“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)





19 February 2010



Pollie Blasts Water Abusers Head-kick For
Constellation Growers Too Scared To Speak

Leon Bignell, MP, is the parliamentary Member for the South Australian seat of Mawson, which includes the McLaren Vale wine region. His new report on a recent trip to the United Kingdom is outspoken but utterly logical, and yet barely a local winemaker has the pluck to support him supporting them. Here is the part of his report relevant to the wine industry:

The purpose of my visit to London was to represent the South Australian Government at G’day UK week and to promote South Australian wine, food and tourism.

Representing the electorate of Mawson I have become a passionate ambassador for the McLaren Vale wine region, its world-famous wineries and the thousands of locals they employ.

Wine is South Australia’s second biggest export earner but the Global Financial Crisis and increased competition from New World wine regions is making it harder for South Australian companies.


New markets need to be opened up and new ways need to be found to increase market share and returns in existing markets.

Australian wines smashed down the walls into the French dominated UK market 20 years ago and, in terms of volume, Australia holds the largest slice of market share.

But, unfortunately, when the Australians opened up the UK market we allowed others to follow us in.

Lower wages and conditions have allowed Chile, Argentina and South Africa to export cheap wine into the UK and many Australian wineries with access to cheap water have followed the market down.

This is compounded by the large supermarket chains such as Tesco which often demand Australian producers sell their wines at prices that are unsustainable and uneconomical.

In premium wine regions such as McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Clare, Coonawarra and Adelaide Hills growers can’t dip their pipe into the Murray River and take as much water as they like to put on their grapes.

Growers along the river in NSW and Victoria use up to ten times the amount of water per hectare used by growers in McLaren Vale.

It is simply not sustainable for a number of different reasons.

The first and most important is that the water should be left in the River where it is worth more to Australians and our iconic river than it is in a bottle being sold on a UK supermarket shelf for less than what the water is truly worth.

Making ordinary wine in places grapes weren’t meant to grow does immeasurable harm to Australian regions that do produce top quality wines.

The UK market seems more than a little schizophrenic with its approach to sustainability.

There is a lot of talk about airmiles, and the need to eat food and drink wine that hasn’t travelled around the globe but, when that argument doesn’t suit them, they revert to selling cheap wine that has actually cost our country millions of litres of valuable water.

While UK newspapers fill their features, news and opinion pages with missives about sustainability they don’t mind peddling unsustainable goods when they are profiting from our environment.

During my London visit The Sunday Times ran an advertisement for the Sunday Times Wine Club which attempted to sell Australian wine at less than $A100 a dozen.

The advertisement carried the following line:

“Bonzer! Grab them while you can. The smallest grape yield in Australia for 30 years has put real pressure on stocks and that means prices have been going through the roof. The good news from the Sunday Times Wine Club is that we’ve put together an elite gathering of reputable Aussie reds – with a special offer that pre-dates all the recent price rises. It’s a real bonanza.”

The truth is there is no shortage of Australian wine. In fact we’re in the middle of a glut with a years worth of wine excess to demand.

The wines featured appear to predominantly come from the NSW Riverina region. Hardly the place where Australian winelovers look for “seriously great Aussie reds” as the Sunday Times described the wines.

Perhaps the Sunday Times might like to do some of the investigative reporting it prides itself on and look at the River Murray, compare and contrast the growing practices of the various Australian wine regions and then begin informing its readers.

Telling the truth about Australian wine could just lead to the Sunday Times Wine Club promoting sustainable wine to its readers who I am sure are intelligent enough not to want to drink our environment to death.

The McLaren Vale wine region has shown true leadership on sustainability for decades.

While Murray River irrigators still insist on the dreadfully wasteful practice of using overhead sprinklers and open channels these water-wasting systems have not been seen in McLaren Vale for more than 30 years.

It took leadership from the local growers to instigate these changes and McLaren Vale is now well-placed in terms of water sustainability particularly with the increasing number of growers using recycled water on their vines.

But it is hard for these people to compete in a marketplace that has no respect for quality and sustainability and sees the bottom-line as the only objective to their business.

It is impossible for sustainable growers and winemakers to compete against wine made from over-watered grapes, grown on arid land soaked with Murray water.

Large tracts of Riverina vines have recently been planted by growers who have no respect for the land or water. The ventures are funded by doctors, lawyers, dentists and other non-agricultural professionals looking to minimise their tax payments.

