“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)





28 February 2012


The first chillies of 2012 are much hotter than the 2011 vintage, with more of those durian/jackfruit aromatic vanillins in the fieriest ... these are first pick Jalapeno, Scottish Bonnet, Habanero and Bhut jolokia from the hell forest at Settlement Wines ... watch those pizzas! And check the hottest shop in town if you don't grow your own ... DRINKSTER'S preferred sluicer for the ghost?  Old Mill Estate Sparkling Touriga Brut ... get your little Opinel pocket knife from Fall From Grace ... and the devil worship?  The hottest vodka bar in Oz.  Just remember to wash your hands, there's a dear.

26 February 2012


Ray Beckwith and Thelma Schubert

A Very Special Day At Kalimna
The Man Who Wrote The Book
Gets On His Feet & Holds Forth
photography by RICHARD HUMPHRYS

IT WAS a day that belittled other days.

Not for its heat, which was the shimmering enamel blue Australian summer sort, nor its location, in the elegant old Kalimna homestead George Swan Fowler built beside his 1888 Block 42 Cabernet vineyard at the northern end of the Barossa Valley.

It could be seen as a big day for the people it drew away from their desks and vintage toil, or indeed their retirement: the cream of the Penfolds winemaking corps, past and present.  It could be regarded as a great day because of the delicious food Anne Oliver prepared, or the venerable and rare wines consumed.

No. The things that set that perfect day apart had to do with the manner in which humans of exceptional category can put their status aside to devote undivided respect to one they regard as beyond them: another whose achievements, intellectual dash and determined élan cannot be matched however they try, as those things have no need to be repeated, but only respected.  Indeed they are done, and they have forever improved the lives of the rest.

And it had mostly to do with the simple humility of Ray Beckwith, whose century of achievement we celebrated at that bright table.

Thelma Schubert, Sandy Coff (daughter of Thelma and Max Schubert), Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago, Ray Beckwith and the author.

92 year old Thelma Schubert, the elegant widow of Max, the creator of Australia’s most famous wine, was there in her wheelchair, embarrassed and apologetic that she’d hurt a foot and that the pressure bandage her nurse had applied lacked the elegance and grace due a lady of her standing on a day of such moment.

86 year old Don Ditter, the chief winemaker who took the Penfolds’ reins in the same year that Beckwith retired (1973), had come from his own retirement in Sydney to be there.  It was the first time I’d seen him, in the half a life since first we met, without an impeccable blazer and tie.

John Bird, the venerable winemaking rocker abbot of the Penfolds Magill Estate was there too, gingerly removing his own tie in gratitude of the good sense of his old boss.  It was very hot.

Retired Penfolds red master Rod Chapman was there.  All the pepper had gone from his thick mane, leaving only the salty silver.  And retired lab man Kevin Schroeter too: one of Beckwith’s stalwart assistants through all those decades of discovery in the Penfolds lab at Nuriootpa. 

And coming and going, as vintage had begun, was the throng of bright young things responsible for the great Penfolds wines we shall be drinking for the rest of our lucky lives. They all looked so big and strong and goddam healthy, and they sat in awe with the oldest of us.

Penfolds winemakers and staff old and new surround Thelma Schubert at the Kalimna homestead in the northern Barossa ... an unforgettable lunch came next.

Of course Peter Gago, the current chief of Penfolds was there, an eager host, apologising for fluffing the speech he’d written on a plane that morning, as he never normally reads speeches because he doesn’t need to - he can enthuse about any aspect of the mighty Penfolds ship without reference to notes.

Somehow he felt that a speech fit for Ray’s 100th must be written.

Once Peter had completed his tribute and introduction, and it was time for the great old man to speak, there was no further need for notes.

“Don’t get up,” we urged as Beckwith levered his walking stick to hoist his ancient bones from his chair.  “Sit down, Ray.”  Most would not have minded if he chose to do little more than pass his gratitude.

“I can get on my feet,” he insisted, and did without much ado.  It must be a travail to have lived such a tall and upstanding life to eventually find one’s bones subsiding within one’s skin, but unless you hug him with unnecessary enthusiasm, as I recently did, Ray never winces.

“Careful Philip,” he warned on that occasion.  “It’s only bones in there now.” 

So speak he did.  As he launched, humbly, but with the clarity of the confident who have no need to gild any lilies, I couldn’t help comparing his complete trustworthiness to the savage megalomania and hubris which was that morning tearing our Federal government apart. Young bodies wasted on ignorant bully brains.

“It’s good to be here,” he commenced, having made his thanks and reminding us it was eighty years since he returned to Roseworthy College to commence his twelve month cadetship to study cultured yeasts.  He had already won his Honours Diploma in Agriculture; now he had his sleeves up.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” he said.  “I feel nostalgic to come here, because when John Davoren and Margaret came here to live my wife and I came here to welcome them.”

