“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)





27 October 2008

Bark Flogger Bites Back

By KYM WILSDON – Part of this correspondence was published in The Independent Weekly on 24 October 2008 - for the latest on cork stink, click on the cigar the bonnie lass above's got her fangs around. Photo from The Independent Weekly.

Dear Sir,

I am writing to request that the Independent Weekly publish a response to Philip White’s articles of 29 August titled Put a cork in it! and his recent follow-up piece of 8 October headed Cork comes unscrewed.

Amorim is keen to address a number of inaccuracies in Philip’s articles and some of the disparaging comments he has made about the company and natural cork.

It is particularly disappointing that Philip White does not appear to have made any effort to bring himself up-to-date with the latest developments in cork production and the substantial improvement that has been made in the performance of natural cork as a wine closure over the past decade. Such information is readily available on the internet.

We would be pleased if our response [following] could be published on the “thirst” page as well as on your website as was the case with Philip’s articles.

Kym Wilsdon
General Manager
Amorim Australasia Pty Ltd

To The Editor:

In reference to Philip White’s articles in the Independent Weekly on 29 August and more recently on 8 October, he might want to take some advice from one of his editor’s headlines and “Put a cork in it!” — at least until he has all the facts and brings himself up-to-date.

Amorim, the world’s leading natural cork producer, is not simply “a trader that ships cork bark”, but rather a publicly-listed global company that invests millions of dollars each year in research and development to enhance its products. These products are sold to some of the world’s most demanding and reputable organisations, including leaders in the aerospace, wine, sporting goods, heavy construction and fashion industries.

Rather than doing “sweaty deals”, Amorim prefers to establish long-term relationships with its customers, working in close consultation with them across a number of industry sectors worldwide. These are exactly the type of relationships Amorim enjoys with the world’s biggest wineries.

In terms of quality control, the cork industry has come a long way in the last 10 years. At Amorim, advanced production processes and stringent quality control measures supported by scientific analysis ensure any “vermin” are evicted well before our corks are delivered to a winemaker.

As for chlorine, it has not been used in cork production for well over a decade.

In his latest article, Philip White raises the issue of oxidation. Over hundreds of years cork has proven to be an adequate oxygen barrier in sealing billions of bottles of wine worldwide. The chemistry underlying the process of so-called ‘random oxidation’ in wine — with the obvious operative concept here being random instead of predictable — is unclear. However, a number of respected wine chemists, including Australia’s Dr John Casey and New Zealand’s Dr Alan Limmer, suggest the problem lies in bottling procedures, not with the closure.

Further research that looks at all variables including closure selection, bottling procedures and winemaking practices will contribute to fact-based knowledge. We need to move on from unsubstantiated statements that do not contribute to rational debate.

Members of the scientific community also undertake regular analysis on cork quality and results point to a significant improvement in recent years. The US-based Cork Quality Council, for example, shows an 80 per cent reduction in 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (commonly referred to as cork taint or TCA) levels in bulk cork imports since 2001. The average TCA count has dropped from 4.0 parts per trillion (ppt) several years ago to less than 1.0 ppt — well below sensory thresholds.

In addition, international expert Dr Pascal Chatonnet, a leading scientist and Bordeaux winemaker, stated in a 2007 conference in Napa that lab tests showed the incidence of cork related taint had declined from 4.9 per cent in 2003 to a mere 0.2 per cent in 2006.

On the issue of environmental sustainability, natural cork is streets ahead of alternative closures. That’s not just Amorim’s point of view, it is a fact supported by a number of independent life-cycle studies on the carbon footprint of wine closures. Not a big surprise when we are comparing the ultimate natural renewable product with oil-derived and aluminium products.

Apart from being renewable, recyclable and biodegradable, natural cork also plays an important role in carbon dioxide retention. In fact, it is estimated that the cork oak forests of the Mediterranean basin help offset a massive 10 million tonnes of CO2 every year, making them a significant carbon sink.

Industry attention is now turning to areas such as environmental performance and achieving value growth for Australian wines in the global market, as outlined in the strategy, Wine Australia: Directions to 2025. And these are areas where cork and Amorim can play a supportive role.

Today, we have great confidence in the technical performance of our products as well as our ability to support the industry in terms of environmental sustainability. We believe natural cork has a very bright future.




Amorim's Kym Wilsden's comments are fascinating.

