“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)





29 May 2010



A Sobering Hour Of Radio ...
Plonk Lobby In The Spotlight ...

Brave ABC Pops Big Questions:

Australian Broadcasting Commission presenter, Kieran Weir, hosted a brave, pertinent and wide-ranging discussion on air this week. The hour-long conversation covered many aspects of public alcoholism, dry zones, health problems, the bladder pack business, alcohol tax, civic drinking laws, spirits, wine, gastroporn and politics.

With producer Petria Ladgrove, Weir assembled a panel of confronting but constructive contributors that included

* David Crosbie from the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Centre
* A very brave Alcoholics Anonymous member from Port Pirie
* Karyn Read from the Port Augusta Alcohol Management Group
* The Distilled Spirits Industry Council
* The Federal Member for Grey Rowan Ramsey

and Philip White, the author of DRINKSTER and DRANKSTER, who once again called for an immediate independent inquiry into this whole bloody mess.

No matter whose side you take, this is compelling and challenging listening for anybody in the alcohol business, and all recipients and dealers of its wares, whether casual, or terminally addicted.


And of course it is essential listening for everybody involved in the beleagured wreck of the Australian wine business.

DRINKSTER remains enraged that there was NO public discussion of Treasury boss Ken Henry's proposal to tax all alcohol by excise, and that faceless wine industry operatives got to an intellectually decrepit and punch drunk government to ensure the whole proposal should be quietly shelved.

This discussion must be conducted openly and nationally, and not left to a brave and enlightened regional radio station.

It can no longer be left to faceless lobbyists who squander millions influencing politicians in Canberra.

To hear the program in its entirety, click on either photograph.

28 May 2010



Laffer's London Club Laugh-out How Tiny Creek Became Big River Slow Boat To China Next Big Back Whoosh

Philip Laffer, 69, Group Chief Winemaker, Pernod Ricard Pacific, wound it back last week, announcing he’ll be spending a lot more time mucking about in boats, and it won’t be on his beloved Jacob’s Creek.

Affable, but stern, Laffer’s one of the most influential winemakers on Earth.

Like Peter Gago’s role at Penfolds, this is heady business. After vintage, it involves the supervision of the annual assemblage, when thousands of wines made by the small army of winemakers are blended to fit the company’s suite of brands.

The rest of the year’s spent filling passports with stamps and wearing out the R. M. Williams on endless promotional travel. So it was appropriate for Laffer to choose a London club for his valedictory. I hear that camp old panto stager-cum-wine star, Oz Clarke, delivered an enthusiastic roast.

I first encountered Laffer about thirty years back at Lindemans’ Karadoc winery near Mildura. His dad, a lecturer for a time at Roseworthy, had convinced him he wasn’t bright enough to be a vet, so after his Roseworthy studies he joined Lindemans in 1963.

Laffer was the first winemaker I’d struck in a hardhat and steel-caps; a shock until I realized the scale of Karadoc, with its million-litre tanks and overhead gantries cranking huge grape bins around. It was our first modern wine refinery, put together by Philip Shaw for the tobacco company, Philip Morris, Lindemans’ owner.

I’d hardly donned my Karadoc helmet than it became apparent that things would never be the same in the Australian wine business.

Somewhere out the back sweated a young Jeffrey Grosset; Barossa boy Philip John was there, too. Each winemaker seemed to guard their million litre tank, ensuring nothing went wrong until that great day of judgement, when the phone rang with the news that today was the day the gargantuan would be emptied, and its wine sucked down an underground pipe to fill silver pillows, pfffshhht, pfffshhht, pfffshhht.

But Lindemans was active in Coonawarra, too, where Laffer had been to establish vineyards in the mid-sixties. He built the Rouge Homme winery, which I visited to celebrate the win of the 1981 Jimmy Watson Trophy with the delicious 1980 Lindemans St George Cabernet Sauvignon. With viticulturer Barney Kidd, these pert dudes were determined to show the wine world a thing or two: they couldn’t wait to teach me about their new invention: minimal pruning.

This involved mechanically hedging towering vines, saving enormous amounts of money, and dramatically increasing crops. Coonawarra is still struggling to throw off this mantle: after some years it became apparent such viticulture required industrial levels of petrochemicals to control fungus, and a helluva lot more water to fill the berries.

Lindemans’ win of another Watson a few years later served only to extend the trend, but it soon became apparent the wines were becoming green and leafy commodities, in place of warming and soulful gastronomic luxuries.

Treated badly when Penfolds bought Lindemans in 1990, Laffer did a stint consulting, then joined Orlando Wyndham. In 1989, the giant Pernod Ricard, had bought the business, not so much for any recognition of the potential of Jacob’s Creek, but to distribute their pastis aperitifs in Australia.

Always a tad more strict and uncompromising than most of the daggy winemakers of the day, Laffer came home from the Harvard business college with an astronaut haircut and a new severity. He was ready to move.

As chief winemaker, he climbed aboard the Jacob’s Creek steed and charged the world markets with a fury. Orlando’s MD, Perry Gunner, had originally convinced a small British merchant, Caxton’s, to take one pallet of Jacob’s Creek; before long they were shipping a million cases.

Laffer restructured everything in the wine’s manufacture, from grape grading and purchasing, to building today’s stunning facility.

There were some fluffs, of course: a great swathe of vineyard they bunged into untried land near Langhorne Creek in the late ’90s was on the market within a decade of my receipt of the press release boasting of its 200,000 trellis posts, 1,000 kilometres of drip line, and 50,000 kilometres of wire.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Laffer, along with the likes of Constellation-Hardy’s MD Stephen Millar, were hollering about the Chardonnay shortage, begging growers to plant more. But last week he told the gentlemen in London that Australia now has enough, and that he won’t be dabbling in the wine business other than some consulting to Pernod Ricard.

'Australia doesn't need any more vineyards,' he said.

It seems he’ll keep an eye on Pernod Ricard’s big vineyard in far north China, and continue his interest in their Spanish growth.

But he leaves the brand - first launched in 1976 - as Australia’s most popular, currently selling more than 8 million cases in 65 countries.

