“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)





15 October 2011


Big Doc Calls For Smaller Bottles
Rich Poms Can't Help Themselves
Deadly Urge To Drink To The End

In one of the earlier proho wowser uprisings, some of us rebelled against those pioneering arms of the wine industry which chose to voluntarily add alcohol warnings to their back labels.

At the risk of recalling such things too frequently, it’s worth remembering that in the mid-eighties, Robert O’Callaghan virtually led the bold Shiraz uprising that places like the Barossa still cruise upon.

The vine-pull scheme was threat enough; add winemakers who were actually willing to attempt to convince their customers that they should not over-indulge, and you had the end of everything as we once knew it.

When Yalumba began using the line “drink wine in moderation” O’Callaghan responded with back labels that said things like “Black Shiraz is the sort of stuff I was weaned on”. The market responded enthusiastically: mainly to please Robert Parker the alcohol levels of too much Barossa red crept upwards and natural acids fell to please those who preferred a touch of gloop in their gulp.

With the aid of adman Tony Parkinson, now of Penny’s Hill, O’Callaghan (left) was the first I know to attempt to launch wine in nice little oj-style tetra pack with a straw glued conveniently to the side. That noble endeavour was scuttled, but at the same time, McWilliams launched another product which lasted on the marketplace about as long as it took to drink: the Cab Sac, a small shiny plastic pouch of wine from which one ripped the corner, to literally squirt the contents into the throat. A mini bladder pack lacking the inconvenience of a tap, if you will.

Another reaction to the dangerous proho tendencies of the moderation mob came from Brian Miller, who was then the PR flak for Seppelts. He called one day to excitedly show me his new low-alcohol wine, which turned out to be a half bottle, or a “split”, of your standard strength Seppelt red.

“This has only half the alcohol of your standard bottle,” he quite accurately announced, plopping it on my table.

There’s a move afoot now to promote half bottles; there’s a new UK specialist shop which sells only premium halves. And in Sydney, the Bellevue Hill Bottle Shop is specializing in small bottles of very good wine, from piccolos of champagne through Bordeaux reds to sauternes. One can order online to take deliveries anywhere in Australia.

In a blatant attempt to stem the tide of customers getting wasted simply because they habitually drink the product until the bottle is empty, British supermarkets too are under pressure to supply more wine in smaller containers.

Dr Trish Groves, (left) deputy editor of The British Medical Journal, has been getting press for her insistence that the British middle classes would not guzzle so much if the containers were smaller.

"I like a glass of good wine with my supper," she said, "but, once two of us have had a glass each, it is all too tempting to finish the bottle there and then. Bottles of wine do not tend to keep very well and you do not want to throw half of it down the sink. So you end up drinking the whole bottle yourself or with a partner, when you may have just opened the half bottle if it was available.

"Coupled with the news that wine is getting stronger, with eight or nine units [of alcohol] in a bottle, it is no wonder Britain's middle-aged middle classes are getting wasted," she advised.

Reacting to research from John Moores University in Liverpool, showing that the wealthy were the worst booze offenders, drinking well into the “hazardous” realms of 22 to 50 standard drinks per week for men and 15 to 35 for women, the Doc wrote in the British medical Journal that reducing the size of the bottle would work very well to reduce the numbers of bottle-scarred warriors.


She whinged about her local supermarket offering only three wines in half bottles. "Why does wine have to come in 75cl bottles?” she asked.

"Banning supersize meals won't stop people from buying two regular burgers, and selling half bottles won't stop some drinkers from simply having two. But there must be at least one supermarket chain willing to give the half-bottle market a proper go with a decent range and fair pricing, and to trump their competitors' hands for responsible, healthy retailing.

"Come on Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Morrisons and all? Help us out. Cheers."

This is all very well: I admit to enjoying some of the finest wines on earth from small bottles, but vintage port comes to mind as readily as pink Krug.

My gripe with 375 ml bottles is that they are just a touch too small. The size was adopted simply to halve the standard 750 ml bottle, which came in turn from the confounding old standard bottle of 1 pint 6 fluid ounces, which to me made about as much sense as a penny being four farthings, a shilling being twelve pennies, a florin being two shillings, a crown being five shillings, a pound being four crowns, and a guinea, the rich man’s pound, being twenty-one shillings.

