“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 February 2009


Adelaide Hills Turn Green In Drought
Enviro Smarts Plan Track To Future


Bacchus, a large part of the community, and then possibly the entire wine drinking world, will bless the Adelaide Hills winegrowers.

The Hills vineyard environment, and its wines, are certain to improve through the new ecologically-responsible framework devised, established and broadcast via the Adelaide Hills Wine Region website by the region’s savvy Environment Committee.

For twenty years the Hills have been too easily satirised for their profusion of posh hobbyist growers who planted vineyards with little idea of viticultural science or oenology, not to mention the realities of a crowded marketplace. Vineyards of the wrong varieties were planted holus bolus in the wrong places for the wrong reasons. Machiavellian transnationals love taking this fruit at minimal rates for amorphous blends without attribution.

The side effects include inappropriate petro-chem regime management, pollution of watercourses, water abuses, bird scarers, neighbour disputes, lack of native vegetation, and so on.

But the Hills have suddenly leapt ahead of all other South Australian regions.

Last week the Adelaide Hills Wine Region Australia launched its impeccably responsible Environmental Management System. While nobody from The Courier could find the time to attend, or indeed The Advertiser, the Mount Barker Council mayor, Ann Ferguson, and its CEO Andrew Stuart were there with keen enthusiasm to see a few quiet local heroes make a most impressive presentation.

While rival regions have depended upon vague claims to green awareness, and maybe even practice, the Hills region association has nailed the theory better than the rest, released its template for measurable practice, and thus laid the gauntlet down to all its members, not to mention the other districts, like McLaren Vale, which have depended on anecdote and impressionable writers like me, to spread the word about green credentials.

The determined and seemingly tireless Larry Jacobs, of the biodynamic Hahndorf Hill Winery, has worked like a tiger, chairing the region’s Environment Committee.

“It is extremely exciting for us to realise”, he said, “that after all our effort to develop a program we saw could genuinely benefit the Hills, we’re the first region in the State, if not Australia, to have a functioning and government endorsed regional EMS available to our members”.

Put most simply, this system will grow and evolve as more practitioners climb aboard. It may not be long before the punter is paying a premium for these classified products, as the whole thing grows by competition.

With the assistance and support of Greenochre Environmental Consultant Andy Chambers, and Bryce Routley, Efficiency Project Officer at the Environmental Protection Authority, the Hills have adopted the philosophy of green guru Heinz-Werner Engel, an expert in environmental management systems and ISO 14001, the latter tattoo being a key international identifier of rigorously environmentally aware businesses which must practise what they preach.

Perhaps most critical to the Hills plan is Engel’s system called EcoMappingTM.

“An environment management system (EMS) is simply a tool for measuring and then managing a organisation’s impact on the environment, said Janet Klein, of the Ngeringa biodynamic vineyards and winery at Mount Barker. (Having well and truly completed his stint, Larry Jacobs has left his position as chair of the environment committee, and the able Janet has now taken the role.)

“Ecomapping is a simple flexible tool that helps with environmental management, leading if you like to achieving ISO 14001 status” Janet said.

Both went on to explain how Ecomapping helps a grower/maker become aware of their environmental impact and ongoing behaviour, identify issues and emergent problems, give these rank, and schedule the appropriate reactions.

Once completed, Ecomapping can serve as the basis for a wider environmental management system which promotes itself.

So, with all the confounding acronyms and psuedo-religious verdanture, what does this actually mean on the ground at the coalface further along down the track at the grassroots?

It means that by self-promoting rivalry, individual vintners in the Hills, and then entire wine regions elsewhere, will learn to clean up their act.

The new practitioner simply learns to draw maps of different aspects of their business. Larry showed us his Hahndorf Hill maps, based on aerial photography of his site. There’s a ten step method, available on the association’s website, www.adelaidehillswine.com.

These generations of maps cover, in order: urbanity and biodiversity; water, soils and storage; air - including odours, noise and dust; energy; waste; risks; materials flow; employee opinion; and the maintenance of an ecolog book.

The next step it to devise a badge or logo to identify and reward businesses and products that have committed to the system, and made progress in cleaning up their act. This will make the whole deal competitive, both within the region, and with its rivals, who are all desperately keen to make sales to an increasingly environment and health-conscious international marketplace.

So Hillsbillies become Hills Angels? I’ll say it again: “By their works ye shall know them

18 February 2009


Time To Hit The Tiles Big Time

Blogger Burns Out With Deep Vintage Misery

The Year Of Schizo Zin


I’ve been out on the slash. The time was up. Enough cabin fever, cowering inside like a fizzer limpet. The time came when a man just had to gird his loins, resin up his bow, take a large bag of gold from the coffer, and hit the Gilded Palace Of Sin.

