“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)





13 April 2010



Irrigation Hero Dies In The Riverland ... Great Innovator And Motivator ... But He Did Not Invent The Bladder Pack

by PHILIP WHITE ... a version of this story appeared in The Independent Weekly

Tom Angove did not invent the bladder pack.

The great Tom died in a Riverland nursing home last week, after ninety-two astounding years. He was a fierce fellow; a clever inventor, relentless innovator and a mighty proponent of the irrigated vineyards whose fruit has since filled billions of chrome handbags and silver pillows.

Tom’s role in shaping the modern Australian wine industry is at least as significant as the Chaffey brothers: they developed the irrigation systems; he showed the world how to plant vines: if you stand in the middle of his Nanya vineyard at Renmark, you cannot see the ends of the rows.

He was also a pioneer in the use of stainless steel for large wine tanks.

But the plastic bladder pack had been a common vinegar container in Europe twenty years before Tom plonked it on Australian tables in 1965. About half Australia’s wine is still drunk from much refined versions of his prototype, which didn’t even have a tap.

All these containers evolved from the wine skin of ages past: the South Australian museum has a fine example in its astonishing Aboriginal collection, made from the hide of kangaroo, and used for carrying water. One can’t help wondering how different campfire life would be if the shiny modern replacement contained only water.

In the early ’fifties, another brilliant winemaker, Ian Hickinbotham, left, had played with the notion of using giant plastic bags to line the 30,900 litre wine tanks he’d inherited at the South Australian Grapegrowers’ Co-operative Limited, which he wisely renamed Kaiser Stuhl. These concrete tanks were fine for storing fortified wines: to an extent, their high alcohol prevented overt oxidation. But when the trend to finer, drier table wines took hold, oxidation became a much more confronting problem.

While he left Kaiser Stuhl without perfecting this idea, others certainly finished the job: enormous volumes of Australian wine are now exported in huge bladders within standard shipping containers. In a method fraught with the danger of the product being diluted with poorer, cheaper wine from elsewhere, this is then bottled in Britain or North America and promoted as being more environmentally responsible, trimming the carbon footprint of transporting heavy glass.


In the mid-’sixties, once he’d accepted Max Schubert’s invitation to manage Penfolds in Victoria, Hickinbotham put his mind once again to the bag-in-the-box. He’d been in touch with Waddington Duval, the English company which manufactured the plastic taps used in the European vinegar containers, so this company hired Diemolders of Geelong to work with him. In his memoir, Australian Plonky, Hickinbotham praises the ingenious Charles Malpas: “I was astounded at how quickly [he] could make a new prototype tap: we could have a discussion in my office in the afternoon, tossing ideas around, and he would return with a sample next day.”

While he was eternally frustrated that Penfolds “just could not grasp the importance of the venture” Hickinbotham was keen to use the bladder pack for super-premium wines, even Grange. His proposed box was the same proportion as a house brick: “height was twice width, which was one-and-a-half times depth … that formula was retained for table casks for years”.

In those early days, the actual bag was the biggest problem: ICI seemed incapable of making a film which did not leak. Rather than pursue a superior film, Penfolds launched their “wine cask” in a can about the size of a large paint tin, painted to resemble a barrel, which horrified Hickinbotham. This was to avoid damages claims from people with stained carpets and tablecloths. Nevertheless, the venture was short-lived, and within a few months, Penfolds ceased manufacturing the new product.

At which point another wine genius, David Wynn, entered the picture. Hickinbotham had worked for Wynn at Coonawarra, making the world’s first deliberately-induced and managed malo-lactic fermentations in 1952, so Wynn was aware of Hickinbotham’s ingenuity, and had been following the bladder pack evolution.

Wynn was quick to abandon the ICI film, replacing it with a superior product from Japan. With the driving nous of Tony Herbert, Wynns’ technical manager, they then developed the first sandwich film, further reducing the oxidation of the wine.

Tom Angove certainly rewrote history by giving us his take on the bladder pack, but the story’s not over yet. The next step is to develop film that will not release polyvinyl chloride, will not degrade in UV light, and will not taint the wine over time.

And then, of course, we have to learn to fill these containers with a better product. The thought of a fresh trickle of water entering the Murray, only to be sucked through the roots of billions of vines, siphoned to the berries, and jammed through stark refineries to be pumped mindlessly into silver pillows, somehow seems not quite the celebration all that ingenuity and acuity deserves.

As for intelligent reviews of bladder packs, forget it. There is never any guarantee that the bladder I taste comes from the same tank as the bladder you buy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Vale great Tom Angove...
...anyway bladders were originally intended to be pissed out of...?