“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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20 June 2010

AUSTRALIA'S PROPENSITY TO FUDGE

Steal This Line, Australia:
Making The Best Wine

With The Least Bullshit

by PHILIP WHITE

Last year I was involved in a live satellite cross between Adelaide and Moscow. I sat in a room with a handful of Australian winemakers who took turns to present their wines to a much grander roomful of sommeliers and merchants in Moscow. There they sat in a high-ceilinged baroque hall with rows of immaculate linen-decked tables, waiters, and rows of the best Riedel glassware; we were in a shabby alcove in the Hilton with the camera, a big screen, a few dozen parfait glasses and no napery.

After two efforts to improve the glassware at our end, I finally screwed something with boles and stems from our laconic waiter.

“See those glasses they have in Moscow”, I hissed, pointing at the Russians. “They’re $100 each. They’re Riedels. I want professional wine glasses like those! We’re presenting to them. These are parfait glasses! These are for desserts! We look like honkies!”

Eventually some glasses appeared, the sound popped on, and we progressed, each winemaker discussing their wines, one after the other, as the same thing was poured to the sixty or so appreciative souls in Moscow. Questions and answers went back and forth across the globe through a translator; each end could manipulate the other’s camera, to zoom and pan. The technology, and the impressive room at the other end, was dazzling.

What prominently failed to dazzle were the claims blithely made by a couple of the winemakers. They are obviously accustomed to skiting in front of each other, as this is their mob mentality whenever flogging ethanol to foreigners they generally expect to be susceptible or threatening. But the thought that they would blithely deliver such nonsense about soils, geology, environment, history, the sources of grapes, and their winemaking, in front of me, was a bruising affront.

They obviously expected my implicity in their scam, expecting me to accept this as normal behaviour, and keep schtum. The open link to Moscow was no fit place to be correcting or contradicting them, but I felt sickened to think that the nonsense that flowed would one day have to be unravelled and put right.

This sort of thing rotely occurs internationally, inevitably contributing to the collapse of Australia’s premium winemaking image. Put simply, many of our ethanol pushers are capable of the same sort of bullshit you’d expect from any shady dealer.

For the first twenty years of Australia’s phenomenal wine boom – maybe we should begin calling it the Wine Bubble – such habitual screwing of the truth was easy to hide. But since the blogosphere boom and the instant omnipresence of the internet, the old citadels of nonsense are seeing their ramparts crumble.

Correction: they WILL see that their ramparts have crumbled. Most Australian wineries have yet to realise the power and immediacy of the internet. They are a decade behind their drinkers, and two decades behind the bold new opinion-formers of the wine-loving world.

I have never met S. Indra Sathiabalan, and have no idea about this writer’s propensity to ring out the truth when promoting alcohol in a Muslim country like Malaysia, but I shook with a Moscow-sized baulk when I read his/her piece on Pernod Ricard winemaker Nigel Dolan (left) in Malaysia's Sun2Surf on my browser this morning.

“You can say that wine, and not blood, runs in Nigel Dolan’s body,” the writer recorded. “This son of wine-making legend Brian Dolan has been described by an Australian wine magazine as a ‘master at producing reds with a beguiling mix of elegance, complexity and intensity...’.”

I cannot be sure of the source of this, but it is the sort of quote the industry habitually steals from people like me. These are used without permission, usually out of context, and frequently without acknowledgement of the author, who usually retains copyright.

I would presume a company whose skilled propagandists exercise the sophistry I have learned to expect from a company like Pernod Ricard would have actually named the magazine, if not the author, in their press fluff. I expect also that S. Indra Sathiabalan chose not to mention these as it would mean nothing to the Malaysian reader.

As for the content of the quote? I would have suggested something more along the lines of “a master at producing amorphous, highly-refined, deeply-coloured industrial reds of a certain sweetness, high alcohol and overt oak, usually of the cheaper, sappier Quercus alba American variety”.

But it’s not all bad. One could truthfully point out that the source of the wine Dolan was promoting, the Wyndham Estate Bin 555 Shiraz, is a place called South Eastern Australia, which is a stretch

of mainly desert country as big as the whole of the European Union. So while the wine could in fact legally contain some fruit from where Wyndham Estate was, the fact is that it’s not there anymore.

“The junior Dolan was in Kuala Lumpur last month” the article continues, “to hold a workshop to showcase the wines of Wyndham Estate, a 180-year-old winery in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, of which he is chief winemaker.”

There is no winery called Wyndham Estate. Wyndham Estate is a brand invented by Brian McGuigan in the Hunter Valley, 1,200 kilometres from the Barossa. When I first encountered it, it produced things with names like Chablis, Graves, Sauternes and whatever, from grapes that came from anywhere but Chablis, Graves or Sauternes.

In fact, they came from around Australia.

McGuigan’s father, Perce (right), had been the longstanding winemaker at Penfolds’ Dalwood in the Lower Hunter. Perce had been there for 28 years when Penfolds dropped this inefficient, outdated, unsustainable business to him for $24,000 in 1967. Penfolds took the Dalwood name north to the Upper Hunter, where they started again with Perce’s son Brian as winemaker. The Penfolds brothers spent $2 million, a motza in those days, and failed.

So Brian quit, and rounded up some financial support from two Sydney businessmen with little wine knowledge, and convinced his father to sell him the former Dalwood. He renamed the business Wyndham Estate after George Wyndham (left) , who’d had two acres of vineyard there in 1832.

The ebullient McGuigan (below, right) soon built Wyndham into the biggest of the lower Hunter wineries, which is not saying much on today’s scale of things. His expertise was in the sweet wines, red or white, beloved by the gullible Sydney throat, and the sort of marketing and packaging sophistry I have since come to expect of Pernod Ricard.

