“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)





30 March 2012


The dry-grown stumps of farmer and veterinary surgeon Bill Harbison, who's watching one of Peter Andrews' brand new mini demo wetlands forming along the top of a ridge on Bill's farm in South Australia's mid-north.

Wild Genius Refits Fractal Chaos
Aussie Bioneer Busts It All Up
Sellout Mob Next Time She Rains
story and photographs by PHILIP WHITE

Peter Andrews OAM is into mud pies.

Having just spent two days with the radical environmentalist in the Mid North of South Australia, this writer feels like he’s been up and given his heart to the Lord at a revival crusade, and is still so buzzy at the epiphanic sight of Andrews playing with mud that attempting to explain it all here is awesome in the truest sense of the word.

Give Andrews water, and he’ll tip it on the ground, get down on his knees and start playing with it.  Give him a bulldozer, and he’ll redesign the whole damn farm.

He's a fair dinkum bioneer.

I’d watched the AustralianStory episodes which attempted to account and explain Andrews’ one-eyed determination to restore buggered Hunter Valley farmland by putting some healthy fractal chaos back into it.  Contentiously, this usually includes an initial explosion of weeds, as part of his program of deliberately disorganising the ground water patterns that farmers have trained and altered, flattened and straightened for 150 years. 

Peter Andrews, left, with George Aldridge and the Harbison brothers, Michael and Bill. Notice Peter's newest wetlands forming just behind his right foot. 

It must have been infernally irritating for the ABC producers to capture the breadth and depth of Andrews’ vision: he talks with barely-measured agitation, leaping from one confounding fact, theory or anecdote to another, covering the most complex realms of hydrology, hydrogeology, plant physiology, geomorphology, climate, carbon and anything else that happens to drift into the machinegun stream of his infectious imagination, understanding and recollection. 

This challenge is so confronting that the brain tends to vague out as one's next question begins to arise before the previous one can possibly form language.  One fatigues.  Like the disappearing puddles, dubs, duckponds, cattle wallers and sheep wets that once covered this place,  Andrews' logic disappears into the fast-drying landscape.  Unless you respect it, acknowledge its force, get your beery arse home and think about it.  Then take a deep breath, and get the dozer out.

George Aldridge, left, with Peter Andrews.

George Aldridge, the revered painter, illustrator and friend, suggested I attend the farm of vet Bill Harbison, who’d brought Andrews, his old Gawler horse-training mate, home to work some magic on the dried-out chip of a farm he’d bought on the stony ridges one or two windfarms west of Burra, near Spalding.  The Yacka Moorundi Land Care Group arranged a morning of lecture and question-and-answer in the local hall, with mountains of local tucker, then a full afternoon of field work on Harbison’s farm before a great thirst drove the throng back to the cool Spalding boozer. 

Andrews had been at work there - farm not boozer - for some days, building a dead-level contour to slow and spread the run-off from the top 40% of the hill, and perforating that at the points that needed the water, not simply the creeklines.  Then he began dozing disruptive walls, islands and meanders in the creek line at the foot of the hill. His major theory is that Australia has survived because its waters were never particularly big on rushing out to sea the way we have recently trained them to, with bare earth, lineal concrete gutters and channels and whatnot. 

Andrews explaining how he's rebuilding chaos into the worn-out creekline at Bill Harbison's place in South Australia's mid-north.

“What’s the point of creating a surface that will ensure rapid run-off, and send all your water down there somewhere, where you dam it, evaporate it, and then pump what’s left back up here for irrigation?  Save your water.  Slow it down.  Let it spread.  Use your water where it falls!

“You’ve got sheep.  Sheep will eat ninety per cent of whatever plants you have by the end of the season, and turn it into neat little pellets.  When it rains, because there’s nothing here to hold it, that all washes down into the fast-draining creek you’ve made.  You lose it.  Ninety per cent of everything you’ve grown!  Then you pay big money trying to replace it with the wrong chemicals.”

When we arrived, he ran a trial run of one of the exercises he would show the farmers next day.  Basically, he had Bill park his fire-fighting unit at the top of a dry ridge-top track, and let a few hundred litres of water run out.  As it trickled down the hard red dust, it made eddies and mini wetlands, and sent little spreading floodplains out to the sides.

