“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)





04 November 2009



Turning Water Into Wine
Viticulture Helps Kill River

by PHILIP WHITE - a version of this first appeared

Aquacaf is a great little seafood restaurant at Goolwa. It sits on the edge of the new fake lake the government’s made with its dam wall at Clayton. It now looks as if the Murray River once again flows into the sea. Where the Finniss waters would normally gush into the channel and make a sharp left hand turn to flow north into Lake Alexandrina, flushing, filling and oxygenating it, she now turns left and bounces off the new earthern wall, then sorta swirls around and back, filling Tom and Wendy’s boat thing, even spilling a little over the Goolwa Barrage into the Southern Ocean after the good rain.

There were a jolly lot of diners there last week, watching a fleet of classic wooden boats perform a polite race in the snot-green water. “Actually it’s more like khaki”, my fierce off-sider told her perfect gravadlax, which came on a wooden trencherboard.

Very ancient ritual, serving food on a trencher. I thought of the rough hands of the carpenter breaking bread for the rough hands of the fishermen at another meal in another epoch. They would have used trencherboards. I wondered how the Damascus rosé looked at that last strange supper; how it glinted in the light. How well it accompanied whatever they’d caught.

Aquacaf provides the perfect platform to gaze upon the Hindmarsh Island bridge. Its gentle bulging curve is easy on the eye, humping, as it does, from out of that old street of stone harbormaster’s offices, across the narrow channel to plunge straight into an aboriginal graveyard.

It’s an highly evocative place to sit, there at Aquacaf. Look north, across the bridge, towards Clayton and Langhorne Creek, and if your brain’s like mine it fizzes with rage and confusion about what the wine business has done to these waters. There was a good fresh aquifer there, but greed and ignorance saw it sucked until it turned too saline for use. More modest use of it has seen bits of it return to something like normal, but the Lake and the Bremer will never again be normal, although the Bremer actually flowed a little the other day, and I liked the thought that it might be putting what my Mum would call “goodness” back into the aquifer, and maybe even the poor buggered Lake.

I thought of the abandoned tailings dams at the old mines of Kanmantoo and Brukunga, then, and how much of their poison seeped downstream with the lovely rains. The wine in my hand came from the safer side of those headwaters, at Romney Park, between Hahndorf and Balhannah, where the water runs the other way, down the Onkaparinga and into the gulf accidentally named after the patron saint of viticulturers, Vincent.

That Hahndorf chardonnay is about as good and fine and precise a drink as the South Mount Ranges have produced thus far. It’s the perfect thing to have with such perfect dishes as Aquacaf’s squid and gravadlax.

While I wallowed in this repast, there with the bridge and the boats and the tupperware tuscany, I wandered back to the days of Premier Dean Brown, who moved some water allocation permits from upriver to Langhorne Creek, to feed the incredible explosion of viticulture that occurred there as soon as the tap came on. In 1991, there were 471 hectares of vineyard at Langhorne Creek: an area limited by the amount of available water coming down the Bremer, and the varying freshness of the aquifer.

The wine industry councils released their thirty year plan in 1995, outlining the amount of vineyards Australia would need to keep the world supplied through to 2025. Thanks to Premier Brown’s new water, the Langhorne Creek bit went very quickly. By mid 1997, there were about 2,500 hectares; by vintage 1999, there were 4317 hectares: a tenfold explosion in eight years.

In one $30 million hit, Vinescape Management Services, planted 320 hectares for the Guild Pharmacists’ superannuation fund, on completely unproven samphire country. It soon grew its own little salt pan, smack in the middle. I still keep the Orlando press release boasting of the size of its new planting: one vineyard with 200,000 trellis posts, 1,000 kilometres of drip line, and 50,000 kilometres of wire. Must be good eh? They planted riesling for Bacchus’ sake! That vineyard’s been on the market for years now.

Anyway, the mighty wine industry sure planted everything its thirty year plan outlined. In about five years. Not just in Langhorne Creek, but all along the Murray, and right across the nation. Nobody seemed to notice this unseemly haste.


As the waters of the Finniss gradually wear their way through the sinking dam our government has built to seal the fate of our greatest river system, I wonder what wise counsel Dean Brown offers Ms Maywald and Mike Rann today?

What punishment would this mob of rack ’em, pack ’em and stack ’em bullies deal out if this destruction had been wrought by, say, a gang of unemployed thugs from Murray Bridge?

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