These tax-minimisation schemes, popular under the Howard Government, have seen people with no interest in the wine industry pump their money into unsustainable plantings while the poor growers who have poured their heart and soul into toil for a lifetime are having their livelihoods ruined.

The consequences are much more serious and far-reaching than growers being squeezed out of the marketplace.

A glut in wine production devalues the land on which grapes are grown and so growers in premium regions are often inclined to sell their land to developers.

What we see then is vines ripped out and valuable agricultural land planted with gutter to gutter housing. At that stage inferior impostors have won out over hard-working passionate people who have spent generations building this state’s great wine reputation both here and overseas.

I have been one of the leaders in the fight to save McLaren Vale from urban sprawl and the Rann Government has ruled out the building of houses on Bowering Hill which is significant agricultural land that sits between McLaren Vale’s vines and the sea.

We have also locked in town boundaries around McLaren Vale, Willunga and McLaren Flat to ensure these three villages, with their own distinctive history and character, aren’t allowed to merge as one ugly outer suburb on top of the place where the vines currently grow.

Our friends in the Barossa Valley have now joined with McLaren Vale and we are looking to develop legislation similar to the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve Bill to protect both iconic wine regions.

But for the local agricultural land to reach its real value we have to place a real value on Murray River water.

Growers across Australia should be paying the same amount for water unless it is sourced from water recycling plants as is the case for many McLaren Vale growers.

Once that occurs the soil and climactic conditions will dictate who survives and who rips out their vines.

Perhaps it is also time for the federal Government to mandate the amount of water which grapegrowers can use on each hectare of grapes.

Those who exceed the allocation should have to have Unsustainably Grown Wine stamped on each bottle. We make cigarette companies put warnings on packets to protect people’s health. Maybe we could use the same method to warn people of the dangers to our river.

Wineries using sustainable practices are struggling against cheaper non-sustainable products because there is no onus on the latter to do or say otherwise.

The Australian wine industry has largely been taken over by international conglomerates. They behave more like oil companies than traditional wine organisations.

They have plundered our land, our heritage, our workforce and scarce water resources in the desperate scramble to make money.

These big companies have also hi-jacked some industry associations throughout Australia. The voices and concerns of the small and medium sized operators are often drowned out by the people paying the biggest slice of the membership cake.

Growers often refuse to speak out against the actions of the big companies as they fear they will have nowhere to sell their grapes.

As a local Member of Parliament I am outraged at the abuse growers are subjected to as they are offered a pittance for their grapes by companies controlled by people on the other side of the world.

Companies like Constellation which in 2009 ripped out vines on the first block planted by South Australian wine pioneer John Reynell in the early days of colonisation.

Australians think enough of this man to name a clone, a suburb and an electorate after him and yet an anonymous bean counter in New York City – the epicentre of the global financial meltdown – thinks only of the profits of selling the land for housing.

Local growers were letting me no how angry they were at the decision but they would not publicly state their case in a market now dominated by so few wine companies.


There are good wine stores in the UK that stock quality Australian wine that we take for granted here in South Australia.

One example is the US-based chain of Wholefood stores where in one of their London stores I saw more than 50 Australian wines, predominately from South Australia. They included d’Arenberg, Battle of Bosworth, S.C. Pannell among their McLaren Vale list.

One of the tips I picked up for the South Australian wine industry is for companies to send their winemakers and not their marketing and sales people over to sell the wine.

Australia’s foothold in the UK market was carved out by the great characters of the wine industry in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Wolf Blass, Peter Lehmann, d’Arry Osborn and an assortment of larrikins would tell yarns and speak passionately about their craft.

The market liked what it heard, loved what it tasted and started filling the shelves.

One suggestion is that groups of four to six smaller sized South Australian wineries might benefit from touring the UK together showing off their wines to independent stores.

Wine was heavily featured during G’Day UK.

UK wine writer Matthew Jukes is a great supporter Of Australian wine and his annual list of 100 Best Australian Wines has a strong following throughout the UK.

Matthew said the 2009 list was the hottest in the six years he had been compiling it and said there were about 100 wines that considered unlucky to have missed a spot.

The Top 100 was dominated by South Australian wines and all 100 wines were available for tasting at a function for the public at Australia House.

For a fee people could start with a Chapel Hill Chardonnay and have as many or as few tastings through to the 2004 Penfolds Grange.