This is the same infant microswamp photographed the night before in the shot at the top. The feather's still there.  A vehicle has driven right through the middle of it, the opposite of the plan, yet even that simple accident has put more chaos into the stream.  It'll all begin again, if it's allowed.

Andrews grinned with the satisfaction of a four year old in a taddy puddle.  “See?” he marveled.  “Wetlands!  And look what happens when I put this rock back here, or put some of this dead grass across here!  What if I make a little embankment across here.  Look at that water: look!  It’s going sideways!  It wants to spread!  It’s spreading seeds and nutrient across your country!  Look at that froth! It’s forming its own retaining embankments and pools!”

When he repeated the exercise to the keen, curious and often sceptical mob of farmers who came next day, they stood gazing in silence, absorbing Andrews’ disarming display, remembering what it was like to play in the mud as they watched the delight of the infant lass there who couldn’t believe her luck.  Adults who made mud pies.  Amongst the disarming innocence of it all, the most obvious reality was the most sobering: farming science, politics, bureaucracies and population have forgotten about country.  They’ve lost it.  And this dried out old chip of a joint we call Australia -- from austerous via austral: southern, harsh, severe – will buck us off if we don’t very quickly revolutionise the way we see it.

And how good are our kids gonna be if they don't get their fair share of mud to grow up in? They'll die of allergy in a world of too many clean flat things. And one suspects by the fierce glare in Andrews' bright eyes that he thinks we're about to starve to death watching them.

Like a good geologist, Andrews thinks in 3-D.  He reads landscape quickly, always imagining how he’d rework it, to put it back more like the intricate way it worked before we cut everything up into little squares and killed anything that grew there that we could not sell.

Some of the very old geology in Bill Harbison's hill.  This is from the Burra group, which fills the gap between the Umberatana (650-750 million years back) and the top of the Paleoproterozoic Basement (1.6 billion). It seems that Peter Andrews wants to put some of this ancient chaotic energy back on top.

He’s radical.  He believes grass is a monoculture, and that eucalypts are too. 

“Somebody said to me ‘Look this is a eucalyptus forest: there’s sixty different types in there’, and I say ‘Eucalypts, like grass, is a species.  This forest is a monoculture’.”

When challenged by Sally Hawker of North Bungaree Station why he wouldn’t just go out on Bill’s stony hill and plant some lovely natural gum trees, he said “What?  Plant the most water-wasting things you can get?  A plant that guzzles enormous amounts of water from your ground until it’s all gone, when it gets the sulks and covers its leaves with protective wax and goes toxic, so nothing else can compete?”    

When quizzed about weeds, he pulled an unpopular type aside and pointed out the number of grasses and tiny plants that were thriving below its shelter, in the humidity its shade created. 

“Now I’ve pulled this out,” he said, plucking the offending intruder, “you come back after two days of sun and tell me how these little plants are going where they were enjoying that shelter.  And we'll leave this one here [selecting the next weed along] as our test.  See the little grasses underneath there in the shade?  I can promise you, that lot will be all right."

The Sermon on the Mount

It is impossible here to explain the vision of Andrews much beyond that, although I shall attempt to extend this essay once I’ve let my current headful sink in. It may crawl to the horizon before me.

In the meantime, you can dig out the essential Australian Story episodes as a primer, check Andrews’ website, which he gets no time to work on, then read his two books: Back From The Brink and Beyond The Brink.

A really good backgrounder is the extended interview with John Williams, a former Head of Land and Water at the CSIRO, on the Australian Story website.

And the notion of imposing this practical intelligence on the Big Rivers while there’s plenty of water has him glowing with excitement, but that’s another 100,000 words.  Let it rest on his suggestion that there’s no better time to change attitudes than one like this, when politicians, scientists and bureaucracies really do have their sweaty backs to the wall.  

On the phone, comrades!

And yes, I haven’t mentioned wine.  One of the reasons I made my way north was my interest in the crippling salt problems some vignerons are having in the Lower Flinders Ranges winegrape region just over the range from Harbison’s farm.  This is a direct result of their interference with the chaos of their country: vignerons are amongst the most brutally efficient organizers of terrain, of waterways and plant species.  Plant vineyards on thrashed pastoral country, and you’ve got trouble.  Which is exactly what I recall warning growers the day I opened their new appellation, what, a decade ago?