In other words, your bad correspondent is suffering a severe dose of organ rejection.

Morning sickness. Central nervous system fusion. But he feels better. He can see the evidence in his little camera.

I couldn’t write once the fires started. Like many other Australians, I have been in shock.

This is Wednesday 18th February.

He tells himself ernestly.

It’s interesting, if only with a morbid anthropological fascination, to look back over the last three weeks’ work.

On the morning of Wednesday 28th January I wrote 2009: Another Torrid Vintage Hits – You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

That day, South Australia endured its second day above 44 degrees Centigrade (111.2 degrees Fahrenheit). In the shade.

The Bureau Of Meteorology from Adelaide that morning advised Radio National’s Fran Kelly in Sydney that the heat wave which had just begun its blitz of south-eastern Australia would likely be hotter overall than last year’s fifteen-day record-breaker.

“Daily maxima will be higher”, the BoM said, “and evening temperatures will not offer the respite Australia had last year: nights will be hotter, too”.

With a lump in my guts, I concluded “The implications for the wine industry are horrendous ... It’s obvious. It’s not a wind, it’s a blistering sandblast, and it’s all coming from the vast northern deserts, laden with positive ions, dust, and relentless austral severity”.

On that evening, I wrote Hell on Earth as vintners sweat; winemakers hold their breath. A bloke recorded 54.4oC (130oF) under his back verandah, under a spreading shade tree, just over the range at Strathalbyn. It was 50oC a little further down the Fleurieu Peninsula at Finniss.

As we all know, everything got worse.

The problem ceased to be a vintage niggle, or a base economic threat. It became an unnaturally savage threat to the nature of life in Australia. The thought that this heat coincided with widespread floods in the far north simply served to render things worse, perversely.

Fireys had extinguished over 750 fires in the tiny state of Victoria on the 26th and 27th, but the Strzlecki Ranges remained ablaze.

I spent my first decade in the Strzlecki Ranges. They are home. Before the fires, they looked like the photograph below. This was taken by my good cousin John. It’s his dog smiling at him in the rear vision mirror of his water truck. He was a water-carter. Just perchance, he was shot dead by a psycho drug fiend before Christmas, leaving a wife and four kids to dodge the other sort of fire on that woody hilltop.

The murderer went home and suicided. What a hero.

From Monday 2nd, the “wine industry bodies” began to suggest things weren’t as bad as it seemed, and various regional representatives showed irritation that I had slated the entire vintage far too harshly. They must have the same virus that got Fosters.

That night of the 2nd, as South Australia cooled mercifully, and grape farmers steeled themselves for the rude task of going out to evaluate the heat damage in the morning, Victoria exploded.

The wireless began to announce the death toll.

Those who’d been through anything like this before knew it would tick inexorably upwards for weeks.

In the bits that weren’t on fire, the heat rolled on anyway, falling below the brutal 40oC a few times, but not by much.

Here, it seemed quite cool for a week. I wore a sweater one day; there was a fine drizzle on another. The heatwave forecast for last weekend didn’t happen, so all our fireys who came back from Victoria to save us if these hills caught ablaze could have stayed there.

You could hear the vineyards inhaling at night.

Now, it’s been in the highish thirties the last two days. Just hot enough to maintain the depression and make the head throb duller.

Somehow, Victoria is still ticking, with fires still blazing, although the Police are saying they don’t expect to find many more dead.

In the meantime, all I could do to maintain a blog was to peel out a few old jokes. Bacchus only knows what I’ve written in the newspapers. There’s no point in wailing about a bad vintage when hundreds of people are being incinerated.

I thought my colleagues in the hack media did a good job of their reportage of this horror. They seemed to fairly quickly understand that all they could do was respectfully wait for the survivors to find their voices, and report their sayings, their memories and pleas and warnings, accurately, and with an eternal sensitivity.

Which is not what I can say about my fellow bloggers. There’s been a lot of indulgent muck on the internet, as amateur busybodies everywhere tried to get their own angle on the tragedy. They’re still at it. I suppose that’s the nature of the new rapid-transfer international shock the internet transmits. People, generally are well-intentioned. But when there’s mass grief up for grabs, everybody wants a slice.

I thought our politicians made utter shits of themselves. Ranty twerps like Rudd and Rann couldn’t help their little macho selves accuse alleged firebugs of things like “mass murder”, meaning the fomenting Laura Norder lumpens will seethe with the same vengeance as the uniformed classes, and those charged will never get a fair trial.