There's the reference to billions of bottles of wine, then the concession that almost 5% of all the wine ever made anywhere in the world, up to and including 2003, and bottled under cork, was probably tainted by the product in question. Isn't that one bottle in 20? For all wine ever under cork? In terms of cases of 12, just so I understand, what exactly is a "mere" 0.2% of 2008 world wine production equivalent to? By my calculations, a 50,000 case winery loses 100 cases, a year, which they probably replace free, making it nearer to 200 cases, a year. Hope it's not Grange.

And I see there's still a problem getting eviction notices through to that pesky 1 ppt of the vermin population.

2. FIRSTY wrote

Well, Kym, that's fascinating. You fail to address Mr. White's suggestion that vendors of wine should not expect their customers to carry a special spanner or crank handle around just to get at the wine in the bottle. You don't realise that the lovely lass above has had to pull your bark plug out with her beautiful teeth!

You most noticeably fail to claim that since all your bark-cleansing experiments have been so successful, Coke and the medicine business haven't flocked back to cork. You just don't get it, do you. No. You have far too much at stake.

3. WHEEZER wrote

And tobacco doesn't cause lung cancer.


'The Cork Quality Council is a nonprofit organization sponsored by selected wine cork suppliers.'

Very impartial then...


Boffins Butcher Trott's Dream

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly on 17 October 2008


The ghost of Greg Trott is this minute glowering angrily over Glenthorne Farm and the University of Adelaide.

Trott, the founder of Wirra Wirra, and Spiritual Guidance Counsellor of the southern Vales, loved recalling his youthful journeys across vineyard and pasture in the back of the ute, en route to Hackney High. He fought to keep the old CSIRO research station free of housing, like all those rolling farmlands before they were devoured by malignant villa rash.

With the aid of Robert Hill, then a Senator, Trott had the 208 ha O’Halloran Hill property passed from the CSIRO to the University of Adelaide. A solemn deed was signed, prohibiting housing, but deeming compulsory the use of the land for viticultural research, experimentation and education. Trott wanted the testing of organic and biodynamic grape framing techniques; the trialling of new drought resistant varieties, providing the winemaking and viticulture students at the University with a king-sized opportunity to test their skills and climb new heights of environmentally responsible viticulture.

He dreamed of revegetating the headlands and creeklines with native plants, providing lungs for the south, walkways for human recreation, and homes for the native birds that would move in. He knew these birds would eat the grapes, providing more room for research in the tricky field of birdlife and vineyards co-existing without shotguns.

Dryland viti research became more essential when the Roseworthy winemaking campus was closed, meaning the loss of that full-sized winery, and its vineyards, for trials and education. Alan Hickinbotham kindly shouted the Uni a kindergarten winery at the Waite, but there was no room there for serious industrial-scale winemaking or vineyards and students were suddenly expected to gain their practical winemaking experience out in the industry they aimed to eventually work in.

This supplied the wine refineries with guaranteed cheap subservient labour at vintage, and the students would be trained in status quo industrial winemaking, limiting the free-thinking, ground-breaking experimentation which makes universities special and harvests the fruits of young minds set free to fly within the study of their choice.

Ironically the refineries most of these students would work in are retreating from this drought-stricken country and the river they helped to kill. If more free-thinking and enlightened experimentation had been encouraged all along, these transnationals would be better off right now, and our River would be in better nick.

The University says it has consulted intensely with the wine industry, that the land is not suited to viticulture, that there’s not enough water. Who, for Bacchus’s sake? Brian Croser? Alan Hickinbotham? The transnationals? They don’t seem to realise that McLaren Vale is almost 100% drought-proof since its enlightened move to using recycled water from the villa rash that surrounds it, or that the Glenthorne vineyards would test new techniques in dry-ground viticulture. This is even more critical since Rudd parsimoniously budgeted to close the existing CSIRO dryland viti research station at Mildura.

As for consulting with the wine industry? I recall Ian Sutton, Chief Executive of the Winemakers’ Federation, Wine Australia Pty. Ltd., Australian Wine Foundation and the Australian Wine and Brandy Producers' Association, saying accusations of a lack of consultation with the wine industry in his planning of the National Wine Center was simply balderdash. "My job's not to consult the wine industry -- my job is to represent the wine industry", he said.

The same university which now intends to break its deed of trust on Glenthorne Farm soon had the National Wine Centre as its own, at a peppercorn rent that draws puke from the average wine student struggling for digs.

If consulting had occurred, you’d think they’d talk to Jock Harvey, grapegrower, winemaker, and Chairman of the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism association.

