“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)





28 August 2008

Let's twist again


Dr. Angela Moles, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales, made the newspapers today with her announcement that 92 per cent of the world’s vines twist anti-clockwise.

Her colleagues had made three predictions. First, that vines would twist in one direction in the southern hemisphere, and the other direction in the north, in a possible confusion with the popular misbelief that the Coriolis effect makes drainwater spin one way in the north, and the opposite in the south. Second, they postured that vines would twist in opposite directions in each hemisphere as they followed the sun. The third idea was that vines would twist at random.

Dr. Moles speculates that the twist may be dictated by the asymmetrical nature of protein molecules.

“All proteins appear to be left-handed”, she said. “When you put them together to build up a plant skeleton, that may give cells a tendency to twist in certain direction. But that’s just a hypothesis. I’d love to hear other ideas”.

I mentioned the discovery to Michael Lane, the vineyard manager at Yangarra Estate.

“They taught me that all vines twist in the same direction at school twenty years ago”, he said.

25 August 2008

The first winemakers I ever met


Apart from Wild King Roy Malone, the ’sixties Elizabeth Downs blues player with an orange front tooth who studied the purple Bacchanalian art at Roseworthy winemaking college, the first winemakers I can recall meeting were from Padthaway and Coonawarra.

In the early ’seventies, I’d taken a government display caravan from The Department of Mines and Energy down there to the regional agricultural shows to explain that the days of drilling holes through various aquifers in search of free irrigation water were over, and that severe regulations would soon be imposed. Idiot drillers were poking holes through saline aquifers to find fresher ones below, letting the salty ones pollute the fresh ones as they went.

The winemakers treated me like shit. Arrogant, blazered, moleskinned and dumb. I drove, fuming, all the way back to Adelaide, thinking “you bastards. I’ll get you some day”. Five years later I was back there as a wine critic.

The following series of columns from the archive are generally related to water issues. Whilst I started on this topic thirty years back, it really came to a fever pitch in my years at The Advertiser, whose editors hated me discussing water issues in the wine column. They would never run irrigation stuff on the front of the paper. When they fired me, after twenty years determinedly discussing these issues wherever I could squeeze them in, the water stuff suddenly filled the front half of the paper. Now the wine column regularly praises the sorts of wines that caused all the problems. I am not bitter. But I will never forget. Read on:

Wine and the War On Drugs

by PHILIP WHITE - This was first published in The Advertiser in 2005

As paranoid chatter about Australia’s two-plus billion litres of unsold wine rises to delirium, and new experts appear daily to have their two bob’s worth in the media, maybe it’s time we began a conversation the wine business doesn’t particularly want us to have.

The industry itself seems dumbstruck by this stupid, utterly predictable situation. All their baying voices that talked it up are suddenly dumb. Those of us who were shunned for our bleats of warning over recent years could be forgiven for now feeling smug. But I feel sick. Sick at the inexcusable extravagant waste in field, stream, and home.

Wine hasn’t been mentioned yet in the War on Drugs, but maybe it’s time we sat back as a community and had a hard think about the total amount of recreational drugs we should collectively ingest each year. This must include alcohol. Learn to manage drug consumption as a whole. Get honest. Admit the war is lost. Start again.

Instead of following this sickening downward spiral toward cheaper, inferior, stronger, more dangerous wines, we should now, more than ever before, consider the nature and end use of most of the wine made in Australia.

When the Vine Pull words are uttered, people think of cute little ivy-draped cellars full of lovely old shiraz, pioneer couple weeping out the back, like a McCubbin tryptich. In reality, most of our wine is ruthlessly, skillfully grown and manufactured to compete at the bottom of the market, where profit evaporates. Broadacre, monocultural, water-wasting grapeyards. Sugar quarries for industrial refineries.

Much of the trouble with the voluble Riverland growers stems from the hyperactive response to the 2025 viticulture plan of the Winemakers Federation. This fairly conservative 1995 initiative was supposed to guarantee sufficient grapes to fuel the next thirty years of constant growth. But it included no pressure valve or review mechanism to measure new plantings or wine in stock, and the full quota was reached within just a few years. There is still no national vineyard or stock register.

There’s been so much planting in what they rather stupidly call “the cool regions”- by which they mean everywhere but the River and Griffith - that the big buyers are using more of that fruit once its price falls enough. Cool is better than hot.

Cut to Nepenthe boss James Tweddell, at his promotional dinner in his Hahndorf Vineyard last year. When I commented on the magnificent triffid aggro of his vines, he proudly pronounced two telling words. Jacob’s Creek. I could hear a big ouch up the River.

