay the Fed, and prune now to cut next year’s yield by half. The wine would be better. Too hard?