“Consultation?” he growled. “I haven’t heard a word! Of course it’s viable for vineyards. It’s ideal for vineyards. Not enough water? Where are they going to get the water for the housing? The reservoir across the road! And what sort of housing? We’ve got the cheapest, dumbest housing along this coast. It’s built to make money for the developer, the tradesmen, the council and the government. All short-term. Nothing green about it.

“If they’re interested in regreening” he stormed on, “they should take a look at what this community has done on the Willunga escarpment. This Greening of the Range has been one of the most extensive projects of its kind in Australia, and it’s all been a voluntary community project.”

Harvey got angrier. “What about low-impact food production? Community vegetable gardens? Trying to re-establish the native foods that once grew there? Getting the local unemployed and handicapped in to learn something wholesome?”

That’s the sort of talking that would have Trott smiling that inimitably curious smile of his, with its puzzled mixture of disbelief and delight.

“Dear Boy”, he would say.


19 October 2008

Green Boffins Boil Southern Blood


Southern blood is boiling since the University of Adelaide announced its plan to subdivide for housing 63ha of the 208ha Glenthorne Farm, on O’Halloran’s Hill in suburban Adelaide.

I have listed below a few of the more pertinent points made in the Deed the University signed with the then Minister for Transport and Urban Planning, Di Laidlaw, on 24 May 2001.

As you can see, this excellent document contains no ambiguity whatever, and gives to rise to many questions.

It repeatedly states that there should be no housing estate on Glenthorne Farm.

Surely the University’s stance indirectly implies that the reforestation of Glenthorne Farm and the South Mount Lofty Ranges is dependent upon the University being given approval to break this solemn Deed and plant a thousand houses?

Surely men of the calibre of the prominent ecologist, Associate Professor David Paton must realise that in promoting the spread of villa rash they lose immediately the respect they have long enjoyed in much of the environmentally-aware community?

This writer, for one, can’t quite believe that he has little choice but to enter public battle against an environmentalist he has long been in awe of.

If you study OBLIGATIONS OF THE UNIVERSITY 4.2.2 (below) and consider that the Deed guarantees that the University will NOT “undertake or permit Development or seek to undertake Development of the Land for uses other than those specified in subclause 4.1 unless such other use or Development (excluding Urban Development which will not be approved) is approved in writing by a Minister acting as agent of the Crown”, you might be forgiven for suspecting such an approval, for seeking to undertake development of the land, in writing, has already been given by Minister Paul Holloway? No?

It couldn't be. Could it.


University Announces Subdivision Plan



Glenthorne Farm




essential ingredients


B. For many years the CSIRO has used the land for purposes of agriculture and as an agricultural research facility.

D. The CSIRO has only agreed to sell the Land on the proviso that the Land will be preserved and conserved for agriculture and other related activities and will not be used for urban development.

E. The University, as the person nominated by the State, has agreed to purchase the Land from the CSIRO , to preserve and conserve the Land for other related activities and not use, develop or permit the Land to be used or developed for urban development.


4.1 The University covenants with the Minister that it will, subject to obtaining all necessary statutory approvals, do all reasonably necessary things to ensure that the Land is

4.1.1 preserved, conserved and used for Agriculture, Horticulture, Oenology, Viticulture, Buffer Zones and as Community Recreation Area, and

4.1.2 is available for Project Research Activities, University Research Activities, Education Activities and operating a Wine Making Facility.

4.2 The University covenants with the Minister that it will not at any time hereafter:

4.2.1 use or permit the Land to be used other than as provided for in subclause 4.1 unless such other use is approved in writing by a Minister acting as agent of the Crown,

4.2.2 undertake or permit Development or seek to undertake Development of the Land for uses other than those specified in subclause 4.1 unless such other use or Development (excluding Urban Development which will not be approved) is approved in writing by a Minister acting as agent of the Crown.

4.4 The University covenants with the Minister that it will not at any time hereafter sell, transfer or otherwise dispose of the whole or any portion of the Land unless it shall first procure from the purchaser or transferee a binding undertaking either to be bound by this Deed or to enter into a Deed with the Minister on the same terms as are contained in this Deed.


The University covenants not to assign its obligations under this Deed without the prior written consent of the Minister.

THE COMMON SEAL OF THE MINISTER FOR TRANSPORT AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT was affixed and signed by Di Laidlaw, Minister, in the presence of Tim Quinn, witness, on 22 May 2001.

THE SEAL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE was signed by Susan Graebner, Officer who affixed the seal, and witnessed and signed by Mary O’Kane, Custodian of the Seal, on 24 May 2001.

