When Remy Martin, the family-owned French liquor giant, bought the jewel of Clare, Quelltaler, from Nathan & Wyeth in 1982, its Australian manager, the colorful Francois Henri, appointed a brilliant Alsace winemaker to run the show. He was Michel Dietrich, from a family-owned winery in Kayserberg. He left Alsace in a winter of blizzards, arrived in Adelaide in 42 degree heat, hired a car and drove to Clare.
Although it took many years for his impact to properly settle, like decades, really, Dietrich revolutionized Clare white wine-making. First thing he did was get holes dug in the vineyards and check the geology. To the ridicule of many locals, he then picked the vineyards accordingly. This had never been done before. Once he’d raised the French tricolour above the old Springvale House, the home of the pioneering Sobels family, he got straight down to making stunning Rieslings with yeast he’d brought from home, and the best ever Semillons in good French oak.
Sobels, as in Carl, had been the winemaker for William Jacob at Jacob's Creek in the Barossa. He'd come from Silesia, just as Dietrich came from Alsace, only 135 years later.
Michel and Isabelle Dietrich getting to know the rocks at Quelltaler, Watervale, Clare, on a freezing morning in 1983 ... photo Philip White
Dietrich also brought a tale of an ancient vintage celebration. Each year, when their ferments were complete, the people of Kayserberg would stroll through their winding hillside village, tasting each other’s wine in the cellars common beneath their story-book houses, with their fachwerk walls and steep, curvy tiled roofs. Of course every host supplied the best food they could manage.
It’s 28 years since Dietrich, with the assistance and drive of Jane Mitchell, convinced the winemakers of Clare to emulate this cosy gastronomic celebration with the first Clare Gourmet Weekend. Same as Alsace. But in Clare, you drove.
It's a long way from one end of Clare to the other.
But driving big distances didn't matter. It wasn’t long before the Barossa, pushed by Robert O’Callaghan, had one too. The tourism bureaucrats hopped aboard, seeing these fixtures as a great way of promoting South Australia, and they’ve never gone away. I mean the weekends still occur, but the bureaucrats are still there, too.
Then there was the irony of the poor responsible but infectiously jovial mob who'd hired a bus in the Barossa, and their driver blew way over.
Just where the customers came from, and then went back to, was deeply interesting to me. The promoters, especially those in government, seemed to believe they came from interstate and overseas. In the late ’eighties, Kay Hannaford & Associates conducted a poll, and interviewed a percentage of the visitors at many Barossa cellars. As I suspected, the vast majority of them were graziers and graingrowers from nearby farmlands: they were almost locals, and simply needed a good excuse to get out and spend a day in the wineries. Many brought friends from a bit further out, and used it as a get-together.
And then, many were very local, and didn’t have far to go at all. Doug Lehmann, for example, then winemaker at Basedow's in Tanunda, voiced delight that it had given him an excuse to visit Bethany Wines for the first time in his life. It's all of five kays away.
McLaren Vale fills up with many folks from the seaside suburbs which remove its vineyards from their gulf: I wonder how many times these return, to buy wine, before the next annual gooze.
The ideal size for a small regional wine tasting: the Vale Cru mob offer their wares at The Victory Hotel, Sellicks Hill, McLaren Vale. No food outside, but if you'd booked, you could enter the pub, sit down, and dine ... photo James Hook
Last week, InDaily reported the kerfuffle amongst the Barossa winemakers, who are disunited about the viability of their event. Many are disinterested. It’s the same in McLaren Vale, relative to their Sea and Vines festival.
There's constant rumbling, too, in the smallest mobs, like McLaren Vale's Grand Cru, who do a great presentation of lovely rare wines from deadly producers, but struggle about promotion budgets and never manage to please all their constituents.
Same on the grand scale. While the huge extravaganzas certainly employ many locals, from security dudes to musicians, chefs, waiters and drivers, they rarely make their participants much profit. Perhaps because of this, they’re regarded purely as promotional events, but other than that poll in the Barossa, all those years ago, I know of no proper investigation made into just who attends, for what reasons, and what their attendance does to consequent wine purchasing.
Casual carousing tourists drive serious wine buyers away.
The old notion of carnivale – the death of meat, and its gluttonous consumption before Lent – and the feasting of feastival always involved wild revelry and over-indulgence; invariably, the modern “gourmet” weekends teeter on the verge of affording a little too much respect to this history. Ask the security guards, or the poor old traffic police who have the unseemly task of ensuring the roads are free of drunks without making enemies in tourism or amongst the winemakers themselves.