"Beware the dull mono-cultural petro-industrial grapeyard." That threadbare mantra has got me fired from most of the good newspapers in Australia, but it hasn't yet got me fired from my own blog.   So I have a comrade. Andrews’ theories and practical examples are anathema to most modern Australian viticulture. 

It will be a brave industrial winemaking group who first engages this visionary for some initial technology transfer, but the booze brains will surely leave buzzing, struggling to understand how Andrews’ challenging realities and wilder theorisings can assist them improve the vast areas of ground they have sprayed, fertilized, bashed, and neatly organized to produce grape ethanol in the most efficient manner possible.

There were no Southern Flinders grape farmers in attendance at Bill Harbison's place.  None from Clare, either.  Nobody from the Murray Darling Basin Authority.  Or from anywhere much, for that matter.  But as Bill Harbison said with a dry grin, “There’ll be a sell-out mob here next time she rains.”

25 March 2012


Photographs by Philip White ... click any image to enlarge it ... To learn more about Greg Johns' amazing sculpture farm on the eastern side of the Mount Lofty Ranges, click here.

Artists are asked to apply to exhibit  in the Palmer Sculpture Biennial. If accepted, they make, deliver and install their works at their own cost.


Part of  "Testing Limits"  installation by Jamie Willis with Greg Johns sculpture on horizon ... [ Ed's PS:by Easter, this has become by far the most downloaded photograph on DRINKSTER]

New plantings with Greg Johns sculpture on horizon

Sally Wickes "All in One"

Chris Ormerod "The Vital Arc"

George Andric "Everything Changes, Everything Returns"

Stephen Lloyd "Heatwave"

Vast Lichen cities threatened by giant rat-haired scrub

Sandy Mulchay's "Red Chairs" in a paddock near Lake Alexandrina,
from her 2010 Farm Gate artwork installation. The artist on location, 24th March 2012.

Greg said he had 300 visitors through the gate at Palmer the other day.  Big mob for the Badlands, but like even the biggest sculptures, that spooky landscape just eats 'em up.  It's no country for old men.  Since he took all the stock off it, that hard rain shadow ground is beginning to re-produce a rich range of native grasses. 

The last snap of the day is back on the troubled Murray-Darling estuary on the flats below, but further south, between Langhorne Creek and Clayton. It looks bonnie, but microbiologically, the estuary's a mess of itinerant refugee  bugs getting flushed out of the eastern third of Australia by the extreme and insistent la niña flood pattern of recent years. Lake Albert's still seven times the salinity of seawater and the e-coli concentration in the River mouth has once again shut down the pipi, (or Goolwa cockle) mollusc fishery along the beaches outside.

The Murray needs more Greg Johns' Sculpture Water washing down her!

"Meeting's Over: Safe and Sound, High and Dry Inside the Lectric Fence",  is dedicated to the Murray Darling Basin Authority.  But that's my naming. It is actually Sandy Mulchay sitting in the remnants of her Red Chairs installation from the year before last.  Suddenly, there she was, sitting in the chairs nobody's yet pinched, with that cool short-arse rainbow squeezing some feed out of the last dim rays. 

Another perfect day well had by experts.

22 March 2012


The first photograph of vintage 2012 is still my favourite.  Corrina Wright, winemaker, left, with marketing and sales sister Briony, and Dad, master viticulturer Don Oliver, of Oliver's Taranga, with the first grapes of a great year. Which 2012 is. Scarce and beautiful. The Olivers recently celebrated their 170th year of farming and grape-growing on the same property.  Which provides a great impetus to the bright. Corrina was part of a panel of wine types who shone a zappy light on the future of good Australian wine on Radio National.  Click the blue to hear it:  Bush Telegraph. It starts out awkward, but gets real good toward the end. Click the next one to visit the Oliver's 170th birthday party. On the wireless, they asked Corrina if she'll still be in the business in ten years time:

"I think I’ll definitely still be in the industry.  My family’s been on the same property for 170 years. I’d be in big trouble if I left ...  I think of it in terms of having really vibrant regional farming areas. Communities that are contributing both to their regions and to the economic well-being of Australia."        Corrina Wright, Oliver's Taranga  

Lights Shine On Oz Horizon
And They're Not All In China 
Time For Some Fresh Bright

If it can find some smarts that it hasn’t shown in thirty years of ga-ga boom at the wrong end of the market, the Australian wine business may just fluke a recovery from its consequent collapse: there are lights on the horizon, and they’re not all in China.