Pity that Australia couldn’t shift completely to the metric system when it thought it did in February 1966.

We should have moved immediately to the litre bottle for the committed solo bibulant or table of three or four at a serious repast. The litre bottle is handsome, and presents with the authority of a magnum without being quite so big a drink. Its presence and weight, versus smaller receptacles, is akin to the comparison of an LP to a CD.

The 500 ml bottle, on the other hand, is a better size for the lunch table of two in a hurry, or the solo flyer used to two proper glasses. It is a much better size for the likes of poor old Trish Groves, and her wealthy mates who simply lose control of themselves when exposed to normal-sized bottles of alcohol.

Given the belated occ health and safety move away from heavy cases of a dozen to six-packs, the idea of a five-pack of 500 ml bottles, or a five-pack of litres seems to make uncommon sense to this Virgo.

Which leads me to some samples which recently lobbed on my desk: two rather impressively ocker-dag packages available for $100 per six pack through the Swings and Roundabouts website, or $22 each at the cellar.

The first, the Super Sprinkler Boy Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2010 is equal to many more posh and expensive presentations from the region: gently creamy as much as lemon-grassy, with a velvety lemon-custard middle and neat, lingering bone china finish, crying out for the sort of exemplary seafood that falls from the char grills of the region; (screw cap; 12.5% alcohol; 88+ points).

And the red sibling, the Mighty Mower Man Margaret River Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2009 is another better-than-fair offer. It oozes dark whiffs of fennel and licorice amongst its morello cherries and soused prunes, with a tweak of tidy nutmeg and five-spice oak. Its palate is quite slender and racy for its alcohol, being more Bordeaux in shape than Barossa, with a long rapier of fine tannin and acid stretching its finish to a savoury taper (screw cap; 14% alcohol; 85++ points). Chops, please.

These wines quite sensibly come only in 1.5 litre bottles. Call it the Thinking Man’s Stubby and get on with shrinking the wine lake. You owe it to Australia.

This article triggered a prompt response (below) from winemaker Richard Hamilton, for whom Brian Miller worked upon leaving Seppelts.

Dear Philip

The half-bottle incident you amusingly related (Indaily 17 Oct 2011) was when Brian Miller was with "Leconfield - Home of Richard Hamilton Wines", and the wine was our 375ml Richard Hamilton Willunga Chardonnay.

"... Half the alcohol without compromising quality or flavour ..."

It was his tongue-in-cheek response to the hyperbole surrounding several "low-alcohol" wines released at the time, all of which quickly disappeared without trace.

Unfortunately, the cost of bottling and packaging 375ml wines is and was almost as much as bottling 750ml, and they never sold as well.

But that one did!

Best Wishes and I enjoy your columns.

Richard Hamilton

Which led to me consult Brian Miller, with whom I am sure I recall joking about a half bottle of red being low-alcohol wine before he left Seppelts. Perhaps it was a half-bottle of the delicious Seppeltsfield Vintage Port they'd just released, which was one of the very first I know of which included Touriga Nacional, the Portuguese variety.

Miller's response:

Tyrrell: "We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better."

Deckard: "Memories. You're talking about ... memories."

from Blade Runner


I had moved from Seppelt to Leconfield. One morphed into the other.

Soon after, Seppelt released a low-alcohol (*) chardonnay. The wine was well made, varietal, and dry, but the accompanying information suggested experts couldn't tell it from the real thing. I ... doubted that.

And Richard Hamilton had a few pallets of 375ml Chardonnay hanging about looking for trouble. I could not resist.

Don't eat low-fat cheese, eat high-fat cheese but half as much. Same price, better flavour and better for you. A morsel of 85% cacao chocolate is more satisfying than ten Mars Bars. This principle applies to everything except money.

My memory? I can remember your Shiva Naipaul article, but not where I left my phone yesterday.

Kind Regards


* (actually de-alcoholised; spinning-cone technology).



Julian Castagna said...

I agree I think 500ml is a very good size - I thought they would rush out the door, but no no-one really is interested - a few but not many. If I put the wine in the normal 750ml I could have sold it five times over.

Jill the Sot said...

Smaller bottles react more to faulty corks, and faster. Otherwise, I love them!