“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 March 2017

ANOTHER SHARD OF EAST END HISTORY

Exeter publican Nick Binns with helper Gabriella Bertocci in 1995 ... photo Victoria Straub - East End Diary '96 (Wakefield Press) ... Gabs was chill gothmother cool to a wave of hungry losties ... she wasn't too big on, shall we say, unwarranted optimism ... below is the Parliamentary record of the Grievance Debate speech of the Hon Patrick Conlon MP, Minister for Police, to complain of Nick's retirement. 

The Ex has since been in the very calm hands of Kevin Greg Esq. 
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Having spotted me scrivening: a  pleasant stranger reading my poems on Annabelle Collett's mosaic Xtables at the front of the Ex ... during Nick's time the Licensing Court judge agreed in extending the trading hours that discourse as commonly found and encouraged in the front bar, was in itself an important tourism attraction.  

That was not at all an accidental breakthrough, as Nick had assembled a gang of witnesses so formidable, just from the corner of the bar closest the door, that the most recalcitrant brain could not fail to pick up a quick morning of light down the courthouse.

Like this wee snug: that wall: if you're not there you're nowhere:  
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25 March 2017

ALLOURAN OTHER END OF THE SAWN-OFF

Licorice and peat and stove black make this smell acrid and you'd think sharpish but there's a well of raspberry and redcurrant below with a sort of marshmallow flesh. The flavours do a similarly dainty dance of counterpoint, the allurin carnal bit being a little behind the double-barrel sawnoff she's pointing atcha. 

Them's deadly matching blue-black poles. 

Those velvety peaty tannins are like a good year of Petit verdot: they're about vegetal lignin decay but come served here in a neat crema liqueur restritto, smooth and luxurious. 

Then, as steely as a snaky bottleneck guitar, the acid comes up from the deep. Like fine coffee acid. Forget about it being a blend of the best Bordeaux red varieties. To my things, it's more Italian and high Tuscan in structure. Tomato leaf. Osso bucco with some black olives in the sauce sort of thing. Man, it has that fine cut. 

I was sposed to drink one with Pike but dammit I opened it a couple weeks back before I fell in the Styx and all I got now is a slender memory of it all running down inside me, challenging, sure, crackin the whip, wavin the twellie, but with a wink of softer punishment to come. Which I now enjoy from a second bottle thankyou Mark. Still steely whiprod and hungry but you don't get anything soft from Pike either.

PS: I'm obviously talkin about the Blue Poles Margaret River Allouran 2014 which is a tidy 13.9% alcohol, $30, and perhaps even sold out.

24 March 2017

KA-CHINK TO CHUCK BERRY, CLEAN LIVER

Recalling two unlikely teetotallers
by PHILIP WHITE

The death of Chuck Berry took me down another tricky backroad. On one side of the track towered that startling music and its profound capacity to change brains. The other offered a flickery anthropological history of a certain epoch in recreational ethanol consumption. 

When Kym Bonython brought Chuck to play the Apollo Stadium in the early '70s, I think '73, my favoured reds were from Kaiser Stuhl and Seaview. But to attend an affair of state of the order of a  Chuck Berry show my tincture was always Jack, or maybe Jim. 

I was unabashedly influenced by Keith Richards, whose limo preference then was Rebel Yell, which we couldn't get. 

I'd moved on from Mildara Chestnut Teal oloroso and the trippy Seppelts Sedna Tonic Wine for official occasions. That latter tincture was a handy 22% alcohol Para Port infused with all sorts of exotic herbal stimulants from the Andes, whose name was Sedna backwards. It made one go forwards very quickly. You could buy it off the shelf at the pharmacist. 

I'd got well past my Stones Green Ginger phase. 

They were indeed backward, backwoods sort of ways. Young Aussie blokes trying to work life out on the edge of the bush. Cityfolk mistook me for a hippy, when I was in fact a throughbred hillybilly preacher's kid still pinching the Old Man's car, which was full of my brothers' shotguns and Bibles in case of Sundays, with liquor under the driver's seat when he was away preaching in Dixie or Belfast or somewhere.

Brers Blanc: Stephen, Paul and Andrew with the Old Man's car 1973 my photo
 

My mate Stephen "Stuart" Sprigg was the Littlehampton publican's son who'd saved me from drowning in the baptising pond in the Bremer when he was the Callington publican's son. He was drummer in our thrash band out the back of the bottom pub in Mount Barker. The publican's son there was our other guitarist Chris Mitchell. I reckon Chris drank cider. He was a surf nut. Stuart drank Coke with one spirit or another. Hand-crafted Ready-To-Drink, see? Like poured from one bottle to another in the car. There were no glasses. 