BY authority of the Council given on the 26 July 1999.


18 October 2008

Ring Any Bells?


by PHILIP WHITE – This appeared in The Advertiser on Sunday 22 December 1990

The fiend did it again this morning. There I was lost in that dreamy twilight zone between deep slumber and whatever else there is, listening to the local blackbird work his way through some difficult Frank Zappa riffs when the jerk next door suddenly shattered everything with his hammer. Bango. Eight sharp. Ack emma.

I’m sure this bloke’s preparing me for the horror of his Christmas and New Year’s parties. I can feel the pressure building. He just simply adores Christmas, because every time one goes by he gets another power tool. This has helped him develop his pathological obsession with industriousness, and his manic commitment to proving it superior over whatever he imagines the rest of us have in its place. Now he’s really winding it up for Jesus’ birthday. By the 25th he’ll be frothing at the mouth.

And so, I’m sure, will I.

The style of cacophany he’s selected this morning, this Sunday, this day of rest, shows an unusual preference for the traditional instruments: the hammer-and-nail, and the hand saw. He’s usually into the more modern stuff, rapping along to the buzz-saw, the percussive masonry drill, and the electric jack hammer, sounding much more like a visit to some gargantuan dentist than this morning’s woody performance. Perhaps, out of deference to Our Lord and his carpenter Dad, he’d trying to get more Bethlehem into it.

No joking. I wouldn’t blink an eye if he started work on a manger next. There can be little else he needs.

He built an outdoor spa last week, each day attracting a new gaggle of power-tool worshippers. They wear those psychedelic Bombay bloomers and the electric blue mirror sunglasses that hang on cords around their necks. Once this mob finally got their spa finished they all up and off with their clothes and into it, saying things like “Jeez mate let’s pick the scab off a few beers”, and talked loudly about The Boongs. They have to talk loud in order to be heard above the roar and whine of the machinery that drives the volcano or whatever it is beneath them, and they must have those strings on their sunglasses to save them from falling into the cauldron full of tinea and toejam they’re sitting in.

No sooner had the terra cotta tiles dried and they started building another gadget. A sort of industrial-strength barbecue, more or less along the lines of a Tower of Babel. I remember Mick Young once saying that when he was a kid they used to eat in the house and shit outside and now that we’ve all come so far with this cosmopolitan stuff we eat in the yard and shit in the house. I think Mick got thrown outa the chamber for a session on the strength of that.

They were halfway through the world’s loudest complete set of outdoor furniture when I bunged on some Maria Callas at about number seven to show them another type of sound. They all jumped back in the spa and yodelled along so hideously I was inclined to duck across and beg them to put the chainsaw back on.

And so I lay there, struggling to conjure up the shape of the object under construction from the rhythm of the hammer and saw, grieving for our whole bilious community. We’re sick of recession and depression and little Arab kids being gassed and poor bloody businessmen committing suicide and George Bush making dates. We lie abed, whimpering into the Tontine, too frightened to face the shopping. We sit in silent rows in front bars, knuckles slowly whitening on the butchers, wishing someone warm would wander in to share a slow, cool one and offer some reassurance and a smoke with some flavour.

Then I came over really sicko nasty, and wondered he we could get all the sorts of blokes I’ve got next door to head off to the Gulf War. It’s always the nice kids who go to the slaughter, generation after generation. But they’d lie there in the sand in their rubber suits dreaming of that spa at home and I’d feel guilty and nobody’d be any better off.

I lunched with a psychiatrist mate last week and we talked about some of these things and he advised me that if I wanted quiet rest in the Big House for Christmas I’d have to be quick or hang a particularly rococo fruity, because the best clinics are all full and the rest are filling fast. That came as no surprise, but I did shock myself when I went to call my friend a shrink and the word stuck like a fishbone in my gullet because this bloke, the Brain Farmer we joke about, suddenly turned into a nice soft doctor I might soon need to visit.

I tried reading this morning, to alleviate the The Fear and The Hammering, and after skipping over the bit about what a terrible freezing squalor of a Christmas the poor old Ruskies are bogged in, I read that this year the Tokyo Stock Exchange collapsed to the tune of twice the total outstanding debt of the Third World.

It took a passing siren to take my mind off that, and I don’t mean the saucy sort who slop about singing on rocks but the nasty types with people dying inside them, or the ones which indicate someone’s been naughty enough to drag the cops away from their automatic radar cameras, or the ones which tell you someone’s personal stuff is all afire and their teddy and their snapshot collection is crinkling up and coming apart. Always a growth period for sirens, Christmas.

