“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)





14 November 2010


Urgent Need For Oz Overview Wine, Drugs, Water, People Desert Mess Needs Sharper Brains

by PHILIP WHITE ... bits of this have appeared in the independent weekly

Bacchus and Pan are on a bender.
They’re delighted that the ridiculous number of self-serving inquiries and committees investigating the dread realities of this country’s biggest river system show no sign of achieving needed change. They’re giggling drunkenly at a bar somewhere, delighted that of all the billions of dollars involved in the irrigation corrections proposed, and the millions of people affected, there is still no call for a full-scale public inquiry into what went wrong, and precisely which plonk the water goes into.

Those mischievous deities, and the ethanol dealers who worship them, are getting away with their deadly scam.
While the international wine
lake shows little sign of abating, the farmers of Australia’s arid centre are determined to keep adding to it.

Nobody seems willing to face the blatant reality: if you tip vast amounts of scarce, impossibly cheap water onto the desert to make wine which is three times the strength of your average beer but is sold for the price of bottled water, you have a business which is not in
any way sustainable, even if a good deal of the plonk you so make is guaranteed consumption by our shredded original peoples.

If you can absorb Damming the Rivers of Grog, Russell Goldflam’s new paper on alcohol problems in the Northern Territory, without feeling wretchedly ill at the sanctimonious deceit of the wine industry, you might just as well join this nefarious racket.

Goldflam is the Principal Legal Officer of the Alice Springs office of the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission, and Damming the Rivers of Grog is an extended and updated version of his
presentation to the inaugural National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Conference in June 2010 in Adelaide. It should be compulsory reading for all Australians.

But while most drug peddlers can be expected to traffic in lies and deceit, their financial models are breathtaking in their lucrative profitability. Not so our wine makers. The financial nous displayed in their exportation of irrigation-driven rotgut is even more dubious than their morality.

“Australia’s core business is cheap supermarket wines” my London colleague, Tim Atkin MW, wrote recently
in the UK Off License News, “many of them sold on meaningless promotions.”

But it also needs to think strategically,” Atkin (below left) continued.

“The strength of the Australian dollar and the scarcity of water in the country’s irrigated vinous heartland make a change of tack unavoidable. To put it bluntly: Australia cannot continue to make and sell wine of decent quality under £5. Or rather it can, but only if it is prepared to do so at a loss.”

Nobody in this country seems ready to think like the astute Mr. Atkin, except, perhaps, for Paul Henry, who has contentiously abandoned his post of general manager for market development at the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation. The departure of Wine Australia’s UK director, Lisa McGovern, and of Paul Henry, within weeks of one another prompted Atkin to quote Oscar Wilde: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Paul Henry always seemed to me to be far too pleasant and intelligent a man to be touting the Australian wine lake as an ongoing, sustainable concern. He saw the need to focus promotion on Australia’s better, more profitable wines: those reliable, respected luxury gastronomic products which have a
true home and a true story.

Sustainable products.

Atkin reported the vast gap between the philosophies of Henry, and the likes of Paul Schaafsma, UK and European G-M of the beleaguered bulk exporter, Australian Vintage. “92.6% of all Australian wine is sold below £6,” he paraphrased Schaafsma, “so for Wine Australia to be allocating the majority of its budget to regional wines over and above £7 or £8 seems to be slightly flawed.”

Atkin and Henry have one supporter in the parliamentary Member for Mawson, Leon Bignell, who took withering flak for his February report suggesting “the UK market seems more than a little schizophrenic with its approach to sustainability.

“There is a lot of talk about airmiles,” Bignell wrote, “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.”

Always a fearless defender of his beloved McLaren Vale, Bignell suggested “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 water should be left 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.”

In stark contrast to the Murray-Darling Basin and its products, McLaren Vale uses no Murray-Darling water on its vineyards. It recycles locally-caught water from the coastal suburbs for its irrigation, and returns many more jobs and dollars, per litre of water used, than the inland irrigators. It does this producing the sorts of profitable premium wines Mr. Henry preferred to promote, rather than the megaswill River blends which we ship in giant bladder packs to Britain and the USA, where they sell for the price of Evian or Perrier in the sorts of expensive “meaningless promotions” Atkin derided.