The lynching is never far from the top of Australia's polly swill.

Fact is, successive waves of politicians have wound Australia’s mental health system back into the dark ages.

Anybody who lights a fire when it’s 45oC is obviously mentally ill. Nuts. Irrevocably cactus in the Jesus Box. Roos loose in the top forty acre. Sandwich short of a picnic. Mad. Like the poor devil who shot my cousin, these people need really good psychiatric care and powerful medication long before they commit their incredible crimes. The paltry mental health budget our smarmy tough guy politicians have struggled to constrict to oblivion now pales into insignificance when compared to the cost of the fires.

We have become a nation of pathetic self-medicating amateurs since mental health assistance has become largely unattainable for most of our sick.

And our tiny, cocky, faux macho politicians are quite happy to leave the mentally ill to the police to manage, which keeps the crime rate nice and up, the community nice and scared, the votes tipping into the bucket, and the rellies of the sick preparing to take up arms to defend their ill kin from government, which, after all, with all its uniformed resources, finds the mentally sick very easy to chase down and nail.

A great blow for Laura Norder, see?

Schizophrenia? You got life, son.

And watch out. One day we'll have another vote on the death penalty.

As for the wine industry? It’s obviously a hellish vintage, although my mates in Western Australia say things are looking good so far. There’ll be a lot of Westralian fruit coming east. Some of it might even find its way into Queensland tanks: Bacchus only knows what the rain’s done to the Queensland vintage.

It’s remarkable how much South Australian fruit survived. Clare seems pretty good, for example. But survive is the word: most of the SA crop looks like it just walked across the Nullarbor by itself.

My dear friend Tony Bilson, the famed Sydney chef, gave it perfectly simple clarity when we toured the vineyard yesterday. It was quite hot: into the thirties.

“But jeez, it WAS hot”, I said, attempting to explain the shrivelled grenache.

“Of course it was hot”, he said. “It was twenty degrees hotter than this!”

Everybody went quiet.

The most common ailment is what my viti guru, James Hooke, calls interrupted veraison. When that first day of 44+oC hit, on the 27th, it seems any vines that were undergoing veraison took the biggest hit.

Berries still green and barely-formed tended to survive; those already past veraison turned to jam. But those bunches or berries trapped in the interim, with their skins changing colour and their sugar production commencing, fell into schizophrenic heaps.

The matter of smoke taint aside, it’ll be what I call a zinfandel year: like extreme zin, the bunches have a difficult mixture of totally dried-out skins, raisins and currants, big ripe juicy balloons, and totally unripe pellets the size of lentils. So we’ll have must that’s a weird combination of jam and acid, with sufficient lignin to render barrels redundant.

The bunch below is an extreme example, but it illustrates my point. There are many vineyards with bunches like this.

There are mad success stories, of course. Just as miracle yarns of impossible luck and valour beyond understanding emerge from the bushfires, there are blocks of fruit here and there that seem determined to disprove all naysayers. There’s shiraz and roussanne on this property, for example, that look like nothing’s happened.

It’s the same in other districts. Of course some good wine will be made.

And the really really big story? You mean Fosters? Of course they’ve withheld the wine arm from sale. What is it with wineries and arms? Could this one be Bubba's? It gets smaller every day, by itself. Endogenous shrinkage, you could call it; rather than anything as exciting as spontæneous combustion. Few in Fosters seem to know what to sell, because the size and shape of it changes every day as it shrinks.

Similarly, nobody quite knows what to buy, if indeed bits of it were for sale, and anybody had the money. It’s like the awkward chaos that plagued the preparation of Seppeltsfield for sale, and the consequent dealings. But this one’s infinitely more complex and infuriating for everyone concerned.

Penfolds, of course, is the jewel. The world’s biggest boutique, continuously extant for two reasons. One is Peter Gago. The other is the autonomy Peter Gago valiantly manages to secure for his charge through very hard, persistent, intelligent work.

Damage that, and you might just as well sit back and surrender to the New Heat.

17 February 2009


The tussocks

Well into the tussocks I interrupted ducks

One flightless teenager galloped across the water

And then an explosion of babies

And a mother who did the broken wing trick about a chain away

While I tipped an old cassoulet out for the fish

The rain dug itself in this afternoon

My smoker smouldering some McCubbin into a shin of beef

While ibis rose from the bottom vineyard

To perch on trellis posts in prehistoric rows

And Peter fed his horses as if everything was normal

Philip White

The painting - VIOLET AND GOLD (1911) - is by Fred McCubbin, 1855-1917. One of the artist's Mount Macedon works, it is a recent acquisition of the collection of the National Gallery Of Australia. The poem was written back in the winter, when it felt like a lot of things were about to go wrong in the cosmos.

