“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)





31 January 2012


Media Release from Wine Australia
Tuesday 31 January, 2012

Australia is changing its approach to wine export approval, replacing mandatory pre-export testing of all wines with a more rigorous auditing presence.
The changes follow a detailed review and industry consultation by Wine Australia (formerly the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation), the Government statutory authority responsible for wine export compliance and regulation.
Effective immediately, exporters do not need to submit each wine and wine label for approval, unless requested to do so.  However, they must be licensed, comply with Australia’s stringent health and safety requirements, be subject to audit, and provide wine for comprehensive testing as required.
The auditing process will be expanded, with investment in additional audit roles providing far greater and more regular coverage of producers. Auditors will visit several hundred wineries each year to inspect winery records, examine labels and collect samples of exported wines.

“We believe this is a progressive move that will enhance our export control system,” said Wine Australia’s Chief Executive, Andrew Cheesman (pictured). 
“The standards required for Australian wines have not changed, nor have the laws and regulations underpinning the quality and integrity of Australian wine, but our approach to administering these standards will move from reliance on pre-export product inspections to a risk-based approach.”
Mr Cheesman said the system’s evolution was possible because industry needs had changed.
“When the current export controls were first introduced four decades ago, Australian table wine was hardly known overseas and there was a risk that even one faulty wine could hurt our reputation,” he said.
“Today we are an established and respected global producer and the market leader in some countries.  We have a strong culture of compliance and our risk profile has changed considerably. 
“Our winemakers understand the need to maintain quality, as evidenced by the fact that less than a third of 1% of the 15,000 wines tested each year were not approved for export.”
The new system will be fully implemented over the next 12 months, with the support of the industry’s representative body, the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia.  All existing export licences remain current.
The current fee structure will be retained until 30 June 2012 as Wine Australia’s compliance function operates on a cost recovery basis and its costs remain fixed in the short term.  It will then be reviewed in line with the new Compliance structure and operations.  However, the new system will ultimately lead to cost savings for many exporters.
There will also be an increased emphasis on ensuring winemakers and exporters understand the requirements of Australia and the countries to which they are exporting.
“Our compliance approach will ensure producers and exporters have the information, advice and tools they need in order to meet the demands of the international regulatory environment,” Mr Cheesman said.
“We see that as our role in the modern, global industry. The market place and consumers should be the arbiter of wine quality.  Regulators need to ensure that an industry’s standards are appropriate and that producers are assisted to meet them.”
Under the new system, wine exporters will be required to:

•         Comply with all existing laws in Australia (including the Wine Australia Corporation Act/Regulations and the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code) and destination markets

•         Maintain an export licence with Wine Australia

•         Register all export products in line with current procedures (other than the mandatory testing)

•         Submit a shipping application for each consignment

•         Ensure offshore packaging facilities operate in accordance with an independently audited safety management plan

•         Provide samples of wine and labels for analytical and other testing on request. This assessment can include sensory evaluation by a wine inspection panel.
Notes for editors:

• Wine Australia is a statutory Government organisation established to provide strategic support to the Australian wine sector. Its mission is to enhance the operating environment for the benefit of the Australian wine industry by providing the leading role in market development; knowledge development; compliance; and trade.

• A+ Australian Wine is the consumer-facing brand which aims to reposition the Australian category via image, price and representation.





Tasting The Barossa Grounds
Fourth Annual RockFest Shows Vintage Overwhelming Geology 

Winemakers Louisa Rose and Julie Ashmead conducted a fascinating exercise at Yalumba the other day.  Tim Smith and Charlie Melton joined the team. It was the fourth annual Barossa Grounds Shiraz tasting, conducted with one-year-old wines from neutral oak, sorted into sub-regional categories and tasted blind.

This program has nothing to do with sales gimmicks.  The makers submit these unfinished wines in trust that they will not be unfairly named and criticized on quality grounds.  The idea is that a selected panel can scour them to see whether the various regional geologies and terroirs have distinctive patterns of flavour and aroma, which of course they do.

Last year, in order to seek statistical patterns in the descriptors the judges use, the tasting involved a large number of tasters and a tick-the-box system, which infuriated and confounded my slydexia: my graying white matter fuses when confronted with any type of standard form; the usually reliable writer’s vocabulary withers when restricted to descriptors chosen by others.  Boxes are to be emptied, anyway, not filled with ticks.

They did the same exercise again, but I was spared.  This year just a few of us sat down at the big white bench and discussed each bracket without knowing which sub-region the wines came from, which proved a much more satisfactory educational tool for this writer at least.

Simply put, the quality of the 2011 wines was confronting.  The horrid wet vintage, with all its errant funguses and moulds, was not, contrary to some stupid claims, a good year in anybody’s language.  The marketers and vendors who insist on talking it up obviously think otherwise, proving they have little or no respect for the consumer.

Why they can’t swallow some reality and match, say, the honesty of the wheat farmers beats me.  Those blokes’ll simply say they’ve had a bugger of a year and get on with planning for the next one.