So, apart from a few dozen exceptional cheap brands, what exactly do these hot areas produce? Are they alcoholic commodities that could be better made from other sugar from other sources at lower prices? If, as a society, rather than an economy, we decide that we really do need all this alcohol, for us or for export, should it necessarily involve grapes?

What if the sugar needed for the production of all this alcohol could be more cheaply grown, with less abuse of environment and water resources, somewhere else? On the big, complete picture, could Queensland sugar cane replace most of our contentious grapes? Or palm sugar, on the Ord? Should precious Adelaide Hills land – our lushest food garden – be used to make barely profitable gourmet drug refreshments, for export to markets that don’t give a fig for its source, but buy purely on price? They could be drinking Andes Ridge or Amazon Creek tomorrow.

The incredible popularity of alco-pops stems partly from their lower strength and convenience, but largely from their wide range of flavours. One fridge offers a rainbow of whisky, gin, vodka, ouzo, brandy, bourbon and coffee and cream liqueurs pre-mixed with lemonade, squash, dry ginger, neutral beer, cola and tonic. Small bottles. Screw caps. Lower alcohol.

Compare that lolly box with the sea of half-hearted wine currently made in Australia. White. Red. Sweet. Dry. Wooded. Not wooded. Too alcoholic. You have be a tripper, or an uncomfortable nit-picking Virgo like your correspondent, to spot a difference in any of it outside of those few dull, endlessly repetitive parameters.

Different sugars can crop almost continuously in the tropics, meaning the manufacture could be spread more efficiently over the year, doing away with much of this vintage panic and the sickening lurches of perfectly natural vintage variation. Leave that difficult bit to the committed specialist artisans who make the wine we’d all prefer to drink.

Give the River a break. Distil a neutral alcohol, add antioxidants, fructose, water and the minerals and vitamins essential for keeping alcoholics alive, fruit it up, fizz it, screw cap it in small bottles, and sell it priced according to its alcoholic strength, with a hearty slice of the excise dedicated to the restoration of the health of the locals and their environment.

Research even healthier ways of chilling out or getting smashed. Maybe save even more resources and replace the alcohol with a safer drug that triggers less aggro; I know many mothers, fathers, police and health workers who’d suggest that was music to their ears. And some who won’t.

Fellow drug dealers

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in 2007

Never thought I’d hear words like it. Tucked away, it was, in a late night news bulletin on Radio National. Smack in the middle of the week in which our Prime Minister seems to have declared war on any aboriginal person who fails to swab clean, the Premier of Queensland suggested it was time that the huge businesses that make a lot of money flogging booze to troubled bush communities might consider sharing the cost of the havoc wrought by their powerful intoxicating depressants.

The intensity of my stunned silence was matched only by the silence radiating from those manufacturers of rotgut fortifieds and bladder packs.

Suddenly, belatedly, the environmental cost of the irrigation regime which makes possible this part of our beloved wine industry has become glaringly apparent thanks to the drought. Squandering our only river to make plonk that’s three times the strength of average beer and sells for the cost of Perrier water has always confounded me. Before the PM engaged his God to stop the drought, the water crisis cast a very bright light on this rote stupidity. While the rain he sent was far too heavy and in all the wrong places, perhaps his aim will be better if he shines his big torch on the human health costs incurred by the cheapest end of the wine business.

It’s twenty five years since Richard Farmer, then a famous Canberra liquor store owner - whilst also Prime Minister Hawke’s press secretary - stood up in Sydney’s Bulletin Place Cellars and addressed the throng of wine industry magnates as “fellow drug dealers”. While the faces have changed, the suits remain the same, and none since has uttered anything quite so disarmingly honest.

It would be easy to monitor precisely which alcohol products are behind the horrors the PM has declared war upon. The model’s been working perfectly for nearly thirty years in South Australia. It’s called the Beverages Container Legislation, and I am proud to have worked in the visionary crew that devised it.

This clever mechanism was designed to clear up the rubbish which once lined all major roadways, parks and beaches. Slices of public property were cleared of all litter, which was sorted and categorised. Any item that made up more than a predetermined percentage of the total would incur a deposit, which would encourage its recycling.

Suddenly, bottles and drink cans disappeared from the roadsides. While that left squillions of ring-pulls in the environment, the threat of another deposit on those saw the drinks business quickly invent the flip-top can.

While this system was imposed in the name of a healthy environment, it could very easily be adapted to improve the health of the humans that coincidentally inhabit that environment. Record the brands of alcohol most abused in each troubled community; tweak the bar code technology to reveal the identity of the vendor, and invite both manufacturer and dealer to share the cost of fixing the broken drinkers, their families and communities.