Stuart and Chris spent all day behind their bars pouring another RTD precursor, the Hock, Lime and Lemon. This was whatever was in the riesling with Johnston's Oakbank Lime Cordial and lemonade in a 15 fl. oz. "pint" glass with ice. With soda you had the choice of less sugar, which you don't get in a tin. Still a great drink in summer. 

Another member of the consortium was also a drummer: Thredgold the traindriver. I met him in the back row of my Old Man's church hall. He drank big bottles of Southwark Bitter and gave me a copy of Oscar Peterson's Night Train. He was a real precise clickety-clack drummer.

Drummers (ret.) Stuart and Threddie visiting the author, August 2016 ... photo Raylene Thredgold

Girlfriends, who were mainly alpha-females and often nurses, were into Saturday-night exotica. Like Tia Maria or Cointreau, or if you wanted to identify with Janis, Southern Comfort. Sweet tawny port tipped in a bottle of lemonade. Sam Wynn's Marsala and Coke. Sweet as. 

Because those were the chilliest Cold War days, vodka, considered a communist drink in my neck of the woods, was usually out. The chic white spirit was Bacardi Rum. Originally a Havana outfit, Bacardi was already establishing a new head office in the Bahamas before Fidel Castro nationalised everything Cuban in 1960. But if you hated them Communissss you got your girlfriend Bacardi. 

She was already old-fashioned, but jeez, Bridget Bardot drank Bacardi. Every daughter of a Bible-basher I knew had a haircut like Bridget Bardot. 

Fortunately, husky-voiced malt whisky enthusiasts were beginning to emerge with feminism. And wine-drinkers.



Mizzo at Crazy Peter's '73 my photo

So what's changed? The gender-based preference list has certainly smudged. A helluva lot of hairy fully-growed men in blue singlets drink the sweet muck now. 

But if Chuck was to stand up again and play in a basketball stadium with those acoustics Frank Zappa called "not too swift" a year later, I reckon he'd do pretty much the same thing he did that night. 

First, he met the band. There was never a rehearsal. A few locals would be introduced to him and he'd give them brief instructions. My night the poor souls walked on and began an impromptu  twelve-bar instrumental that went pretty well for about seven minutes when Chuck was introduced by the Big Voice man but after twelve and fifteen minutes the blues were slurring, Chuck was still belowdecks and the full house was off its head with screaming anxiety. Things were getting brittle. 

Twenty years later, when I got to know Kym Bonython during our time deliberating over the Bouquets and Brickbats Awards on the Civic Trust Jury, he told the story of what went down backstage that night. 

A bit of a whiff of it came on Monday when Spence Denny filled in for Ali Clarke, the estimable Adelaide ABC Radio 891 Mornings announcer. Spence talked about Chuck. 

John Carlini called. He was Chuck's hired bassist for one Adelaide show in 1976. "We met him five minutes before we went on stage. " John said. "He came up to me and he said 'Who plays the bass?' and I said 'Well, me' and he said 'Well I want you to do da-dum, da-dum, da-dum' and I said 'What? Every song, sort of thing?' and he goes 'Yep. That's all I want you to do'." 

By the time Chuck made the stage on that show I saw, the da-dum, da-dum was falling to bits but up he came eventually to suddenly bedazzle the whole goddam hall. I dunno, thirty or forty minutes of his hits. It was astonishing. Then he left but as the mob lost its top he avoided a repeat of the earlier mess, came back on, did fifteen minutes of totally mindless My Ding-a-ling and vanished. 

My Ding-a-ling? C'mon. He didn't even have to play the guitar. 

There was no secret about how Chuck demanded a last minute stack of raw cash before he'd strap on that Gibson and go upstairs to work. I can't recollect the grim details of Kym's account but it had to do with the talent deciding at the last minute that there wasn't enough folding in the suitcase so he focused his attentions on a young woman against the wall while Kym scoured the wallets of his mates in the front row to round up a little more consideration. 

The photos show that later that night, our cross-eyed entourage ended up drinking beer from large bottles. Obviously having done my whiskey, I was back to the oloroso. 

Most of this photographic record has since been sensibly destroyed. 