Ray Beckwith and his late wife Coral at his Penfolds retirement dinner in 1973.

Davoren was the Penfolds Hunter Valley wine ace who rekindled Edmund Mazure’s 1880s recipe and consequent brand name to create St Henri Claret in a traditional stylistic response to Max Schubert’s radically brash Grange in 1953.  Davoren’s father and grandfather had worked before him at the Upper Hunter winery at Dalwood.  He was manager of Penfolds Minchinbury at Rooty Hill, when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force and headed off to fight the Japanese in the Pacific.  

Penfolds purchased Kalimna at the end of the war, and in 1945, when Davoren returned, he was sent to live there in the elegant stone farmhouse in which we sat. “But back to the early days,” Beckwith said, giving us just a moment to realize he meant the thirties - before Penfolds owned any Barossa vineyards - and not the forties. “I nearly didn’t survive Lesley Penfold Hyland’s rules.  I never smoked in the winery; only in the lab.  When he came into the lab and asked ‘Ray, what’s that running?’  I said ‘I’ve just put out a cigarette, Mr.Hyland,’ he looked at Alf [Scholz] and said ‘Send that boy home.  I won’t have him.’ ”

It was very much in Mr. Hyland’s interest to have the eager young chemist in his lab, however, and fortunately for Penfolds, and wine lovers everywhere, Beckwith survived. 

Heavy: The Penfolds crew in the lab in the fifties.  Left to right: Murray Marchant, Gordon Colquist, Ivan Combet (father of Federal Cabinet Minister Greg Combet), Perce McGuigan (father of Brian and Neil), Jeffrey Penfold-Hyland, Max Schubert, John Davoren, Don Ditter, Harold Davoren (John's father) and Ray Beckwith.  Ivan Combet's father was a winemaker, too, at Minchinbury before him.

He spoke of the distant locations from which Penfolds then took their fruit, and referred to the favourite varieties of the day: Grenache, Shiraz, and Mataro, in that order.  They made mainly fortified wines, not only popular in the market, but capable of surviving the Australian summer, which was right at that moment sending beaumé levels past the thirteens in the ancient vineyards outside.

“There were some good wines made,” he said, “but there were terrible losses through bacterial infection.  No cellar would admit to having a diseased wine, but the reality was that some wineries had twenty per cent spoilage and some forty per cent so they said ‘Well let’s say we have a 25 per cent loss'," a vagary which reminded me very much of the reluctance of today's winemakers to admit the scale of the damage wrought by moulds in 2011.

“It was the Depression when I graduated from Roseworthy,” he continued.  “I rode through the gates on a bike.  I had been considering attending university, but Professor A. E. Richardson said ‘Forget university – get a job!’ A job? In 1932?

“My father had a hardware store which depended on reclaiming swamps along the Murray for the dairy industry, but there was no room for me there.  So I studied wool classing at the then School Of Mines, and eventually got a letter saying I could get work at Plumbago Station.  That was my first stride into the big world.”

Plumbago is half-way between the outback towns of Hawker and Broken Hill, about forty kilometers north of the Barrier Highway at Manna Hill.

“We shore 30,000 sheep in six weeks on eight stands,” he said.  Ten years ago he drove his V12 Jag back up there through the dust to have another last look.  “They still had the same mattress on my bed,” he chuckled.

“When I got back [from the shearing] there was a letter from Roseworthy offering me a cadetship at ten shillings a week.  That 1933 year we had a record vintage at Roseworthy: 2,400 gallons.  I was in the lab with Alan Robb Hickinbotham.  He unveiled the mysteries of pH.  I was always curious.  It was in the soils and it was transferred to the wines.  I did trials on the fermentation efficiencies of controlled yeasts.  That was very important in those days of fortified wines.  The higher the alcohol you could achieve before fortification the less spirit you needed and there was less duty payable.”

He then worked for a time on sparkling wine at Hardy’s city cellars.

Master Penfolds winemakers Rod Chapman (retired), John Bird, Ray Beckwith and Peter Gago swapping yarns, as winemakers do.  photos: Philip White.

“Colin Haselgrove and Roger Warren at Hardy’s Mile End treated me so well.  They took me sailing.  Colin took me into his home.  We’d go to Balfours in King William Street and he’d get crayfish and mayo at 2/8d.  They introduced me to sparkling wine in the basement at  Currie Street.  One day they gave me a sparkling Shiraz to disgorge and I came out looking like a blotch of vermilion.

“My yeast paper was presented to the Melbourne conference in 1934.  There was no money to send me to Melbourne so it was read for me there and consequently published.  Lesley Penfold Hyland spotted that and as they say, filched the young Ray Beckwith from Hardy’s.  Colin Haselgrove said ‘Ray, you take it.  There’ll be several years before we can offer you something like that.’ So as a young winemaker at age 23 on January 22 1935 I was at Penfolds with 105 twelve ton fermenting tanks.   I’ve got to look after those.