Which is not surprising, as that big French pastis concern now owns the Wyndham name along with what was once Orlando Jacob's Creek.

The Barossa’s beloved Orlando Wines had been owned since 1970 by the British bathroom and laundry goods specialist Reckitt and Coleman until a consortium led by that company’s aerosol expert, Chris Roberts, borrowed money from South Australia’s State Bank in the twilight of the ’eighties and executed a daring staff buyout.

This was trumpeted by the financing Premier, John Bannon, as a triumph for his state: the new crew had bought back the farm from the evil, uncaring multinational. They soon also bought Wyndham from McGuigan’s mob, which was riddled with family and business problems mainly due to dangerously rapid expansion.

Before long the likeable Roberts was sheepishly telling me, across his grand Orlando Wyndham desk, of what a dud the purchase turned out to be: he had used South Australia taxpayers’ money to buy New South Wales vineyards, stock and machinery that looked good on the inventory, but became very difficult, if not impossible, to locate.

Then in an even more audacious move, under much suspicion that it had been his plan all along, he sold Orlando-Wyndham to the French Pernod Ricard, leaving custard all over the Premier’s face.

Bannon was then ruthlessly dumped from power after the bank went down to the tune of four or five billion: the precise figure is as ethereal as the Wyndham stock inventory.

So while there’s a chance that a skerrick of the fruit in the Wyndham wine actually came from where Wyndham used to be, in reality it’s like its big sister, Jacob’s Creek, whose fruit comes mainly from vineyards nowhere near your actual creek. Both brands tend to come from the same refinery.

RECENTLY RETIRED CHIEF WINEMAKER PHIL LAFFER ON JACOB'S CREEK, WHICH GAVE ITS NAME TO THE HUGELY-SUCCESSFUL EXPORT BRAND

And when S. Indra Sathiabalan proceeds then to write that Dolan “has a degree in oenology (art of winemaking)”, I feel an urge to suggest the artistry wielded here is of a different appellation.

Oenology, of course, is wine science.

“Even the oak barrels the wines are stored in have a purpose, pointed out Dolan. Wyndham Estate only uses American and French oak barrels which, he explained, help the wines to mature well. American oak imparts a delicate vanilla flavour as well.”

Delicate? Get off it! I could go on.

Suffice to add some irony. A few days before this nonsense was published in Malaysia, I was driving around McLaren Vale with a couple of discerning Malaysian mates who spent thousands on super-premium Vales wines: the very best this district has to offer. Neither would be interested in Bin 555 Shiraz. These guys were sharp as tacks and highly sensitive to bullshit.

One, a cool modern moderate Muslim, was buying for his home cellar as well as building a formidable stack of gifts for his business associates and clients. He made very sure that the gift wines were sealed with corks, but accepted nothing short of screw caps for his own consumption.

Neither would have the slightest interest in anything with residual sugar, overt American oak, and no home vineyard.

To finish, and bring this back to the troubles besetting the Australian wine business, it’s worth asking of these extremes: which range of products wastes the least water and makes the fattest profit?

It’d be the wine that the sleek Moscow buyers would prefer, too: the best wine with the least bullshit.

Now there’s a slogan the exporters should steal!
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11 comments:

sheriffjim said...

great writing king it reads like a S.A. dept. of HEALTH fact sheet on mental health though it usually contains more bullshit then what the wine industry sprouts.
sheriff

The Otter said...

Who were the two bullshitters? By not naming them you put the entire tribe of winemakers under suspicion and the two miscreants don't get the direct lesson they obviously deserve.

Philip White said...

Noticing that you do not name yourself, Mr. Otter, I think it's suffice to say there were claims made about environmental excellence, geologies, and sources of fruit that were simply not correct. These have no bearing on the quality of the wines that our Moscow friends tasted.

Anonymous said...

I laughed out loud when I read:
"I cannot be sure of the source of this, but it is the sort of quote the industry habitually steals from people like me"
Trust me Philip, no-one in the industry is likely to stealing anything you write for their press releases!
Jimmy O

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember reading plenty of trade press releases where Whitey has been quoted ( and mis-quoted) no doubt to add some credibilty and quality to their poor literary efforts.
Keep on crusading Whitey

Eggbert Noggswhiff

Philip White said...

They even copy my lines out and send them back to me as a press release!

Anonymous said...

http://blog.majestic.co.uk/2010/06/22/majestic-meets-the-mcguigans/

Andrea Mitchell said...

Hi,

We've selected you as our Foodista Wine Blog of the Day for July 11th! This blog post regarding Australian wines will be featured on the Foodista homepage for 24 hours. This is a new feature that we recently launched and are thrilled to post your blog. Besides posting your link on the homepage, we will also post a couple shout outs on our Twitter and Facebook pages.

Since you are now a part of the Foodista Featured Wine Blogger of The Day Community, we've created a special badge for you to display proudly on your blog sidebar. I couldn't find your email on your blog to send you the access code for the special badge, but I want to make sure you get it if you are interested. Please send me an email and I'll send it right away.

We are really enjoying your blog and look forward to seeing your recipes, tips and techniques on Foodista! If you would not like to be recognized on Foodista please let me know and I will remove your blog from our queue.

Cheers,
Andrea Mitchell
amitchell@foodista.com
www.foodista.com

Christine said...

Hello! Congratulations! Your blog was just chosen as Wine Blog of the day at Foodista.

whitey said...

http://news.guelphmercury.com/Life/article/668821

So Nick James-Martin is the winemaker at d'Arenberg?

JM Darkly said...

Hi Philip Read your article immediately after reading Jefford's in FT http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/795fba50-a0ea-11df-badd-00144feabdc0.html very illuminating experience. Hope you get better glasses next time.
JM