The cunning plonkmongers of the Alice long ago learned that the best way to hide the identity of the bladder pack manufacturer was to remove the bladders from their packs at the cash register, leaving the drinker to squirt the stuff straight in, a la your goatskin, and the emptied bags to blow like big chrome leaves around the bed of the Todd while the flattened boxes grew like topsy beside the grog shop counter.

You’d never be permitted to erect a big billboard there to promote your port or gordo moselle, but there’s no need for billboards in a bush landscape which constantly vibrates with glittering reminders of the faux relief promised by the silver pillow. But even this clever veil of anonymity could easily be lifted if the bar code was printed on the bladder as well as the cardboard.

This unpacking trick also removed any chance of the indigenous drinker sighting the cute little image of the International Standard ISO 3591-1977 tasting snifter, politely half full at 50 millilitres, which illustrates the number of standard drinks the bags contain. No tasting glasses in the bed of the Todd.

We’ll probably never know whether this removal of the bags from their branded boxes was an initiative of the manufacturers, but there’s an enormous amount of money at stake. Fortified wine production might be declining, but nearly half of Australia’s wine is sold in bladder packs.

The Wellington evaporation pan

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in April 2007

There were grim faces around the table at Langhorne Creek the other night. Mike Farmilo, Nick Stock and your writer had just spent a day nudging the snifters at the annual Showcase Judging, where the six best local wines are chosen for inclusion in The Langhorne Creek Showcase Selection.

It’s not called a wine show, and no trophies or medals are awarded, but it’s still judged pretty much like a standard wine show, with three judges and an associate, tasting blind and averaging their scores. The rankings are still graded from no award (below 15.5 points out of 20) to bronze (15.5 – 16.9), silver (17 – 18.4), and gold (18.5 – 20), and we chose a Champion Wine of the Showcase.

The sombre mood at that dinner table had little to do with the quality of the delicious selections we made. Uh-huh. This was about water. Drought. The New Heat. Langhorne Creek was the first Australian wine district to be told its irrigation water allocation is now zero. And if Premier Rann’s huge evaporation pan goes ahead at Wellington, their allocation could well be zero for some years to come.

Unless, of course, there’s huge rain up the Bremer Valley, from Salem to Harrogate, and the traditional Bremer flood gushes through, watering the old eucalypty mudflat vineyards closest to the River. These floods submerge whole vineyards, and rarely come at the best time, but might save sufficient vineyards for the district to survive, as it did before modern irrigation. Although not even this primitive system is perfect: the upstream vignerons always take as much water as they like, and decide whether to let anyone downstream have any.

Enough will never be enough, of course. Larncrk - as the frogs and local humans pronounce it - has become a very big district. In 1991, there were 471 hectares of those traditional floodplain vineyards. Their limit was determined by the extent of the flooding, as the aquifer which they had used for supplementary irrigation was cactus: finally too salty for vines.

So Premier Dean Brown arranged new irrigation permits to allow huge-scale pumping from Lake Alexandrina for new vineyards well away from that original flooding mudflat, with its distinctive minty eucalyptols and amazing hoard of Jimmy Watson and Montgomery Trophies, most of which sat on John Glaetzer’s desk at Wolf Blass.

So by mid 1997, there were about 2,500 hectares, most planted by outsiders and newcomers in untried soil away from the Bremer. Key locals thought that might double again in the five years to 2002, to around 5,000 hectares. But in two years there were already 4,317 hectares. At the end of the 2006 vintage, the figure was about 5,800 hectares bearing, with another 332 hectares yet to bear a berry.

One reliable measure of the feverish gold rush mentality which drove this ridiculous, and now obviously unsustainable growth, was a press release from Orlando, boasting that its new planting involved 200,000 trellis posts, 1,000 kilometres of drip line, and 50,000 kilometres of wire.

Larncrk was becoming a kind of Coonawarra Lite: cheaper coolish area fruit grown much closer to the big refineries of the Barossa and McLaren Vale. Fruit whose source would rarely be acknowledged.

In one daring hit, Peter Pargeter, of Vinescape Management Services, planted 320 hectares for the Guild Pharmacists’ superannuation fund, on completely unproven, in fact dubious, samphire country, that grew its own salt lake as quickly as it grew vines.

So suddenly there’s no water other than a little saved up here and there, and the possibility that heavy rains might send another flood or two down the Bremer. That will, of course, flood only those original 471 hectares, and a few newies that have squeezed in on the moody mudflats. Unless five or six years of good rain fills the Murray Basin again, and the Lake begins to flow, all those monster upland prospects will gradually die of thirst. Or salt.