One wonders what William Jacob would think.


26 May 2010



 He's What? Master Sommelier? But He's Twenty Four Years Old! It Takes Four Decades, Sunshine 

It happened again. The greying hack asked the innocent question about somebody’s son and got the smug return fire “Oh he’s a master sommelier now”.

Master sommelier? Bullshit! He’s twenty-four years old.

It’s a wonderful thing that sommeliers’ associations are blooming around Australia, and that so many enthusiastic people are holding structured tastings, and learning about the lure and lore of wine, and checking each other’s progress. It’s a tribal thing. It helps build a profession. It will be better for the diner.

But twenty-four years of age? The hack quotes his own mantra, something which in itself took decades to develop. This could be read as a mouldering has-been constantly re-inventing his self-importance in order to stay alive, but it here it goes:

“Until you’ve watched several great wines, from several great regions, vintages and varieties, fabulous years and foul, develop from the flowering of their vines, through their ferments and delinquent juvenility, to their prime, and on into the nether regions of the twilight zone, then that person cannot possibly speak with a master’s authority about such wines.”

Of course a younger critic can write in an opinionated entertaining way about wine; or a young sommelier reliably recommend and properly present good wines or reasonably judge their condition before presenting them to customers in the correct manner. But how long does it take to understand pinot noir? Good Burgundian pinot, for example?

Thirty years? Forty? Ask Gary Steel. Once you nail the time it took, then ask how much money it cost him. Ask him about the travel; the air tickets; the stress.


The S-word originates in the old Greek sattein, which means to pack, or stuff. The old French used sompter, or someter, for the truckie of the day: the driver of a pack horse, camel, mule or ox. The four-legged prime mover was the sauma or somier. Given the life expectancy , a twenty-four year-old truckie was probably half way through his working life then. A master sompter, at that braw age? Possible.

Just how this term changed its shape to become the infant dude who pours your wine in a restaurant is a very important progression.

This old sompter, his mule loaded with scribble, was a baby once. He committed evil tricks, like maintaining a good set of empty Grange bottles from different vintages. Using Kaiser Stuhl Bold Red, a non-vintage blend from a flagon, he would fill a flight of great Granges and sit back to listen to the sophists explain the different years.

He was so bold as pull tricks on great men like David Wynn, who invented modern Coonawarra, and Max Schubert, who invented Grange.

In 1980 he attended a luncheon with these intensely competitive sages, and a spunky Pam Dunsford. Each guest was obliged to bring a mystery bottle. The young White took a bottle of Blue Nun, a cheap, sweet, German megablend, and a bottle of Yalumba’s Brandivino, a mixture of young brandy and sweet rosé. In the bathroom he blended half a bottle of Blue Nun with a fifth of a bottle of Brandivino, sprinkled it with some of Mrs. Potter’s perfume, which reminded him of something from Poland, filled it up with tap water, gave it a shake, poured it into a decanter and served it.

The sages agreed that it must have been a pale Chilean rosé. They even discussed varieties, and their Spanish and Portuguese origins. After all their deliberation, the culprit was terrified to think of how he would excuse his scam. Honesty worked. He may have just gotten away with it; there were giggles at the table. But the memory lingers, and if those men were alive they would remember, too. Not many whippersnappers took the piss outa blokes like those.

Were he to take that long strange haul all over again, this bullocky thinks he could slowly, through human discourse and experience in his trade, learn to discern which great house would prefer which product, how and where to find it in the market, how best to contain it and transport it, and maybe even stow it in the cellars of his client.

He would by necessity be first a farrier, animal husbandry expert, veterinary surgeon and wheelwright, just to keep his truck serviced and willing. He would, no doubt, be faced with the problem of diminishing quality usually meaning larger volumes, greater difficulties, and lower profits. And he’d learn that a little lugubrious fulsomness earned the better tip here, and some respectful austere distance the same thing somewhere else.

If he were a wine trucker, the task might eventually also involve him developing a refined, reliable palate, so he could never be tricked by a vendor flogging him Blue Nun, Brandivino and Mary Potter’s perfume mixed with Adelaide water. He might also work out a vocabulary to enable him to discuss his purchases more fluently and reliably.

He could also, very easily, become addicted to alcohol.


If he managed all that with elan and respect, he would be a sommelier. If he became a master of that craft, he might be called a master sommelier.

But he could also be stuck in the mud somewhere, trying to extract a team of oxen without busting one keg.

Today the oxen might be electric, instant or digital, and the cart might be one huge refrigerator.

The, er, the other bit will still take thirty or forty years. Or more.

21 May 2010


Post Modern Wine Fire ... Aussie Vineyards Burning ... Bad Billboard For Wine Biz

Now that the bulldozers have started, the Australian wine business faces one of the most awkward marketing problems it could encounter.

Vineyards are like vast billboards for wine, and for winemaking communities.

You don’t need a sign saying “Australian Wine Industry” in the middle of an horizon-to horizon Nuremberg rally of vinous monoculture. You’re in the middle of a much bigger advertisement for wine than any planning regulation would ever permit a signwriter to erect.

This was recognised in the eighties, when the Vine Pull Scheme was stopped, more on the grounds of the ruination of heritage and civic amenity, than anything much to do with the modern wine business.

Vineyards are dreadfully honest advertising, too. Vignerons have little idea that the droll repetition of the grapeyard can be a pretty good indicator of what flavours the bypasser should expect. By their fruit ye shall know them.

So now that the tourist will be driving through terrain scarred by bulldozers, inhaling the wafting smoke from mighty piles of dead vines, does that person feel like pulling in for a case of premium? Do they recall that just months ago the proprietors were telling us this was a great thing, this vineyard, and its fruit?

Vineyards fried to virtual extinction by drought and sunshine are one thing; vineyards bulldozed and put to the torch are another.

Vine-pulls are bad for the captains of industry. Anybody who encouraged such plantings in order to lower prices – look like greedy, unscrupulous cretins. But they’ll move on: swap boards; swap industries. They’re just as likely to be on the board of the Scrubbed Pine Red Setter Kennel Company tomorrow.

