“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)





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.

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