But they do require a gastronomic and business intelligence that nearly all our winos have not yet shown, and which appear to be of a level our blessed winemaking schools are almost incapable of teaching.  In short, we’re talking about quality way beyond the mindless boomtown mush we got used to sucking out of the impoverished Mallee, using up to 1200 litres of water we didn’t have to produce a litre of booze three times the alcoholic strength of your average beer which we then shipped to Britain and the USA, or Coles and Woolworths, and sold for the price of bottled water.

It’s sick to contemplate the percentage of the national grapeyard which was developed to produce this alleyjuice which is currently submerged in your actual water.  Those bubbles coming up are the complaints from poor tortured irrigators who think their allocations should never be cut and that government and greenies are responsible for the floods and that everybody upstream is worse unless you’re upstream, in which case everyone downstream is worse, and anyway that’s not a flood, that’s normal.

Drought is normal.

In its masochistic and utterly predictable string of confrontations up and down the rivers, it seems nobody at the Murray Darling Basin Authority has yet discovered that the formula, 1000litres (+ or – 20%) H20 + grape sugar, poison sprays, diesel, steel, yeast, sulphur, blood, sweat and tears cannot possibly be a business plan if the water’s not usually there and you sell the result for the cost of a litre or two of packaged water.  If you include the health and injury costs ($18 billion? – it’s hard to get a figure) incurred by those who partake of the product, the whole thing becomes even more ludicrous.  If you include the enormous costs of rehabilitating, re-organising, and relocating the communities of hapless buggers who got suckered into providing this mindless ethanol monster -- which depends entirely upon over-supply of grapes -- you have a seriously big mess that nobody dares mention. Not even during this time of intense government-sanctioned, taxpayer-funded navel-gazing. 

The last one to mention any of this, it seems, will be Di Davidson, the wine industry representative on the Authority, who has made a business of establishing irrigated vineyards along the rivers for 35 years.

There has never been more reason for serious premium winemakers to divorce themselves from this wreck.  The big squirters still show every sign of getting their way in this camp staged illusion, veiled as it is in a very flimsy film of science and economics.

David Dearie, the boss of Treasury Wine Estates, has shown signs of understanding some of this, exemplified in his pleas that Australia should treat China with respect and concentrate on selling them top quality wines at a fair profit.  So far, too much of what’s gone to China is stuff that Australia simply would not, or cannot drink.

Within a few years, I’m sure we’ll be buying our goonbag plonk from China.  It might be better quality.  China is not stupid.  And it already grows more grapes than Australia.

So far, China has not purchased a fair dinkum premium Australian winery.  The first ones to move in are flounders: bottom feeders.  Even in confounding, impenetrable China, bogan speculators bowl in first.

But the glimmers of hope I mention are not in China.  Beijing forecasts a slowing of growth there, dropping to an estimated 7.5% this year, from the 10% enjoyed over the preceding decade.  Over Christmas, China suddenly ceased paying record prices for bottled Bordeaux, for example.  Having realized it was them alone pushing the prices up, they are now buying Bordeaux chateaux (with vineyards) instead, and are beginning to buy into premium slices of the Burgundy vignoble.  The profit will now be theirs.  They will learn how much it costs to produce.

So while China goes up and down, and wishfully settles, the United States economy appears to be cruising upwards at the wealthy extreme.  In its March Wealth report, the Luxury Institute, a New York luxury brands thinktank and research outfit, reports a February increase of 6.4% in sales in 18 national retail chains specializing in expensive stuff.  

Forgive, please, my translations, but Nordstrom’s flagship stores boasted an 11.9% February sales growth over the same month last year, while its discount “off-price rack store” sales grew only 5.9%.  Nordstrom shares have increased 600% in price since its nadir three years ago.

Rival chain Saks reports a 650% share price increase since March 2009 over a more modest, but impressive 6.6% increase in sales in stores that have been open at least a year; Neiman-Marcus, which now reports only quarterly, says in the quarter to the end of January, sales jumped by 9%.