13 February 2009


A Little Time Taking The Mick

Big Tinctures In Kelly Country

by PHILIP WHITE – This was written for The Sydney Review in June 1991

The roof is low and it ticks in the heat. Little bit of a ripple of old galvo; just a flyspot on Aussie.

Underneath, in the dark, the rows of sweaty black barrels suck the light from the air, just as the glowering juice inside them will suck all the water out of your eyes.

The only brightness in here is where the sun pings through old nailholes, splattering the dirt floor with hot white polka dots.

This is where Mick Morris works. He comes out of the gloom in his neat olive drills, with ‘Morris Wines’ in racy cursive on the pocket. He is a nuggety, sun-dried man that looks at you through a pair of squinting eyes that shine, even here, and his hand is like a mechanic’s. He moves sideways a touch, and one of those inch-wide sunbeams lights up the parting of his short back’n‘sides. He is shrouded in cobwebs. They stick to his hair oil. The brightness of the sunspot hurts your eyes.

“Would you like to have a look around the winery?” he asks, wiping his hands on a rag.

You tend to lurch at him when he says it: a rude, lustful, salivatory sort of lunge that you immediately regret, but it makes no impact on Mick. Happens to him all the time. ’Cause when he picks up a couple of glasses and that metre of stained plastic hose and leads you off into the dark you know you are a very lucky piglet indeed, and you are about to do some irreparable damage to your old notions of heaven. Here under this roof, this bloke is the caretaker of one of the galaxy’s rarest troves: a shedful of very old muscat.

The smell of the joint is as vivid as its pictures. Somewhere there amongst the musty, dusty aromas of ancient oak, hot iron, powdery gunmetal dirt, and a thousand tiny leaks where the good oil drips and weeps, you have a cornucopia of smells, all Australian, and the single absolute essence of this larrikin isle, ca. 1859, which is when this temple opened.

Follow Mick down the barrels, stepping slow and soft to leave both powdery floor and slumbering, sulking muscat as they are, and you can hear the jangle and clatter of harness and hoof as Ned Kelly (left) and his gang rock up for a few long slow ones. Rutherglen is, after all, their patch.

There are wines here which began their life in those days. At the end of your sipping, slurping, sighing lap with Mick, if you’re particularly good, he may take you to one small cognac barrel which seems to be the holiest of holies. The stuff inside has wasted and evaporated, concentrated and stewed there beneath the baking roof for so long it has turned to treacle. Its siphoning days are long past: you dip a stick in now and lick it and you know you have, in that drop, the refined spirit of what was once many buckets of ripe, sweet muscat grapes.

A spoonful of such concentrate can make a cask of much younger stuff take great leaps toward the sort of magnificence only large age can impart: it is, in fact, concentrated age. You will taste it for days, and then weeks, and even months and years later, in the supermarket queue, at the dull wheel, in your bed or the pub or the pool, some trigger will squeeze and the grin will spread and the eyes glaze as the flavour and the whiff and the rich, sticky glory of it all comes sweeping back.

Once when I visited, Mick apologised that that muscat in ‘Grandad’s Barrel’ wasn’t as old and pure as it may have seemed.

It seemed very damned old to me, with its gluey, utterly hypnotising nature.

How, I enquired, could it not be old?

“Well”, said Mick, staring at his boots, “it got so thick a few years back I had to freshen it up a bit”.

“Oh Mick, really? How long back?”

“About thirty years.”

“Oh. And what did you dilute it with?”

“Just a little bit of forty year old.”


But it’s not all muscat there in Mick’s shed. He has muscadelle, which they call tokay in Rutherglen, as old and profound in its intense wicked stickiness, and a hoard of ageing durif, which he uses in vintage port and dry red table wine.

He came my way recently, and we snuck out to lunch in a very quiet cellar.

“I don’t make much white, so I’ve brought mainly reds”, he said softly enough for the uninitiated to imagine he was apologising.

“You don’t make any bloody white, Morris”, I joked, knowing his son David does most of that at Griffith.

“And of course you’ve brought ALL reds!”

Those deep cellar eyes did their lightshow and he poured out his shiraz/durif sparkling burgundy, and said “This is far too young, this stuff”, and I agreed and it went down like silk, like velvet, like Bess the landlord’s daughter. The landlord’s black-eyed daughter.

“Now we’ll have the lighter red”, he said, tipping his new cabernet, the 1988. It was intense, sinister wine of much proportion: a silky thing, but strong. I said as much.

