“I too thought we had nailed this back in 2009 but the attempts to change this stuff are as persistent as the louse itself - who knew Phylloxera had its own lobbying group?” asked McLaren Vale grapegrower and activist, Dudley Brown.
He referred to Wednesday’s Legislative Council interchange between Robert Brokenshire MLC and Minister Gail Gago, whose portfolios include Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, Forests, Regional Development, Tourism, and the Status of Women.
Brokenshire lives on the edge of McLaren Vale, and knows well, and constantly mixes with the winemakers there. He speaks fluent wine. Minister Gago is married to Peter Gago, the chief winemaker of Penfolds, who has just won the international Winemakers' Winemaker Award from the august international Masters of Wine. This is the highest award available to winemakers. These people are not new to wine topics.
For over a century South Australia has been free of the dreaded micro root louse that killed the vineyards of France and Victoria in the 1800s, and burst out again various times during this last decade in Victoria; perhaps most infamously in a Fosters vineyard in the Yarra Valley. The sole reason the plague has not crossed into South Australia is the extremely rigid restriction on the movement of machinery, dirt and plant material from places where phylloxera lives to places where it doesn’t.
“Around Australia phylloxera is clearly being mobilized,” McLaren Vale vine scientist James Hook explained during the 2009 scare. “Previously confined to North Eastern Victoria Phylloxera is on the march ... Phylloxera was first detected in Australia in 1877, in Geelong, and was responsible for the near destruction of the Victorian wine industry in the 1880s. Until fairly recently it was confined to small areas in central Victoria (Nagambie, Upton, Mooroopna) and northeast Victoria (Rutherglen, King Valley), in southeast New South Wales (Corowa) and in Camden and Cumberland near Sydney. However, there have been several detections in central Victoria in the past 10 years (Buckland Valley 2003, Ovens Valley 2003, Murchison 2006, Yarra Valley 2006, and Mansfield 2010).”
While I'm waiting to take a photograph of James Hook, take a look at this photograph he took. This is Mitch from Calgary, tenderly poking some goodness into James' Lazy Ballerina red. photo James Hook
There’s the key. The dreaded louse barely moved for a century, thanks to the rigid restrictions on moving plant material, soil, grapes and machinery. These were largely imposed by South Australian winemakers through their Phylloxera Board. Every South Australian grapegrower pays a levy to fund this policing body.
But in the very years in which the industry made its biggest, most risky and hurried national expansions, Phylloxera suddenly appeared in five very popular interstate vignobles, where it will probably thrive forever.
Nevertheless, somebody away back in a smoke-free room somewhere has managed to have the restrictions eased, so it’s now possible to more easily move stuff from near where Phylloxera lives, if not from precisely smack bang in the middle of the infection. Pardon my ambiguity in place of rigorous delineation, but it is in this no man's land where the threat is feared to lie. South Australian grapegrowers with ancient pre-phylloxera clones still growing on their own roots are waiting for their government to prove to them that there is no Phylloxera in the dubious border country, and that the relaxation of the restrictions on the movement of machinery, for example, is no threat to their livelihood.
Having never been consulted about the proposed changes, and certainly not advised of them until Drew and Rae Noon began asking questions and DRINKSTER broke the story a month back, South Australian winemakers and grapegrowers are aghast to discover this, and think the science applied to justify the change is dodgy and highly suspicious, as Phylloxera can be extant in the ground for years without being detected.
Brokenshire posed a question that many South Australians are very keen to see answered. He wanted to know whether anybody in government had protested about the wine industry’s relaxation of its own Phylloxera control regulations, and whether the Minister would reverse the decision “as, for instance, her predecessor did in relation to the proposed overnight closures of fruit fly inspection stations in the Riverland?”
If Phylloxera does move, the vast vineyards of the South Australian Riverland will probably be the first to go. Apart from Coonawarra, they are the closest to Victoria's Phylloxera country. The state's vast volumes of cheap wine come from the Riverland; its most expensive wine - Penfolds Bin 620 - comes from Coonawarra.
You can read the entire parliamentary interchange on DRINKSTER. Both pollies have a reasonable grasp of the face of the situation. While Minister Gago was handed the Agriculture portfolio and several others only recently (upon Jay Weatherill's ascendancy to the Premiership), the President of the chamber called her response “very thorough.”
“My understanding is that the protocol that was put together did a full risk assessment and has put in place the protocols that are necessary to continue to protect the Phylloxera spread,” Minister Gago concluded. “The changes that the honourable member alludes to are those involving equipment between zones that are Phylloxera free.
