by PHILIP WHITE – This was published in The Sydney Review in 1990
Now I’ve become a city slicker I shall miss the muck of vintage. It infects the lives of everyone in some necks of the woods, neo-Dionysians and Primitive Baptists alike.
I lived for a while in the arid badlands north east of the Barossa. Dutton was a dry ghost town perched on the side of the last hill before the land swept down to the endless Mallee flats. Well, it looked like a ghost town. Most of the cottages had people in them, but there was no shop and you never saw anybody. The most recent ghosts were the souls of the poor kids the Truro Murderers buried down on those vast flats around Stonefield. Vintage even affected us there.
If you drove east from my hut, down the slope and off across the flat lands toward your Gilded Palace of Sin on the east coast, the first real hill you’d strike had the Hydro Majestic Hotel sitting on its top, and that’s a bloody long way away.
Most of Australia’s grapes are grown between those two hills.
I lived perched there on my hill, halfway between the Barossa Valley, which doesn’t really look like a valley, and the Murray Valley, which looks even less like a valley. In fact, it’s all the flat land between my hill and yours, fourteen hundred bloody kilometres away. Every damned truck of grapes or must or wine or bottles that sang from one place to the other spread my little joint with a layer of fine red dust.
The starlings always told me when harvest was nigh. A few weeks before any of the first grapes were ready the starlings would call in at my birdbath. It was the only water for thirty kays. They’d muscle the grass parrots aside and spray the feed dish with grape pips. It must have been terribly uncomfortable for the poor little bastards, flying all that way with their bellies tight with green grapes. The nearest vineyard was at least as far away as the nearest water. They would have been busting for a drink as well as an evacuation of their little gizzards by the time they got to me.
The birdies could also be relied upon to signal the beginning of harvest. The roar of the trucks would gradually build up and suddenly, instead of carrying rocks or tractors or oranges or ready-made houses they’d be chock full of the earliest vintage pickings. Even ordinary tip trucks get in on the act. The drivers glue their tailgates shut with giant tubes of stuff they call Gorilla Snot.
Mechanically harvested grapes bear little resemblance to the pleasant peasant basketsful that winery propagandists have preferred we consider down through the ages. The machines literally bash the fruit from their vines, so not only do the bunches shred, but the berries are torn separate and they leak their juice so by the time the tip truck has covered the two hours of dirt road between the River and my place the top layer of its cargo is caked in road dust and the bottom half of the tray is awash with browning juice and regardless of the strength of that Gorilla Snot the tailgates leak. So the roads get sticky with fermenting grape juice which attracts most of the insects in the world which attract most of the birds in the world which get so heady and confident there in their terrible feeding frenzy they tend to get squashed by the next truck. So you can tell when harvest has commenced by the feathers on the roads.
This happens too during the grain harvest. The roads are sticky with dead galahs, and their broken wings signal sadly as you drive by, pink and grey, pink and grey. Once your road has acquired a good layer of grain or insects eating carcases, the carrion birds get in on the act to pig out on the flesh of those who’ve gone before, and they get squashed, too. So there in the beautiful array of grass parrot, rosella and galah feathers you start to get the jet black of the raven, the speckled khaki of the prey birds and some white from the odd maggie and the whole thing makes driving a lot more interesting. Unless you’re on a motorbike, when it becomes lethal. You either end up plucking a drunken hysterical cocky from your visor and face, or slip in the guts of the fallen and catch a painful case of gravel rash mixed with feathers and bird guts and the first wine of the year. There are better ways of ingesting it.
Silly things happen to the trucks, too. A few years back a brace of them were struggling up my hill, their tanks filled with freshly-crushed Murray Valley must. They weren’t chilled tankers. The day was hotter than expected and the trip took longer than they’d planned, and by the time they’d got to my place their must was fermenting vigorously. Half way up the slope the first one blew its top and released a geyser of two or three tonnes of bright purple juice, skins and pips. The second fellow drove straight into this, lost vision, lost traction, and slid gracefully over the edge into a paddock, spilling his fizzy burden into the same thirsty dust. Very absorbent place, Australia.
There are dark little pubs like the Snakepit, undefiled by tourists, where drivers of these trucks see to their thirst and it’s always a delight to join them in their work. You hear the fair dinkum wine industry news, like which Barossa winery is making wine from concentrated apple juice; or which one’s selling Murray Valley plonk to the Hunter, pretending it’s Barossa. Or the one about the rookie with the shiny new tanker. He backed into the winery, sucked out his load of booze with a big mono pump, and looked around at the critical moment to see the whole damn tanker crumple up like Alfoil because he’d forgotten to open the aircocks at the top and that thirsty big pump turned his new truck into one enormous vacuum.
If you’re particularly good to them, these drovers of the long wine paddock will even arrange samples for you, so the strategically-placed critic can get to taste much of the Hunter vintage before the Hunter winemakers do.
It’s a pity that this year I won’t be able to keep you informed. But then again, the call of the wine road is strong, the Snakepit is dim, quiet and cool, and there are a million avian souls to toast.