“The bacterial losses that the winemakers then put up with I just didn’t know what to do with so I gave Lesley Penfold Hyland a line drawing of a yeast propagation machine which he produced. I selected a yeast from Portugal. I called it A1.  It produced millions of gallons of wine.

Job done: Max Scubert hands Ray Beckwith his retirement watch in 1973

“What about the natural yeasts?  A small dose of SO2 suppressed their activity, then a two per cent addition of my culture to the freshly-pressed musts meant I could clear the tanks in five days instead of seven. 

“Natural yeast produced a foam which retained heat.  Nobody would admit to the huge amount of spoiled wines.  I kept thinking ‘Why would we make wines and then go back and correct them?’ Adding bits of spoiled wines gradually to new ferments got rid of some of it.

“In 1936 I was at the University of Adelaide with Professor Macbeth, who gave me access to his private laboratory.  It had a modern pH meter, an extremely expensive device but deadly accurate, because of its glass Morton electrode.  We didn’t solve anything but we got a working knowledge of pH and its effect on the behaviour of wine.  I came out one day onto North Terrace to find it decorated with thousands of flowers.  It was the hundredth anniversary of the state.

“I took a foolscap sheet and typed on it a very simple statement: ‘pH control may be a useful tool to control bacteria in wine.’  Later I was on the Murray Bridge train, and I went down to the end of the carriage so I could sit on my suitcase, outside in the fog.  I was having a smoke, listening to that clickety clack under the dim yellow light, and I remembered I had a copy of John Fornachon’s sheet on the affect of lactobacillus on wine.  I took it out and told myself ‘I can use this!’  That was my eureka moment.  I told Lesley Penfold Hyland ‘I can crank this.’  I held up three brochures for pH meters and told him which one was the best.  It was the one with the Morton glass electrode.  It cost several times my salary.  He said ‘Get it.’ 

“I got the machine, so I had to set some standards.  I decided a pH of 3.8 was the maximum allowable in fortified wine.  I set to work and converted the whole place to that standard.  I didn’t ask anybody.  I just went out and did it.  That of course made a great difference to the company accounting.  A lot of people did a lot of good work, and that made a solid platform on which this big business can stand.

“So there you had the science.  Now you can have the art.”  He thanked everybody for their attention and said “I shall remember this day forever.” 

One candle per century: red masters Rod Chapman, John Bird, and vintage logistics officer Liz Nash watch Ray cut his 100th birthday cake.  "Never let the knife touch the bottom," he said, then blew the candle out with a very hearty puff for a lad who's been a bit of a smoker in his day.
Then he sat down.  Realising he could justifiably continue for hours, but this was lunch, he left us dangling in 1936.  There was little need to go on with the detail of his subsequent 37 years of brilliant research and development at Penfolds, most of which was kept highly secret, which must have frustrated him terribly.  (Max Schubert, who had no qualifications, had to make, promote, and sell wine.  He could say anything he liked. But his wines were utterly dependent upon Ray’s secret, methodical science.) 

We knew he could have explained his vital role in developing fining agents and his leading pasteurization work that Ian Hickinbotham refined next door at Kaiser Stuhl, revolutionizing Australian sparkling wine.  He could have gone on about his new technologies in quality control, his inventions and methods and discoveries in chemistry, microbiology and machinery.

He could also have explained how his forensic yeast research, combined with his pH discovery and his insistence upon an accurate meter to measure it, made possible Ian Hickinbotham’s deliberately induced and managed malolactic fermentations in the Wynn’s Coonawarra Clarets of 1952 and 53. Like the pH discovery, this was a world first. 

No need to go on.  There was fellowship at hand. Which we had in buckets.

Beckwith opening the extensions to the Penfolds Nuriootpa winery grape reception facility in 1972, the year before his 

In spite of him virtually inventing the winemaking recipes used internationally to this day, Beckwith was afforded little recognition until very late in his life.  He had been sworn to the stifling secrecy that dominated the Penfolds industrial culture until Ross Wilson and his SA Brewing bought the wineries of The Adelaide Steamship Company from the beleaguered John Spalvins in 1990, and even then it took years for Penfolds people to talk openly.  

When the first International Shiraz Alliance - dumb name; it was a symposium - was held in the Barossa in 2004, this writer was contacted by James Lindner of Langmeil Winery.  The stupid cost of the show prohibited most of the most exciting young small wineries from partaking, so they sought to mount a sort of fringe lunch event at a rock bottom spend, which they asked me to address.  I suggested it was time somebody asked Beckwith to explain himself, and that's what happened.  I shall never forget a table of Frenchmen from the south sitting with tears dribbling down as they listened to the great 92 year old matter-of-factly stand at a lecturn, and outline, for the first time in public, some of his discoveries.

"This is impossible," a Languedoc bloke muttered to me. "We use his formula every day.  We have never heard of him. And he is here."


