“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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26 January 2013

THE VIRTUAL WINERY : LOW ON VIRTUE?

Virtual Virtuosity Devalues Vino
Leftover Men Repackage Scraps
Good Or Bad For The Business?
by PHILIP WHITE

“I buy grapes from growers and wineries,” a passionate wine-trading reader wrote this week.”  We’d been discussing ‘virtual wineries’.

“The grapes are crushed and wine is made by arrangement with a couple of local wineries (not contract processors), and in a couple of mate’s sheds around the place, but always fully under my direction. I pay a good, fair and sustainable price for grapes, perhaps too much in some cases. These grapes go into our wines that we sell for a minimum of $18 per bottle. Otherwise, potentially, these grapes may go on the ground, be sold at an unsustainable price, or end up in some big bulk blend somewhere destined for China @ $0.50/litre.

“I don’t wish to de-value my region by flogging more wine at lower prices and capitalising on my region’s name,” he continues. “That’s not sustainable and is indeed very harmful.  It does happen around here.  We’re trying to do something serious and sustainable.”

This letter has been on my heart, triggering a mess of confused thought which crystallized this morning with the arrival of a visitor.

Dudley Brown is no firebug, but he’s usually on fire.  The proprietor/grapegrower/winemaker/blogger of Inkwell Wines, and former chairman of McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism, was burning.


Dudley (above) has a very sharp analytical brain for business logistics and efficiencies.  He’s been thinking a lot about the nature of the Australian wine industry since he came here from California to start his little winery.  He talked about the clay feet of this business, how once a winery gets real big, it must descend by its very nature into a psyche of compromise and damage control.

It never gets to the point at which it can boast of preventative maintenance.

“Like,” he said in his agitated staccato, “they can no longer pick when the fruit’s ready.  They can’t get if off and into the winery at the ideal point.  There’s just not the capital in the business model to be able to afford it.  So the fruit comes in a week or two after the best moment, and it’s too late to make great wine.  Regardless of how much effort went into the viticulture.  They have to correct it; fix it up with chemicals and tricks.  The whole damn thing works on fixing shit up afterwards.  Too late!”

Some distant background.  I’ve been up to my neck in history these last months, writing a big book about Penfolds Grange.  The minute that’s done, I begin on Ray Beckwith’s biography.  For those who came in late, Ray was the Louis Pasteur of the international wine business, making incredible discoveries in his revolutionary career, beginning with his discovery of the importance of pH adjustment in winemaking, thus eliminating the 25% average waste incurred by bacterial spoilage in wineries before his eureka moment on the Murray Bridge train in 1936.

Ray happened to be the bloke who convinced the Penfold Hylands to appoint Max Schubert as chief winemaker at the Grange at Magill when Max came home from the war to discover he’d been demoted to the role of lab assistant, simply for defying Frank Penfold Hyland’s warning that anyone who signed up for military service would be sacked.


Penfolds winemakers Ray Beckwith, Alf Sholz and Max Scubert

These men, and the astonishing team of scientific brains Penfolds had assembled by the fifties, after Frank’s death, revolutionised winemaking forever.  By his retirement in 1973, Beckwith was convinced they’d finally got the technique to such an incredible point of advancement that the days of fixing things up after they’d gone wrong were all in the past.

But Dudley’s ascerbic summary is spot on. Accountants and greed and corporate idiocy has almost rendered redundant the lifetimes of work put in by brilliant men like Schubert and Beckwith. 

Time to swap companies, and cross the line from the Penfolds winery at Nuriootpa to Kaiser Stuhl, next door, where that other brilliant wine scientist and marketer, Ian Hickinbotham had quickly risen from lab assistant to general manager after his 1954 appointment.  As “Becky” had recognised and promoted Schubert, it was “Hicky” who brought Wolf Blass to Australia in 1961.


These were the days of the Pearl Wars.  Hickinbotham (left) was determined to save the old Barossa Co-operative Winery Ltd.  He convinced his board to embrace their Germanness and promote their culture.  He changed the name to Kaiser Stuhl, and began a pitched battle for control of the sparkling market, which meant chipping away at the incredible success of Barossa Pearl, the creation of another mighty Barossa brain, Orlando’s Colin Gramp. He, in turn, had imported his own German fizzmeister, Guenther Prass.

Wolf Blass
Blass’s first task was that forerunner of the wine cooler, the essence-flavoured mix of fizzy sweet white with other fruits which we now politely call RTDs – ready-to-drink: kiddylikker. Cheekily pinching Gramp’s nomenclature, Hicky named Blass’s first creation Pineapple Pearl.  It came in a pineapple/hand-grenade-shaped bottle with a lurid green plastic emulation of the crown of the pineapple around its stubby neck.  Last time I was pleasured to visit Blass at his home, he still had a row of these proudly displayed along the shelf atop his bar. 

The advancements Hickinbotham made in sparkling wine manufacture soon had Kaiser Stuhl making enormous volumes of wines for its rivals.  He saved his growers.  Penfolds, Seppelts, Yalumba and many merchants all over Australia were soon depending on Kaiser Stuhl for their sparklers; even the phenomenally-successful Leo Buring Sparkling Rinegolde came from Kaiser Stuhl.

Mammoth profits came from these developments, which were all new technology: consistent quality-based works of intellectual rigour and secret pride.  But when that generation passed, it left a corporate mentality of anonimity and secrecy which has since decayed to a sickly, totally destructive point.