As if an illustration of winery snake oil were required, a notable new release bottle has just hit this desk.  It’s a very pale Grenache rosé from the Moppa flats north of the Barossa.  It’s about as neutral as a Grenache can get, as if it’s been pasteurized, filtered and centrifuged: just what a great percentage of the 2011 wines require to make them better resemble your actual wine.  But the propaganda sheet says simply “Cool conditions during March meant we had to pick our grapes a little later than usual but the grapes came off with delicate aromatic qualities and freshness.”

In the second-wettest vintage in Australian history?  Pull the other one.  Many vineyards in the north Barossa were actually submerged in floodwater during vintage.  You’ll find that floodwater will often provide cooler vintage conditions, and make later picking more of a necessity.

What fascinated me in our Shiraz tasting was that in spite of the terrible year, the wines of each sub-region – Barossa Grounds, they’re calling them – showed quite distinctive aspects not so evident in wines from the other sites.  So we’re starting to be able to say with conviction that the various Grounds are as distinctive, as, say, the twelve recognized appellations of Beaujolais are distinctly different in the flavours they produce.  This has occurred again, in spite of the lousy squishy year.

What surprised me even more was the way each Ground broke away from many of the styles we had noticed in the previous three drier years.  Each area was distinctively different once again, but in ways quite removed from their appearance in the better preceding years.  More important stuff to pack in that swelling, invaluable database!

The old rocks of Gomersal, for example, gave the wines a lean, taut austerity, and a phenolic range that smelt and tasted like wet chalk. They showed plenty of lemon pith to bolster that dry finish, and maybe a sense of dried seaweed, which I usually relate to salt.  Maybe the endless rains got the salt moving in the marine limestone of those parts.

Next came a set of wines from the spread of country from Williamstown through Lyndoch to Rowland Flat. There are various unrelated geologies in this area, from the sediments of the Lyndoch Valley (over ancient schists) to the deep ferruginous sands of Rowland Flat, but the class still had its commonalities.  The wines seemed to share a visceral, fatty-acid flesh (botrytis-derived glycerols?) over a sinister metallic acid base, which Charlie Melton called coal tar, matching my suggestion that it resembled the sump oil from a Chamberlain tractor, a character that I frequently praise if the wines are balanced.  In previous years, I have found the fruit of these Grounds much more floral and scented.

The following set – Bethany-Krondorf-Vine Vale came from the piedmont sediments as well as the older bluestone schists of the range across the Stonewell Fault.  This geology very closely resembles the corresponding part of the Willunga Escarpment piedmont in McLaren Vale, from Hugo through Noon and Pertaringa.  I eagerly anticipate the day when we can compare both regions.  These wines were softer of overall texture, but more noticeably alcoholic.  Once again, that middle palate character that was textural more than flavoured may simply be botrytis-derived glycerols, as best manifest in Chateau d’Yquem.  But not Barossa Shiraz. I got the feeling that all these wines were picked at the same time.  They were not much like they looked in the previous tastings.

Eden Valley and the Barossa uplands in general were hit very badly by the various moisture-driven plagues.  They lacked much sense of fruit, and seemed marshy, swampy and dissipated.  I kept reporting the aroma of Samphire swampland, which once again is usually a salt indicator.  Texturally, they shared the slimy character of the “slip-skin” botrytis rampant there in 2011.  While these were of course unfinished and rough wines, and not for public release until they’re cleaned up (or rejected) they showed little of the unique force and authority they had in the previous three tastings.

Light Pass was next: the red dirt alluvium north of the Nuriootpa-Angaston Road.  For some reason, I felt these had instead come from black dirt, like maybe the cracking Bay of Biscay stuff north of Rockford. They had an immediate consistency of texture, with bone dry tannins and deeper, more intense fruits.  No jam, but glycerol-like mouthfeel.

Further north lies the Ebenezer/Moppa Ground.  The freak year saw these consistently share a fruitmince/Christmas cake/panforte complexity that is usually the character that makes the Greenock/Seppeltsfield/Marananga fruit special.  My fellow tasters felt this was a highly inconsistent class, which I wondered may be due to them, as winemakers, finding any fault a professional embarrassment. 

The next class, called Greenock, included wines from the several quite distinctively different geologies of the Greenock/Marananga/Seppeltsfield area.  These vary from extremely old rocks to very young alluviums.  Several showed salt indicators.  Otherwise they shared a distinctive lemony pithiness, velvety tannins, and noticeably alcoholic tail ends.  But they were not much like the wines we saw in previous years.

The trio of wines from the Stonewell area had nothing in common at all, apart from, perhaps the indicators of an extremely difficult year.    

So there you are.  I offer profound thanks to the winemakers for having the guts to display wines from such a hellish vintage, and wish them much better luck for the impending year.  I trust, and wager, that the 2012s will be back in the style of the previous three tastings, and we can get right back on with uncovering the incredible mysteries of the various Barossa Grounds.

Later this week, the McLaren Vale winemakers will stage their first such tasting: 2011s from neutral one year old French oak.  I’m hanging out for this exciting exercise, and as I say, eagerly anticipating the day when we can compare wines from the corresponding geologies of Barossa and McLaren Vale.  That WILL be something!