The Luxury Institute forecasts a similar surge in European confidence, since the, er, Greek matter seems to have been avoided.

While the Institute’s figures do not include luxury wine, they have for some years proven to be a reliable advance guide to possibilities in that market. 

The Stateside light is brighter for premium Australian wineries when one digests the increasing American thirst for wine.  In the twelvemonth to the end of February, Americans bought 7% more wine than in the previous period.  While Yellowtail was still the biggest-selling imported brand under $10 in the USA last year, the critical end of the market is hungering for better wine, and spending more per bottle.  It’s this knowledge that has the Casella family, the owners of Yellowtail, buying big commercial vineyards in regions more respected than the irrigated Riverlands and 'raysias.  Good luck with Padthaway, dudes.

The USA, meanwhile, is facing a premium winegrape shortage.  Top-flight vineyards cannot suddenly appear and meet this thirst.  This is why we see respected USA wine firms like the Jackson Family ready to invest very large sums of money buying jewels like the Hickinbotham Vineyard at Clarendon.  They have a much more realistic understanding of Australia’s capacity for fine wine profit than most of the Ocker roundeyes who, so far, have still to master their chopstick action and only stand blinking, bewildered and naive, at the great Dragon to our north.

Which brings me back to David Dearie, and his pleas that we show China huge respect and treat it with more business and gastronomic intelligence than we have shown the USA and the Old World.  China has been Earth’s preeminent mercantile nation for 6,000 years. And it’s not bad at gastronomy, either. China, I repeat, is not stupid.

Which means we’re gonna have to learn to make much better wine.  Which means we can no longer depend upon the old wine industry regimes which have singularly failed to do so.

There’s one glittering exception.  It’s fascinating that Penfolds, the most respected and profitable part of Dearie’s shiny new empire, knows how to do this, as best manifest by its chief winemaker, Peter Gago, winning the Masters of Wine Winemakers’ Winemaker award a fortnight ago in Dusseldorf.

I didn’t see any Casellas on that podium.  Nobody from the irrigated inland, for that matter.  No lawyers or doctors or tax-avoiding accountants. Not a soul from Family First Wineries. No Sands Brothers. Not even Wild Oats, and he’s got Larry Cherubino working for him.

On the other hand, Radio National’s Bush Telegraph last week ran an excellent show which convinced me there are new Gagos coming through the murk.  This discussion about the future of Australian wine, not quite measured in its optimisim, contained some satisfying rays of hope.  They were some bright young brains around that table.  And they’re not all newbies.  When asked whether she expected to be still in the industry in ten years time, Corrina Wright, of Oliver’s Taranga chirped
"I think I’ll definitely still be in the industry.  My family’s been on the same property for 170 years. I’d be in big trouble if I left ...  I think of it in terms of having really vibrant regional farming areas. Communities that are contributing both to their regions and to the economic well-being of Australia." 

Corrina knows.  She recalls tasting far too much Yellowtail when she annually made 18  million litres of Lindemans irrigated something for export, somewhere up the River.  The Lindemans wine had to match Yellowtail.  Now she’s back on the family block in the Vales, making exquisite wine in manageable volumes using commonsense green technologies.  If she doesn’t use it all herself, the Shiraz her Dad grows sometimes makes Grange.  

That’s the future.

To hear the Bush Telegraph's Barossa follow-up to the abovementioned program, click here and scroll to the menu for Friday 23rd March.

16 March 2012


Ray Beckwith celebrates his completion of 100 laps of the Sun: a great old man on his sweet home patch; 1st  March 2012, by Milton Wordley

The Ray Beckwith Show Goes On
Sorting Some Important History
So Who Gave Schubert His Job?
Since his 100th birthday, Ray Beckwith, the belatedly-celebrated Penfolds wine scientist who virtually wrote the book of modern winemaking, has helped me sort some of the vagaries of history. 

I had, for example, always been of the belief that Beckwith had given Max Schubert his job, but could never reconcile this with the fact that the infamously cranky Alf Sholz had first employed Max.  