While the implications of all this are clear to my mind, they add ridiculous illogic to Bignell’s position, entrapped as he is between a winemaking electorate fighting to protect its best agricultural land from his own party’s addiction to malignant housing development, which, perversely, provides irrigation water for the McLaren Vale vineyards.


Struggling new home-owners in Bignell’s suburbs are sore displeased; while they’ve already pai
d for expensive waste recycling plants in their own backyards, they are now getting $6000 bills for the pipes to carry their waste water along the street to the water wholesaler, and then they’re being hit for an extra grand or two to connect the tanks they’ve already paid for to the new pipe in the street.

The recent tractor rally against new housing in McLaren Vale was a polite, dignified, powerful
display of the rage the local farmers feel over proposals like Seaford Heights, where priceless high-profit viticulture land is about to be cemented over with a multi-storey ghetto. The SA Police were cool, there were no bad manners, the law was observed. The point was confidently made.


And there was the very brave Bignel
l in attendance, fending the flack he gets for his own party’s lack of intellectual and moral clarity over this housing vs. sustainable agriculture argument.

Dudley Brown, chairman of the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association, summarized the situation thus: “Leon can work has arse off for this district”, he said. “We love him. But his party has to realise that if they keep this up they’ll lose the seat of Mawson for a decade, destroy the career of one of their brightest performers, and lose a brilliant potential leader in the meantime. I mean what other talent have they got?”


They certainly have none of the analytical talent displayed by my London winewriting colleague Atkin, the disappearing Paul Henry, or indeed the tireless Bignell.

But it is the wine business as a whole that lacks the intellectual exactitude required to retain great operators like Henry.

A good measure of the depth of this glamourpuss industry’s capacity to address these tricky issues appeared in the September/October issue of The Australian And New Zealand Wine Industry Journal, a perfect-bound collection of the opinions of winebiz insiders, often masquerading as science.
magazine lives off the advertising of the designers of critter wine labels, transnational chemical companies, sawdust salesmen and other mongers of shonky oak products like corks, and features a regular page by somebody using the pseudonym PP [sic] Bradshaw.

“My childhood was spent in the Riverland”, PP anguished, “and I have maintained close ties with the region ever since. I tend to take it personally. My hackles rose, therefore, when I read Philip White’s comment at the South Australia Wine Press Club held earlier this year that ‘… the Riverland produces poor quality wine and should be shut down.’ This is wine snobbery at its worst and is typical of the twaddle that emanates from some wine scribes. I suppose that when you have rarely purchased a bottle of wine for the past 30 years, it is easy to be snobbish. We don’t all have access to free Greenock Creek and the like.


"If Mr. White got his head out of the rocks of the Fleurieu and bothered to do some real research, he would soon discover that Riverland fruit ends up in many good quality wines that are successful in the international market ... for example, I recently tried a Vermentino and a Nero d’Avola from Sunraysia-grown fruit. These are very nice wines, with better quality than many other wines from the Barossa – or wherever it is that Mr. White gets his free samples.”

While PP quotes another anonymous genius who purports to have been sufficiently present to paraphrase my impassioned and lengthy speech,
whoever they are fail conspicuously to mention that I shared the lecturn with Bill Moularadelis, whose Kingston Estate was the plonk de jour, and whom I had busted in a front page newspaper story years earlier for doctoring his wines with illegal chemicals. That May 2000 piece in the only South Australian daily, The Advertiser, brought about the suspension of Moularadelis’s export license for using illegal silver nitrate to clean up his murkier plonks, resulting in an unseemly scramble to clear other Riverland wineries of illegal winemaking additives.

Unchallenged on any of this, Moularadelis preached at the Wine Press Club that no vineyards should be removed in the current glut because his company needed every grape it could get.

Nobody questioned the fact that the chairman of the SA Wine Press Club was Moularadelis’s newly-appointed distributor, with both gentlemen relishing the opportunity to display their wine to the many key industry folks, bankers, and media representatives that had come to the National Wine Centre to hear my address.


While they’re busy in their smoke-free rooms, sweating over their dying River, and their lack of profit, planning and vision, the wine industry’s plethora of councils, lobbies, and publications exude only a dumb silence while the opposing health lobby grinds determinedly on, demanding a rewrite of the taxes imposed on wine. Herein lies a problem even bigger than the tricky removal of water from those farmers addicted to the irrigation of arid land.