Nowdays the refineries do indeed eventually afford to pick what started out as good fruit, and then set about attempting to correct its accountant-driven faults later. This is why Australian wine judges were for fifty years trained simply to search wines for faults, rather than evaluate them with any regard to good taste, new flavours, and, God forbid, the gastronomic arts. 

And it has given rise to the virtual winery, where men with i-Phones  and Porsches trade in the slops that the huge refineries either cannot repair, or simply can’t be bothered with.  These bottom-feeders buy wine on the grey market and pay others to bottle it.  They hire somebody with pointy spectacles and a graphics computer to think up a label, and tip their mess into the market at prices that start at the dreadful bottom and move quickly up to rip-off.

It is in their immediate interest to destroy the small legitimate wineries who have bothered to grow grapes and build a winery of their own. They profit from this destruction, not just by making space available on the discount shelves for their “own” nefarious works, but by pushing onto the market the undervalued wrecks of the legitimate, whether it be winery equipment, unpicked vineyards or half-finished wine.  This is their stock in trade.


The scavengers encirled the carcass this last fortnight of Barossa Valley Estates, the remnant of that same Barossa Co-op which Hickinbotham converted to Kaiser Stuhl, and built into an incredible success.  After years of typical big company bad management and a disastrous union with the utterly hopeless giant, Hardy's-Constellation-Accolade, the Commonwealth bank rolled the Woolworths-Cellarmasters' meagre offer and moved to close the business down as it owed its growers nearly $18 million, or 40% of their total grape invoices for their 2012 harvest. It'll be interesting to see how that big (1000-2500 tonnes) new winery's stocks are eventually presented to us.  

 
Now we have the Wine Australia wine police actively scouring the records of small wineries with forensic obsession, searching for the tiniest inaccuracy, it must be possible, for perhaps the first time, to change the labeling laws so that the vendor and drinker can learn before purchase where each wine came from, who made it and where.  Like immediately learn its long wasteful path.  Not vague virtuals, post office box numbers or trendy insinuations of things which simply do not in reality exist.

I want to see the names of the humans responsible, the where and why.


And I want to know which wines, on those vast hectares of shelves, have been made by real people who have bothered to go to the extent of buying land, growing vineyards and building a winery, versus those which were not.

Like the worried bloke who wrote my opening paragraph, there are still honest traders amongst the shady at this end of the game, just as there was honour and pride, if secrecy, in those old Kaiser Stuhl days.  Such rare people should feel relief that they can finally come out of their closet, and enjoy the good reputation they have if they’ve earned one.

But until we have this clarity, this glasnost and perestroika, we will continue to watch the wine industry follow the fate of the dairy farmers of New South Wales and Queensland.  Since the milk wars of the duopolists began with their promise of cheaper milk, great swathes of that country is now bereft of fresh milk.  It’s all UHT.

Back to my letter-writing friend.

“I’m not seeking to defend or justify my business to you,” he explained, “but this is a heart on sleeve explanation of what we do – with a real commitment to our wine community – and why I believe we differ from the swathe of ‘virtuals’ that came after.  I loathe the word ‘virtual’. It doesn’t really capture what I think we do, and it comes with a stigma, a lick of opportunism. My whole original plan, as much as you could have one in this line of work, was to eventually buy or lease a small 5-10 acre vineyard, deck it out with a cellar door and a small shed of winemaking gear, and see out my days. The romantic, altruistic vision.

“There’s no ego here,” he continues, “but there are quite a few of ‘me’ around ... altruistic guys sans vineyard/winery. In some ways we’re bringing colour, diversity, creativity and freedom to the field, are we not?  It was never about selling a huge amount of wine and making a motza … given that domestic retail options are dwindling, it would seem unlikely that I will make my fortune this way anyway!”

Exactement!

Dudley left in a burning rage, back to throw his headful onto his blog The Wine Rules.   Somehow somebody’s gotta start listening to people like these, or we’re all back to UHT.

4 comments:

Adam said...

Kaiser Stuhl history was fascinating. Thanks

Anonymous said...


BVE is managed by a grower board so they have got what they reaped!!! You cannot blame anyone else big or small this time Mr White.

frothing@mouf said...

Whites rant Yes fascinating, simplistic and hopelessly romantic. Glasnost - spot on! Yes lets share secrets like which poor farmer (growing GM grapes in 6th gen German blood and bone) made breakeven grade and the Grange club and on which vineyard under what ownership structure, according to which GLO of which multinational public company under which Macquarie Bank share 'vehicle' acting on behalf of the similarly once-utopian wine-skulling communnist hardliners of the PLA who have technically inherited most of the world as we know it. Shoot me a buy now button for that PDF, has sexier legs than a Bin Fu romance novel. Joking of course, just capitalist diatribe, CC Julian @ wikileaks, expose the filthy lucre aids behind the sloppy seconds rebellion... Stasi style. What to label the inquisition Philip (LIP compliance and all) must reference GI? Red Army moniker is outmoded, taken and their perestroika is complete (and can't upset the real owners) Volkspolizei aber natürlich! Stroika on THE VIRTUAL WINERY : LOW ON VIRTUE?

Cool Hand Luke said...

Why do you publish shite like that idiot Whitey? You should just flush it when it's so runny.