“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)





25 August 2008

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.

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