Kym was probably back at his joint (above, '92) paying his mates back and serving them stiff drinks. But like Chuck, he was never a drinker and stayed straight all his life. I suppose they both had enough risk without it.


I could go on ten times that long writing of Chuck Berry's influence. His music and the perfectly-crafted American naïve poetry of his lyrics. His audacious showmanship. His guitar. His misogyny, which many still see as mere villainy. But I'll leave the last line to the bloke who led me by example to American whiskey, who on waking to the bad news simply tweeted "One of my big lights has gone out - Keith, 3/18/17"
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I love this priceless Johnny B. Goode, part of Chuck's amazing set in a French TV studio complete with wooden white audience in 1958

16 March 2017

APOLOGIES, BUT DRINKSTER'S RESTING

The DRINKSTER is mainly confined to the royal cot for awhile, after a nasty malfunction in the dark gizzard. Saved by Flinders Medical Center's remarkable Intensive Care Unit. Recuperating well, but no writing for awhile here or on InDaily. Be back soon with a real long report on McLaren Vale Grenache, its history, its nature and its current state. 

After the smooth professional assistance of the Jennifer Lynch at the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association and the cool crew at Hardy's Tintara, I tasted over 100 of them, including Grenache-dominant blends, a few weeks back in the luxurious Eileen Hardy Room at Tintara. I'll let you know when it's about to lob; hoping for an initial summary on Tuesday's InDaily. We'll see.



09 March 2017

ASHTON HILLS: TWO LUSH BEAUTIES

Three into two does go: Stephen George, Wirra Wirra MD Andrew Kay and winemaker Paul Smith at Ashton Hills, celebratng their new union last year ... photo©Philip White

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Hills music of harmony and flesh 
by PHILIP WHITE 

Sitting here with Double J's Joni Mitchell tribute hanging in the air like wondrous translucent curtains, recalling her music draped over the years through which I watched Stephen George and Peta Van Rood build their brave Ashton Hills wine business on a chill piny ridge across the valley from Mount Lofty ... damn they were lean, sweet and desperate years. How we argued and laughed across those tables! 

Peta died eight quick years ago. Steve has a new partner and a new life and is content now to work there as a vineyard manager for Wirra Wirra since selling them the outfit in 2015.

He was tired of being a businessman.

All these things well up as I take deep draughts of the new Ashton Hills Estate Riesling 2016 ($30; 13% alcohol; screw cap), delighted to see the label credits Steve as co-winemaker with Wirra's Paul Smith. They are similarly sensitive and determined souls.

Steve says it's rare that the vineyard doesn't get a little botrytis, which is part of the explanation for his Riesling being much more Germanic than those austere ones from the Eden, Clare and Polish Valleys. You'd be one tough bastard to take deep draughts of those. 

They're too crunchy for big gulps

I mean, sure, this is a dry wine with a fine acid chassis, but it's plusher, lusher and more creamy than those and dammit it feels like the lavish swathes of harmony and unison Joni would overlay on her tracks, using her own voice, often just to guide the guitar or horn players. 

Because she can't read music or write charts, she'd sing all the parts she wanted the other musicians to play and have somebody transcribe them. Then, at the last minute, she'd often leave some of those guide tracks of her voices in there with the ensemble work the musos played from the charts.

If this wine is any guide to what we can expect from Messrs George and Smith, it seems we'll be singing Ashton Rieslings as smartly-formed and performed as those layers of Ms Mitchell's voice.

I could drink a case of you.

And I could drink a case or two, too, of the similarly plush and harmonious Ashton Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 ($70; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap), which is all Stephen's work. Not to push Joni's Blue album too hard - that's impossible - blue is the colour here. Deep, deep blue.

Put very simply, this is the best Pinot I've seen from South Australia. Maybe from the whole big ol' country. I don't think Tassie has produced one this provocative and comforting, yet that's where all the other Pinophiles seem to be headed. You need more than cold weather to make wines like this. You need passion and persistence and decades and money.

Since breaking ground there in 1982, Stephen has tried at least 25 clones of Pinot, gradually discarding and replacing the duds. Now he's down to his five favourites.

From the first breath, this is a deep and mellow dream, perfectly seamless and fleshy beneath its gently piquant oak. I could go on about all manner of fruits but that would only deflect the mind from the gloriously sensual wallow of a thing it is.