The riotous Barossa Vintage Festival of old always occurred at the end of Lent. After all that abstinence, and the hard work of vintage, Easter sometimes arrived in time for everybody to overdo it at an officially-sanctioned local bacchanale. If the timing was wrong, you did it anyway.
Vintage lunch amongst the brimming fermenters at Petagna Wines, Sellicks Hill, McLaren Vale. The soulful chef Nigel Rich, centre, blue, cooked meaty perfections with Paul Petagna, head of table. (Nigel's opening a new joint in the main street of McLaren Vale this Friday. It will rock.) True wine lovers seek memorable, intimate experiences like this when they attend wine festivals, but they often get mass idiocy with folks they don't particularly like ... photo Philip White
In that Barossa poll, the average number of people in each car was around three. Nobody was happy at my suggestion that this meant that one in three of the visitors attracted could not partake of the product being promoted without breaking the spirit of the law, if not the law itself. Not a popular score. But the superintendant of Traffic Police of the day agreed wholeheartedly.
South Australia’s determination to be the Festival State has always puzzled me. Everyone gets their turn, and then seems to be expected to fade until the next big festival. It seems that after our annual or biennial celebration of one lot or another, they should then retreat, to let every other mob have their go. Writers get a week or two out in the light, for example, and then politely disappear for twelve months.
The Yearlings laughing through a perfect afternoon at Yangarra, at Sea and Vines. The music's easy: you hire good musicians and give them support at the gig. But feeding the throngs, and keeping everybody tidy, and off the roads, is a lot more difficult on a big scale ... photo Milton Wordley
Michel Dietrich returned to France to make wine in Bordeaux in 1987, which he does to this day at his Château Haut Rian. If we paused long enough to consider his original idea, and its source in that fairytale village on the mountain away off in Alsace, we might begin to consider festivals which people can attend on foot if the organisers can't arrange responsible transport. Go smaller; go sub-regional; have more of them ... and make it really hard for anybody to drive themselves.
An obvious possibility exists at my back door, here at Yangarra Estate, smack on the faultline at Kangarilla. Spread along this escarpment are a string of delicious little wineries that many have never heard of. These could get together, work out how many people they could comfortably accommodate at any given time, and sell tickets in advance. According to the schedule so derived, people could catch a charter bus from the city, gather on Eyers Flat common near Kangarilla, and in small groups proceed from cellar to cellar by feeder buses as the day goes by.
And you know what? It'd be better if not everyone was in it. Break it up. Make it smaller.
Jay Hoad plays for the ladies at Settlement Wines, McLaren Vale photo Philip White
I’m sure to miss some, but Yangarra, Hugo, Pertaringa, Noon, Marius, Whitefeather, Halifax, Battle of Bosworth, Danshie’s Rise, Lot Thirteen, Cradle of Hills, Cascabel, and Petagna could be in this, with everybody finishing at The Victory to savour Douggie’s Rudderless reds, grown right beside the pub. Bus back to Eyer’s Flat or the city. Done. All included in the cost of the ticket.
Such an event - call it The Faultliners - would have a consistent terroir theme, as all the wines would be from that peculiar piedmont, just as the Kayserberg wines come from vineyards snaking along their stony hillside. It would invariably attract wine buyers more than revelers. And it would open the gate for other small manageable festivals with similar themes. So, as far as the district went, it wouldn’t all happen at once. Properly marketed, such focused nuts-and-berries events would also attract more serious interstaters.
By Jingo winemaker John Gilbert tweeted this week that the best food and wine festival he’d attended was in the small Victorian Alps appellation of Heathcote, where they simply set the oval up with a circle of marquees, and people wandered about, grazing and tasting. This reminded me of the old days of the maypole on Tanunda Oval, where things had a true village ring about them.
Sure, there would be misdemeanors. But if you did it like that, both security and public transport would be much easier to manage, and remove many of these disputes which are inevitable as long as we insist that the huge piss-ups of yore are socially responsible or sustainable.
And, like, do they draw many serious long-term customers?
Big Bob McLean hosting a fair dinkum winery lunch at McLean's Farm in the High Barossa ... small is more fun, people never forget, they buy more wine, word-of-mouth applause goes on and on, and everybody can do it by bus ... photo Milton Wordley