“Yes, it’s about 15.1%”, he said, apparently oblivious to the rest of the winemakers in Australia, who try to keep their table wines between eleven and thirteen percent alcohol by volume.

“But if you like the bigger wines, you’ll probably like the durif”, he said, “They get up above sixteen.”

“Oh. Doesn’t port start at seventeen?”

“Yeah. But that’s fortified. That’s different.”


I may point out here that one degree Baumé is a level of grape sweetness which, when fermented to dryness, will produce just over one per cent by volume pure ethanol. The intensely sweet botrytis dessert wines you find in half bottles are not much riper than these black grapes Mick uses to make dry red. The difference is he ferments all that sugar to alcohol, producing very deep strong wines of great longevity.

Any way, we ploughed through various back vintages of durif, finally lobbing at the 1970, which, for a wicked black thing, actually smelt a lot like a good sauternes, a suggestion at which Mick showed faint signs of shock. It was rich, sweet, chocolatey wine, naive, sinuous, long, and as clean as a whistle.

“I think that’d be fairly high in alcohol”, Mick warned.

“Oh?” I said, looking quizzically at the label, which clearly stated “13.5% ALCOHOL”.

“We used to put 13.5 on the labels in those days because we thought that would be optimal. We never got that low much, though, of course. They ripen up quick.”


“Now. I’ve brought along a couple of bottles of my Old Show Muscat for us to try.”


“And some Old Show Tokay. Bottled it up ’specially. I actually prefer the tokay. You’ll notice... ”

There is no point in writing more about this.



11 February 2009


Ten Easy Steps To Paradise
First Select A Mighty Knife

Beware Of Giant Tropical Lice

This piece was written about twenty years ago, when Bombay gin wore a white label and resided in a squat bottle. It was a more viscous, rounded style of gin than the Sapphire which suddenly and brutally replaced it. The old model had less overt juniper, and was probably closer in style to some of the truly traditional gins of yore, like the lovely Plymouth gin still made in that sailors’ town. I preferred the old white label to the Sapphire, which seems to have been designed to suit the American martini market.

The story was published in The Advertiser and The Sydney Review.

Over twenty years of studious application has finally seen your correspondent on things moist discover the recipe for the perfect gin and tonic. In ten easy steps, here lies the key to total gustatory and spiritual satisfaction and perhaps even to eternal life. It will take more time for me to prove the latter.

1. Find Max’s Island

Somewhere off the Northern territory coast, lapped by the impish Timor Sea, lies Max’s Island. Here among the palms, the mangroves, and the giant man-eating lizards, live Max, Marie, Little Max and Croc Baumber, sans footwear. During the past 26 years, this family has created the ideal environment for the building of the perfect gin and tonic. You will need first to get there, by hardy sea craft or air, then spend three or four days preparing your thirst.

2. Sharpen The Knife

On the morning of the fourth day, you will be ready to slip into the routine. First, sharpen your knife. I have a monster blade recommended by the great Adelaide chef, Cheong Liew, which is most suitable for a place like this.

Whatever your choice, hone it fine and deadly, for once you have sliced your lime, you will need the weapon for bashing big fish on the head to discourage them from biting your feet on the boat, later for slitting their guts agape, and later still for more baroque forms of self-defence.

I recommend a pocket diamond sharpener, fine grade. In the rough tropical conditions, it will hold together better than a stone, which may give you a more showy edge, but that’s not required on Max’s
Island. A diamond sharpener will not let you down.

3. Walk To The Lime Tree

Taking care to avoid the nest of giant tropical tiger lice, head toward the lime tree. You will need to circumnavigate Max’s shed, easily recognised by life-saving rings hanging upon its southern wall, as if it were a ship. Having noticed these, do not fall prey to the usual puzzlement over just how high the tide rises here – that is a waste of concentration. Instead, be aware that within this building resides one of the grandest collections of gadgets, tools and trophies any connoisseur could hope to acquire, and that many of these hard, irregular objects have begun their escape from the shed, and have indeed established a significant beach-head out here in the world at large. Collision can be fatal. Avoid too treading in swarf – it takes ages to retrieve from the feet and leads quickly to tropical ulcers.

I recommend the smaller, harder, greener limes. Because this year’s dry has been particularly so, Max’s limes are of the finest, lowest-yielding quality. The smallest ones offer the most concentrated flavour.

4. Walk To The Ice Box

Having pocketed your lime, move carefully to the ice box. This is still in the south-eastern wing of Max’s shed. Smash off a few larger lumps, about golf ball size, with the handle of your knife. Do not waste any ice – it costs fuel money to feed the generators, and you have the choice of either making ice or freezing fish, because the gennies can only produce as much power as they can produce. Remember to shut the ice box tight.