When the vineyards burn, the biggest damage is dealt more innocent folks. The humiliation instilled by a large-scale vine-pull is deadly to those who must pull. I can’t forget the old men weeping openly in pubs in the Barossa in the mid-eighties, after they’d pulled their grandfathers’ gardens out. Pulling the vines was like pulling the teeth of the entire community, without anæsthetic. Families fall to bits. Suicides occur.

The wandering wino may miss this cruel undercurrent, and drive about bathed in the sanctimonious light of the opportunist about to make a killing, buying wine at bargain prices when the international market is overflowing.

But what does gross oversupply really mean to the wine lover?

First, it means quality drops. When the refineries are competing to control the bargain bins of Europe, they must make wine at cheaper and cheaper budgets. Corners are cut. Sawdust replaces barrels. Shovelled acid and tannin replace what trimmed vineyard budgets failed to achieve naturally. The “make” budget shrinks; the “promo and packaging” budget swells.

Second, it means quality drops. When growers suddenly find themselves without a grape purchaser, they’re faced by a cruel choice. They can spend money they don’t have making the wine themselves, or spend money they don’t have hiring a bulldozer to rip the vineyard to make way for almonds (if only) or car yards. Most try to make a wine. Others let the grapes hang, and let the vineyard fall into disrepair, hoping Mary MacKillop or somebody will send a buyer along next year.

(Unlikely. Since her sainthood, Mary has made it essential that a freeway bypasses Penola, which would slash a great swathe of Coonawarra vineyard asunder.)

Whether in a wheelie bin or a contract refinery, 2010 has seen a stupendous amount of wine made on spec by people who can’t afford to do it properly – precisely the sort of wine directly responsible for the collapse of international respect for Australian wine in the first place.

Hoping that some cleanskin dealer will emerge at the last minute with the money to pay for bottling, many Australian working families have turned their 2010 crop into bulk plonk. They’ve done it in mate’s sheds, or pulled the cash sock out and paid a contract refinery to convert their grapes to alcohol, which is at least semi-stable, and may last. As long as they can afford the tank rental.

So, within the next couple of years, the lake of unsold wine in Australia will be joined by a tsunami of poorly made plonk, sold at increasingly diminishing returns out of mendicant desperation.

Which, to summarise, means that, third, quality drops.

If they are lucky, the mongers of this plonk might find some nefarious Flash Harry to sell it in China. If it’s white, forget it. If it’s red, sugar it up, fizz it up, put a golden dragon on it and flog it as an Aussie heritage item that will heal your teeth.

But mark my words, within a few years, we will be buying our teeth etching fluid from China. It will be called Premium Wine Of China, and they’ll put kangaroo dot paintings on it, broken fish plates, Cohiba cigar labeling; whatever we want. It may well be better than what we’ve sold them.

The wines I recommend on this page are not like these. As a buyer, you have the best chance yet of choosing which bits of the business you’d like to see survive.


Cynicism Aside, This Crap Is No Surprise ... Any Fool Could See It Coming
From the archive: January 2006. This is the sort of writing that led to Melvin Mansell, editor of Rupert’s Advertiser, firing me after twenty years of wine columns.

“The Vine Pull words excite people”, says Paul Clancy, chairman of the new Wine Grape Growers Australia. I’d asked about current rumours of another such episode, when government pays hopeless grapegrowers to uproot vines and leave the business. This last occurred in the

“There IS talk of a Vine Retirement Scheme” Clancy says. “Just different words. The wine industry doesn’t like too much government intervention, but we’ve got growers going to the wall right across Australia, and a fair slab of the blame lies with Canberra, so we’re having a meeting of appropriate parties there next month. Everything’s on the table.”

Sinister things happen in a big wine flood. Hardest bit to swallow is that some wine might get cheaper, but it never improves in quality. The refineries are under immense pressure to cut their winemaking budgets to compete with speculative bottom-feeders. Things fall apart. Lakes of heartless swill flood Australia’s tankfarms. Drinking a bargain? Toast the poor grower who went broke. Poor fella my country.

And on it goes. Apart from the abundance of dubious cleanskins and bladder packs, and their massive environment and public health costs, the biggest change to hit the sensitive wino during a Vine Pull Scheme is social. Many grand old families were gutted during the last effort. Walk into any Barossa bar and it was in your face: good people grievously distressed about uprooting their great-grandfather’s beloved vines.

Tourist attraction? Men with blank teary faces gazing into too many schooners of stout? You’d flee outside, to find the whole valley shrouded in wafts of smoke from the smouldering windrows [SUBS: WINDROWS NOT WINDOWS] of ancient vines. It went on and on. The big companies wouldn’t pay enough; so the government paid. To destroy the gardens. Ein prosit.

Whatever it’s called, the next uprooting will be more widespread. With any luck, and with Clancy’s immense capital of hindsight, this time we’ll pay to remove stuff we won’t drink. If nobody wants to buy it, if the growers can’t afford to have it made, then they can’t afford to pick it, much less cough up for the conversion to better varieties. Or pay the bulldozers.

Clancy contemplates government assistance paying for the clearance of failed vineyards, to be repaid by the industry through a small levy on the long-term professional viticulturers who stay in the business and survive. “It’s in their interest”, he says.

Politicians must cease their blithe effervescence over the wine business. A responsible planning and establishment cycle for a serious new winery development is at least twice the life of a government, three or four of them if you were a man of category, like David Wynn. But, just like
the big refineries encourage gluts to keep costs down for their shareholders, politicians see the wine business as some sort of Instant Lite: a cute, popular, and safe novelty El Dorado. Forget the water issues: think of the export!

“The tax regimes attracted all the wrong people” Clancy bemoans. “In it for the wrong reasons. Real men of the land in all regions find their livelihoods crushed by a planting boom talked up by big wineries and ignited by tax minimisers who have no interest at all in viticulture or the economic and social impacts on the country. It’s Australian against Australian. Well done those men.