29 January 2012



The Bone Arse Bison Of Poland Knows Much More About Grass
And Losing Weight Than AT&F

“It smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it is so soft on the palate and so comfortable, it’s like listening to music by moonlight ... "  

W. Somerset Maugham on Żubrówka

For forty years this writer has faithfully believed that Żubrówka is the most perfect of the flavoured vodkas.  Not only is its rye spirit as clean as a whistle, but it has a peculiar meadow-grass freshness and bouquet that most find totally disarming – even those who can’t normally handle a shot of neat liquor seem to sip it tenuously for just a moment before schlücking it down with an aaah, which is followed by a grin

But this hadn't occurred for a very long time: I haven't seen a bottle for many years.  After its long absence from the shelves I normally nudge, I was delighted to find it in a handsome new package in Dan Murphy’s for $40. 

I need to make clear now that I rarely set foot in a Dan’s den to purchase booze: like porn, I go in only for the music and the furniture.

That was a joke.  I don’t go because I can’t abide Woolworth’s, the owner.  It’s the only one of the Oz supermarket duopoly which I hate more than Coles.  These brutes might sell booze cheap, but they destroy everything I love about real Australian wine.

And through their union, the Shoppies, their staff actually run the Australian Labor Party.  Due to their stranglehold on the party, that vacuous Jacinta driving the belt and the crash register may well be your next Prime Minister. 

"Any fly-byes today at all?" she'll arks. Arks Kevin Rudd and Mike Rann, I think savagely to meself.  Have a noice day.

Made by Polmos Bialystok in Poland by distilling rye grain to 40% alcohol, Żubrówka is flavoured with an essence of “the grass much beloved by the Polish Bison”.  This big beast, perfectly named Bison bonasus by Linnaeus in 1758, is the Żubr in the local patois.  More generally, it’s called the Wisent, from the Old Norse Visundr.   
The ancient  Germans used its horns, which are longer than those of the American Bison, to make their helmets look more macho.  Contrary to popular myth, the Vikins preferred to wear raven or sea eagle wings on their hard hats.  Only after decapitating a horn-wearing Hun and sinking a few deep ceremonial drafts from his sköl, would they souvenir his Visundr horns for general drinking.  Priorities, see. 

The Żubr is a tough, slow-looking monster that can stand two metres tall and weigh around a tonne, but can up and leap a two metre fence from a standing start when the mood takes it.  This may be due to it being hunted to extinction in the wild.  The Żubr has only recently been rehabilitated through a careful program of breeding captive stock for release in appropriate country.  Over 3000 roam free today, in assorted wilder lands in north-east Europe.

A healthy Żubr can eat up to 30 kilograms of bison grass a day.  This common plains grass is formally known as Hierochloe odorata because of its beautifully sweet aroma. You really want to lie in it.  For dressing, each bottle of Żubrówka contains a single blade of it.  The essence gives the vodka an attractive straw hue.

I first discovered the relaunched Żubrówka in November, on a tile night in a deadly Melbourne vodka joint called Naked For Satan.   It’s in Brunswick Street Fitzroy, and you’d be an idiot not to occasionally surrender to it.  The next morning I miraculously stepped out of a car to open the gate of the Castagna family’s stunning vineyard and winery at Beechworth, on the northern side of the Victorian Alps. 

Castagna’s our leading biodynamic wine enterprise, and has been since the start.  You’d be an idiot not to surrender there, too, although they make it hard by opening their cellar only one day a year, in November.  Its wines are always amongst the very best in the country.  They often have a peculiarly sweet-herb/meadow-floral aromatic component, which had mystified me. 

So it was miraculous to step out of the renter which stank of the polyvinyl chloride plastic new car smell, which gives you liver cancer, and be hit with an overwhelming whoosh of the smell of Żubrówka: that beautiful sweet rich meadow aroma.  A Żubrówka overdose does not deliver a hangover beyond three Richter and mild dehydration, but nevertheless the overwhelming bouquet of the vineyard and its surrounding pasture seemed miraculous and restorative and utterly, freakishly Żubrówka.  It leap-frogged me straight over Naked For Satan to my childhood in the lush clovers of Gippsland.  Man it was good. 


I said at the time that I nearly sprouted horns and cloven hooves on the spot.  Like poor old General Custer, I could have died breathing it.

For those who came in late, the Battle of Little Big Horn was originally known as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, greasy meaning rich and sweet bison pasture.  Give me greasy grass over little or big horns every time, I say.

The odd faithless detractor suggested I had smelt only my own exhalation upon my egress.  And I almost began to believe them as I scoured the meadows and the vineyard headlands over the next few days, failing to isolate one single blade of anything that looked like bison grass or buffalo grass.  I eventually lost my receptive capacity to detect the aroma, drenched in it as I must have been.  But then we began serious tasting and there it was in the sublime white wines of Castagna and Adam’s Rib. 

Since procuring my Żubrówka, which is in acute danger of expiring tonight, I have nursed a growing curiosity about bison grass, and the sudden reappearance of the vodka, which has been quietly re-launched here in spanking new livery by the distributor, Pernod-Ricard.  

It didn’t take long to discover that it was banned by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in the USA in 1978, because that beautiful aroma and flavour comes from the totally natural phenylpropanoid compound coumarin, which, like water, is not too good for humans or rats when extreme amounts are devoured. 

