Oz Wine Shows In Disarray
by PHILIP WHITE
The Australian wine show system suffers a terminal disease. I call it endogenous corruptibility. This wasting ailment seems to have grown with sufficient malignancy to squeeze a bleat from one of the last bastions of the ’70s and ’80s wine control school: a quaint annual affair called the Len Evans Tutorial.
This is named after that tireless and ebullient rogue, Len Evans (below), the Mt. Isa Mines storeman who pushed his way into the wine biz, lived through a career of wild booms and slumps with other people’s money in his own erratic wine businesses, and basically ran the wine show system from the seventies through ’til his death in 2006.
Evans’ business cronies and admirers maintain this annual wine judges’ school in his honour. While it was designed to program prospective wine judges to conduct their work in a more scholarly and informed manner, it leaves itself open to accusations of clubby exclusivity, a trait which makes it seem more of a homogenizing exercise.
Some old scholars met in the Hunter for a touch of interface on the weekend before last.
“Many of the country’s agricultural societies and wine show committees were represented at the talkfest, which has been hailed as a historic meeting of the minds for the Australian wine industry,” The Drinks Business politely repeated.
Then, in a tidy wrap-up that obviously tells much more than it intended to, former Wirra Wirra winemaker Samantha Connew said “It is hoped that future changes that result from the reunion weekend will give consumers a better understanding of the integrity of the wine show system, as well as continuing to provide winemakers with the forum they need to benchmark their wines.”
Integrity? Herein lies the rub. People cheat. The tenets of the system’s current philosophy sets the consumers’ interests against those of the winemakers: it’s ethanol drinkers vs. ethanol peddlers. One system; two mutually-exclusive purposes. How can wine shows possibly fulfill both roles while they are judged by the people who make the wine?
I have a mantra which covers all this:
“Any winemaker who works as a show judge should of course be capable of recognising their own wine. If they can’t achieve that simple task, they shouldn’t be judging.
“On the other hand, any winemaker who makes a certain style of wine and expects you to buy it and put it inside your body and then fails to award it with gongs shouldn’t be expecting us to buy it in the first place.”
It’s a long time since Messrs Hardy, Penfold, Seppelt, McWilliams, Martin, Mazure, Tolley and the like sat around a table in their lab jackets, discussing the entries in the modest wine shows of their day; easily recognizing each other’s wines, praising them; pulling them apart. These must have been fascinating exercises in discovery and innovation, and no doubt led to vast improvements in the technical quality of the wines.
The most radical wine crew on Earth at the time; perhaps ever? Rock'n'roll: Penfolds has a little wine show of its own in the lab at Grange in the 'fifties. Penfolds winemakers and scientists, left to right: Murray Marchant, Gordon Colquist, Ivan Combet (father of Federal Cabinet Minister Greg Combet), Perce McGuigan (father of Brian and Neil), Jeffrey Penfold-Hyland, Max Schubert, John Davoren, Don Ditter, Harold Davoren (John's father) and Ray Beckwith. Ivan Combet's father was a winemaker, too, at Minchinbury before him. Note the hyper-modern timberwork and lampshade! This was space age.
In the rapid industrialization of the wine game through the seventies to the nineties, the shows certainly worked to improve the reliability and biochemical structure of Australian wine. The wines became more sanitary, and so won much international respect, best manifest in the amazing export boom of the last twenty years.
But at the same time, the shows repeated the Grange debacle, slowing much stylistic innovation and constantly reinforcing the status quo to the point at which international commentators began deriding the planar, synthesized homogeneity of most Australian wines, leading to the collapse of entire markets.
I recall handing Len Evans himself a glass of delicious Yeringberg Yarra Valley Marsanne Roussanne in the Universal Wine Bar after a Royal Adelaide Wine Show. This was simply too much for Australia’s most evangelical Chardonnay proponent, who took a sniff, went back on his heels, and delivered a derisory tirade about how such lumpen things were below him, and never could catch on.
I wonder how he’d see things now, when entire wine companies are wisely devoting themselves and their vineyards to such north-west Mediterranean varieties, which are much better suited to Australia’s Mediterranean vignobles than varieties like Chardonnay, which evolved in parts of Europe where it snows. Contrary to Evans’ persistent preaching that “Chardonnay will become the vanilla of the Australian wine industry”, it soon became more of a synthetic vanilla essence, especially when grown with unseemly irrigation in the desert and flavoured with sawdust, chips and the sort of oak essences - an additive not then permitted in wine - that I signed for upon their delivery to Evans’ Rothbury Estate winery in May 1983.
Under Evans and his gang, the Australian wine show circuit had a deadly stranglehold on the development of new varieties and flavours in Australian wine, and can be accused of stifling the development of many more varieties than Marsanne and Roussanne.
It was during his watch that the notion of shows being quiet, internal wine industry tools for biochemists and technicians to methodically improve wine quality became terribly confused with the advent of the modern marketing horde, scavengers in the business of promoting the procuration and hoarding of the gongs Evans and his like handed out.
While each capital city had its wine show, virtually from the beginning of Australian viticulture, every tiny region now has its own. Glimpse through the Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory, and you’ll get to fifty in no time at all. Bacchus only knows how many trophies this system awards, but it must be well in advance of 500.
For the impoverished wine hack, the matter of tracking down ten new trophy winners a week is daunting, if not plain impossible, so there’s no independent checking. The notion of a consumer, however keen, managing the same tasting exercise is ridiculous. Add the thousands of medals and you’re basically drowning in bling.
To survive, to retain any credibility at all, the shows have to do a lot more than repeat the Evans gospel.
I have an impertinent suggestion. To have any credibility amongst consumers of ever-improving gastronomic intelligence, regional wine shows should be judged by experts from outside each region, none of whom have any business interest or employment whatsoever in the region being judged.
The chair should also be completely independent.
All the gold medal winners from each of these shows would then be eligible to enter the capital city competition in its relative state. Once again, the judges and chair should all come from outside that state.
At these shows, a trophy should be awarded in each class. No medals; they have already been awarded at the regional level. All that’s needed now is a trophy, if indeed these judges think it’s deserved.
All trophy winners from the capital city shows would then be eligible for entry in the National Championship Show, to be judged only by experts from outside Australia, preferably great chefs with no financial involvement in any of the exhibitors. At this event, a championship trophy would be awarded to the single best wine on display.
One national championship trophy, pure and simple.
At every step of this logically-tiered judging progress, the opinions and scores of each judge relative to each entry must be published for all to see at the completion of each competition. These can then be compiled in an annual publication, be it book or website.
If there are still any winemakers with the estimable skills of Edmund Mazure, or indeed winemakers desirous of such abilities, one would expect them to be part of this Len Evans Tutorial cadre. In which case, given the dog-eat-dog nature of an industry in gross over-supply and extreme financial stress, the Tutorial is utterly incapable of adopting such a system.
Put simply, it has been trained to think there’s too much to lose.
I’d love to be proven wrong. Bring it on.