While the aquifer will never cope with another walloping like it had, and will never feed all the new vineyards, it is gradually healing under the new controls. So the winemakers’ logo, a traditional Aussie windmill, may eventually make sense again The Langhorne Creek Showcase Selection will be announced on 4th May and be available for tasting with the other 99 entrants for $10 per head at the Langhorne Creek Memorial Hall on the afternoon of Saturday 5th May.

Water as gastronomy

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in 2007

In three decades of writing about alcohol, I’ve drawn quite some flak from editors who don’t believe my theory that water is a fairly important gastronomic item. They prefer a drinks column to blithely praise lots of “product” around which the spacefloggers can sell ads. Some of these spats have been terminal.

There must come a time when water is seen to be more important than wine, and I’m not talking about rehydrating diddums after a night on the turps. I’m talking about the seven Richter hangover that’ll hit this whole state when the binge ends as the water runs out. If the Premier is to be believed, we may have to dissolve our Berocca in tequila.

To avoid this, he suggests building a weir at Wellington, where the country is very flat, and instead of bedrock, there’s about thirty metres of typical estuarine mud. Once Mr. Rann has found something to nail the dam thing to, it’ll be like our very own Cobby Station, but without the bad image of cotton or rice.

Keep it simple and true to purpose, and get that salty old river evaporating more efficiently before it trickles into the Lake.

A few years back I did a trip of the length of the Murray, by car, boat and plane, and recall vividly the site of the proposed weir. They’d let a dribble of water down the Darling, so the Murray was almost the colour of cream brick. It oozed into the green of Lake Alexandrina like a sluggish twist of pus. This new dam would further concentrate that terrible tincture, and then we’d drink it. Nice.

The winemakers of Langhorne Creek must love the Premier’s proposal. Delighted at the prospect of selling some grapes this year, into the hole in the premium bulk market caused by frost in the South-East, they suddenly hear government’s thinking of letting their Lake go briny. Er. It’s sometimes too salty for viticulture now; turn the river off and she’s cactus. To give the Lakesters their due, they’d almost got their little aquifer working again after they used it all up on irrigation, but it’ll never supply enough water to feed the huge industrial grapefarms like the monster Pernod-Ricard’s trying to sell. These need fresh Lake water.

We use up to 1000 litres of water, sometimes more, to make one litre of wine. This doesn’t include the water that evaporates from irrigation channels or overhead sprinklers. Then we sell that wine for the price of bottled water, and call it an export triumph. Doesn’t make sense. All overhead irrigation should be illegal, but it’s still rife in Murray grapeyards. Government should be buying that water and putting it back in the river. Do that, and there might even be enough to fill Mr. Rann’s dam.

It’s time we admitted that this dry old chip of a country doesn’t tolerate us moving water to anywhere it wouldn’t normally go. Every time we move water from one place to another, we make a mess at both ends. Every time we try to stop water going to where it usually goes, we make a mess of where we keep it, and damage the place it would have gone.

Until we get smart enough to solve these matters, we’ll have to learn to leave the waters to flow as they like. And if we want to grow something that requires a certain amount of water, we’ll have to find a place where that amount of rain falls at the right time of the year, and plant it there.

As for the unnecessary commodity we call wine, we should simply learn to make it with less. For many consecutive years, the volume of wine exported annually has increased while its price decreases. Turn those sprinklers off, get the yields down, watch the quality grow, adjust the price accordingly, and presto! You’re no longer competing to please Tesco, Woolies and Coles at such rude discounts there’s no profit. We might even regain our old reputation for high quality and innovation.

And water as a drink? Get yourself under the part of the sky from where it falls, and catch some.

The less water we need

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in 2007

While we’re talking water, I was surprised to read Cara Jenkin’s piece in The Advertiser linking Riverland grape irrigation to salt. There was the clever irrigation R&D man, Dr. Tapas Biswas, and Fosters viticulturer, Gioia Small, promoting a salt management regime that has cut annual irrigation requirements from 10.4 megalitres per hectare to 4 megs. One meg used to be called one million litres. Salt is still NaCl, which is unleashed by irrigation.

Let’s get this in perspective. Baz White, - Gomersal Wines, Barossa - was on the phone immediately. “Jeez, Whitey”, he said. “The River blokes got it down to four megs!” Since the day he planted in December 2001 Baz has used 0.65 megs per hectare per year. He has twenty hectares all up, uses bugger all poison, and has a list of some very famous Barossa names keen to get his fruit. In sharp contrast, I recall some whingeing from upriver about the lack of buyers of any sort.

Heat makes exotic plants very thirsty. Rice, cotton, oranges, vines – you need oceans of water in the desert. The Barossa’s not cool, but it’s a lot cooler than the River.