5. Walk To The Wash House

It’s an easy stroll from the ice box to the wash house. You steer past the dead tree with the kitchen sink bolted to it, on past the beer fridge (from which you select a tin of tonic), past the new washing-machine (yet to be installed, but working perfectly well out here in the open), and make a left into the wash house. Here is where the gin lies, almost frozen, in the food freezer. It’s in here, with the chops and bread and snags, because it is neither ice nor fish. It is sort of special.

I’ve been using Bombay, because not only is it one of the last gins made with full respect paid to the true Spirit of the Empire, even bearing a lovely likeness of Her Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria, but it also incorporates only the finest ingredients, such as Moroccan coriander seeds, Indo-Chinese licorice root, Spanish lemon peel, angelica root from Saxony, and orris root and juniper berries from Italy.

Most gins today use cheap essences, added after the base spirit distillation. Bombay incorporates these real ingredients in the distillation – in the traditional, expensive, most thorough, but gentle way. Between the still and the condenser the gin’s vapour passes through these herbs on racks.

Remember to shut the freezer tight.

6. Slicing The Lime

If, like mine, your lime is about the size of a tom-bowler, you will be able to take three neat slices from its centre, keeping the ends to squeeze into your potage during assemblage. You will find a convenient bench for this operation bolted to the back of the same dead tree which bears the sink.

7. Preparing Your Container


Take a stubby cooler, the wetsuit rubber sponge type, wet it thoroughly, and select a tumbler which fits it quite snugly. The tumblers will be upside-down, on the sink. The evaporation of the water from the stubby holder will keep your ice frozen for much longer, and your drink colder and fresher overall.

8. Assemblage

Put your tumbler in your stubby holder, and your ice in the tumbler. Add a nip and a half of Bombay. It will be oily, because it is nearly frozen. If it has frozen, you know somebody has been adding water to it, in which case you’ll need your knife. Fill your tumbler to the brim with Schweppes Indian Tonic Water (a bit sweet, but still the best), and add your three slices of lime. Squeeze the juice from the ends of your lime Into the tumbler, too.

Now you are ready for the intense, calming, and eventually soporific bit.

9. Select A Chair With A View

You may choose here to eye the mangroves, scanning their strange dank greenness for other eyes, looking back. They’re always in there, waiting.

You may prefer to gaze into the blue across the beach on the other side, and the deadly tidal flats, off into the wildness of the Arafura, a water chock-a-block with giant turtles, rays, sharks, stinging devices of all kinds, and millions of disco-hued fish. Hungry, vivacious, desperate fish.

You may look across the hammock through the coconut palms to the crocodile graveyard, to where the troops are digging in for their big war games with Singapore and the Yanks. You may contemplate them, but you mustn’t be seen noticing them.

Or the vertical view of the tropical canopy, taken from the hammock, may be your favourite, especially when the resident Brahminy kite sits there on the warm breeze, jealously eyeing your gin and tonic.

10. Drink The Bastard

After the first delicate sip, you will need no further instruction.

You may find it difficult to adopt a mildly temperate attitude, but such attitudes are best kept to temperate zones, and Max’s Island is not one of those. Max’s Island is tropical, especially cut out by Max and Marie and their boys, Little Max and Croc, and God, and possibly the Devil, for the consumption of the world’s best, The Perfect Gin And Tonic.

Three or four days of this, and a person begins to understand why The Empire was built, why it collapsed, and why mad dogs and Englishmen are absolutely content to gather their news from seven-week-old copies of The Times.

The author in repose in Big Lizard country: somewhere in the mangroves a day's fast boat voyage south-west of Darwin. Tired ... On the ABC, Philip Satchel reported us lost in the Gulf of Carpentaria, which is about 600 km to the east ...   photo: Lucifer



More Old Drunks Than Old Doctors

Castagna Cleans Up Without Poison


When I started in this racket, back in the precambrian, a few lunies professed to make natural wines.

Gil Wahlquist made wines which would crawl outa the bottle all by ’emselves at his cobwebbed vineyard at Mudgee. In McLaren Vale, Gabor Berenyi almost equalled Gil with some of the most feral tinctures ever. If you didn’t let em out, they’d eat straight through the side of the bottle.

Through the ’eighties, and into the ’nineties, there were several characters who plied more intuition than wine science. Some even remembered what their grandfather had taught them about the draw of the moon. But they’d never admit such dangerous tendencies. Basically, everyone made hyper-sanitary wine like Brian Croser’s. That was the only way to get a trophy.