”There are rice farmers up the river in New South Wales, for example, putting in thousand acre vineyards simply because they can. They’ve got cheap water and flat land.

“Then, a lot of others have planted in the wrong bloody places.
Like the Hills. The only growth in export sales is below four pounds ninety-nine a bottle in the UK and you can’t possibly grow cool climate grapes at that price. The cool climate regions are now producing forty per cent of our grape supply but generating only sixteen per cent of demand.”

In case your bargain wine hasn’t curdled, consider: you may not have invested in these failures, but you pay three times anyway. When government spends your money paying tax-avoiding speculators to uproot and piss off, it’s not the end of the story. Somebody has to make up for the tax not paid. And then we pay again for the rehabilitation of the land. Not to spend too much time reflecting on all that wasted water. The wine industry hasn’t quite grasped that water is a vital gastronomic item.

Maybe it’s time to kick a wine refinery into reality with some king-hell distillation. Make petrol. Get the McGuigan Simeon mob, you know, Nick Greiner, Perry Gunner and Brian McGuigan, on the job. They blame high petrol prices for the slump of their bottled wine sales. So sort out a few harbours of cheap water with the Member for Schubert and the lass up the river, and plant more. Market it varietally at the bowsers. Mine goes better on cabernet, mate. C’mon Kero, you won’t win by tilting at trams. Go positive! Go Petrol! The punters’ll love it. We could be self-sufficient!


For what it’s worth, I have some rather unfinished ideas about removing vineyards at the taxpayers’ expense, even if that cost is eventually reimbursed by the industry.

A formula should be devised which includes the following:

1. Last in first out. Youngest plantings go first.

2. Prices of last crops. Most recent market prices should be included so lowest incomes are the first to go.

3. Water used to achieve that price. A ratio should be devised that sees those who have used water most inefficiently should be at the head of the queue for removal; i.e. growers who use more water to achieve lower income should go.

... and back to 1999: referring to the National Wine Centre ... the budgie syndrome:
Excerpt from my speech to planning students at the University of Adelaide, Wednesday 13th October, 1999. A slightly shorter version of this address was delivered to the Australian Institute of Urban Studies, S.A. Division, at Chesser Cellars, Friday 26th March, 1999.

So what started as a simple, profit-making service for visitors quickly became a State-funded wine museum, which quickly reverted to an office block for bureaucrats and mandarins, partly because nobody thought the word museum was much good in this modern age. On the committee I joined at Premier Brown's invitation, the first wine centre committee, the word museum was abandoned because nobody really knew what it meant.

None of those great brains had heard of Zeus, or Jupiter, the boss of the heavens, nor of his wife, the Goddess Mnemosyne, or Memory. They didn't realise the daughters of this couple, the cover girls of their day, were the official inspirers of all poetry and art. Cleo was the trigger of history, Thalia of comedy. Euterpe was the source of all music; Urania of astronomy, and so on. They
were called the Muses, just like my much uglier lot's called the Whites. The Muses lived in the Museum.

No good, no good. It'll have to be the National Wine Centre. It'll have to be in the Botanic Park because:

1 The Gardens already attract 1.3 million visitors a year - more than any other government-owned property;

2 The East End is already a famous tourism and gastronomic precinct (The Universal Wine Bar's there), and

3 It's a nice place to have your offices.

They overlook the fact that the East End is rapidly becoming a violent drug-crazed mirror of the old Hindley Street, where a good deal of the working community are the enthusiastic users of a constant wave of powder drugs; and they don't realise that the very reason that 1.3 million people visit the Botanic Gardens each year is that there are no industrial headquarters, office blocks, car parks, conference centres, or monorails in sight.

Don't laugh - a monorail was seriously suggested, to siphon customers from Rundle Street across the Botanic Garden, which is a dry zone, to the Wine Centre. This was seen as a possible solution to the car parking problem in the Garden. Nobody listened to the traders' complaint about the loss of business in Rundle Street, because there's no real parking there, either. Anyway, show me a monorail and I'll show you a Premier who's just lost power.

The initial concept for a straightforward, self-funding facility for wine enthusiasts was sufficiently attractive to lure a horde of self-interested political amateurs and industry mandarins, whose clumsy and transparent manoeuvres in pursuit of taxpayers' funds and sacred inner city parkland, abuse not just the clarity of the first proposal, but snigger in the face of the uncommonly tasteful and discerning community of Adelaide.

After five years of squandered expense and volunteered energy, this centre is further from its origins than credibility extends.

The citizens of Adelaide now face the construction of an industrial headquarters in their extremely popular Botanic Garden. This $40 million-plus tax-payer-funded Xanadu will have little purpose beyond housing the bureaucrats who will be responsible for the next taxpayer-funded Vine-pull Scheme.

There has been no consultation with the neighbours, none with the community at large, nor anything vaguely resembling consultation with the wine industry proper. The old buildings wisely rejected by the wine industry will now house the unfairly misplaced botanic scientists whose perfectly suitable, unobtrusive buildings and laboratories will be demolished to make way for the imposing new wine industry headquarters.

Those who intend moving into this facility, like Wine and Brandy Corporation Manager, Sam Tolley, refer to it as their "new offices". Winemakers Federation of Australia Chairman, Brian Croser, admits privately that the centre, as imagined by him, does not "necessarily have to be in the Botanic Garden".

And driving force Ian Sutton, Chief Executive of the WFA, Wine Australia Pty. Ltd., Australian Wine Foundation and the Australian Wine and Brandy Producers' Association, says "My job's not to consult the wine industry -- my job is to represent the wine industry".

Now that Glenthorne Farm, a perfectly suitable alternative site for a self-funding centre has been found and purchased on the old CSIRO research site at the top of Flagstaff Hill, those who would raid the public purse, not to mention the Botanic Garden, have become more secretive and even more determined in their nefarious pursuit.

19 May 2010



Pagans From The Vale Italianate Aussie Shiraz
... As Made By Jesus!

“In ’03 we hardly did anything. In 04 we dropped two bins off the front of the forklift and the Ducati was sitting there in four inches of amarone.”

That was Mark Day reflecting on life as a winemaker. The “we” includes his partner, the revered wine scientist Anna “Koltz” Koltunow. The “amarone” is a winemaking technique named with the Italian word for bitter or sharp. More precisely, the technique is called appassimento, and the wines are called passito, from appisire, “to dry”.

There’s a certain irony in the proximity of these words to others like amare and appassionare, because appassimento requires at least as much love as determination.

Bit like a Ducati, really.

I fully understand why Mark calls his amarones The Pagan, but it’s probably the winemaking technique Jesus learned from the Italian occupying forces as he grew up, appassimento. In that fleabitten wilderness, there was no refrigeration. Villages like Qana had somehow to keep sugar and fruit, so raisins, sultanas, currants, figs, prunes, and dates were dried and stored with the best water and honey in the cool of the local grange.

Shagged after their clambake down the beach with all that Damascus rosé, the lads crawled for hours up the dusty track to the wedding. Jesus’ mum met them in the road, complaining that there was no booze left. There was no drive-in, and a wedding lasted about a week, but she knew her boy could do something about it.

“Mother, what am I to do with thee”, he hissed, and then got straight down to it: haul the waterpots out into the sun; stack in some dried fruit; let the local yeasts get active, and they’re straight back into it.

For years Sam Wynn, founder of the Wynn’s wine empire, travelled annually from his home in the Polish ghetto to the Black and Caspian Seas to buy dried grapes which he’d take all the way home and then make kosher amarone for the Jews.

Nowdays, in northern Italy, Amarone is actually an appellation of the Valpolicella district, restricted to wines made by appassimento. Mark goes here annually to make wine. And as the wet Ducati could testify, he also makes it here, in the scrub and sand and ironstone of Blewett Springs in the McLaren Vale district.

Last week he presented all his Koltz The Pagan passito vintages, from 03 to a barrel sample of 09. And a dandy pagan ritual it was.

“A lot of this is about texture”, he murmured into his glass. “We pick the Shiraz early so it starts with a lot of acid, and that gets concentrated more as the grapes shrivel. So they’re quite acidic. But the texture just gets me.”

The bunches are picked carefully onto drying trays which are stacked in a humidity-controlled Ducati shed. A close eye must be kept for the six or seven week process: you don’t want too much overt shrivel, and bunches which develop moulds or rots are removed.

“It’s all local Shiraz off the sand”, he says, “but I always add a little bit of Adelaide Hills Cabernet.”

The grapes are finally crushed and put into open fermenters with some freshly-picked must, which is of course sweeter, with less acid. Off it goes. Long, slow ferments – 25 days – gentle basket pressing, and presto: amarone!

The Pagan 03 said it all, really. It smelled like a spinache and ricotta salad with figs. There was a glowering composty base tone, too, but those greens are still fresh and zippy, and the viscosity’s just perfect. 89++ points. 04 was more organized and fresh, with chocolate crème caramel flesh over a mess of moss and silage, all the nightshade leaves, juniper, Marveer, and dried sweet figs and dates. Jeez it was good. 93+

And on we gurgled, through the astonishing 05 (93+++) with its blackpowder and smoked figs, and impenetrable intensity and poise, to the triumph of the night (sorry Ducati, but the Poms make motorcycles, too) in the 08 (94+++). This majestic compote of ground-up gun barrels (Weatherby) roast capsicum, and Ditters’ best dried fruit mix (prunes, apples, pears) is a confounding glory of a drink that will cellar brilliantly. Or chug-a-lug with a slab of good aged parmigiano reggiano.

One thing is certain: as we moved into the younger vintages, these gunmetal characters increased, and the wines were tighter. They’re obviously better with a few years dungeon.

Mark also opened one of his favourite Italians, Tommaso Bussola’s BG Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 07 ($150; 90++). Made mainly from the thick-skinned Corvina variety, the smaller-berried Rondinella, and perhaps some Molinara grapes, this wine seemed simpler and much less tannic than The Pagans ($55). The Koltz wines are a sort all their own.

We also tasted passito style wines from other Australian producers, but these lacked the determined intensity of the Shiraz grown on those Semaphore sands of Blewett Springs, and the Maslin Sands ironstone that lies beneath.

Speaking iron, the iron horse has changed. The Duke’s been replaced by a snazzy Moto Guzzi, which Mark reckons is a sign that he’s getting older. He hasn’t washed it in amarone. Yet. But it’s surrounded by racks of Shiraz, doing its neat appisire. Maybe the Moto Guzzi wines will be softer.

That’d be a pity.



Wilma Kills A Year Secret Sausage Ritual In Barossa Three Top Cellars

This was one of those days, away back before a near-perfect vintage: stunning clear weather ... wicked company ... a safe bus driver ... three great wineries ... and a crew of thirsty devils loose in the Barossa on the occasion of Wilma McLean's birthday. These photographs are by the ace, Milton Wordley, a regular contributor to DRINKSTER, and a man who can hold frame and focus in the most savage and challenging conditions ...

Dr. White, tour leader, with the crew in the Karra Yerta vineyard atop Flaxman's Ridge in the high Barossa. James and Marie Linke and their boys are perfect Barossa hosts up here in the cool near the 500 metre mark, where the weather is often not quite so beatific. Check those old vines: with a neighbour, they share-farm Semillon, Shiraz, and Riesling here, in 600 million year old sandstone and micaceous schist.

The ancient hand-hewn Barossadeutscher barn and stables at Karra Yerta: James Linke pouring a round of killer Karra Yerta Riesling; Daniel Linke on guitar. The floor tiles are short redgum logs buried, up-ended in sand, the ceiling burlap. The Linke boys always turn on some very cool original music.

The high, wild, seven-year-old dry-grown bush vine vineyard of Big Bob and Wilma McLean, north of Karra Yerta, at McLean's Farm, smack on top of the high Barossa at Mengler's Hill. This is the schmick view from the winery apron. Wedge-tailed eagles are common on this ridge, the site of many gastronomic crimes.

Designer, sculptor and fabric artist Annabelle Collett loses her head doing the limbo beneath a six foot Barossa garlic mettwurst. Big Bob and Wilma turned on a classic lunch of Barossa meats, smallgoods, crunchy loaves, dill pickles and cheeses. Not to mention the crackerjack McLean's Farm wines.

Robin Wordley, lifestyle co-ordinator at Mixmasters Studios hits a lower note ...

Birthday girl Willie does it without spilling a drop. That's McLean's Farm Dry-grown Riesling, after all!

So blessed, the great wurst is carried aloft to the dining table ...

Big Bob sings the tenor part of Au Fond Du Temple Saint ...

... and then tells us grace: "Over the lips and over the gums, lookout guts, here she comes; knives and forks as sharp as razors, praise the lord and go like blazes ... "

Uberrieslingmeister Colin Forbes, with Marie Linke of Karra Yerta. Colin does tastings of his wines by arrangement at McLean's Farm.

The birthday girl attacks her spectacular McKuchen already.

Next stop: two Annabelles shopping for Shiraz at Greenock Creek Vineyards and Cellars, near Seppeltsfield. The underground tanks provide constant cool storage.

Taking a breather on the Greenock Creek open fermenters. This is one of the high temples of Shiraz, internationally. Michael, a master stonemason as well as ace winemaker and brilliant viticulturer, built the winery. The fermenter walls are good and thick, providing reliable insulation to prevent sudden changes of temperature. That's Peter Fraser of Yangarra Estate with the legs. He's a Shiraz and Grenache king, too, but in McLaren Vale.

"That's enough! That's enough!" Mick Wordley of Mixmasters Studios attempting to avoid drinking too much Greenock Creek Roennfeldt's Road Shiraz. Hardened experts know this to be a totally futile exercise.

Annabelle and Michael Waugh: custodians of some of the most revered Shiraz and Grenache vineyards in the world.

... and a few cold Trinnie's pales to seal the deal. This is the bar of the hallowed Greenock Creek Tavern, which has been in the hands of the eminently hospitable Schluter family since 1870 - probably an Australian record for continual country hostelry. Wolf Blass blended the first wines to bear his name in the stables at the back of this pub, and is still a member of the luncheon club.

Thanks again to Milton Wordley for the cool photography. As you can see, Milt specialises in the wine business, which he's been photographing for thirty years. If you need photographs of Australian wine, contact him through his website.

09 May 2010


Ethanol Floggers Flog On ... Oz Pollies Taken For Suckers Again ... Forensic Enquiry May Shake These Dangerous Tendenciesby PHILIP WHITE - a shorter version of this appeared in The Independent Weekly

There is no better metaphor for the Australian wine industry than its National Wine Centre, which has finally become a busy pavilion for weddings. It lies there, ribs poking skyward, its drying gizzards wriggling with brides.

I have no statistical evidence to suggest the success of these marriages is any different to the national average: one in three generally ends in divorce.

It's all tiresomely suburban.

The Wine Centre’s biggest publicity – ever - followed the incident when Rick Phillips went in there and whacked our Premier, Mike Rann, about the face with a rolled-up Winestate magazine.

Phillips pled guilty, while his ex-wife, Michelle Chantelois, who’d been a barmaid in Parliament House, repeatedly claimed she’d maintained a sexual affair with Rann who repeatedly denies this, while publicly apologising for any distress it has caused her or her family.

And now, as if to complete its transformation from National Wine Centre to wedding and celebrity divorce factory this troubled facility is even flogging its wine collection.

Smart observers knew, when $50+ million of taxpayers’ money snuck that corpse into our sacred Botanic Garden a decade back, that this industry, its august councils, and the politicians it seduced, all deserved forensic scrutiny.

Who are these people? The hairdos have gone from Brylcreem combovers to spiky and shooshed, but the mentality is as constant as the suits.

They cannot halt the wine industry holocaust. For their shareholders, they encouraged it to fester, at the expense of our water, our environment and civic amenity, the salinity of our soils and aquifers, our public health, and our economies: national, town-sized, familial and individual.

The glittering refineries they inflicted on our rural vistas frankly reflect the chrome pillows blowing like leaves about aboriginal lands.

They built an industry that - by vast chemo-mono grapeyards - mines the arid Mallee for sugar, which is used to make ethanol, a highly-dangerous depressant and recreational drug. Over half the Australian business depends on this formula, and in bladder packs or cleanskins sells sweetened ethanol - which is three times the strength of your average beer - at about the price of bottled water. Or less.

They built an industry in the Australian desert which depends upon endless supplies of virtually free water, an international clientele with a constantly-intensifying addiction, and a pathetic Aussie dollar.

It also lacks basic gastronomic intelligence, expects the same of its clients, and presumes the absence of any smart competition from other countries.

Like, say the countries adjacent to the Andes, which happen to be full of snow which melts to make irrigation water. These grape regions are populated by peasants who work for almost nothing, and whose laws lack the scant environmental restrictions which somehow survive in Australia.

A telling gauge of how this industry’s authorities are respected is the advent of the Family First Winemakers. As this new coalition of the great wine families – Peter Barry, Hill Smith, Taylors, Tyrrells, Brown Brothers, d’Arenberg, McWilliams et cetera – barges forth to promote the “heart and soul” of the Australian business internationally, they attempt a task which the bodies they were implicit in creating have obviously failed to perform.

Who else gets a gong? Oh yes. On February 7th, Dr. Brian Croser AO (left) made a hissy speech blaming the big companies for mucking everything up. This was reported widely.

The Australian Winemakers Federation Croser established helped shove the Wine Center upon us, only to see it slide two years later, virtually bankrupt, into University of Adelaide hands for $1 a year.

When he was determinedly pushing the Wine Centre into the Garden, I questioned Ian Sutton, then Chief Executive of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, Wine Australia Pty. Ltd., Australian Wine Foundation and the Australian Wine and Brandy Producers' Association. I asked about the strangely optimistic business plan, and just how much consulting had been done to get the true feeling of the industry, much of which seemed a tad embarrassed about the whole thing.

"My job's not to consult the wine industry”, Sutton snarled. “My job is to represent the wine industry".

Croser was the University’s deputy chancellor at the time, determinedly pushing his agenda to have what was the fusty old winemaking school at Roseworthy fully absorbed by the glittering Adelaide campus. "Technologising", I heard one boffin describe it at the time.

Big companies? To the tune of hundreds of millions, it was Croser’s Petaluma group that slid through Lion Nathan into the hands of the mighty Japanese Kirin Brewery under the caress of his Petaluma accountant Andrew Cheeseman (right), who now heads the Australian Wine And Brandy Corporation.

Just days after his spray at the Big Guys, Croser made another speech: he’d suddenly discovered that Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay was much better than he’d previously considered.

His initial blast at the big companies would have infuriated people like Phil Laffer of Pernod-Ricard, the French families who own Jacob’s Creek, whose company secretary, Kate Thompson, sits on the board of the Australian Wine And Brandy Corporation. Along with Dr. Tony Jordan, antipodean lieutenant of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey.

Croser made the Adelaide Hills wine region. He planted the Piccadilly Valley with Jordan, and set forth preaching his gospel for decades, adding great value to his Petaluma. Over endless lunches at his Bridgewater Mill, he encouraged Dr. Ed Tweddell of Fauldings to invest massively in the hills, by setting up the Nepenthe viticulture company that planted vast swathes of vineyard whose fruit ends up now in Jacobs Creek or the carcass of McGuigan’s Australian Vintage. If Kirin doesn’t want it.

The latest top yarn concerning this lot is the Rabobank report of senior analyst Marc Soccio (left). It says the industry’s crook, although he thinks it’s not so much the buggered Riverlands, but cool places like the Adelaide Hills which are far too slow to uproot.

Like the river grapeyards, too much of this upland planting was committed by the wrong people in the wrong places for all the wrong reasons, like tax advantage, or fashion. Many of these doctors, lawyers, and wealthy retirees who dared, with the persuasion of people like Croser, to compete directly with seasoned generational growers in McLaren Vale and the Barossa, should never have entered the industry.

Tragically, we can't ask my good friend Dr. Ed Tweddell about this, as he committed suicide in 1995 (CORRECTION : 2005; not 1995). His son James, who ran the vineyard development company, now runs a nightclub in Queensland.

Rabobank seems confused about gradings of wine quality. Like the freshly-re-enlightened Croser, it obviously regards Jacobs Creek as premium. You can’t blame them: as Croser and his Petaluma chairman, Len Evans, ran the Australian wine show system for decades, megabulk brands like Jacobs Creek won bounteous bling.

Croser would never enter Petaluma in the wine shows. There are still people who remember his rage when he discovered his marketing manager, Bob McLean, had quietly entered Petaluma red in the Melbourne show. While the Petal was notably failing to win the Jimmy Watson Trophy inside, where Croser vented his feelings, ace Wolf Blass red man, John Glaetzer, was crawling around the bushes out the front, yelling “Where’s the dummy? Where’s the dummy?”

Glaetzer could afford to joke: he’d already won a record three Jimmies, and went on to win a fourth.

Individuals aside, this crazy amalgam of savagely competitive ethanol dealers needs a new sheriff. Those responsible for the current carnage should be forced to withdraw, never to play with such power again.

But the blithe refusal of the Rudd government to accept treasury official Ken Henry’s perfectly logical and fair excise regime for all alcohol taxation is crisp evidence that the ancien regime still rules: its lobbyists have been very hard at work reinforcing the constipating inertia extant. Henry’s proposal would have finally and sensibly rendered most of the unsustainable arid land grapeyards unprofitable, but bolstered the chances of small, premium producers.

The frisson of delight at the dribble now oozing down the big rivers proves there is no change, and no change likely. The same old suits sniff a new wave of dirt cheap Riverland premium. Maybe the piddly prices the National Wine Centre gets for its wine collection will best reflect just how premium all this premium really is.

While they’re saying twenty per cent of the national vineyard must go, it’s time somebody admitted the figure should be more like thirty or forty per cent. In lieu of any smarter method of devising the number, they could follow the success rate of the weddings in their National Wine Centre, loaded with an index locked to the tumbling prices of that premium wine collection.

But with all dread seriousness, the vine pull formula should be based on the number of jobs and dollars each litre of irrigation water creates. In places like Barossa and McLaren Vale, this ratio is normally exponentially ahead of any part of the Murray-Darling Basin, which now seems to extend to include the Limestone Coast. Not to mention the Adelaide Hills.

The glut these industrialists created sees professional growers, some four to six generations strong, suddenly being paid $300 a tonne instead of $3000. You don’t need so much premium fruit at $3000 now that you’ve decided the desert produces premium at $300.

Anybody taking water from the Murray-Darling should be forced to pay real prices for it. A litre of water should have a price. Period. Irrigators should pay a price a helluva lot closer to the amount that an Adelaide resident is expected to pay for what manages to ooze from the mains.

If you’re growing truly premium grapes in a unique place like McLaren Vale, where much of the irrigation water is recycled waste from coastal housing estates, you should be encouraged to remain in the business.

But the percentage of vineyard currently for sale in the Vale simply serves to prove that in the eyes of these industrialists, true quality, continuity and professionalism, let alone the environment, simply do not matter. The casual investor, the shareholder, is king.

The politicians are simply inept in addressing this. The only one to poke his head up with a sensible suggestion was Leon Bignell, the Labor member for Mawson, which includes McLaren Vale. The great Rudd/Wong/Rann triumvirate has failed to convince anybody. Tellingly, against all the pundits’ great wisdoms, after his statement, Bignell actually increased his margin in the recent South Australian election. Much greater egos saw their margins shrivel, and seats disappear.

When the wool business, the miners, or the wheat board makes a mess like this, there’s a very prompt independent enquiry. Heads roll. People are stood up and expected to explain their actions. Heros emerge.

Before Croser comes back to save the wine industry, there should be an independent judicial enquiry.



Penfolds Lights Fosters Path ... Gago's New Grange All Go ... Gail Kicks Butt For Little Guys
by PHILIP WHITE - a version of this was published in The Independent Weekly

Busy week at the Gago household. One of the Honorable Gail’s five cabinet ministries is Consumer Affairs, so there she was cleaning up the liquor licensing act to make it easier for little guys to sell their wines and bar staff to refuse service to drunks in pubs. Very cool.

At the same time Peter was launching the new Penfold’s super-premiums at Magill, with every wino’s gimlets focused on the new Grange, the 2005.

They don’t need kids, these Gagos. Gail (right) raises smart legislations like offspring. And of the regular annual fixtures on the Casa Blanco calendar, none is better anticipated than the day Pete lines up his new tribe.

Which he did this year at the grand old Kalimna vineyard in the Barossa. Block 42 there is the oldest Cabernet sauvignon vineyard on Earth to be in continuous production. Planted in the Moppa – the flat triangle of alluvium north of the Barossa – in 1888, this is ten precious acres indeed. Grey wind-blown sands sit atop riverine alluvium, and the old grey trunks of the troopers always make me think of Napoleon’s army being snap frozen on the way home from St Petersberg. Biggest difference is, these guys are still fighting, and it’s drought and heat they’ve battled, and wave after wave of owners and corporate geniuses with bad ties.

Gago’s quietly determined restoration of the old farmhouse there looks precisely like the sort of thing you wouldn’t see too much of going on in the way of Fosters these days.

It’s a slomo revolution.

A few years back, Peter complained about how every year for twelve in a row he’d had to re-write his meaning of extreme vintage conditions. Since that alarming utterance, there’s been extreme records broken every year, so it’s almost divinely reassuring to sit down at a table heavy with such vinous reponsibilities and discover they are still mighty Penfolds wines.

“Authority and composure” are words which reappear through all my notes this year. No other big winery on Earth has such an authoritative and expansive range of treasures.

It normally takes four to six dozen wines for me to find something to recommend with more than ninety points. My average over a week of new releases is around seventy, often below. So to gaze confounded at these notes of about thirty wines, including unfinished and unbottled ones from recent years, and see that they fall below ninety on three occasions is, well, can I say comforting?

First wine on the table 94+++. 2005 Reserve Bin Riesling. Opulent, majestic wine more like a mighty Chablis than Germanic Riesling, even at only eleven per cent alcohol. 2009 Koonunga Hill Autumn Riesling, 93: the genteel, autumnal aromas of grannie’s handbag and strawberries in a pleasant off-dry old fashioned style to match the label. 2009 Bin 51 Eden Valley Reserve. Austere and steely: mighty stuff to dissolve that Austrian moustache wax. 93+++. All bases covered in the Riesling dept., see.

And on it went, variety after variety. All bases and styles worth noting are covered. In that unchallengable Penfold’s manner: there’s the sort of reassuring arrogance about them that you like to find in your monarch, especially when times are tough. These may be polite wines, but they’re not shy.

Tellingly, there is no Sauvignon blanc.

Harcore plonkies regard Chardonnay as a sort of gay brother of Riesling, but these four Chardonnays were a lot more Navratilova than Nureyev. Maybe the Thomas Hyland (92+) strayed over toward the younger Bardot, and the Yattarna’s a bit more Catherine the Great (95++), but the forearms are all Martina’s.

The 08 Cellar Reserve Sangioivese (93+++) smelt like a Tuscan kitchen with a big wood oven; a forthcoming 09 Pinot, just bottled and not yet for release, smelt like Penfolds had exploded all over us. Try “black tea, aniseed balls, Choo Choo Bar, juniper, blueberry, beetroot, sour cream, borscht”.

Peter’s ongoing mission to moderate the raw American oak in brands which depended upon it, without letting them lose a splinter of their Penfold heritage, is best seen in the stunning new Bin 707 2007 (93+++), a totally Australian Cabernet of incredible intensity and finesse. The 06 Cellar Reserve Barossa Cabernet (94++) seemed even more woody, but it’s had 100% French oak. The superiority of 06 over the difficult 07 is most evident here.

And oh yes, the Shiraz. Oh Lawdy. A sicko-plush 06 St Henri (93+++) like a Hispano-Suiza J-12. The charcuterie blast of the 07’s: Magill Estate (92+++) and RWT Barossa (93+) the former with a lollyshop next door; the latter so disarmingly open and neat, like the bucherie of the great Max Noske in Hahndorf. (Sorry Barossa, but we got Germans down this end, too!)

And then, of course, the Big Cheese. Grange. You can read my praise of this marvel alongside, and more detailed notes of all the wines on drankster.blogspot.com. I only wish there was a Peter and Gail blog.

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet sauvignon 2008
$9; screw cap; 13.5% alcohol; 80+ points
I simply cannot imagine why you’d risk fewer dollars on cleanskins of dubious provenance when you can buy this for the price of two schooners of beer. It’s an audacious, cheeky, sassy wine: a brash brat from the Bash Street Kids. The fruit cannot be contained. The stylish oak tries to wrap that fruit up, but it leaps off again and there you go after it, glass after glass. I thought at first the wine had been made like a Beaujolais, with carbonic maceration, but no, Peter assures me, it’s straight down the line conventional winemaking in the Penfolds style.

Penfolds Grange 2005
$650; cork; ??% alcohol; 95+++ points
I gave the 2004 Grange a point more than this, because of its seductive streamlining and silky feminine sheen: Morticia Addams stuff. This is more a cross-dressing Heathcliff. My notes: “Pretty Polly! Wet hessian. Sap: raw sawn wood. Cordite. Incredible bowl of fruits: currants, blackcurrants, red currants, raspberries, nectar, strawberries, cranberries, medlar berries, salmonberries and watermelon. Musk. Civet. Banana lollies. Paper. A chip off the old block. Shit. Cowshed. Milk. Chaos!! Perfection!! Fractal!! In this church, they’re still trying to recognize the congregation.” Which is not to say this wine will not eventually mellow to become one of the best ever.