“Four to six megs per hectare would be about right for responsible commercial use up here in a year like this” says Riverland viticulturer and lecturer Darryl Lang, who made a brilliant organic Second Dune Ruby Cabernet a few years back, and hasn’t irrigated at all this year.

“It’s amazing how my vines stay alive”, he says. “But I wouldn’t suggest to anybody that they should follow my example. If I was serious about making commercial wine in 2008 I’d be watering right now. But in a drought like this the evaporation loss is awful. Even those growers who have decided to ‘mothball’ their vines and grow no crop this year would be using four or five megs I reckon.”

Michael Waugh, who’s just added another perfect 100 Parker points to his phenomenal tally at Greenock Creek, in the Barossa, uses about the same amount of everything – that’s bugger all - as Baz White. “Some of my vineyards never get any irrigation”, he said. “But if I do buy them a drink, it’s about 0.6 of a meg per hectare - thirty litres per vine. There’s no point in letting them die of thirst, but most of my watering is mainly a vehicle to get some nutrient down to their roots.”

Next day I tasted Paxton barrels. Paxtons manage 300 ha of vines including their own, and have begun replacing the old chemical spray and big irrigation with Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic methods. The first wine from their 20ha Quongdong Farm vineyard near McLaren Vale, after just one year of the new management regime, was probably the most vividly flavoured, wholesome ’06 SA red I’ve seen. The bio stuff jumps at you. It’s like a new variety.

“We’re limited to 1.1 megs per hectare if we’re using aquifer water on conventional vineyards”, says David Paxton. “But sometimes we use much less.”

“And you know Whitey”, says Paxton viticulturer Toby Bekkers, “the more we build up the humus in our soil with the biodynamic preparations and mulches, the less water we need”. There sure wasn’t too much water in that Quongdong Farm shiraz. I’ll warn you when that one’s imminent. It’ll be famous.

Earlier, I’d stood with Andrew Mitchell in his House Block biodynamic riesling vineyard in the Skillogalee Valley, Clare. There was misty rain, and you could smell the gamy reek of the roos we’d disturbed. The wine is brilliant and vibrant, with the sort of banana and lemon pith aromas I’d usually associate with expensive German rizza. The soil didn’t smell of banana, of course, but for a weathered old mix of dolomite, magnesite, sandstone and quartzite, it certainly had plenty of life buzzing in there since it’s been getting its doseage of Steiner’s moonjuice. Andrew has two enormous mulch heaps moulderin’ away on the headlands, ready to add to that veritable plum pudding once they’ve decayed enough.

“Logic says that the more biomass we can get into this ground, the less water we’ll need”, he said. “We try to keep pretty calm about it, but it’s really bloody exciting!”

Woe, horror and rage

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in November 2007

Where once ran water, only woe, horror and rage now flood down the Murray. Suddenly, furious blockers picket our parliament like only the violent French would. Desperate to recall what it was like to manage a winery in hard times, the transnational grape refineries struggle to juggle their diminishing returns. Big family wineries are forced to pay their suppliers on delivery. Overhead, sprinklers squirt mindlessly.

“The wine industry will never be the same”, Peter Dawson, Hardy’s senior vice-president of operations, murmured at a party at Paxton’s in March.

It’s a lot worse now. Last week Dawson announced his company’s retreat from its refinery on the River in Victoria, to regroup this side of the border at its Berri Estates, where fifty new jobs might be created.

Never pleased with my thirty years of preaching that Murray Valley viticulture could not be sustained as it was, and that smart wineries should be concentrating their efforts on making better wines for more profit with less environmental and social destruction, Dawson finally announced that his company needed to shift its focus to more profitable wines. But he said “higher-priced”, not “higher quality”.

“The wine industry is not globally competitive at lower price points”, he said. “We should be striving to get all of our Australian wine into higher-priced bottled products.”

Hardy’s have always been prickly at my Banrock Station scepticism. While they market their award-winning property as an environmental triumph, one might ask whether it’s a broadacre big-cropping industrial grapeyard where slightly salty River water is pumped onto an ancient dried-out seabed full of much stronger salt. The little bags of sugar that grow are processed and refined to become what I imagine the senior vice-president of operations would call lower-priced softpack products, until they put it all in bottles.

Use some profit to take the sheep off an old station, and reeds and redgums return to the riverbank. An environmental triumph. Let a swamp develop, call it a wetlands. Another triumph. Then empty the wetlands to put more water in the River, when it gets really crook. Another triumph. 100,000 admiring visitors a year walk the trails, admiring the rejuvenated scrub and riverfront, but the reality of the vineyard is never made quite so clear.