I've long thought that Pinot is like Riesling, with its acid at the wheel and whatever layers of cuddle the back seat, or the vineyard affords. With these two wines, I rest my case. They make the sublime pair.

Peta would love it. I love it. You'll love it. Promise. Joni'd love it.


By the time we got to Woodstock we were half a million strong: Marching to stop the Vietnam war. Sometimes we did it twice a week. It got real violent when the cops went nuts. But it worked. That's the fierce Peta, smack dab in the middle ... photo©Leo Davis


ANOTHER GREAT SEATTLELITE BEER


VINTAGE '17: FIRST GRAPES ARRIVE

Fruit from the new vintage began arriving at Yangarra Estate today. The crew usually starts the year processing grapes for other McLaren Vale folks where ripening occurs earlier than on Yangarra's own vineyards. This is Corrina Wright's Olivers' Taranga Mencia coming out of the basket press. Mencia's from north-western Spain originally. Until her newish plantings establish deeper roots, Corrina picks it early each year and makes rosé. The livid pink sample I tried from the fermenter this morning tasted just like watermelon. Its texture was surprisingly viscous for such early picked fruit, indicating the finished wine will better handle the sort of extreme chill too many restaurants inflict on pinks and whites.

Oliver's Taranga Shiraz coming through the grape-sorting machine, which removes everything other than your actual berries from the mix. In the past, all sorts of greeblies and vegetation went into the ferments. These clean stalks will go off to the mulch heap ...

... while these babies will go into the fermenter:


Winemaker Charlie Seppelt checking the temperature of a fermenter of Doug Govan's Rudderless Malbec. Man it smelt so sweet and floral!

Meanwhile, the main fermenting hall awaits the onslaught to come ... rock'n'roll!

all photos©Philip White

08 March 2017

REDEFINING EXTREME: VINTAGE 2017

baby bush vine Grenache: the berries are beginning to raisin before they're quite ripe and the leaves are already going autumnal ... photo©Philip White

The leaves are turning yellow 
by PHILIP WHITE

"Nine mile skid on a ten mile ride, hot as a pistol but cool inside," The Grateful Dead sang a mere 45 years ago in He's Gone. 

So far, in my neck of the woods at least, vintage 2017 has been like that.

Now, sick of the jitters, some vignerons are wishing the whole damn thing was over and gone.

I hear of vineyards in bits of New Zealand, and odd bits of Australia, like the highish cool of Canberra, picking fruit that's pretty much ideal. They've started harvest in the Southern Flinders; Clare and the Barossa will begin to kick in properly next week. Same in McLaren Vale. If we're lucky.

As predicted here away back when the bunches had first set, the yields are high right through the Ranges, making many of the big commercial grape-growers smack their lips: there's an international shortage of good quality fruit these strange days.

I was at Tintara in McLaren Vale when winemaker Paul Carpenter quietly announced their first truckloads had just arrived. Chardonnay. Paul seemed, how you say, a tad underplussed. The Vales is hardly the best spot for Chardonnay, which originates in continental Burgundy.

Where it snows.

Not snow but hail in November in the semi-arid Riverland ... photos Steve Nitschke

Carps, like all the others round here, was more keenly awaiting the ripening of Shiraz, and then Grenache, varieties originally sourced close to the temperate, maritime Mediterranean coast. Sunshine-and-lavendar land, like the Fleurieu.

Touch wood. Bacchus knows, South Australians hardly need reminding of what a long strange trip it's been.

Since the grapes came off last vintage, and the sheep went in to turn the weeds to fertiliser pellets and make many fat jumping babies, returning the smart viticulturer an income where others find themselves writing fat cheques to Big Petrochem for their poison herbicides, well, since then ...

The summer of '16 was warm-to-hot, and led to record warmth in autumn. Temperatures were fairly normal during winter, then came a very cool spring. It's confounding. Like we had the coolest year overall since 2012, and yet the state's mean mininum was the seventh warmest on record: 0.73 ᵒC above average. The mean maximum ended up 0.43ᵒC above average, yet we had the coolest days overall since the dreaded 2011 when we had the wettest vintage on record and everything went mouldy with mildews and botrytis.

Wet? 2016 was Adelaide's second wettest year since records began.