Matthew also selected the wines for some of the G’Day UK functions which included the 2008 Gemtree Moonstone Albarino from McLaren Vale at the Business forum lunch.

Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds conducted a popular masterclass where wine lovers, including English cricket legend Sir Ian Botham sampled five vintages of Bin 707 and Grange.

Government representatives also had talks with Sir Ian and his son about bringing some of their company’s high-end fishing tours to South Australia with Kangaroo Island and Port Lincoln being two locations they were keen to explore.

Speaking with Sir Ian and also former English paceman Bob Willis it was clear English cricketers past and present think just as highly of our wine, food and restaurants as they do the picturesque Adelaide Oval.

Both reeled off lists of their favourite restaurants including Georges in Waymouth Street and the Salopian Inn in McLaren Vale.


Their knowledge of South Australian wine was outstanding and they obviously have very good relationships with many of our local winemakers.

There is potential to use cricket and the international cricket media to promote South Australian food and wine.

During the test match between England and Australia in the Ashes series of 2010-11 we could approach the South Australian Cricket Association and Cricket Australia to see if they would consider having wine and food tasting in the media centre.

On the five days of the Test Match a different wine region could be featured so commentators could do a direct comparison between McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, Adelaide Hills and Clare.

Given the broadcasting requirements of course the wine-tasting would be best done after stumps. But our food could be put on show during the Lunch and Tea breaks. Every attempt should be made to serve food that is available in the UK and interstate.

South Australian King Fish for example is being sold in upmarket supermarkets in London. It is a versatile fish that can be served a number of different ways.

The first Australian chef to earn a Michelin Star, Shane Osborne, served up five courses of Kingfish to eight lunch guests in a private room at his two-Michelin Star restaurant: Pied a Terre.

Among the diners was the food writer from the Sunday Times, the fresh food purchasing manager from Harrods and other importers and food writers.

The lunch had been organised by Eyre Peninsula-based company, Clean Seas, which is increasing its market share with Kingfish because it travels well, lasts well and offers great versatility to chefs and people cooking at home.

There was also interest at the lunch in Clean Seas progress on closing the breeding cycle of the Southern Bluefin Tuna. During the time I was in London there were a number of media reports and campaigns by some outlets urging people not to eat or buy threatened species of fish.

The European Commission says 80 per cent of European Union stocks are overfished compared with a global average of 28 per cent. There is growing public pressure and resistance to the sale of many types of fish once popular in the UK.

The buyers and food writers were very interested in the sustainable approach we are taking in South Australia. They believe we will have a good chance of securing a larger slice of the market by promoting the sustainable practices use in the process of catching fish and transporting them to the UK.

The audience was also interested in the Marine Parks being introduced in South Australia and believe our fishing industry should use them as a strong selling point for their product in the UK market.

Given people in Europe have witnessed the near decimation of fishing stocks we can really prove that we are fishing in a sustainable way while preserving the marine environment and fish populations for future generations.

Shane Osborne has been appointed Chef Ambassador for Clean Seas in the United Kingdom and is selling not just the company’s Yellowtail Kingfish but he is also marketing South Australia’s sustainability.

“I am proud to be representing such a progressive and sustainable brand as Clean Seas”, Mr Osborne said.

“The world is in crisis as far as the ocean is concerned and more companies need to step up and take action as Clean Seas is doing.

“We’re really out to challenge the long-standing misconception that farmed fish does not taste as good as wild fish.”

Mr Osborne says the Yellowtail Kingfish is one of the tastiest fish he has cooked with and his customers like having the opportunity to support sustainable fishing practices.

During G’Day UK week Yellowtail Kingfish tastings were held in the food hall at Selfridges and was served during lunch at the flagship business function of G’Day UK the CEO Forum.


Zar said...

Nice work Biggles

Chad said...

Well done, Leon. I wish I had the ability to leave my current ghetto-filled electorate bordering your own electorate of Mawson, just so I could feel 100% at ease after my vote is cast every 3 years.

Someone willing to speak the truth, no matter the consequence. You have spelled out what the rest of us think every single day.

Wonder If I can cast my vote in Mawson this March, anyway? My options are pretty limited...

careful grower said...

You're a brave man Biggles. Pity the rest of em cant raise the guts to say what we all know is the truth. That includes me, I spose. Tough times bring the jitters.