Revolutionaries: Ray Beckwith, left, Alf Sholz and Max Schubert

Sholz, the manager of Penfolds Nuriootpa winery for 47 years, was impressed by the craftsmanship of Max’s father, Carl, a blacksmith, and offered the son some work running messages and looking after the Penfolds Nuriootpa winery Clydesdale.   Max was a natural with horses, but like, er, his cars he preferred the fast ones to the industrial haulers.

Following is a transcript of part of my conversation with “Becky” on March 1st, a week after his 100th birthday.  We had been talking about his revolutionary work cleaning up the winemaking at Penfolds Nuriootpa after his brilliant discovery that pH manipulation would limit bacterial spoilage, and save unbelievable amounts of money for the Penfold-Hylands.

But Becky started with a discussion of Roseworthy College, where students worked the farm on certain rostered days of the week.  You couldn’t make wine until you knew how to run work horses.

“I was glad of the practical experience on the land,” he said.  “Hands on.  And particularly working the horses.  They’ve all got their personality you know.  And I know with taking an eight-horse team you’d get up for about half past five to groom them and put the winkers and hames and collar on them.  And you’d go down to breakfast then.

“I might add that one horse, he was a big upstanding horse, of course they were all Clydesdales, big upstanding Clydesdale, and if you didn’t watch out he’d put his front foot on top of yours.  But he wouldn’t put his weight on it.  He was just showing who was boss.

“Of course our vet was very good.  He taught us in handling those horses ‘Put your hand on the shoulder, and if he moves you go too.  Or else on the hip bone.’  So all these things, these little tricks, they count.

“So we’d have these eight-horse teams.  I rather enjoyed that.  But on some occasions, the team’d be a bit skittish.  Somebody hadn’t handled them properly the day before. But after a little while they’d all settle down and so you’d go … ”

PW: When did you first meet Max Schubert?  He was before you there [at Penfolds Nuriootpa winery].  He was in the stable, wasn’t he?

RB:  Yes, that’s right.  He started here as a lad.  He used to feed the horse.  I know that was one of his duties.  And get samples.  But he had left for Magill when I started in 1935.

He’d already gone?

Yes, but it wasn’t long before I’d met him.  I might add that in those days, Penfolds wineries were separate entities.  They didn’t combine.  But there it was.

So having got through that problem, we’ve solved it, and put the [Nuriootpa] winery in good shape, but then the winemaker at Magill left to go to another job in New South Wales.  Well.  Ted Mead was the South Australian manager, and he wanted me to go to Magill to take that job.

As a winemaker?

As a winemaker.  But I didn’t want to go.  My wife didn’t want to go.  And the manager here didn’t want to lose me.  So we came to a compromise, and I would travel to Magill three times a fortnight.  And believe me we had a bit of correcting to do.

Sgt Max Schubert AIF, Cairo, in the early days of World War II.

Down there?

Down there.  And the first thing we did was, with the approval of top management, was appoint Max Schubert as winemaker at Magill.  He was the assistant to the blender, Alfred Vesey.  So that was that.  And then John Davoren, who was managing Kalimna, we transferred him to Magill to take charge of the fairly newly-acquired Auldana winery --

Which was just across the road --

Yes.  Of course John Davoren was eminently suited to that.  He’d grown up in the vineyards on the Hunter River, with his father was manager.  He’d grown up with vines.  After he returned from the war he went to Great Western, and did sparkling wine --

So you both had a bit of sparkling wine experience?

Yes. So with that behind him, he could manage Auldana, and we shifted all the table wines from Magill over to Auldana, and John carried on with building up the sparkling wine.

Now back at Magill, I was confronted with 50,000 gallons of flor base wine. Spanish flower. Flor base wine, and it was on the way to spoilage.  Now I had to decide, ‘what am I going to do with it?’ … I could have put it through the still and that’s that.  But it would have represented a monetary loss.  Now I’d read from some of John Fornachon’s writings that under certain circumstances the flor yeast, the surface-growing yeast, will revert the process -- the oxidation process reverses -- so I thought ‘well I’ll give this a go.’

So I did my best and we cleaned up that wine to the best of our ability, we put it onto flor with Max Schubert looking after it, and lo and behold, we could market that wine without any real problem.  And thinking back, we did all that.  I didn’t tell anybody.  You’d just go and – well, we did it.