Last week also saw the release of another of the endless scientific reports on the River. This finally put a dollar value on the natural filtration effected by one hectare of working wetland – a higher value than one hectare of productive irrigated land. That is a triumph.

The River has always washed itself. But because there’s been so much poison to be filtered and broken down by the reeds and the weeds and sedge, wetlands which are now being deliberately dried out may never recover. While the dirty water kept them alive, the concentrates now drying in their crusty beds may be too harsh for regrowth.

The whisky bottle was beginning its conciliatory wink when, miraculously, a bottle of O’Donohoe’s Find Tom’s Drop Mourvèdre Shiraz arrived. On its label is an 1896 photograph of the O’Donohoe Brothers’ Hillen Grove Condenser. Michael O’Donohoe’s grandfather, Tom, and his six brothers lobbed on the Kalgoorlie goldfields from County Cork. Traditionally, Irishmen knew how to turn cloudy weak ale into clear powerful poteen in a copper pot still. But O’Donohoes built a desalination business by distilling salty bore water. During the day, anyway. Scouring their photograph, I suspect tradition may have returned at night. Nice marketing.

The vineyard responsible for Tom’s Drop is an environmental triumph. Not only do they need less water, but Michael and Jan are probably cleaning river water by running it through their organic vine garden. “The vineyard is part of a polyculture of trees, vines, plants and creatures” their back label explains. “We endeavour to mimic nature, maintain diversity, and focus on the relationship between soils, plants, and animals.” The living soil below their organic mulch has not been disturbed by machinery for 26 years. They won their Level A Organic certificate in 1990. The crop is always below two tonnes per acre.

And where is this? At Berri. So there’s three examples of nice marketing. Which has the truest ring?

One acre of dirt can never produce more than one acre of flavour. You can squirt on plenty of water and spread your acre of flavour over twenty tonnes of sultana, or chardonnay, seasoned with pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide. Or kill the hose and the poisons, get that mulch going, and squeeze your acre of flavour into a tonne or two of living essence like Tom’s Drop. And guess what happens? You get better wine. For which people are prepared to pay more, because they’re not stupid.

Last drink for the Vales

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in February 2008

THE politics of drought are set to ravage McLaren Vale – a world leader in viticultural water conservation.

Vignerons are reeling from Water Security Minister Karlene Maywald’s shock announcement that mains water allocations have been slashed 35% from February 1st.

“We’ll lose between 350 and 500 hectares of Australia’s most valuable vineyards”, said Derek Cameron, chairman of the McLaren Vale Growers’ Council. “That’s well over $60,000,000 loss in five years.

“The real insult is that this is being inflicted on Australia’s most efficient and productive irrigating vignerons” he said. “All our mains water is from our Myponga catchment – we use no Murray water. We have no channel irrigation; no sprinklers – everything’s on highly efficient drip with the most advanced monitoring systems available. And because we waste no water, and irrigation is absolutely minimal, a cut of one third is disastrous.”

Mr Cameron explained that his growers fully appreciated the value of water. They’d happily paid the $1160 per ML going rate, and had perhaps naively supposed the imposed hike to $1650 next July would involve some surety of supply.

“Murray growers pay from $75 to $400 per ML”, Mr. Cameron said. “They yield between $1100 and $2500 income per ML applied. If they paid mains rates they’d run at a loss. We average $13,660 to $17,000 income per ML. We’re sustainable.”

In a scenario eerily akin to Labor’s disastrous ’80s Vine Pull Scheme, the cuts will destroy smaller, super-premium McLaren Vale growers, many organic, who supply international figureheads like Grange, Eileen Hardy, and Dead Arm, while broadacre chemical regime irrigators of cheap bulk industrial fruit survive.

“At least that Vine Pull was voluntary”, Mr. Cameron said. “95% of those to go this time will be profitable family-owned vineyards smaller than 40 acres … people who’ve struggled through five years of drought and low payments, without the wherewithal to connect to the recycled system.”

Jock Harvey, chairman of McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism, said the cuts showed a frightening lack of government understanding of McLaren Vale.

“We’re 80% of the way through a 22 year plan to totally drought-proof our district”, he said. “By 2012, we will be the first premium grape region in the world to be economically and ecologically sustainable in this way. So this is devastating. Imposing this on such marginal electorates is political suicide.”

McLaren Vale growers have instituted and paid for the oldest and most successful underground water management system in the state, recharging their aquifer by at least 2000ML per year. They have funded the largest network of reclaimed water use in Australia, providing 40% of irrigation demands with recycled water from the southern suburbs.