As well as giving bison grass its perfect aroma, coumarin occurs quite naturally in plants like cinnamon and chamomile – in the appropriate concentrations, humans love it.  We drink it as a calming tonic; a satisfying soporific.  It is used in perfumes as a fixer and an attractant.  But it has evolved in many pasture grasses and clovers to perform the opposite role: in extreme concentrations it becomes a bitter appetite suppressant, and deters many critters from eating the relevant herb, which then has a better chance of survival. 

It’s a bit like the methoxypyrazine, which gives the Sauvignons, blanc and Cabernet, their distinctive grassy edge.  Until the grape is ready for its seed to germinate, it maintains high levels of this bitter agent to deter predators like birds.  But the moment that seed is ready to sprout, the vine turns off its methoxypyrazine production, and instead begins to dump its acid and pump up its sugar to attract those same predators.  Cabernet even changes colour from its camouflage green to an alluring purple-red.  The lucky bird will then devour the berry, and by the time it’s out the other end, it will have incubated and sprouted, thus perpetuating the vine.

Perversely, it is this deterrent which has now ensured what appears to be the eternal life of the Sauvignons.  We perpetuate them by planting them all over the world, so we can drink them while this character is there in the appropriate level: since the deterrent became the attractor, they no longer have any need to sprout.  And we can detect the stuff in parts per trillion.  If you can’t work out what that means, try to grasp the gap between one dollar and a trillion.

I’m sure that in extreme concentrations such a deterrent is bad for humans and rats, just like coumarin. 

Not so with the ATF boyos.  Their banning of Żubrówka lasted until last year, when an artificed placebo called Zu was launched by Remy Martin.  This is rye vodka flavoured and coloured with entirely artificial compounds; even the blade of buffalo grass is not what it seems.  It’s been purged.  Sanitised.  Sanctified and faked for America the brave, a nation which obviously requires no appetite suppressant.

The AFT reckons their war against bison grass arose from the fact that if exposed to certain moulds, coumarin transforms to the anti-coagulant dicoumarol, which causes internal bleeding.  This is why cows can get sick after eating fermented clover, like silage.  Some rat poisons include a synthesized parallel compound, which makes them bleed to death.  The AFT also thought it damaged livers and kidneys.

But the facts?  Taken neat?  Coumarin eases swelling. It shrinks tumours. It seems to scare off the human immunodeficiency virus. It settles irregular heartbeat. It eases asthma and hayfever. It’s analgæsic.  Antiseptic.  It’s good for osteoporosis. Check that skeleton above. And of course the ancients used it for ailments of the kidneys and liver, as if to snub their wise old noses at modern America.

The German government has ruled that coumarin’s tolerable daily intake for a person is 0.1mg per kilogram of body weight, but it makes clear that a temporary excess is of little matter.  A teaspoon of cinnamon contains around 10mg of coumarin, a litre of Żubrówka around 12mg.

So a man 30% bigger than me would need to drink one litre of 40% alcohol Żubrówka a day to reach Germany’s moderate border.  Unless he’s an American, which he most likely would be if he were that obese.  In which case he really needs an appetite suppressant.  Does Monsanto do one?

As for Australia?  I have asked the Sydney-based Pernod-Ricard Żubrówka brand manager which model is sold in Australia.  He hasn’t got back to me yet, but if his news is positive I'm sure he'll be a lot quicker than he has been.  I thought the bottle I've had is more or less the stuff I remember – it reminds me much of the good old oil, and I can see no artifice about its spiritous beauty.  

Confession, however:  I have been tipping this in as a cocktail.  I've been serving it on big rocks half-and-half with cold Ku-Ding stick tea, which is the most efficacious and bitter tea in all of China.  It's on a par with wormwood, which is another subject again, apart from the Pernod-Ricard link, and the little matter of thujone and absinthe.  I love that stuff, too.  But I reckon my Żubrówka/Ku-Ding/lime juice and ice is about the best thing I've tipped in there this year, so it cannot be the Zu.

And it IS labelled “the original bison grass vodka”.  

But so is the fake American Zu.

If we’re getting that shit, I’ll leave my tattered tasting reputation as dead as dumb Custer to rot at the door of Woolies and retire comfortably drinking Castagna and chamomile from Dan Murphy’s sköl.

And no. No Fly-Byes, thanks.  I'm just an ordinary citizen. 

We finally got a response.  Aussie Żubrówka is the REAL DEAL.

28 January 2012


The aroma of baking bread is a nostalgic thing.  The loaf in my cooker is a typical Casa Blanco hybrid, using Cooper’s Stout instead of water, Vegemite in place of salt, molasses instead of white sugar, a nip of Lagavulin, beautiful Laucke’s wholemeal flour and a couple of spoons of fresh-ground coffee, just to torture the sensories way beyond reason.

Along with those grainy gingham memories of youth, this sweet wave of maltiness and yeast brings to mind the lead-up to vintage 2012, which has progressed more calmly than the viticulturers and winemakers, who have been biting their nails, hoping Bacchus over-rules the sky doctors, who had been forecasting another wet La Niña summer.  Not quite as wet as that last horrid thing, but wet anyway.  Watch out for February, they’ve been warning.  February starts on Wednesday.