There was a certain degree of miffedness last week when the alcohol statisticians finally realised that one critical factor had slipped through their forensics: their supposition that Australia’s thirst for alcohol had stabilized in recent years failed to include the fact that Australian wines have been steadily growing in alcoholic content.
So in spite of an apparent slight decrease in total alcohol consumed, triggered by the higher alco-pop tax, once the burgeoning strength of our wine is included in the figures, it appears we actually drank more.

I reminded the Wine Press Club that regardless of their stature in the gastroporn world,
winemakers sell a dangerous depressive drug called ethanol. It makes people drunk. Drunks tend to bash each other and get killed on the roads. Over the last fifteen years, these ethanol dealers have steadily increased the strength of their product.

The cheapest way to get drunk in Australia is to drink bladder pack wine, which makes up about half of our total wine consumption, and comes from the irrigated riverlands.

Because wine is not taxed on the amount of ethanol it contains, like other alcohol, bladder pack plonk is a much, much cheaper route to the sort of oblivion sought by many.

How many percentage points are we talking?

“How much?” is the more pertinent question, and I don’t mean volume of alcohol. I mean the damage bill the taxpayer meets. One good measure, repeatedly cited by the health lobby, is the National Drug Strategy report of 2008, which found that the 2004-05 bill for “alcohol-related harm”, amounted to $15.3 billion.

When alcohol prices increase, consumption falls. But politicians can’t handle the next fact: people who feel the need to self-medicate into oblivion will choose another intoxicant, which will
probably be illicit, and therefore not taxable.

But when deserved public attention is paid Treasury boss Ken Henry’s logical proposal to tax wine like all other alcohol, on its gross amount of ethanol, there will be an instant decrease in the amount of irrigation water required by the bladder plonkmongers and their growers.

The price of a $12, four litre bladder will head quite logically and rightfully toward $30, and the most expensive wines will be cheaper. While this will diminish the ravaging of desert communities by alcohol, it will wreak more havoc on the grape growers of the irrigated inland than the most savage water restrictions.

Put simply, the river will flow again. And the poor deluded farmers will flow out of their beloved bush, into the cities and Centrelink and the arms of the shrinks and the pharmaceutical transnationals who dictate drug policy. Regardless of what it costs the taxpayer, these ripped-off folks may even move to the seaside suburbs near McLaren Vale, and contribute their waste water to the local recycling plant for profitable viticulture.

Add to this confusion the latest discoveries about the amount of public harm caused by alcohol relative to illicit drugs, and the logical mind would suggest that those
growing grapes would be better off growing marijuana on their arid, salty, sandy land. It would require less ground, much, much less water, would slow increasing soil salinity and incur a much lower health cost per user than the strong plonk currently produced. To be blithe, you can even make rope and fabric and insulation from hemp, and one recent report suggested that the dreaded opiates incur a much lower total public health cost than alcohol, measured per user.

So while all these inquirers and lobbyists and angry farmers foment and wave their pitchforks for the telly, while more skrillions are spent on more self-interested pow-wows, there is still no respected investigator combining these obvious issues.
It’s not just the amount of water we abuse. It’s not just the rural farming community hurt and the destruction brought on by the over-allocation of irrigation water. It’s not just the river running into the ocean like it should, the red gum forests surviving, the fi
sh, or even the votes in the electorates.

This whole mess is about our community’s yearning for oblivion, and its incredible capacity for self-deceit. This delusion expands exponentially once you enter the parliamentary bars or the sanctimonious halls of the wine business, where there is too much to lose.

It is essential that government should set up a well-funded inquirer to passionately yet forensically investigate all of this. If the wool board, the wheat board, or the mining industry made such a humungous stuff-up, there would be a dead serious inquiry, and those responsible would be denied their chance to repeat such destruction. Heads would roll. Changes would be made. Things would improve.

As for the illicit drugs industry … well, while Bacchus and Pan appear to be winning that one too, at least somebody actually declared war. I'd like to see the rules of engagement.

Moularadelis’s Kingston Estate, meanwhile, has failed spectacularly to buy all the grapes he promised he needed. He seemed sincere at the time.