21 January 2011
WINEBIZ NEEDS SMART MINISTER FOR WINE
GONDOLA ON THE MURRAY CREATOR, STEFANO DE PIERI: CELEBRATED CHEF, GASTRONOMIC ENTREPENEUR, AND PRINCIPAL PROMOTOR OF HIS BELOVED MURRAY VALLEY: THE WINE BUSINESS LACKS SOMEBODY WITH HIS SKILLS AT ITS HELM
Small Flood, No Casualties
Wet Brisbane Night's Role
In 1980s Vic Wine Boom
by PHILIP WHITE
In the interests of injecting a little humour into the horrific muddy mess covering eastern Australia, here’s a late exclusive.
Few readers will know of the great Brisbane flood of, about, er, 1983? and its role in the resurrection of the Victorian wine industry.
Victoria’s wine business had been the biggest in Australia until it was ravaged by the dreaded root louse, phylloxera, in the late 19th century, giving the great wine families of South Australia, the Gramps, Seppelts, Hardys, Penfolds and Hill Smiths, their chance to expand and fill the gap.
Which, with chill confidence, they did.
PREMIER DUNSTAN HITS PARLIAMENT IN HIS PINK SHORTS, ADELAIDE, WEDNESDAY 22nd NOVEMBER 1972
But by the early '80s, it was a different scene. The rosy flush of South Australia’s Don Dunstan premiership was gone: Adelaide was not about to get any more feature stories in The New Yorker; pink shorts were out in parliament, and the gay dude who had been Australia’s most nationally-coveted leader was sulking in self-imposed exile. Suddenly the City of Light, the Athens of the South, seemed to be governed by straw-sucking cockies with beards. It was shockingly, depressingly dullsville.
To add insult, Victoria went and elected its shiny new glamourpuss Labor government of John Cain. Like Our Don, Cain, too, sported the odd safari suit, and the determination of his mob to bring on big time economic change equalled the drive South Australia’s winemakers had shown when they kicked the Vics all those years before. To really add insult, he appointed Don Dunstan to the driver’s seat of Victorian tourism, with a special brief to revive its wine business.
This seemed eerily to coincide with the South Australian government's disastrous Vine Pull Scheme, when taxpayers' money was spent paying fourth and fifth generation grapegrowers to uproot priceless old vineyards and get out of the wine business.
So Victoria wasn't merely beeing cheeky. It was throwing down the glove. Battle was declared, but there were no rules of engagement.
The third member of its new muscateers was deputy premier Robert Fordham (right), who was fondly regarded as “The Member for Wine”. As a punk wine editor and great fan of the revolutionary genius of Dunstan, I just had to nail a good long interview with the mercurial Fordham. For reasons that had a lot more to do with smoke than mirrors, this opportunity eventually arose in Brisbane.
Fordham, who was little known there, and not recognised, had a PR flak I called Hacca - he looked very much like celebrated corporate raider Robert Holmes a’Court, with that tall, elegant bearing. The three of us plunged through a restaurant and sufficient bars to break Queensland’s vicious laws of congregation with a midnight rendition of The Red Flag, warbled in the sweet harmony of the drunk outside Brisbane Town Hall. In Bjelke-Petersen’s day, this was an act of illegal demonstration if not plain revolutionary uprising.
We laughed about being arrested. Which we weren’t. But we must have looked suffiently besuited for most people to think Fordham and I were security men for Hacca. Rather than attempt to convince the citizens of Queensland that the shorter member of our team was really the deputy premier of Victoria, we found it easier to let people think they were suddenly in the company of Holmes a’Court, Australia’s most stylish billionaire.
THE REAL HOLMES a’ COURT, FAR RIGHT
They would have locked us up if we’d insisted that Bob fordham was the deputy premier of Victoria.
This unplanned masquerade gave us perfect cover to drink and discuss wine. Intensely.
Eventually, I crawled to bed up the top end of what was then the poshest hotel in Brisbane. But hardly had the thick head hit the pillow than the bedside phone buzzed and an anxious voice said
“Mr White, are you awake?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m answering the phone.”
“Are you alone?” she asked. “This is reception. We have an emergency.”
She warned me the floor would be wet when I dropped my feet over the side, that we were on emergency lighting, and that I should pop on my dressing gown, leave the room immediately, and wait with the other tenth floor guests in the lift foyer. Under no conditions were any of us to open the door to the fire escape or call the lift.
By the time we had gathered there in the gloom, we were up to our ankles in water. I’d lost my two compadres: they were further up the building. We could hear a mighty torrent rushing down the fire escape stairs, and when we snuck the forbidden door open a crack to see, it was almost impossible to force the door shut again.
Things looked very grim.
“If we’re this high above the river,” someone said, “and we’re under water, this is a bloody big flood. It must be a hundred foot deep!”
We stood there, fuddled, boozy strangers looking awkward and helpless in the dim, waiting for our submerged building to fill up with floodwater, when an official arrived with a torch and explained a swimming-pool sized water reservoir on the roof had led go, and that we simply had to wait til it decanted itself into the downstairs bar and car park, which it did over the next hour or so.
In fair dinkum Queenslander style, they soon had us in safe, dry rooms, and had dried the top floors out by next evening. The downstairs bar had stuff floating around in waist-deep water, and the whole joint smelled like a bad cork for weeks, I was told, long after Robert Holmes a’Court and his minders left town.
But I left that meeting with no doubt that Fordham and his gang would revolutionise Victorian winemaking. They were fizzin! Within years our tiny rival state had more cellar outlets than we did: an entire new crop of boutique, top shelf vineyards and cellars were spread across cool Victoria, an array whose depth, quality and colour trounced complacent South Australia.
The punchdrunk reeling of today’s wine industry demands the sort of determined revolution of those Cain-Fordham-Dunstan days. With the mighty flood easing the drought and beginning to rinse our river and the Mallee on a scale that will shock, atop the collapse of huge wineries like Constellation Australia, and the scary viticulture implications of global warming, it’s time we had a Minister for Wine.
Is there anybody smart enough?
While Fordham got the wine job done, he eventually quit the deputy premiership in 1988 as the Cain government wallowed in a series of crises mainly caused by dumb business decisions: the same old same old bugger-ups we see cyclically in leftish governments whose frontliners suffer a pugnacious pathological obsession with proving that they are as good at business as the businessmen they are expected to merely govern.
“Politics is the art of the possible,” such a polly sagely advised me over his Riedel of Bordeaux last year. I have since become convinced that successful politics is really the good management of change, and the intensifying struggle for the retention of power eventually leads all politicians to avoid changing themselves. They should resign earlier.
Eventually even premier Cain resigned after taunting his party with a "back me or sack me" ultimatum. “We appointed a few dills but we weren't crook,” he said as he quit, leaving the finances of his state in tatters.
Dunstan, indeed, had quit the Victorian Tourism Commission two years earlier, after a hissy spat over a photograph was published of him with Monsignor Porcamadonna, a leader of the Order of Perpetual Indulgence, a gay activism group.
Stefano di Pieri, Cain’s advisor, fled to Mildura, where he married a publican’s beautiful daughter and set about floating his gondola on the Murray, and poor old Hacca? I reckon we lost him in the Great Brisbane Flood of 1983.
The reinvigorated Victorian wine business still stands, however, proud, brave and generally delicious. As a committed Murray mudplugger, maybe Stefano is the man to sort the Australian wine business. He wouldn’t let history repeat itself, would he?
STEFANO DE PIERI: A GREAT AMBASSADOR FOR THE GASTRONOMIC ESSENTIALS THAT THE MURRAY-DARLING BASIN DOES BEST