November and December looked like even more rain, and gave us plenty.  Leaves that had been scarred by late spring hail quickly gave rise to moulds still viable from the previous vintage: the entire South Mount Lofty Ranges had not gotten sufficient warm, windy weather to kill the spores off, and many growers couldn’t afford to purchase the fungicide anyway.  People with clean vineyards looked edgily across fences at those who not only failed to spray during that 2011 mess, but never sold a berry, and due to lack of cash, left the crops to rot further on the vines, and then couldn’t afford to prune.  Incubators.

We talked of buying a herd of goats which you could truck around the vignoble, like commandoes, to devour all the dodgy bits of those broke vineyards and prune them at the same time.  It’d be rough, but clean, and the goats would leave neat little pellets of Caprine Crap brand ferts.  I’m sure that the burnt-arse, humiliated owners would have found the exercise a relief, and amongst our refugees from Afghanistan, Namibia and Ethiopia we could find somebody who’d know too well how to manage a herd of goats in the unfenced vineyards.  Most of those people can’t find work, and there are various cheesewrights about who’d love to buy the milk.

But Jesus’s 2012th birthday came round with a wave of typical summer heat (typical for a change), and then we had the hottest New Year in over a century.  We’ve had drying winds and warmth, and while some vineyards round the Vales showed a little yellowing of leaves in the crown, everything gradually became more and more satisfying to behold.

The local firebug has been busy, setting deadly blazes off every time the mercury crosses 35, or when the winds seem sure to turn the smallest spark into a deadly conflagration.  He, or she, got a beauty going last week, just a few kilometres south on the other side of the faultline.  The wind kept changing, making it tricky to contain in those steep hills. The water bombers were like a swarm of wasps, and over a couple of days, the heroic fireys finally contained it. The bastard will be very lucky if the police arrest him before the locals catch him and tear him to bits. He’s been at it for four summers now.  People are watching each other.

I took a ride to the Barossa a few days ago, and was delighted to see the vineyards of the Adelaide Hills and Barossa Ranges looking really schmick: balanced, healthy and happy.  The Barossa floor is the same.  The bunches are clean and petite; the berries small.  It’ll be a low yield, whatever the weather.  Anticipating wet, the growers have done lots of leaf-plucking to ensure the grapes are exposed to whatever drying breezes happen to waltz on through.  Some have then flinched at the waves of moderate heat we’ve had, hoping that they’ve not left the fruit so exposed that it may be sunburnt, but so far, that has not chosen to occur.

The far north of Australia, meanwhile is under savage tropical deluge again, the same as last year - the second wettest vintage in our history.  Some places have had over a metre of rain in just a few days. Great spreads of Queensland and northern New South Wales are flooded again: freak water that will no doubt come oozing down the Murray-Darling system, convincing the greedy irrigators there that such floods are normal.  Wrong.  In the Murray Mallee, drought is normal.

At Yangarra, the nights have been cool enough to pull the duvet up, and the days have been perfect: hanging in there just above or around 30 degrees Centigrade, with bright enamel blue skies that go all the way from here right over the Pacific to Farishta in New Mexico.  But now that we’ve virtually destroyed India on the hallowed turf of the Adelaide Cricket ground, and the track stayed firm to please our killer bowlers AND batsmen, there’s a mighty thunderstorm building up on the range in celebration, and where I expect to hear the bread beeping its completion, I hear the growl of surly thunder. 

Which is sinister, but it beats the coarse arias that Keith sang.  The crew here were pioneers in this district, using sheep and cattle to eat the vineyard weeds and keep the sward down in the dormant months between harvest and budburst. This removes the need for herbicide, and diminishes the number of soil-compacting tractor passes required to keep the vineyard tidy. To avoid the little matter of building a shearing shed, they use Dorper sheep, which look a lot like fullback Nubian goats with tight curly fleeces.  They simply shed their wool, so need no shearing.  But they have the appetite of goats, and do a remarkable job of turning weeds into fertiliser.

One morning I was awoken at first light by a repetitive cry that sounded like a cross between a rip-saw and an angle-grinder.  It was Keith 99, the new Dorper ram, who'd just arrived and been parked in the foaling paddock outside my window.  Keith was only ten months old, but was built like a Mallee bull at 90 kilograms, and had the number 99 sprayed on his back. This was his time of adjustment to a new environment, so he had the entire field to himself. He behaved more like a friendly hound than a ram, always belting across the paddock for a scratch and a chat; he'd even lean over so Peter's cattle dogs could lick his face.

But that wasn't sufficient solace for young Keith, who obviously felt he had work to do. After a few days, his baying prominently ceased.  He'd done a runner during the night, squeezed through the old post-and-rail fence, and fled across several vineyards to where the girls were agisted.  He's been happily busy since, attending to his conjugal duties with great commitment. So there are plenty more little weed-eaters out there now, waiting for the harvest to be done so they can get back to their vineyard duties.

While it's not started at Yangarra yet - the extra altitude here delays ripening - I've seen a few grape trucks nosing along the roadways of the Vales, delivering the earliest white grapes to the big refineries, probably for sale for fizz base. It's very early, but clean.   

That bread's the most imminent thing at this moment, and the thunder's backed off. I’m in cruel need of just one slice, toasted on one side, and spread on the other with a slab of smoked Tasmanian salmon, the odd caper, a few rings of Spanish onion, and a dob of my sweet neighbour’s marinaded curd.

Not to mention that glass of Roussanne.

The last thing anybody needs now is more hail.  Touch wood, and make it French.

26 January 2012



Death of a Shed Man

One of the great shed men left us last week.

I have written about sheds before: how a proper shed is better than a grand hotel; and how those who manage sheds, and grow them, and coddle them through their birth and the sparse, lonesome difficulties of adolescence, to the prime, well-cluttered years of middle life and maturity, are usually our finest citizens.

Ian MacDonald’s shed was a new one to me, and I got to visit it only the once.  It had cosy leather chairs and the vital organs of motorcycles polished and displayed on tidy shelves.  It had several wings – it was one of those sheds which had, well, grown.  Part of it had that breed of roof from which all things hang, and you could sit there and drink and tell the truth about machinery.  One of its extensions sort of wrapped around the side of the house like a big warm arm, and it had a fridge full of icy cold beer perched on its elbow.  Lucy, the shed-owner’s daughter, in a delinquent, solicitious whisper, told me of that fridge on the day of my visit, and I applied myself with all due diligence. It was our secret fridge.

Partly because he was an incredibly practical man, partly because he was one of our best architects and civic thinkers, and largely because he loved motorcycles with an intense, burning passion, did MacDonald build his shed between his house and the street.  That shed was the first thing you’d reach once you’d gone through his gateway.  Only past the shed would you come to the back of the house.

That house faced into the block, its back to the street, so the shed gradually became the house.  The yard space was mainly past the house, out in the bit we would usually call the back; fenced and private.  Ian called that his front.  Sometimes it filled with motorcycles, too, but the easiest place to park was amongst the bushes near the street.  You would gather around, beside, or inside the shed.

It’s funny how you see a drinking companion on the horizon.  Ian MacDonald came from an unusual direction for me – he invited me to join him and his colleagues on the Civic Trust jury, and through our numerous meetings and deliberations I reveled in his wit and wisdom and his huge concern for the look and feel of our city.

The only drink we got to share through all of that was water.  But that was little matter.  There would be plenty of time once the work was done.  “We shall all go out to dinner,” he said, and I knew we would.

So when my mate invited me to his house for a few quiet drinks to celebrate his eightieth birthday, I slowly filled with a calm, warm, patient anticipation.

“If you’ve got an old motorbike to ride, I’d advise you to bring it,” he said.

The row of impacted vertebrae in my back and the various arthritic hinges and pulleys spread about my minions are reason enough for me to have long ago abandoned motorcycles as a mode of transport.  Bikes have been promoted to items of pure idolatry for me: something to whisper about from a good way back; far too awesome to stroke.  Leave the riding to the eighty-somethings, I told myself.  I would take a taxi, and instead of thrilling transport, I would find a nice bottle.

Finding a good birth vintage wine for an octogenarian is a difficult task – the best I could manage was a 1923 tawny. It had come from the Yalumba Museum, and had obviously been re-corked and waxed with great care, so I negotiated a price, bit my lip, and headed back up the track to Ian’s party.


You couldn’t get in for bikes.  There were dozens.  Broughs and Bimmers and Vincents, Ducatis and Harley-Davidsons, and one lonesome Tilbrook.  Kym Bonython came in on his famous MV Agusta, and there grinning in the midst of it was MacDonald.

“Put this away,” I said.  “Have it later.  It’s special.”

“Okay. I’ll start working on the guest list.”

He held that bottle with both hands.  It was just a matter of waiting.  We would be having dinner soon, by Jove.

The day prickled by – it was very hot and blue and the seed pods popped with the stubby lids.  The buzz of anecdote and honeybee slowed now and then when one of the mighty engines lit up, giving the noses as much to work on as the ears and eyes.

Ian did the rounds, but stuck mainly to his shed, where eventually, once the mobs thinned, we sat beneath the dangling bits that would come in handy one day and pulled the corks from a few deep reds.  Wendouree Shiraz at shed temperature.  Australia in the summer.  Lazy, bright, humourous yarns and laughter there ’neath the galvo with Pitti and Lu and some well-worn, lived-in mates.  Shed gospel.

Something about Shiraz it was, too.  Something about how deep and dark and compact the winesmith squashes history when he turns out a good one like the Wendouree. It was all confidence-boosting, reassuring stuff. We would all last as long as that damned Wendouree.

Of course we can’t.

When the bad news came, I wailed and cruised the bars, looking for the odd stray trace of this remarkable, beloved bloke with whom I would never again share communion.  Then I got to thinking about that bottle of port, and took deep relish in the thought that at least he’d left with my shout warming his belly.


But no, I should have known.  Ian MacDonald had promised to share that port over a dinner.  At the funeral Lu said she’d found a good bottle of port she’d once bought him, and she thought there was one from me there as well.  The skinny old bloke with the scythe was among the few who had managed to force Ian to change his word.  “So you’d better come and help me with it,” she warned me.

You bloody bet I’ll help with it.  And anything else that needs to be cleaned up.  And I’ll never forget dear Pitti, suddenly adjusting to this foreign thing they call widowhood, looking into me to say:  “It was such a short friendship, Philip.”  Short friendship indeed.  Just a glimpse, really.  A glimpse and a visit and a red in the shed.  But such a bright, full, fortunate glimpse of a drinking chap on his sweet home patch.  A bloke who’d actually got there.

This was previously published in The Advertiser, again in Stories from The Shed (Mark Thomson; Angas and Robertson; 1996) and again in The Complete Blokes And Sheds (Mark Thomson; Angas and Robertson; 2005).  If anyone has a photograph of Ian MacDonald on a bike - or off - I would dearly appreciate a copy!


23 January 2012



Enlightened Vision For Roxby
Bold New Vignobles In Outback Innovation Minister Must Move

News addicts may have noticed the Greeks attracting considerable press lately: something to do with a cultural tendency to avoid paying bills.  But the current squabble over their petty cash tin is nothing compared to the international crisis triggered in 1997 by one of DRINKSTER’s favourite writers on issues gastronomic, Jeffrey Steingarten, food editor at US Vogue.

In his delicious tome, The Man Who Ate Everything, Steingarten isolated the whole of Hellenism by suggesting Greek cuisine was an oxymoron. 

“The British go to Greece just for the food,” he wrote, “which says volumes to me.  You would probably think twice before buying an Algerian or Russian television set.  I thought for ten years before buying my last Greek meal.”

To paraphrase, he suggested that any race that pickles its national cheese in seawater and adulterates its national wine with pine resin should stick to the pursuit of pre-Socratic philosophy and carving the big white statues.

Which leads me to the matter of the Hon. Tom Koutsantonis M.P., South Australia’s greatest Greek since Dean Lukin (who won top bling once for lifting something really heavy), or perhaps that stalwart friend of Labor, the developer Gerry Karidis (who made even the pages of the Australian Women’s Weekly for his 1975 introduction of the Pakistani financier, Tirath Khemlani, to the Federal Minister for Minerals and Energy of the day, R. F. X. Connor, a handshake which ensured Gough Whitlam’s government hit the shell grit).

“Kouts” (pictured with breathalyser),  the former cab-driving Shoppie , is Minister for ALP-Billiton, digger of the world’s biggest hole in the ground.  His CV on the Premier and Cabinet website suggests he “enjoys cooking”, highlighting his dedication to the Greek Orthodox church and other things unique to its culture.  After some nonsense about football, the blurb goes so far as to claim him to be “very active in the local community as proud Member and Patriot [sic] of organisations and associations such as the St. George Orthodox Church [and the] Messinian Association.”

Since he contentiously lost his position of Minister for Road Safety when the little matter of some 58 traffic offences and over $10,000 of unpaid fines came to light, Kouts's career has bloomed.  As well as being Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy, he is now Minister for Innovation, which is a key part of the Very Big Suggestion I am about to make.  It is indeed a suggestion of Olympian proportion, but it’s right up Kouts’s portfolio, whichever way you look at it.  And who knows?  It may even help him establish a new school of Austro-Greek cuisine and fine Grocker retsina.

I speak of BHP-Billiton's proposed uranium mine at Olympic Dam, on the old Roxby Downs Station in South Australia's far north.

One of the problems associated with digging a hole over 4.1 kilometres long, 3.5 kilometres wide and at least a kilometre deep is the little matter of where to put the waste rock.  You could, say, simply stack it up in a pile of that proportion, creating a mountain twice the height of Mount Lofty.  This is impractical, as the footprint of a pile of such weight, say about 13 billion tones, would destabilise the highly inconvenient Masher’s Fault, which dissects the precious orebody.  We don’t want tremors on top of all those magnificent explosions in the pit.

So, to an extent, the pile will have to be spread out.  The diggers propose a footprint of 6,720 hectares: twice the size of Coonawarra’s famous Terra Rosa strip.  But for “environmental” reasons, including amenity, and the potential destabilising of the local weather patterns as much as earthquake zones, they’re limiting its height to only 150 metres. This is typically bureaucratic anal retentive thinking.


We need to think on a more lofty but less lateral scale for our astonishing hybrid.  We could call it Mount Olympus, but I foresee something more Babylonic than Greek: a new Wonder of the World: not so much a Tower of Babel; more your spectacular hanging gardens.

As a highly unpaid Thinker In Residence, I dare suggest Kouts calls in the services of his colleague, the Hon. Gail Gago MLC, Minister for Agriculture, whose Ministerial portfolios also include Food and Fisheries, Forests, Regional Development, and Tourism.  Having had the pleasure of sharing the odd gastronomic adventure with my good friends Ms. Gago and her winemaking husband, Peter, I can assure you she knows her way around a proper bottle of wine, which is entirely appropriate for a woman of her standing.

The geology of the Olympic Dam deposit has fascinated me since my days in the SA Geological Survey, away back when Don Dunstan’s Department of Mines was assisting Western Mining’s exploration of the region, and the  consequent discovery of that humungous ore body.
Five long years before the 24/7 remotely-controlled diggers hit anything like radioactivity, they’ll have to remove thirty metres of Aeolian sands and clays, and then about forty metres of Andamooka limestone.  Next level down’s about 180 metres of shaley Arcoona quartzite, which is not much use to the prospective gardener, unless its silica could be ground and used to make the essential biodynamic 501 preparation.


But beneath the quartzite is a handy layer of ferruginous Corraberra sandstone, which brings to mind the Maslin sands which give that invaluable richness and complexity to the wines of Blewett Springs and Baker’s Gully at the north-western corner of the McLaren Vale vignoble. 

A touch of sensible planning could see these priceless terranes put to one side until the rest of the mountain is built.  This should be carefully designed from the start to take the form of a series of broad terraces, climbing, say, to a height of around 600 metres, or at least the altitude of the verdant Piccadilly Valley (400 – 550 metres).  Given the appropriate meterological advice, a range could be established at an angle that would deflect the prevailing winds towards the south-east, increasing the rainfall all the way down across the Lake Torrens saltpan to Port Augusta.

Once your perfectly-terraced mountain is complete, a simple matter of spreading the clays, capping them with a layer of limestone, and/or the Aeloian sands or the ferruginous Corraberra sands, would have you a dial-up set of vignobles of ideal altitudes and micro-climates.  Want Pinot? We’ll make you a perfect Burgundian terrane at the top, on the eastern side, sheltered from the destructive afternoon sun and westerlies by the Hon Gago’s new alpine forests.  Some of this should be Flinders Ranges native pine, Callitris columellaris, which is naturally repulsive to all sorts of bugs and rots, and would make perfect vineyard trellis posts without any of the permanently toxic poisons of Perma-Pine, which cannot be burned or even buried in landfill without breaking the law, and must have a deleterious influence on grapeyard grounds everywhere else.

Want Cabernet country?  Try Level Three, where we’ve replicated Coonawarra.  Any of the hot new varieties which end in O?  No worries. We’ve done 500 hectares  of Alto Adige up there, some high Spanish country across there, and we could easily give you some Campania on the western slopes and some Champagne, come to think of it, up on the other side near the Burgundy bit.


As these new regions will be totally free of mildews and botrytis, poisonous sprays will be unnecessary: it can be certified organic and biodynamic from the start.

Given the beautiful forest lines, and all this new productive vegetation, you might just be able to slice off a big chunk of the mine’s most embarrassing vital stats, which seem certain to increase South Australia’s greenhouse emissions by an absolute minimum of twelve per cent.

As there’ll be nobody there to complain ’til it’s finished, a mutha of a wind farm could be built along the ridge tops, supplying electricity to the mine and residents.

Another leader with impeccable gastronomic credentials, the Hon Patrick Conlon MP, Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, and Minister for Housing and Urban Development, will understand the perfect beauty of this plan.  In the slopes separating these terraced vignobles, prefabricated concrete houses could be inserted as the mountain is built, to be finished and detailed once it’s complete.  These would be naturally cooled in summer, and stable in winter, as only one of their sides would be exposed; the rest safely buried.


Along with the access roads and public amenities: all this could be prefabricated and buried within the mountain as it grows. As would the water recycling plant, where the skrillions of tonnes of water used in the pit and the mill processes can be cleaned up.

The ideal housing model is the stunning underground house the late Alan Hickinbothan built decades ago, to look out over  his vineyard at Clarendon.  There was much more than Hickinbothan Homes to that crafty old fox.

Oh, and the little matter of radiation?  Radon emissions? Even without his direct genetic links to the powerful godheads of yore, Kouts already assures us this is well in hand, and that there’s absolutely nothing to be worried about. 

When we develop his delicious hybrid retsina for the launch, we would of course include the sap of that native pine.

And just to prove one of the greatest international gastronomes wrong, we could invite Jeffrey Steingarten to open the thing and share in the big barbecue these three Ministers could prepare for us.  Jeff may like to have his own personal Steingarten Vineyard there on some lofty slope with a view. 


22 January 2012


Click the above to enlarge Stacey Pothoven's photograph of the author in the Yangarra High Sands Grenache vineyard at Kangarilla in McLaren Vale, South Australia; weed-eating sheep in the background.  

These vines were planted in deep Aeolian Sand by Bernard Smart and his Dad in 1946. The vineyard has never been watered. The author's photo below shows them sweltering in the near 50 degrees Centigrade (in the shade) heat of the horror vintage of 2009

Bernard still lives on the property, and teaches new vineyard workers to train the baby bush vines - Yangarra is very rare in that it has replaced many hectares of modern trellised Cabernet and Merlot vines with new bush vines of the north-west Mediterranean varieties. 

It's a testament to the hardiness of Grenache that in spite of this incredible summer, some -  not many - good wines were made.  Chester Osborn of d'Arenberg, who says things like this most years, bravely boasted it was a "great vintage" for Grenache. (Try to convince these gnarly old strugglers of that!) But it is indeed a testament to the hardiness of the variety that some fruit survived, even in this savage blisterer, which eventually burnt great swathes of Victoria to the ground, killing 173 people.  

To see a very good Spanish documentary about Grenache, click here.  DRINKSTER loves the quote from Federico Fellini, and thanks Mel and Dave Worthington of Cosecha Imports , the Melbourne Spanish wine specialists, for passing the link on.