The last year I bought presents, speaking of growth, I was staggering up Rundle Street like a burro laden with expensive stuff for folks who probably wouldn’t like it, savoring thoughts of all the better ways of showing love, when a madman with a knife knocked me and all my fancy goods flying. A nice young chap chased him, brought him down with a flying tackle, and set about the careful gouging of his eyes, so I gathered up my burdens and wobbled on, straight into the mess of bleeding people this nutter had just chopped up.

The sirens sang then, too, and they gassed and soothed and bandaged and they threw the luny into a cage. When I got safely down to The Exeter for a few quiet triples, I decided there and then never to buy presents for the love of God because it’s like offering burnt sacrifices and all that went out with the Old Testament. I’ve felt a lot better since. Now I buy presents when people need something, or a mate or lover makes me so runny in the middle I can’t resist.

I was going to suggest you should all buy yourselves and any kids you can get your hands on a ticket to Circus Oz and call that your present, but you know what? These awful sad days of bread and circuses and central nervous system collapse have even infested life under the big top. The poor bloody circus hasn’t got the cash to perform in Sydney, and we showed up in such dribs and drabs they can’t afford to play here any longer either. It was such a beautiful circus.

I’d worked out a way to sell my neighbour to the ringmaster, somehow getting him into a drugged haze and the white gorilla suit, but I’ve got a much better idea now they’re off down the road. I’m going instead. And I’m taking the blackbird. Season’s greetings.


17 October 2008

Whitey's Last Write


by PHILIP WHITE - 22 JUNE 2006 - This was the author's last column in The Advertiser. He was quite rightly sacked. You can't have too much of this sort of writing going down.

Nearly a thousand of these columns ago, when the wine industry barely rated a mention in this newspaper’s pages other than in the Food and Wine section, the acrid whiff of burning vines was fresh across rural South Australia. The brutal reality of a stupid glut and the waste it incurred was still fresh. Whole communities were hurting.

Now that the wine business gets daily mentions in general news and the business pages, the smell of glut panic again tickles the sensories. In all those reams of comment and industrial bluster, how many times have you read anything about gastronomy? Quality? Pleasurable, responsible drinking?

Let’s get this nailed, once and for all. The wine glut is NOT good for wine lovers.

The quality of wine drops. When you have huge wine refineries chopping hundreds of millions from the value of unsold wine in stock, of course prices plummet. Medium-sized makers who generally produce wine of higher quality find themselves forced to chop prices to keep their shelf space. This forces cuts in production budgets, and quality eventually, inevitably follows.

Several of our favourite medium-sized companies find themselves in this awkward spot. If medium-sized is between a 100,000 tonne crush, and 10,000 tonnes, we’re talking about Yalumba, Peter Lehmann, Angove’s, and Kingston Estate. Interstate, the list includes De Bortoli, McWilliams, Zilzie and Brown Brothers. Families with proud histories of supplying good reliable quality. They don’t like any of this. They’re forced to become something they’ve always strained to avoid.

As the sickening downward spiral accelerates, wine moves away from gastronomic pleasure and health, and sails determinedly towards recreational drug manufacture. Pure and simple.

This comes at the expense of our water resources, our environment, our health, our sense of community history, the appearance and amenity of our countryside, whole rural economies, and thousands of grape-growing families with kids to educate and buy shoes and socks for.

Right now the politicians we have elected are running away from this terrible mess. Politicians come and go. A proper planning and development span for any serious quality wine business is longer than the life of three governments. Politicians introduced the extravagant tax breaks for vineyard investors that led to much of Australia’s glut.

And the regimes they swap for votes ensure that right now, because they have flat country and unlimited water, cotton growers in NSW and Queensland are planting thousand-acre monoculture vineyards. Cheap water and huge scale makes the fruit cheap; they’re getting contracts!

When I introduced Prime Minister Howard at the opening of the O’Leary Walker winery a few years ago, he immediately laid claim to the wine boom. “It’s the low interest rates that my government guarantees that makes this growth possible”, he boasted. Now his Ministers say the glut’s nothing to do with them, they won’t share blame, and the wine industry should sort it out.

Equally at fault are the banks, who will not lend money for viticulture without ridiculously extravagant water rights, meaning higher yields, less flavour, and withering profits.

The big company execs who fly hither and thither, dropping in to beg for further plantings of this and that, should take a bow, too. Their job is to maximise profits for shareholders, who also come and go, as fickle as governments and bankers.