“The Phylloxera board itself, the industry itself, decided that that was a reasonable thing so long as the equipment was certified to have not been in a Phylloxera area. The industry itself has established these standards. The industry itself has looked at these protocols and approved them. South Australia's Phylloxera board, our own South Australian industry, has approved of this and said that these are suitable protocols to continue the protection of our viticulture interests.”
Dudley Brown disagrees about the alleged consultation: “There has not been any meaningful consultation with ‘the industry’ as a whole,” he said “but clearly someone in ‘the industry’ has an outsized role in this matter. I would be keen to know who exactly. All [South Australian] growers are levy payers [to the Phylloxera Board] - all deserve a voice in any meaningful change, not just the few who are inconvenienced by regulations that protect us all.”
“I can only reiterate that it was the Phylloxera board that approved these protocols,” Gago told the House. “They are significant leaders within the industry, so it is a protocol that is basically developed by the industry and endorsed by the industry. I think it would be incredibly foolish as a minister (even though my husband is a winemaker, I do not think that gives me the authority) to overturn an industry decision that has been considered as thoroughly as this decision has.”
But thoroughly considered by whom? And on what account? For what reasons? This writer has spent years attempting to unravel the arcane tangle of committees, bodies, councils, cadres and infernal intrigue that between them moved to relax these vital regulations.
As Brown reminded me, we entered this battle in 2009, when moves to relax the protocols came to notice by sheer chance. Wayne Farquar, a passionate and highly-respected Barossa vine propagator who owns Elite Nursery, not to mention priceless ancient vineyards of pre-Phylloxera stock – the very sort that Phylloxera will destroy when it crosses the border from Victoria – then wrote a critical letter of concern to the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia (PGIBSA). This letter, which asked questions about due diligence, and showed deep concern about the relaxation of restrictions, was acknowledged, but never answered, although the acknowledgment note promised an answer would be forthcoming. Uh-huh.
“For some reason they invited me to a meeting,” Farquar said last week of his 2009 discovery. “That’s when I realised they were trying to relax the regulations. It was just by chance that I found out ...
"And now, look Rae Noon’s on the board and she only found out by accident that they were at it again ... It’s all by accident, so you can’t possibly say there’s been real consultation.
"The Minister has to discover that it’s not really the industry doing this - it’s individuals, and it’s very hard to find out just who they are.”
Phylloxera management in a zone where Phylloxera lives. The buyer is supposed to ask which parts of the country the grapes can be transported to without breaking the law. South Australia doesn't even rate a mention.
Drew Noon wonders who could possibly profit from a phylloxera outbreak. This query offers not so clear an answer as his subsequent query.
"Who doesn’t? South Australian growers (especially those with old vines on their own roots) who are rarely or never involved with moving grapes or machinery from interstate and have everything to lose from a Phylloxera outbreak? What level of risk is acceptable to these SA growers who have everything to lose here?"
Every time a Phylloxera outbreak occurs, the vines must be removed and destroyed. Then you engage a nursery to propagate non-grape-bearing American vine rootstocks which are Phylloxera-resistant, and then employ specialists to graft grape-bearing varieties onto those rootstocks. Then you start your vineyard again, enduring the inconvenience of steam-cleaning machinery, and vegetable material, every time you leave the area.
Like, you gotta disinfect your truck every time you drive to the shop.
Or you should.
Phylloxera would just love the precious Terra Rosa, limestone, and calcrete of Coonawarra ... photo Milton Wordley
If Phylloxera were to move from the Victorian regions where it thrives, say to Coonawarra, a few hours' drive away, the vignerons would have to re-plant the region, only five per cent of which is already planted on Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.
A cutting grafted to Phylloxera-resistant rootstock, ready to plant, costs about $5.50.
Coonawarra has around 5,427 hectares of vineyard that would require replanting.
Presuming an average vine intensity of 2,000 per hectare, that’s about a $60 million gross income for the vine nurseries, without considering the cost of vineyard labour or machinery.
Or the loss of production the growers would face during the many years the changeover would require.
And that’s just Coonawarra. South Australia has 72,000 hectares of vines.
So there’s a lot at stake for the losers, and a lot of money to be made by the winners when the little louse hits the road.
When Phylloxera crosses our border, a great deal of forensic energy will no doubt go into locating the people who made it all possible.