Max told me once that he used to put flor yeast on red wine, and then cook it.


And use it as a base wine, in the Grange in some instances –

I wasn’t aware of that.

He showed me a -- well it was like an old gas bottle: it looked like a rocket -- he’d put the flor yeast on, it must have been very high in aldehyde, red wine, high aldehyde, then boil it, and then use that as a cordial …

Oh well, I wasn’t aware of that …

I think that machine will be still there somewhere.  Nobody would know what it was. But sorry, I interrupt.  Keep going.

Ray Beckwith having a quiet centenary resiner with the author. Photo Richard Humphrys

Well anyway that was the 50,000 gallons that we’d saved and were able to market. And then of course there was a lot of white wine that had been affected.  So working with John Davoren and blending with some good wine, and going through the sparkling process we could market that, so we could clear that up.

All this took a long time.  And then we come to the red wines. Well there was a whole swatch of them.  They were not marketable.  Not good enough.  They’d been affected with bacteria.  Mostly the acetic bacteria.  And so I was making wine up here, with a low volatile acidity, and sending it down there, and we’d blend.  But it took a long time.  It took about three years to clear the deck.  And we cleared it: we cleared the whole lot. And as I said we did all that but we didn’t tell anybody.  So that was all sorted out.

So do you think that's what influenced Max’s tendency to like a bit of volatile acidity in the Grange?

Oh yes, I don’t … he does like that.

-- and Davoren didn’t like it --


And [Max] was of the opinion, as was the chief in Sydney, that it gives the wine, er,  ‘vinosity’.


More old-fashioned?

Yes.  That’s right.  So that was that.  And after, Oh, say three to four years, I just pulled out.  I just stopped going.  And I’d only go to Magill on invitation then.  If they wanted me for something. So er, ha.  That ends that chapter.


Some explanations. John Davoren was aghast when Max first showed him Grange at Magill.  It was brash, modern wine, with more raw American oak than anybody’d ever used.  Max was soon balancing his act on managed amounts of acetic, or volatile acid: the acid of balsamic.  If you let it, it will bloom in your wine, and after a risky peak, fall in a vinegary hoik. But in modest levels, it gave Max's edgy raw wine a built-in illusion of complexity and age.  

So Davoren went back across the road to Auldana and made St Henri, using a recipe first developed by the great French winemaker, Edmund Mazure (pictured), in the 1880s in George Burney Young’s St George cellars at Kanmantoo.  

Mazure’s secret was to ferment and keep the wine in 500 gallon oak vats for at least five years before bottling.  One of the early St George Kanmantoo Vineyard Clarets was awarded the gold medal for Best Wine In The World at the Paris Expo staged to open the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889.  It appears that wine was very much in the style of the St Emilions of the day, but was likely a blend of Cabernet franc, Shiraz, Grenache, Malbec and Mataro.  That's an original label below.


Mazure made and labeled his first St Henri Clarets at Auldana in the late 1890s.  Davoren’s St Henri Claret was his tribute to Mazure, a man he regarded as a true genius. With its softer, mellow fruit, and more supple and comforting tannin, it was always meant to be the cooler sibling to Max’s spiky Grange. Max always regarded the conservative St Henri rather begrudgingly.  In their strange winey ways, they were Chet Baker and Jerry Lee Lewis.

The Rocket was actually a machine Max invented to hasten the influence of flor yeast on fino sherry base. He’d pack it with oak shavings cultured with the flor and trickle white wine through it, eliminating eighteen months of flor maturation in oak barrels.  He made millions of gallons of sherry this way.  It appears I am the only person he told about putting red wine through it. 

To read an account of Ray's 100th birthday lunch, including his riveting speech, click here.

11 March 2012


There are just a few days at this time of the year when the late afternoon sun blasts through my kitchen door with such might that I'm confronted or startled by my shadow.  It seems lit from behind by a nuclear thing, which of course Ol Sol is.  But it's particularly fierce, lasts a few days at that arc, and moves on. This time last year, when I saw this firey sky, I knew it had to go straight to my friend and Facebook mentor Jeff Lamb, the American musicologist and photographer.  I sent it with a joke about being blasted into kingdom come. 