Then there are the wine industry councils, who knew this was coming five years ago. They roll over for the biggest companies every time. In this testosterone-driven business, big is always better.

Short of jailing all these bastards, what can the thinking drinker do? Chase $3 bargains through the megastores at the expense of the responsible, hard-working premium producers who are the last bastion of quality and gastronomic pleasure?

And what can we politely suggest our wine industry should attempt? Try improving quality, for a start. Try educating our massive export markets that Australia means quality, and get back into the business of making an honest profit through intelligent, honest effort.

And the poor bloody grapegrowers? The geniuses in the wine industry councils are suggesting growers should prune their vines to avoid any yield at all next year. Again, no mention of quality. Next year might be the best vintage in a century.

Nobody has suggested we work as a country to prune as we always should have: responsibly, with expectations of modest yields and the healthy anticipation of the improved quality inherent there.

My parting shot: the Feds should pay the least profitable, most water wasteful growers to pull up and go away, then buy their water rights and put that water back in the river. The remaining, sensible, serious growers would pay a modest levee per tonne to repay the Fed, and prune now to cut next year’s yield by half. The wine would be better. Too hard?


15 October 2008


Limestone Is Not A Friggin' Mineral See?


by PHILIP WHITE – this was published in The Independent Weekly 10 October 08

Geology students lick rocks to help identify them.

This takes a lot of education and practise.

But although they’re implicitly involved in the extraction of flavour from the air and the ground, winemakers never taste their dirt, perhaps because they tend to pump it full of poison. So how come, suddenly, they’re all boasting about “mineral”, “minerally” and “minerality”? Out of the blue, “mineral” makes ordinary wines more glamorous and alluring. My desk is covered with press releases boasting of wines with “minerality”. All my colleagues in the wine writing racket see it in their favourites. Suddenly it’s on more back labels than, say “fruit-driven”, or “goes with most foods”, or, the even more handy “goes with all foods”.

What is a mineral?

My basic geological primer, Whitten and Brooks, says mineral is “a structurally homogenous solid of definite chemical composition, formed by the inorganic processes of nature”. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary On Historical Principles is a little less rigid. It first permits any substance which is obtained by mining. Mine-eral, see? So. Uranium? Salt? Arsenic? Coal? Peat? Then it tightens up, and suggests “the ore of a metal ... any natural substance which is neither animal not vegetable... a mineral medicine or poison”. The current online Oxford says “a solid inorganic substance of natural occurrence, such as copper and silicon ... an inorganic substance needed by the human body for good health, such as calcium and iron ... a substance obtained by mining ... fizzy soft drinks”.

“The only allowable exception to the rule that a mineral must be solid is native mercury (quicksilver), which is a liquid”, Whitten and Brooks say, and “this definition includes ice as a mineral, but excludes coal, natural oil, and gas”.

So why, when a wine tastes of organic phosphate, chalk or limestone (mainly from ground, one would hope, packed with marine skeletal remains), or lignin, peat or coal dust (perhaps from burnt oak if not from freaky soil made from decayed vegetation), why would you say it was minerally?

Chlorite is mineral. Diamond, gold, flourite and graphite. Gypsum, haematite and opal: all minerals. Silver, sulphur and talc. At least sulphur’s in there, which is probably what most of these “minerally” characters are, particularly under the sanitary screwcap, which seals and preserves sulphur as much as primary fruit.

Which is not much help to the new drinker.

Such words come and go. They fester at wine shows, where you invariably have a Young Turk who likes to show off by claiming certain wines have a character they think they can detect. The more impressionable judges start to look for this character in their own vast suites of glasses, and eventually the word is all over the show. If the word is derogatory, the character will suddenly seem to be in nearly all the wines which don’t win anything shiny. If it’s seen as an attractive character, it’ll suddenly seem to be in all the favourites.

Invariably, there’ll be wine writers there to launch the new term in the media, and soon we have a rash. These words emerge, fester and fade as another one moves in. It’s fashion. Mercaptan was THE word in the late ’eighties. Wikipedia says this is “a colorless gas with a smell like rotten cabbage ... a natural substance found in the blood, brain, and other animal as well as plant tissues ... disposed of through animal faeces ... It is one of the main chemicals responsible for bad breath and the smell of flatus”. I never met a judge who knew that. And while I’ve smelt it in their perfidious miasmas, I haven’t heard a wino actually utter “mercaptan” for years.