Intensive work with local State MP Leon Bignall last year saw both state and federal governments allocate funds to assist more small growers switch from mains water to the recycled network. The immediate construction of a winter storage dam would reduce the flow of Christie’s Beach effluent into the Gulf, and reroute 1000ML of mains irrigation back into Adelaide’s drinking supply by 2012.

“This plan we’d engineered with Leon – who’s been a big help - would have reduced mains water irrigators by 80% within four years”, Mr. Cameron said. “We’d be back to 95% in five years. To destroy these irreplaceable heritage vineyards when they’re finally about to switch completely to recycled water just doesn’t make sense.”

“I understand there’s only so much water in the bucket”, said Leon Bignall. “But this is disastrous for the south. We’ve lost Mitsubishi. Now McLaren Vale. We’re meeting Karlene on Wednesday to get this fixed. These growers deserve acknowledgement and reward, not punishment. Unlike the overhead sprinkler regime up the River, these blokes are world leaders in water conservation.”

Labor suicides by water-boarding

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in July 2008

It was politicians who put the soldier settlers up the River. Poor buggers would just get back from the battles and horrors they’d never forget and they’d send ’em straight up the river with a shovel, a bundle of cuttings and an irrigation permit. Mine the Mallee for sugar; turn the water into wine, export it at the price of Coca Cola. Since then, until now, nobody’s had a second thought about the River. Anybody’d think the Chaffey Brothers still ran the entire basin.

Kevin Rudd certainly isn’t running it. COAG isn’t running it. Mike Rann’s not running it. Karlene and Penny aren’t in the race. Jock Harvey might just as well run it. He’s the chair of the McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism Association.

Having just left a meeting with the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, The Hon Tony Burke MP, Jock had a big spray, like most of the rest us did, anywhere we could, after the COAG collapse.

“There widespread support for the Federal Government taking control of the entire Murray River system through the compulsory acquisition of all water entitlements and then re-allocating water on a sustainable basis similar to the approach advocated by the Wentworth Group and scientist Mike Young”, was Jock’s first salvo.

Then it just kept coming:

“We are specifically concerned that instead of acquiring water entitlements, investing in infrastructure and efficiencies upstream will ultimately result in expanded plantings upstream and less or no water in the river downstream”, he said.

“The imminent collapse of the Murray River system is a national emergency requiring immediate federal government action”, he said.

“The Coorong is designated as a World Heritage Area because of its importance to the world’s ecology, not just the ecology of SA”, he continued.

“As the southern reaches of the Murray River system die, so to will the Coorong. As one of the richest countries in the world, how Australia solves this crisis will have a dramatic impact on SA and Australia’s standing in the world community, and on our leverage in making and keeping international commitments.

“The Government has the power to take these actions under the Corporations Act and we believe they must act now', he concluded.

Former Labor Party Senator Chris Schacht was at the meeting too. He should be running the River. He’s smart enough to warn that “every Federal Labor seat in South Australia except one was vulnerable to falling at the next election if the federal Government did not take immediate steps to take complete control of the river system”.

Paul Clancy, Chairman of the Wine Grape Council, should be running it. He’s ballistic about the amount of new vineyard planting still underway, in the face of gross oversupply and dwindling water resources.

“These damned Managed Investment Scheme plantings are continuing apace!”, he said last week. “200 plus new acres at Loxton. 200 plus at Lake Cullulleraine. 1200 plus in the Barossa. 200 plus at Wentworth. 200 plus at Ballarat. That’s only the start. Where’s the water coming from?

“This drought and the irrigation restrictions are simply masking the massive over-supply of grapes”, he said. “This industry needs 1.6 million tonnes of grapes to meet current demand and projected growth. We grew 2.1 million tonnes in 2006 and the prices collapsed. How much water will be wasted growing another 500,000 plus tonnes of grapes we can’t sell?

“There is, pure and simple, no potential for the industry to absorb this over-supply. The whole world is awash with oversupply, and the exchange rate is dead against Australia selling into that full market. Industry and government can no longer turn their backs on the grounds that this is free enterprise at work and that market forces will address this problem.”

While the big companies are still urging further plantings, they admit there’s a big glut of chardonnay: big enough for the price of those grapes to fall to $300 a tonne. So what’s the new deal? Now they want people to plant pinot noir and pinot gris because they’re the new buzz words. Apart from a tiny proportion of the Adelaide Hills and the Southern Fleurieu, there is no land in South Australia suitable for these difficult cool climate wine types.