The petrochem industry, which grew from the explosives and nerve gas industry after the First World War, ruled the wine business. They’ve learned to switch back to explosives and gas when the demand’s there, but they, well, you know ... a man’s still gotta make a buck when peace breaks out.

Then, in 2000, I was half way down a row of two or three hundred masked shiraz bottles in my annual Top 100 tasting, when a wine exploded in my face. Vibrancy, intensity and vigour.

Disbelieving, I had my crew first check that it was Australian. Yep. They put it another bag with another number, further down the long row. It whacked me again. And again. As the day wore by, the damned thing just got more and more audacious, alarming and cheeky.

Once it had eventually earned the highest points of the whole tasting, all varieties, I rang the maker, who’d just got home from LA or somewhere, where he’d been directing a theatre ad for BMW or somebody, which is what he did to pay for everything. His name was Julian Castagna. He was a bit puffy from running to the phone, but his breath soon settled when I congratulated him and told him what had happened. I then asked his secret.

“Do you really want to know?” he asked ... perfect theatrical pause ... “It’s biodynamic.”

Castagna wines, of Beechworth in the Victorian Alps, went on to win that competition, or get in the top three, for years. He even won it with a rosé. Eventually he staged a conference of biodynamicists from all over the world, and many Australians who attended came back convinced.

Even David Paxton, who had been a relentless pursuer of yields came back to McLaren Vale, turned off the tap, and turned on the moonjuice.

You can drink the results in the Paxton bottles now: more intensity; more depth; more raw sex; more ethereal sensuality.

“It’s not the fact that you’re doing it”, he told me of his change of career, “but the resultant wine that hooked me, from vines which are all in balance – their natural ability to resist disease is enhanced.

“It’s about the density of the cells. The fruit is more naturally expressed. The true flavour is enhanced ... the further we go, the more we get into it. And surprisingly, it’s cheaper!”

Given the current allegation that bio-D is being used by charlatans as a marketing tool, I am the first to agree that you can make bad bio-D booze as easily as you make decrepit plonk the scientific way. But just as there are lot more old drunks than old doctors, there’s a lot more execrable swill being made by the scientists than the moon swooners, and always will be.

“Biodynamics for me is intuitive” Castagna wrote recently, “a craft rather than a science”. But he went on to cite the findings of Professor Stuart B. Hill, formerly of the Department of Entomology at McGill University, Canada, but now in the Department of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney-Hawkesbury.

"Biodynamics tends to be presented with a high level of mythology and talk of etheric forces and so on, but if you analyse the preparations you find they are in fact, if properly made, highly concentrated inoculums containing high levels of trace elements and a variety of micro-organisms" Hill said.

"A purely scientific approach does not allow for the intuitive understanding of the ‘good’ farmer” he continued. “Most people, including scientists, make decisions partly based on ‘feelings’ and intuitions, probably more often than they recognise, but science makes no allowance for that.

“In fact, most aspects of science are in denial about the phenomenon, and scientists set up experiments which ignore it. Those feelings or intuitions are, in fact, based on readings of inputs we don’t consciously recognise.”

Back to Castagna: “I wonder if the criticism now being levelled at Australian wine of ‘sameness’ would be tempered if our highly-skilled, highly-trained, science-based winemakers listened to their inner-self, their intuition, a little more often”, he asks.

Do they have any? I ask.


09 February 2009



Virgo Nut Admits Hun Pen Fetish

Frogs Owe da Vincis The Earth


Being just about the most virgoan of virgoans, I’m a fanatic about the way I hang my washing on the line: all the tea-towels there with red pegs; the tee shirts there with blue pegs; the bedsheets there with yellow; socks in pairs with green.

It’s an exercise that also challenges my chronic colour-blindness. I can sort them darn pegs into colours! No flies on Whitey!

Any neighbouring lass who sees my clothesline just has to mutter “Wow!” Then it’s out with the john and tinic and into the violin playing.

Which leads me to the matter of the quality of clothes pegs. I’d been really shitty about the Chinese ones I’d persevered with for months: damn things kept popping open and springing to useless bits, leaving the jeans in the dirt and my sheets halfway across the vineyard.

So I broke open the vaults and bought some nice new French ones. Red, white and blue. Bic.

I often wonder how much money the Bics owe the estate of Leonardo da Vinci. The two gadgets they’ve made their scrillions from were both invented by him.

The first is the ball-point pen, which uses a ball-bearing.

Leonardo (below) invented the ball-bearing, and the ball race. M. Bic merely put the ball in a writing stick, filled it with sorbitol-moistened ink instead of oil or grease, and soon bought a yacht that takes about half an hour to walk past.