At a tasting in Walkerville in 1982, I called a wine “dusty”, because it smelled like an Australian paddock in the summer. My colleagues thought I meant sawdust, and before long “dusty” was being applied to wines with overt sawdust characters.

Those of us in the business of floating these new terms win shiny approvals of our own when such terms catch on. The greatest trophy is to see the chemical industry produce an essence named after your word. I’m sure I was the first person to use the word “fluffy” in regard to the way certain wines felt in the mouth. Soon you could ring up your essence dealer and order a product called Fluffy Tannin. I have yet to see the telltale forty-four of “MINERAL”, but it can’t be far off.

The good folk at the Australian National Dictionary Centre are halfway though the next edition of the Australian Oxford, and they’ve already done M. It’s highly unlikely that the wine business will nail the meaning in time for the next one after that, so maybe the lexicographers should wait ’til the essence manufacturers get their product out, give them a call, find out what’s in it, then tell us what we mean.


14 October 2008

Peter The Rock

Bad Boys

Photograph of PETER LEHMANN at his weighbridge by MILTON WORDLEY. Story by PHILIP WHITE – This first appeared in The Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1990

Twilight, somewhere near Tibooburra. I am hurtling across the desert with Peter Lehmann in his 1927 Buick ragtop. There have been enormous rains, so everything is sopping; covered in mud. It’s in our underpants and eyes, under the brims of our hats, and in our boots. It destroyed our primitive brakes days ago, a thousand miles back, but we are not stopping. Were are on our way to Alice Springs. In a hurry. We are competing in a Redex Rally.

As navigator, and occasional driver – unless he’s dead or crazy, Lehmann won’t let anyone else have the wheel – my job is to keep a pitifully small patch of the windscreen translucent by tipping water from a port bottle through a tear in the roof, so the wind and tiny manual windscreen wiper slops more mud back through the hole in the roof and into our faces. I regret wearing a shirt with pockets. They are both full of mud.

We are working on another bottle. Peter likes some help with that. And while the evening sky’s last silver reflection fades from the long skinny puddle which is the road, it becomes obvious the old headlamps have gone on strike. Again.

When total darkness settles, Lehmann throttles off marginally to let another car through. It’s a full-bore modern European rallying machine: blaring air horns, more lights than New York City, five aerials, open exhausts, ’roo bars, roll cage: all the macho stuff. Windscreen washers, for Chrissake! It roars and lurches and slews sickeningly across the dribbling mud pie which is the middle of Australia, and we are right up his quoit in the dark, two tonnes of 1927 iron, sixty-five miles an hour in the old money, no lights, no brakes, no mike on the two-way to discourage the poor bastards from slowing down too quickly. No sense. No safety. Sheer fear of death keeps me stone silent, wide awake, and passing the thirty year old Peter Lehmann port. I’m glad I can’t see through my side of the windscreen, which glows a low mud red from the tail lights of that poor unsuspecting idiot in front of us. The port is called Old Redemption, after a hymn book.

Three hours later, that car, totally unaware of our presence, just a length in front of us, disappears. The hole must be very deep. We follow it in at top speed, and I can tell it’s bounced out and moved on because when we hit the bottom there’s no metallic crunch. There’s a bounce, mind you, that flips our sodden swags over to join us in the front, and twists the chassis sufficiently to buck all four doors open so the port and the torch and the wet toilet rolls fall out and the roof disconnects from the windscreen and flips back to let more mud and the big black sky in. But we do not hit. Neither do we stop. And our headlights, the whole two candlepower of them, come back on. The driver ahead shrieks vicious curses over the radio, demanding to know where we have come from and who the hell we are and screaming “get back you bastards you’re far too close!”

We never get the chance to tell him we’ve been there for two hundred kilometres. No mike.

But there in the newly-dim flicker of the dashlight Lehmann grins across at me like some wild, wet terra cotta Buddha-Bacchus to say “There you are White. What you English don’t understand is Barossadeutscher stubbornness. Now where’s that port?”

And that’s Lehmann. In a valley full of conservative Silesian peasants conditioned to being downtrodden for generations by their English managers, locked up each time we go to war with Germany, and called free settlers when in fact they were South Australia’s special line of particularly well-behaved convicts, he is a very rare bird because he has that slugging, pig-headed stolidity with the ability to speak out loud and lead. Especially when the headlights come back on.

More than any other Barossadeutscher hero, and there not many, Lehmann has dedicated his wine-making years to the appreciation, maintenance and preservation of the quiet, hidden life which makes this big wine valley special.