Much of the belated acknowledgement of Beckwith's achievements came through the constant niggling of that brilliant nerdy wizard Ian Hickinbotham (left), son of Allan Robb Hickinbotham, the founder of the Roseworthy wine science college.  Hick Jr had heard his father speak of Beckwith; eventually they worked next door to each other, when Hick was at Kaiser Stuhl.  Methinks some of that oath of secrecy may have softened at the boundary fence: Hick reveres Becky to this day.  In the face of the Penfolds code of silence he harrassed the industry bodies and protocol wallahs of government until Beckwith finally began to be regarded.  

In 2008 Beckwith noted of the attention he was suddenly getting “All these things have come only after the last few years. It’s a good thing I didn’t conk out earlier, otherwise I wouldn’t have known!”

That special day raced off far too quickly.  The time came for the old man to head back to the modest Nuriootpa home he shares with his elderly son Jim, who’s been ill.  Ray still does his own basic housework; the laundry and stuff.  He gets a carer’s pension for looking after Jimmy, while the Penfolds vintage logistics wiz, Liz Nash, who lives nearby, keeps an eye on the both of them.

She probably has to tread a little warily. When asked the secret of his long and unprecedented life, Beckwith said “Secret? A good woman and a good red.  In that order.”

These are things he has in common with Max Schubert.  They are not a secret.

Two of the great noses of history: Beckwith, left, with Max Schubert in the old entertainment room at Magill, where the young White learned to grow a bit of a nose of his own, thanks to grand gentlemen like these. It was in this room, over a bottle of Max's darling Bin 60A that the conversation wandered around to the lasses.  Max sagely stroked that mighty hooter with his forefinger and said "You know I'm all in proportion, Philip."

TIMELINE: Dr Arthur Ray Beckwith OAM (RDA 1932)

1912 - Born at Cowell, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia; educated at Cowell and Murray Bridge Primary Schools and Murray Bridge High School
1931 - 1932 - Honours Diploma of Agriculture at Roseworthy Agriculture College in South Australia
1931 - Max Schubert becomes stable boy and errand runner at Penfolds Nuriootpa
1933 - Cadetship at Roseworthy Agriculture College
1933 - 1934 - Assistant at Thomas Hardy in Mile End, South Australia
1935 - 1960 - Assistant to the Manager at Penfolds Wines in Nuriootpa, South Australia
1936 - Discovery: “pH may be a useful tool in the control of bacterial growth”
1936 - Married Coral Lodge of Willaston
1948 - Max Schubert becomes chief winemaker at Penfolds
1955 - 1973 - Deputy Member of Council of the Australian Wine Research Institute
1960 - 1963 - Chief Chemist at Penfolds Wines 
1963 - Technical Supervisor for South Australia for Penfolds Wines
1964 - 1973 - Branch Manager Penfolds wines Nuriootpa
1973 - Retired from Penfolds
1973 - 1976 - Member of Council of the Australian Wine Research Institute
1980 - Inducted into Barons of Barossa
2004 - Speaks publicly for the first time of his scientific achievements to a gathering of international winemakers at Langmeil winery, Barossa
2004 - Honoris causa Doctorate, University of Adelaide
2004 -  Honorary life member, American Society of Enology and Viticulture
2006 - Maurice O'Shea Award
2008 - Medal of the Order of Australia
2010 - Award of Merit Roseworthy Old Collegians Association 
2012 - Damn fine lunch at Kalimna!  

Former Penfolds chief winemaker Don Ditter, Becky, the author and John Bird having a quiet resiner before Birdy took his tie off.


Regarding 'pasteurisation', I didn't get help from Ray (in fact, he had been warned off his friendship with me, which was really based on his respect for my father: unbelievable, when you think about it).
Extract (which really is the crux of it all) explains:

 We relied on filtering to successfully remove the very active yeast that had made the ‘sparkling’ component by secondary fermentation, the same principle used by Orlando, but our effort was in vain.  In about two months, we had to take back some 2000 dozen bottles from Burings, because yeast had re-activated and multiplied in bottles as  a flocculent sediment.

At that time, I speed-read a lot of engineering as well as technical wine magazines. I read a letter in an American magazine by an important Professor Marsh, pondering why sparkling wine makers did not pasteurise in bottle as did Spumante makers of Italy. 

Pasteurising was, and still is, almost a dirty word in our wine industry and was dismissed because of association with the cheap wines of Europe. However, the thrust of the article was that, because of the gas content in sparkling wines, the temperature needed to achieve pasteurisation was quite low. I decided to trial the technique. At the same time we encountered some luck: the local cannery had failed and we were able to buy pressure retorts from the receiver, offering £1000 to ensure success.