The Onkaparinga at Clarendon in September: the South Mount Lofty Ranges were full of water ... photo Mick Wordley
 
Not to mention that friggin wind. I spent my childhood just below the snowline in the mountains of east Victoria, but I can remember no winter and spring as utterly, viciously threatening as that bastard. It was sinister. Overlooking the little matter of a few torrid blackouts - pylons can be rebuilt in a few quick months -  thunderstorms and winds ripped out tens of thousands of trees, including a huge proportion of our stock of mature, centuries-old red gums.

One can only wonder what weather these ranges will see in the few centuries it takes to replace those.

Since then, temperatures have been close to 'normal' across most of the wine-growing regions, maybe a tad cooler, which had the vignerons quietly confident.

sunshower at Yangarra ... photo©Philip White

But all that water since last vintage saw vines everywhere stack on huge amounts of foliage. Too much, really: out-of-balance vines, with over-the-top ratios of leaf surface to total juice, often produce wines that taste green and astringent, like leaves and their petiols, or stalks. Include the machine harvester factor, which invariably means leaves are picked and go into the hoppers with the fruit, and this flavour magnifies.

On the other hand, smart growers were on top of this: hand-plucking or mechanically hedging excess foliage and shoots, leaving neat hedgerows of vines instead of the more common sprawling mess that you'd have trouble driving a tractor through.

If you can't get a tractor in there easily, there's little chance of the odd drying breeze killing off aggro moulds, meaning you'll need that chequebook again to pay for more poisonous spray, naïvely hoping the stuff can actually penetrate that forest of leaf you've let grow.

Sheesh. Who'd be a grape-farmer?

I reported before that the trellised vineyards around Casa Blanca have all been neatly hedged: the Ironheart Shiraz across my front fence had three passes of deft leaf-pluckers through before the bird netting went up a couple of weeks back.

the veils go up on Ironheart ... photo©Philip White

Since the grapes coloured, we've had breezy, warm-to-hot sunny days, and ideally cool nights, often a tad damp with dew or gentle misty rain, slowing everything down. Nice. While some younger players have been saying the vintage is late, they should really be delighted that it's closer to 'normal' or traditional timing, after global warming brought on a string of much earlier crops.

As Peter Gago, Penfolds' boss winemaker has said after most of the last fifteen vintages, it's another year when he's had to redefine his meaning of 'extreme.'

Like in the second week of February, nine sites in this state had their highest temperature on record. Since then, some of them have recorded their coldest February temperature on record. It's nuts.

Anyway, as I said, for those with the vision to spend money on human vine-dressers rather than petrochemicals, everything looked pretty good. The biggest crisis I could see in these vineyards was the newly-released model of the calicivirus would be killing the hares that live here. There are no rabbits, and the hares rarely damage the vines unless they're starving. Which they're not.

there are many of them living in here but the hares don't do much damage: 1946 High Sands bush vine Grenache ... photo©Philip White

I like having a few hares about: they are gentle, modest beasts. I had a bit of Twitter with local viticulturer Ben Lacey when I complained about the poor things dying from internal bleeding from the calici's cutely-named rabbit haemorrhagic disease, suggesting hares were fairly harmless, gentle critters.

Ben retorted that in his vineyards they chew irrigation drippers off their lines and eat the shoots of baby vines as they protrude through the top of their grow-tubes; I retorted that the worst thing they do round here is eat my chillies, and I can't blame them for that. Although I'd love to try a properly jugged one with its belly full of Carolina Reapers.

Ben caught another Tweet I'd innocently let fly on Saturday. That cursed summer flu had locked me cowering in the hut for a week, so it was a delight to step outside to hang my laundered sheets and discover the air was redolent with the heady sweetness of chamomile flowers. It seemed almost as sensual and swoony as lilac wine.

"Probably the smell of all the leaves turning yellow," Ben responded. I shot back a contrary suggestion that there was no yellowing here, and no chamomile. But being sufficiently colourblind to find green very tricky, a pang of doubt sent me back out to check. Yep. The yellowing has begun.

A drive around the Vales reveals these autumnal hues magnifying daily, well before most of the fruit properly ripens. It's the same through the whole of the Mount Lofty Ranges, right up to where they become the Southern Flinders.

So the current cause for wino angst is this: if the leaves continue to pale, will they be able to continue the photosynthesis required to get those grapes through to an ideal condition for picking? 

Vintage 2017 could well be remembered as a ten mile skid on a nine mile ride.

We'll know in a few short weeks.

storm damage in the Riverland ... photo©Leon Bignell

The Grateful Dead European Tour 1972 album cover art by Stanley Mouse ... we're all bozos on this bus!