When Saltram, the wine company for which he’d slaved for decades was bought out by an absentee landlord who ordered the immediate sacking of the hundreds of peasant-scale family vignerons from whom he bought his grapes, Lehmann walked out with his beloved growers, borrowed money from the few mates who had any, built a new winery, and promised the growers that if they’d wait ’til he’d sold the wine, he’d pay for those grapes and save their families from ruin. It was a genuine, wildy risky Moses act that took years to work properly, but it worked.

Lehmann called his spartan new joint Masterson, after Damon Runyon’s stoic, gambling private dick, and, for a while at least, the ancient peasant-scale Barossa vineyard, unique in Australia, was saved from the bulldozer blade.

A decade later, in 1989, when grape prices were soaring to heights never before seen here, and competing companies hounded the growers with higher and higher bids, Lehmann called his throng together at the annual Growers’ Picnic, and told them he’d be paying lower rates than most companies because the new prices were ridiculous. The growers stuck with him.

This relationship has to be seen to be understood. At vintage, which takes three months, Lehmann drops all else to man his weighbridge. In trucks and tractors, utes and trolleys of divers ages and sizes come the growers. They queue from first light to last, taking their turn on the bridge. As they wait to be weighed, they come in and chat with Peter, to share a smoke and a schlück or three of port. According to Barossa tradition, it’s cold tawny, taken by the flagon from the ’fridge. There’s always a mountain of fresh crusty bread - from the bakers Linke or Fechner - there on the redgum bench, and delicious gum-smoked meats and dill pickles to munch.

Lehmann remembers the names of several hundred of these folks’ businesses. He has, after all, been buying their grapes for over forty years. “Hahn, W. G. and L. G.” he says, sliding the polished weights along the scale arm. “That looks like good shiraz. Have a schlück. Heuppaff, E. H. and B. M.. Lovely. Look at that quality Whitey. Two and a half tonnes. Saegenschnitter Brothers. Scholz. Jeez, I can remember that old truck sitting in the vineyard with North Para floodwaters lapping round its windows. Have some ham. Seeliger – what is it? That’s right, W. A. and M. A.. Cabernet. Better than last year. Pech, L. W. J. and B. Y. ... how’s the family, Leo?”

The growers mill about and joke, and play tricks on the unsuspecting newcomer. “See that mettwürst there on the back of the door already”, they’ll say, “Peder keeps that on there for not to eat but for to keep our eyes off the scale while he weighs our grapes. Haw, haw haw!”

The little weighbridge room is decorated with photographs of Damon Runyon and Lehmann’s father’s graduation class from the Lutheran seminary in Minnesota.. He was a favourite local preacher for the duration of his life, and the first Lutheran in the Barossa to preach in English. It’s a room from another age; another time, when life meant more than it does today, and pace was something seen only at the Kapunda trots or Redex Rallies.

So this year, at the close of the best vintage for Barossa red since the great year of 1971, many souls were sobered when the news spread that Peter Lehmann was in hospital with bowel cancer. The first operation was complex and long, and more followed. The tumor was removed, but infection set in and one of the other things they took out was a kidney. Thousands of South Australians held their breath. Lehmann lost five stone.

The rustics in the Nuriootpa Snakepit stared glumly into their schooners of cold port and made sage announcements like “Poor old Peder. Too much mettwürst, not enough port”. The winter was cold and dull.

But as the months wound by, Lehmann, P. L. and M., Peter The Rock, Peder the Preacher’s Kid, Mr. Stubborn Barossa himself, gradually shook off his ailments and slowly, surely grew healthy again. He has been cleared of the cancer, and on Thursday, the day his 1989 was to win the Jimmy Watson Trophy, he took his first glass of Old Redemption for many months. Then he took another. And another.

And at ten thirty at night, he telephoned me from the Barossa with a wicked gurgle in his raspy gambler’s voice. “Lehmann”, I said, instantly worried, totally forgetting the function then underway in the Melbourne show hall. “Is everything okay? Are you alright?”

“White” he said triumphantly, “not only are you talking to a man who can drive in the dark, but to a Barossa winemaker who in this same year has won the top red trophy in the Brisbane show with his cabernet blend AND the Jimmy Watson Trophy with a traditional 1989 Barossa shiraz".

Tomorrow, or yesterday your time, is Lehmann's birthday. I can promise you there will be an unholy degree of schlücking and schnabelling at the weighbridge, and late, when the jazz has finally played right out, Norty Schluter, Baker Linke, Peder and Dingo will play ten dollar poker until there's no need to keep the lights on.