Roger Blake, our Technical Manager, had made sparkling wines for McWilliams Wines in New South Wales and he had an enormous capacity for work. With two old pulp filters, which were pressure vessels of a sort, we added temperature recorders, also from the cannery, and began searching for the critical temperature and the time necessary to hold the wine at the temperature at which we could achieve pasteurisation. Blake successfully established both the temperature and time at which we could ensure the killing of all yeast cells.

Note: The temperature Blake established - only 73 degrees, and the time, 45 minutes.

23 February 2012



Today is Dr Ray Beckwith’s 100th birthday.  No single human has played a greater role in the development of modern dry table wine.  Becky, a fellow Baron of the Barossa, is a great friend and mentor to this writer. Ray encouraged the former Penfolds Nuriootpa stable boy and messenger, the young Max Schubert, to seriously pursue laboratory work instead of pretending to be a lab assistant.  In 1936 he worked out how to manipulate the pH of wine, and basically invented a winemaking recipe which is now rotely used all over the world.  He also encouraged and made possible Ian Hickinbotham’s discovery of the nature of malolactic fermentation, which was first commercially applied in the 1952-3 Wynn’s Coonawarra reds, which Hick made under the patronage of the brilliant David Wynn.  Becky’s revolutionary 1934 paper on yeast also played a vital part in the development of modern wine science, and made possible Alan Hickinbotham’s founding of the wine science course at Roseworthy College. On Monday, DRINKSTER will publish a report of tomorrow’s private birthday lunch for this remarkable man.  Happy happy hundredth, my dear generous, genius friend! 


A few Barossa winemakers last night did a 90 minute  interactive tasting with a few viewers on the web.  You can watch it here.   One of the few questions they attempted to answer was from lerose, who wanted their response to my suggestion that the 2011 vintage was far from ideal.  They answered it beautifully.

David Lehmann (pictured  above - David Franz Wines):  “I’ve known Philip for quite a number of years and I’ve got a lot of admiration for Phil’s ability to just fire it all up.  I’ve actually taken quite a great deal of exception to his almost rabid insistence that 2011’s completely fucked.  And I’m sorry for all those people out there.  It’s look, whether it is or it isn’t fucked, it’s not something to say here and now.  Listen.  All I’ll say about 2011 is let the wines speak for themselves.  I think that right now Phil’s -- yes it was a hell of a vintage and there was a lot of really bad fruit -- but the thing is that you know from my point of view as a small winemaker … we didn’t actually pick the fruit that was diseased and all that sort of stuff.  It went on the ground. I mean you know we were lucky around my little pocket around the kitchen where I live we were lucky and we managed not to lose as much fruit as the people who lost everything and we lost, you know, more fruit than people who lost nothing.  In terms of ‘is 2011 a complete right off?’  I don’t think so.”

Rick Burge (left - Burge Family Winemakers): “If you’ve got a palate you’ll find the good wines of 2011.  Philip – and I’ve known him for yonks – we go back to the early ’80s – Philip has a huge allergy to spin doctors.  And at my age I’m beginning to dislike them too.  In December I was in Hong Kong, tasting with my distributor and there were two Bordelaise and they said '2011 was very trying for you' and I said it was a pig of a vintage and they opened up and told me about their pigs of vintages.  Now if I’d have bullshitted to them they would have walked away and gone back to their tables.” 

22 February 2012


Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was deposed by current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, a palace coup driven by the "Shoppies", a trade union composed mainly of members who work for the Coles v. Woolworths duopoly which not only controls the Australian wine and liquor business, but a great deal of Australia's food, and hires and fires Prime Ministers and state Premiers at whim, with no reference to the voting populace.  Heavy Kevvie just quit, an hour ago, his Foreign Minister position in Washington DC, of all places, and will return to Australia to sit on the back bench and battle to get his old job back.  DRINKSTER reckons the Shoppies will win, but wishes this was a more democratic process.  Kevvie's a bother.  The Australian Labor Party is a wreck.  And Mr. Rabbit, the opposition leader is worse.  What did we do to deserve this?

20 February 2012


The Olivers of Taranga are usually the first to arrive with their beautiful fruit; they choose to make their top wines at Yangarra.  L-R Corrina Wright, Briony Oliver and Don Oliver.  Last year they celebrated their family's 170th vintage

This whole bunch Shiraz was left in airtight bins with CO2 for a few days, to give the natural yeast carbonic maceration ferment a chance to kick in before de-stemming. Photos by Philip White.

Into the hopper; adjusting the sorter.
The first stalks of vintage.

The stems go off to the mulch heap. Once it's strained, shlooshy waste and hose-down water goes through the new reed-bed filtering tanks which are old rainwater storage vessels half-filled with graded sand and planted with reeds. Before the invention of the sorting machine, which is still a very rare beast in Australia, most of this this stuff went/goes through the fermenter, straight into your glass.


Here they come!

Caviar: off to the fermenter

19 February 2012




18 February 2012



So what? It’s cool again. Big deal.

That relieving wave of weather chased our heat across the border and blew little Victoria to bits.

Maybe we should have stuck with the heat. Somehow kept it here. It wasn’t so bad.

It’s the beginning of a new week. Like many Australians, I couldn’t sleep, but tossed about the cot with the wireless chattering about the exploding horror across the border. The heartbreaking floods in northern Queensland. The little kid who chased his dog into the creek and got snapped up by a croc...

Somehow that very Australian death seemed bigger than the Victorian toll that ticked sickeningly upwards all through yesterday, and will, no doubt, do it again so reliably today, as the fireys find the bodies.

The surreal Pompeii bodies, grey with ash, but alive short hours ago. With living mates and relatives wondering where they are.

What do you do about that?

Sick of bed, I rose at five: showered guiltily; and walked around the vineyard while the first dim of the day pushed the filling moon’s honest brightness aside.

Now the heat’s all gone to Victoria, the birds have reappeared, and viticulturers wander back out into the vineyards to see what’s left. The men arrived at six-thirty, and silently went to work taking the big rolls of bird netting from the storage shed, to wrap the shiraz, chardonnay and roussane that somehow survived those thirteen devilish days of heat.

It’s easy to wallow on about survivor’s guilt, but the memories of those blistering days are suddenly hollow as we swallow the horror of what’s happening in Victoria.

Swallow and swallow and swallow.

If you don’t swallow, you’ll puke.

The netting seems pitiful: blokes who’d netted before the heat found it holding the canopy down, still, so the leaves couldn’t move in the odd breeze and burnt more dramatically in the sun. There were no birds then anyway: Bacchus only knows where they went to pant those days away.

So how bad will next weekend’s heat be? How long will that last? Will this net hold those last leaves down so they too burn?

As the work progresses, there are mumbles about mates across the border, whose vineyards were in the paths of the fires. Save a vineyard? Not when people are perishing on their verandas as their melting water buckets fall off their handles and slop pitiful water on the shoes that burn anyway.

My godson came yesterday, and we went to the shop. We felt like smoking cigarettes. There was an impossibly young lad there, with his first tender goatee, buying toothpaste or something in preparation to catch the plane to go and fight fire in Victoria. His face told us that he knew he would come home tainted with horrors none can imagine, and none can prepare for.

“So you’re going over?” the lady asked.

“Yeah”, he said, taking something from the shelf. “We’re going over.”

“Be careful”, she said. “Good luck.”

“Thanks”, he said. “We’ll be back Friday. Sounds like big-time fire danger here again on Saturday. It’s gonna get real hot again.”

“Yes”, she said. “Yes.”

We sat outside in the new cool and drank a bottle of Paul Petagna’s moody black Diavolo: shiraz cabernet from down the Vales, from a vineyard that probably won’t be picked this year: it’s toasted.

It wasn’t enough. So we drank another: Jules Barry’s soberingly beautiful Good Catholic Girl. Shiraz, from Clare.

While we drank, and smoked, my mind wound through the Victorian vineyards I’ve stood in, and drank from, and loved and worshipped, which were right then being whipped by flaming banshees. Blazing coals, falling from towers of soot and hell that reached right up there to heaven. Bendigo, Kyneton, Gippsland, Tallarook, all through the Strathbogies and The Great Dividing Range, through the Yarra Valley to the very edge of Melbourne.

Beautiful vine gardens: the work of good people. Gastronomes. Mates. Lovers.

Then David gave me a box of French oak offcuts for my smoker. He’s made himself a beautiful parquetry floor from discarded barrels.

“Smoke”, I said. “Thanks, bro.”

What is it with smoke?

All through these hills people are clearing trees and scrub and leaves away from their homes. They’d started it half-heartedly before the heatwave, but gave it away when it grew too hot. Now they’re using the cool spell to prepare for more heat. They’re looking at their plastic water tanks, suddenly aware that they would melt in seconds in a conflagration like they’ve just watched on television.

The plastic garden hoses.

Last evening, when David had gone, the news of the Beechworth fire took a nasty turn for the worse, so I rang Julian Castagna, who lives there in his perfect vineyard, in north-eastern Victoria.

“We’re sorry”, the machine said, “but we’re unable to take your call... ”

Of course, I muttered. They’re busy. I hung up without remembering whether I left a message or not, wondering whether they were still alive. Whether that was the last time I’d hear Julian’s voice...

But he rang back within minutes.

"Yes", he said, in the helpless adrenaline-driven illogic of one confronted by abject horror. "I can see the fire. It's really bad. It's terrible. 30,000 hectares! Listen, why don't you come over and stay for a week. We've got a room. You can keep to yourself. Give yourself some time to think... You'd have your own shower. We could do a retrospective..."

Today, there's no answer. But from what I can ascertain, the fire's blowing away from Castagna, towards the north-east.

Wishing and hoping.


Aha! A call. Carolann says they're okay, but the wind has changed and is now pushing a lot of smoke at them from the north-east, which is not what they want.


17 February 2012


Bill Ray hung out with the San Berdoo Hells Angels for a lot of 1965.  LIFE magazine ran some of his photographs. Another of DRINKSTER's favourite blogs, The Selvedge Yard, has just tonight reminded me of what some Ol Ladies looked like when I was a kid. Thanks Bill, and thanks TSY.  Click that Selvedge Yard link and cruise!



New Vintage Coming In To Land
Almost Perfect Vital Statistics
Everybody Holds Their Breath

Quietly, vintage has crept up. A tractor with as many lights as Close Encounters just hauled a cart of grapes past my window.

The farmyard today was suddenly abuzz with tractors and trucks and faces not seen for a year.  The winery, washed and polished to hospital grade, has its door agape like a huge hungry mouth.  People are welding things, filling things up, oiling machines.   

The wet la Niña February the sky doctors forecast has been merciful, keeping temperatures down, humidities up and things dampish, but not so much as to present growers with anything like the sousing of last year, which was the worst vintage most living Australian winemakers have encountered.

Most rains have been accompanied, or at least followed, by gusty breezes, which dry the vine canopies and minimize the need for fungicides.  From Clare to the tip of the Fleurieu (click to see map), small bits of the vignobles took mild hail damage at different times, but once again, nobody said much, because they knew that hiccup was minor compared to 2011, and they were still hoping that the long-range forecasters had got February wrong.
It’s never too late for things to go wrong, of course.  After an ideal Semillon harvest in the Hunter Valley, in New South Wales, the reds were ready to pick at lovely numbers when so much rain dumped that the sugars diluted and the vineyards got too boggy to work.  Pickers don’t do mud.

One thing is certain about the big vignobles of South Australia: the crop will be small.  Shiraz, the staple of McLaren Vale and the Barossa, just for example, looks to my eye to be about sixty per cent of its average yield.  Berries and bunches are small and sparse, and those who believed the Wet Feb Forecasters and kept the canopies plucked or hedged to allow the healing breezes through are happy that there’s not been enough sunshine to burn the skins.

This brings two things to my vagrant mind.  The first, McLaren Vale’s dodgy Scarce Earths racket. This masquerades as a sort of geological guide to the complex nature of the region’s terroir.  Like not.  In reality it’s a scheme in which punters are expected to pay up to $110 a bottle for Shiraz which is not quite two years of age.  From the quality of the first (2009 vintage) release, it seems likely -- if not merely possible -- that many of those makers would have little idea of what to do with an elegant, modest crop of lower sugar, higher acidity and intense, if forgotten to them, flavours, especially if they consider their 2009 prices to be fair.  But worse is the notion that wines from 2012 already look like requiring an extra year or two of bottle to be even partly understood.  In which case the 2012 Scarce Earth Shiraz wines will be many years short of ideal upon their selection and release.  This’ll work for Grange, but never for wines of no provenance.  And Grange, come to think of it, is already five years old at release.

The second wild thought involves sunshine and the lack of it.  I’ll come to that later.  


Mike Farmilo, of the big Vales contract winery, Boar’s Rock, agrees that the flavours are highly promising because of this modest yield and the other vital statistics of the crop.  He reports strong natural acids -- essential for great wine -- with healthy, if moderate sugars, and low pH.  So in a nation awash with deservedly unsold bulk from previous years, it appears that South Australia won’t be adding much to that embarrassing lake.

While the poor Mallee growers remain dumbstruck by the mess of gizzards in the Murray-Darling Basin wrangle, they report a similar hike in overall quality, although it’s hard to work out whether this is partly the result of borderline big-irrigation sugar-miners finally leaving the business.  Two of the eternally-optimistic die-hards I spoke to didn’t want to be named, were happy with their crops, shitty about the prices, and sick of the new CSD syndrome: Consultation Stress Disorder.

At this point I could ring Charlie Melton to ask about his vintage in the Southern Flinders Ranges, which has become a quality bridge of sorts between the River vineyards and Mt Lofty Ranges, but I won’t.  Because I did ask him a few weeks ago.  He said he’s walked away from that decade-long adventure.  Why?  “Salt.”

It’s a pity some Padthaway people don’t know any words that short.

Langhorne Creek, similarly, is a bridge between the Limestone Coast and the Mount Lofty Ranges vignobles, and when the Lake died, salt was a major issue there, too.  Now, thanks to two freak flood years, the Lake’s full, and the horror of the 2011 moulds is replaced by a very good looking crop indeed.  Peter Widdop of Old Mill Estate says acids remain high whilst yields and disease threats are very low.  “It’s everything 2011 wasn’t,” he said.  “More of the same weather, please!”  Like all other South Australian vignobles, it’ll happen very early in the piece, which was signaled by the very early set of Shiraz.


In Clare, David O’Leary of O’Leary Walker says that while the overall crop is down a little, and bunch numbers are down, the Rieslings they’ve crushed for much bigger producers have larger berries and bunches than usual, meaning the complex flavour influence of the phenolics in the skins will be decreased, giving much juicier characters.

“It’s just pure Riesling,” he said.  “The acids are holding, the skins are softening and the winery smells great when the fruit goes through.  These wines are gonna make themselves.  Watervale’s all lemon zest, and Polish Hill River’s really muscaty and aromatic.  Like other places, it looks like it’s all coming in a fortnight earlier than usual, but if the weather holds and these breezes keep up it’ll be a seriously good year for quality if not volume.  Which is what the industry needs.”

“Dare I say ball-tearer?” Tim Smith (left) shot back from the Barossa.  “We could have used a heat spike early in February, but it didn’t happen, and it might be just as well.  I want more of the same weather: plenty of breeze, real cool nights, fabulous acids.  The yields are way down, but the quality’s the best I’ve seen in years.  So far, 2012’s a cracker.”

Generally, the Barossa reports Shiraz behaving much like its brethren elsewhere: a modest crop, down by at least a third in yield, with small, open bunches of little berries.  The acids and pH numbers look really promising; growers suggest the pulp of the berries offers ideal viscosity without the gloop-gloop sugars that see alcohols soar at the expense of complexity and finesse.  From my illicit grape munching around the Vales, I agree that the 2012 Shiraz wines here, too, will be beautifully textured, and look forward to seeing some serious gastronomic intelligence applied to capturing the essence of this modest year with truly fine wines of lower alcohol.

Which brings me back to sunshine.  There’s always a sicko twist in the wiles of agriculture.  This year, it’s this very cool, moderate, dampish February.  While it’s not as wet as some forecast, its nature looks like giving the warmer areas (Mallee/Riverland, Clare, Barossa, McLaren Vale) low-volume wines of elegance and finesse, after all those drought years of sugar and Parkerilla Points.  But that same cool has some high country vignerons (Barossa Ranges, Adelaide Hills) growing anxious about their lack of warm sunshine.  Even after the Big Wet, they could have made more acceptable wine last year if they’d got a dry warm March and April.  They couldn’t ripen the fruit that did survive the moulds.  So some are getting twisty about sunshine and the lack of summer.  In the Hills, March must be sunny. For the Festivals, March must be sunny.  For those addicted to high alcohols, March must be sunny.

And you know what?  March is nearly always sunny.  Which is why all those festivals happen in March.  That crusty pioneer of wine, David Wynn, was always active in the arts world.  His knowledge of so many vintages had him ensure the Adelaide Festival would always be in March.  He never admitted that it was a good excuse to have the odd day away from the winery at vintage, but I’m sure that had something to do with it.  

Andrew Hardy of Petaluma agreed with O’Leary’s appraisal of Clare Riesling.  “We’ve just taken the first of it off,” he said, “and it’s sensational.”  But his greatest praise was for the promise of the Adelaide Hills.  “There’s a lot of hen-and-chicken in the Shiraz,” he said, “because of the wind at flowering.  But I reckon it’s gonna be a cracker otherwise.  Our sparkling Pinot and Chardonnay’s looking really good and we’re already picking some still wine Chardonnay in ideal condition.  Same goes for reds in Coonawarra if this weather continues.  More of the same, please.”

Peter Gago, of Penfolds, is similarly excited.  When I called, he was finishing a grape-munching tour of the Limestone Coast.  “Wrattonbully, Robe, Padthaway, Coonawarra --  it’s amazing,” he said with obvious anticipation.  “I mean, coming off 2011 it’s all through rose-coloured glasses, but when you walk the rows, it’s there: a good news story.  There’s no need to talk it up.  Like Cabernet.  If this weather holds, we’ll be picking at ideal numbers in a fortnight.  But fingers crossed.  It’s not over yet.”


He went on to recall how things looked pretty good in the Adelaide Hills at this stage  last year, and within ten days the moulds had infested everything.  “It’s like the floors in an international hotel,” he said.  “Most of them have no thirteenth floor.  2011’s like that to me.”  

Which leads me to address those who insist on talking last year’s wines up. Sure, the vintage was cool, so acids were high.  Just as they boast. But so were the rots and moulds.  Any peanut who denies the latter inconveniences hasn’t a hope in Hell of understanding high natural acidity.  The muck I’ve seen for sale in bulk lots on the grey market truly deserve the colloquial terms it has won itself.  Words which would flash around the internet in hours.  The winesmiths who were honest about that harrowing, mucky harvest beating them don’t begin to deserve the international derision the other errant cowboys can inflict with their rotgut.  Not just in grading their produce with night cart terminology, but in trying to make wine from it then expecting somebody to drink it.

I have a query to put to those who expected my lot to report dishonestly in favour of 2011: “If you insist on the second-wettest vintage in Australian winemaking history being one of the great vintages, what would you like me to say about 2012?”