“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)





16 August 2008

A textbook life

This was first published in The Independent Weekly in March 2008

It was a shock to finally meet Ian Hickinbotham. I’d read his perky, provocative wine criticism for years in the Financial Review, The Age and Epicurean. As a brattish young wine hack loose amongst the bullshitting colonels, I lived in awe of his venerable knowledge of biochemistry, his incredible winemaking history, and his fearless, forensic attacks on the fusty conservatism which dominated winery boardrooms in 1980.

He eventually arrived in the flesh: stocky and abrupt, bright-eyed and particular, leading with that Burt Lancaster/George Clooney jaw that marks the Hickinbothams. In a day when great wine men were rarely seen without suits or blazers beneath their lab jackets, he sported an outrageous open-necked check shirt, and curly grey hair down to his shoulders.

Born in 1929, Hick grew up at Roseworthy, where his father had founded the wine science, or oenology, course. At twelve he had his “first practical chemistry lesson”, when, by titration, he analysed the “strength” of various popular soaps. In his essential autobiography, Australian Plonky, just published by The Adelaide University Barr Smith Press, he boasts of still washing with Velvet soap instead of the trendier brands, “appreciating that the practical lesson … was to ensure that young scientists understood the power of advertising”.

Hick’s first vintage was in the Barossa at Hardy’s Dorrien – now Siegersdorf - where, as a sixteen year old, he “revelled in the body-building aspect” of shoveling skins. As captain, his grandfather Dave led Geelong through the 1886 footy season undefeated, and later became that club’s first coach. Hick lists his own football and cricket achievements with as much cocky pride as he reminds us of his amazing winemaking record.

And amazing it is. After Dorrien, he worked at Hardy’s Mile End “champagne” cellars, began studying soil science, and moved back to the Barossa to the SA Grape Growers Co-operative Limited.

In 1949, in his second year at Roseworthy, he began work on untangling the biochemical mysteries of the malo-lactic fermentation. As oenologist at David Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate, in 1952, the year of the first release of Max Schubert’s Grange (the volatile acidity of which seemed to bemuse Hick from the start), he was the first winemaker on Earth to deliberately induce, manage, and understand a malo-lactic fermentation.

Until then, French winemakers knew that after the initial ferment, where yeast converted sugar to alcohol, some sort of mumbo-jumbo happened in their cellars. They never understood how this secondary ferment involved bacteria converting the harsh malic acid of grapes – the sharp acid of apples – to the soothing, milky, lactic acid we first taste from our mothers’ nipples.

Hick had just written his thesis on “malo”, and it was the keen enlightenment of David Wynn that let him proceed in practice. In those days, Australian winemakers added sulphur dioxide in such enormous quantities that no bacterium could live comfortably in the wine after its primary ferment, and most, like the Roseworthy eminence, Dr. Bryce Rankine, believed malo-lactic ferments simply did not occur in Australia.

Wynn, on the other hand, was an angel of enlightenment. When at Wynn’s Melbourne home for his interview, Hick recalls a poet reading to the dinner group, “while the ballerina, Sally Gilmour, lay on the carpet”. He was hypnotized by her pointy feet. Wynn was the first to use the word “estate” on his label, and perfected the bladder pack – then called the “table cask” – that Hick copied from an imperfect Italian vinegar container.

And on he went. With his wife, Judith, Hick ran the Penola pub, where all Coonawarra winemakers drank, then the famous Gini’s restaurant in Toorak for a decade, employing young winemakers like John Wade and Gary Baldwin as waiters. Knowing the Barossa to be home to numerous Nazi sympathisers, some of whom he thinks may have supplied German U-boats with fresh food off our coast in the dead of night, he convinced the paranoid Barossans to change the very Australian name of their co-op to the outrageously Hunnish Kaiser Stuhl. As manager there, he increased sales from £160,000 in 1955 to £740,000 by 1962. He brought Wolf Blass to Australia. He was the first Australian to pasteurise wine. He was the first on Earth to use a centrifuge to stop fermentation. He invented and perfected many of the processes used in the production of commercial sparkling wines. He was a pioneer in the use of stainless steel, insulation, screw caps, and, in The Bulletin of 28 August, 1984, he was credited for initiating one quarter of Australia’s 25 top-selling wines.

While no winelover will fail to be fascinated by it, there are many sanctimonious plonkmongers who will be very shitty with this book: insiders will recognize their charlatan-shaped omissions. Hick is, after all, a Hickinbotham. One wonders what Australia would look like if he’d gone into the villa rash business with his big brother.

No comments: