“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)





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.


e-vine 2001 said...

But not all is gloom and doom. There is still a bubble or two in the bottom of the glass of flat champagne. I was heartened to read in The Advertiser that our own National Wine Centre is doing its bit to inject a spritzig of effervescence into drab lives. The Advertiser reports that centre management "...Spent more than $388,000 on events associated with its official launch - including an $84,826 VIP dinner at which Kate Ceberano sang four songs for $25,000."

bitchbitchbitch said...

I wonder does Rabobank regard Bitch as premium?

Anonymous said...

I suggest that use of the word "holocaust" is inappropriate.

Michael Zerman

Jessica said...

Ahem, Twiddle died in 2005, not 1995. Else I wouldn't have met him.