But only one of Leo’s inventions went into production before his death: the wheel-lock.

And that's not something sticker-lickers use to bolt your car down.

In his day, countless thousands of musketeers ended up impaled on enemy pikes because their damned muskets misfired, or never fired at all. There was only one spark from the flintlock, and if the charge didn’t ignite and send the ball flying off into the enemy on the first pop, the poor buggers would have to empty the barrel of gunpowder without blowing themselves up, recharge it, pack it all back with the ramrod, put new powder on the flash pan, cock the hammer, aim, and have another go, by which time the pike had got well and truly into their gizzards.

Leo thought awhile and reckoned he should devise a method of extending the duration of the spark. So, using the mechanism of a spiral door spring, and a dismountable crank handle, he built a musket that wound a serrated wheel over the flint, giving a good few seconds of constant spark. Fizzzz ... BANG! The wheel-lock musket. Suddenly it was the pikemen getting their gizzards spread, and Leo rose to favour in the eyes of the King.

Who was probably Piero Antinori’s great grandfather.

Anyway, the Bic family cunningly turned this, the wheel lock, into the Bic Flick cigarette lighter, and whole generations of us are dying of lung cancer without ever having to strike a match.

So, apart from the fact that this writer once sprang Murray Tyrrell for adding sorbitol to his wines, which is highly illegal, what’s this got to do with the Devil’s Brew? Well, obviously, a wine writer needs a pen, although I can’t abide a ball point. You can’t write cursive copperplate with a friggin Biro – it’s the Deux Chevaux of writing sticks.

It works, but won’t get you picking up Lucinda Williams at the Strath dances.

Nossir Ma’am, since high school I’ve been addicted to the Germans for scribe’s tools: you can’t beat the old Hun Rotring Rapidograph technical drawing pen. You can’t write copperplate cursive with one of them, either, mind you, but if you affect eccentric spidery microscopic writing like mine -- you need fewer notepads – the old needlepoint is impossible to beat.

(Click on schooldays pocket diary below. Note the size of the script: never much over 1.5ml., but perfectly legible. Please don't read it - it's private!)

Besides, the Rapidograph uses indian ink, so you can spill a whole magnum of Margaux on your notes and they’ll never smudge or fade away.

Rotring ventured into the conventional fountain pen business for a few years, and couldn’t get it right. I loved my matte gunmetal black hexagonal-barreled brass-bodied model, which reminded me of an old Winchester carbine, but the Huns somehow got the cap catch all wonky, and when you wore the pen on its clip in your chest pocket, the pen would fall out of the cap and spread Quink Royal Blue (same colour the Duke of Edinburgh uses) all over your Savile Row suit and Richard Anderson shirt.

Not to mention the Krug tie, if you happened to have been listing to port.

A man could wake up with an enemy pike through him

On about the tenth time I returned that beloved Rotring fountain to the vendor to have the problem fixed, the sanctimonious pseudo-Christian bitch behind the counter advised primly that Rotring had sold out to Parker who’d immediately ceased production of said macho chickmagnet and accepted no responsibility for inadequacies of their production.

For a moment I thought she meant Robert Parker Jr., who would go and do something like that, then increase the width of the nibs to about seven inches.

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean he’s not getting you Whitey”, I told myself sagely, before remembering that Phil the Duc uses a Parker, which is a pen and doesn’t come from a house with a glass-topped table in Maryland, which is what them Parkers have on their fluffy carpet.

Glass-topped table, glass-bottomed bed I always say. Something the farting bulldog can watch through.

Anyway she hated me for regularly bringing that pen back for repairs under warranty, especially when I reminded her that for eighty-four-point-seven-five per centum of the duration of my ownership of it, the lovely black brute was off in Sydney or Hamburg or someplace getting its lid fixed.

I bust into a cold sweat, imagining the Rapidograph, too, had gone.

A few panicky phone calls got me through to somebody in Sydney who promised Rotring was in the technical pen stakes for ever, at which point the pike came back outa my chest and I muttered something about Rotring needing Leonardo and never saw that woman again.

She sold the shop, actually, before she drove all her customers away. The new people are utterly polite and charming, but those beautiful Rotring fountains have never been seen since, which is a horrible shame. I reckon a touch of Bismarkian perseverance would have sorted it eventually. Damn!

Anyway the Rapidograph needlepoint technical is my main side arm still.

And short of Rotring making clothespegs, I’ll stick with Bic for the clothesline art.

I wonder if Leonardo invented the clothespeg?