Calling for mass plantings of such varieties, as Foster’s seems to desire, is about as dumb as taking fresh water from Tailem Bend and piping it to Langhorne Creek. Given one full day of stiff sou-easterly, the brine and sulphuric acid waters of the lakes will be well beyond Wellington and slurping neatly into the intake of the new pipe. Another twenty four hours of wind and the lakes shandy will reach Murray Bridge, where the Mount Bold pipe does its slurping. Another day of wind will see the same poisonous muck entering the intake of the Mannum Adelaide pipe. Duh!

The Ngarrindjeri Curse

by PHILIP WHITE - this was published in The Independent Weekly in August 2008

“What does this mean for the image of the wine industry?” asked Tony McCarthy. The Baldies had woken me to discuss the continuing retreat of Constellation, the world’s biggest wine company, from South Australia. I didn’t really answer his question.

Constellation, which managed to absorb Hardy’s, which had absorbed Chateau Reynella before being absorbed by the big Riverland duet, Berri-Renmano, knows more than most the true value of green bucks.

These are the guys, remember, with the wetlands.

Banrock Station is a perfect example of how you use salty irrigation water on arid land to grow vines which produce little bags of sugar, from which you can legally make alcohol, which brings sufficient profits to fund a swamp along the river from which your humungous pumps took the water for the vineyard. Until it all goes cactus and you put your hand out to the government to help you keep it all looking tickety-boo for a little longer. Which can also be sold as a good news yarn for all concerned. Once or twice.

This is about tweaking the image of the true nature of your business. Green bucks. When John Grant, the President, yep, President, of Constellation Wines Australia, sent out his triumphant press release about how his winery closures and vineyard sales was a deft response “to the difficult global environment by taking steps designed to benefit the company over the long term and, by so doing, help strengthen Australia’s wine sector”, he mentioned the environment, but not Banrock Station. This is because the River is on the nose, but not yet sufficiently stinky to sacrifice Banrock, which might come in handy if the Murray gets better.

“World’s Biggest Wine Company Heals Aussie River”… I can hear it. “We’ll blame this hiccup on the Ngarrindjeri Curse: the disturbed dead of Ngurunderi taking their revenge. Storm Boy has prostrate cancer; old Gulpilil’s pissed in the cane grass; white man’s firewater saves sick river … just a touch more oboe behind the baby ducks, please Boris...”

But image-wise, internationally, the Murray, and its estuary, is quickly becoming our equivalent of the Amazon Basin. A posh pleasure industry based on the totally unnecessary luxury commodity, wine, doesn’t want to be associated with destroying the Amazon Basin. But that’s what it’s done.

In the same news bulletins that reported the Constellation retreat, Dean Brown was on, spraying big time about how us citizens don’t appreciate the hard work Mike Rann and Karlene Maywald are putting into the River. The Brown Man can flush red and lecture, believe me. But suddenly he was doing it for Robin and Catwoman.

Not long ago it was Premier Brown arranging some water rights for his mates in the wine biz who saw Langhorne Creek as a little Coonawarra conveniently close to Adelaide. The vineyards increased from 471 hectares to 4700 within a few years, and now there’s no water and many tears. This sudden lapse coincides with Mr. Brown becoming Mike Rann’s Droughtmeister, not to mention Chairman of Hillgrove, the miner who’s about to dig the biggest pit this side of Roxby at Kanmantoo.

But open pits are thirsty. No worries. Fill the sails of Mount Barker Council and The Courier with bumptious self-congratulatory bullshit about the mining boom being good for the Hills, thus justifying the construction of another one or two thousand villas to house all the lucky employees.

This presents a crisis: what are we gonna do with all this grey water this new Tupperware Tuscany has produced? Easy. Put in a nice little wetland to keep the kiddies and the greens happy with a few shags, coots and ducklings, and flog the overflow to the mine. An environmental triumph matched only by Banrock!

But this is where Dino becomes the Joker: riparian rights. Any effluent from Mount Barker should flow straight to Langhorne Creek, which has no water in the Brown pipes. This may help replace the water they took out of the river a little upstream to supply Mount Barker’s Villa Rash/Greywater Factory so they can fill the kiddies’ wetlands and keep the miners happy. Whew!

The hubris of prospective winegrape investors is similarly malignant: they’re doing soil tests at Langhorne Creek for new big plantings. Now. These, no doubt, intend to take water from one of the private pipes being run past the forthcoming Wellington Weir to catch the last drops of fresh water that managed to get past the Mount Barker pipe. Just think. A few years back it would have run down there to Langhorne Creek, through the Lake, all by itself.

I know many of you think this column should be about wine. But Thirst is thirst, and water is an important gastronomic item. Constellation knows Adelaide is approaching the point where it must choose whether it wants water or wine. The whole world is watching.