“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)





10 February 2011


Cicero denuncia Catalina, Cesare Maccari, 1888

Millions Wasted On PR Bullshit
Winers Shoulda Told The Truth
Vanya Cullen Shows Us Future

“They are like nude figures, upright and beautiful, stripped of all ornament of style as if they had removed a garment. His aim was to provide source material for others who might wish to write history, and perhaps he has gratified the insensitive, who may wish to use their curling-tongs on his work; but men of good sense he has deterred from writing.”

So wrote Cicero sometime around 46BC. He was reviewing the crisp historical writings of Julius Caesar. This is the earliest reference to spin I am aware of. As spin-bowling cricketers and clever tweaking baseball pitchers were still a long way off, and Becks was not even a strand of DNA, the critic’s chosen metaphor for the spin-doctors was hair-curlers.

For over thirty years it has seemed the major role of the wine critic has been the reading of endless droll press releases about how wonderful things are in the wine industry: how great each vintage is, and why one wine is more outstanding than any other.

Most of this stuff, like about 90% of it, has been abject nonsense, written by public relations sophists in city offices, far from the reality of the vintage, the vineyard, or the winery.

Quite a lot of it would have been enhanced if somebody had got to it with hair-curlers.

When some dill invented the fax machine, all hell broke loose. A respected freelancer could spend half his income paying for rolls of heat-sensitive paper for the damned things, which would spew out hundreds of metres of crap while one was out in the field. And out there at the front of the PR backrooms, there were idiots who wouldn't just send you anything, they'd send you everything.

One enthusiastic flak was famous for photocopying one's own published work, high-lighting pertinent bits with yellow flouro, and posting one that copy by snail just to ensure one didn't miss the bit he'd underlined and faxed.

I used to laugh and cry a lot with the late Mark Shield, the legendary wine critic in the Melbourne Age, about press releases. In the early nineties, there were only about a third of 2,500 wineries we now have in Australia, but we often wondered just how many terrible writers were engaged by the business, purely to convince us that we could never be trusted to decide anything for ourselves.

We had a plan to offer to write the press releases, corner the lucrative racket by undercutting the bastards, take the money, and copy our favourite works out into the pages of the newspapers which paid us a pittance compared to the fees the professional propagandists charged.

We would have been well in front financially, the spin would have been more artful, and we could have saved the wine industry millions.

We would also have enjoyed stacking the bumpf with double entendres the winemakers would have been far too dumb to pick.

That aside, I often thought that Mark’s death was partly due to the horrid depression he suffered, triggered by the sickening industrialization of the wine business he had loved. As the vast monocultural grapeyards spread, spoiling land and wasting water, we both knew the quality of the wine was standardizing to a sickening, dull level.

I recall standing in a vineyard with Leo Pech, for many years the spokesman of the grapegrowers of the Barossa. His vineyard looked immaculate to the untrained eye: thousands of tall trellised vines in disciplined rows like a Nuremberg rally, with not a blade of any other vegetation. Leo was very boastful of his achievement.

“But”, I suggested, “I can’t help judging the quality of a vineyard by the quality of its ground. When I look at a vineyard, I imagine how the field would look if the vines suddenly disappeared. If it instantly becomes naked, dead ground, completely devoid of organisms of any sort, then surely the fruit will reflect that flavour, and the flavours of all the poisons used to keep it dead.”

Leo was naturally derisive. Things got a lot worse.

And they have changed dramatically in the shrinking world of newspapers. Where wine columns were commonly around 1200 words, the space now available to wine critics is half that: too small to hold the fluff contained in the average press release.

Appropriate to its appellation, Wednesday’s Advertiser ran five full pages of lucrative advertisements for discount liquor in exchange for one page of writing. This was largely devoid of anything vaguely resembling criticism, but mainly direct promotion for one wine or another.

The blogosphere makes all this look really silly: there’s a list of thousands of wine blogs on Vinography, most of which simply say anything they like about whatever they like. They are certainly not short on derision when it comes to any wine that falls short.

They are largely devoid of advertising, and show no sign of being influenced by press releases from professional propagandists.

Times have changed.

And they’re changing dramatically in the vineyards, too.

Yesterday, in response to my Facebook request, Vanya Cullen (right), the pioneering biodynamicist vigneron of Cullen’s Wines, in Margaret River, Western Australia, showed us how it’s now done.

“We harvested the first small batch of chardonnay on 1st February” she responded immediately. “[This was a] fruit and root day, and now with the Moon opposite Saturn (9th February) we are bringing in some more. The fruit looks fantastic ... insects, ladybirds, spiders, crickets, earwigs, garden weevil, dragon fly, are everywhere ... tastes of lime, pear, honey and zinging acidity and only 12.5 beaumé ... so much liveliness ... Great crew of people working harvest … on to more tomorrow.

“It is interesting that the flavours and balance is coming in at lower sugars and also this is a good thing as the birds are literally dive-bombing the nets and we are praying for the Marri blossom to come on so they go back to their natural food.”

You can forget the standard cynicism about biodynamics, because Vanya consistently makes some of Australia’s most outstanding wine.

“Wine is a living thing”, she said on another post. "Wine is alive and no bottle of wine is the same as the one that comes before it; the soil is always changing and so are the grapes. We try to maintain the consistency but every bottle feels anew."

Give me Vanya’s curlers any day. And her wine. I lick my lips in anticipation. Mark Shield, lying back there in his pine overcoat, Shit Happens t-shirt and mirror shades, would absolutely love it!

Which brings me back to old Cicero, who seemed to summarise this situation with uncanny precision:

“Times are bad,” he wrote. “Children no longer obey their parents and everyone is writing a book.”


1 comment:

diana said...

That's very very funny. And sad. As you say of Bacchus, may he well bless Vanya!