I had no idea he was dying of brain disease. Jeff got sick quick. Our repartee was only bright, desperate and humourous.  But suddenly he was very very sick, then he was gone. His canon of photography, particularly of the lost architecture of New Orleans and Detroit, is unmatched and forensic. You can begin to explore this astonishing work here

I urge you to plunge in here, and head up into the incredible backwaters of Jeff's record.  I don't know of anybody who's done anything like this.

Thanks to the stalwart Queen Leyla for the photograph of Jeff in the bar.  You must miss him something shocking. Best love from Australia. 

And every year at this time, when that sun blasts in from just this angle, I will put everything down and look afresh at his astonishing archive. Of course I don't presume to be  a photographer of Jeff's league, but I believe the fiery furnace which lights my impulsive snap was the supernova blast of him leaving the ship. He had wired me; I was chipped to click at this instant. Ha! Play Little Anthony and The Imperials. Drink.  Lamb's work stays. And Leyla. And Sonny Boy.  How lucky are we. Thanks Anna for the top one.


 One Of The Ones To Remember
Putting The Lipstick On The Pig
v. Saying It's Cactus Or It's Cool

It’s fascinating to watch the way wine industry people mismanage their reports of a difficult vintage.  Unlike grain growers, winemakers fudge to baroque degrees.  Knowing that the bread and the beer will still be on the tables, graingrowers simply say it’s either cactus or it’s cool.  With wine, it’s a perverse temptation for brains like mine to keep lists of the conflicting reports that emerge from one end of each tricky harvest to another.

Of course harvest IS tricky, and it varies from place to place, human to human. Look at 2012.  It started with Andrew Margan praising the gods for ideal harvest weather in the Hunter. Then it rained.  Half of the irrigated Murray-Darling Basin is under water.  And yet fruit in perfect condition finds its way into the wineries of McLaren Vale and up through the Hills and across the Adelaide Plain to the Barossa.  After that rain, the weather has been ideally mild and breezy.  But they'll pick only half of what was expected, mind you. This year, there’ll be no new sportscars for the wine brides, whatever their gender.  Again.

And today, winemakers all along the ranges from McLaren Vale to the Barossa are wondering whether the smoke haze we all woke to -- it’s from the Victorian bushfires --  will taint fruit still hanging.  I doubt it.  It’s clearing as I write.  Which probably means it’s falling out of the sky.

A perfect example of the trickiness of explaining the second wettest vintage in Australian history, 2011, was the contrast provided on the Barossa’s recent live internet tasting when David Lehmann (David Franz Wines) and Rick Burge (Burge Family Winemakers) discussed my suggestion that 2011 was far from ideal.  Regardless of their polarized intentions, they more than verified my proposition.

Machine harvested fruit from 2011, top, botrytis-infected Riesling, below. Bottom photo (and some colour enhancement, I suspect) by David Lehmann. All other photographs are 2012 vintage.

“We didn’t actually pick the fruit that was diseased and all that sort of stuff,” Lehmann said.  He thought I’d been too harsh, but his summary said it all.  “It went on the ground,” he continued. “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.”

In response, Rick Burge came to my defense.  “Philip has a huge allergy to spin doctors,” he retorted with perfect acuity “ ... 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.”

Lehmann, who was averse to my harsh, but honest summary, mentioned disease, luck, the lack of it, and loss.  Burge mentioned pigs and bullshit, and my allergy to the latter.

A day or two later Brian Smedley, Chief Executive of the Wine Industry Association, made an exemplary response to Ian Henschke’s questions about this year’s difficult early vintage rains on the local ABC.

“It probably won’t be too much of an issue at this stage, depending upon what the weather does in the next few days,” Smedley said, with unusual honesty and precision for a wine industry representative.  He’s a pro. Any repetition in the quotes below is the result of the questions, which I have removed.  

“If we get some wind, that will dry out the canopies.  That will be good circumstances; if we get some humid and more stagnant conditions, that will be a bit more of a problem in relation to I guess disease pressure and also possibly splitting of grapes.

“There are variable falls right throughout the regions.  There will be some areas that have more significant rainfalls than others but I think at this stage they are not necessarily of concern to the industry.

“All reports that we’re getting to date indicate that the vintage is going to be one of the ones to remember, and certainly that the grapes and the quality that they’re seeing is superb.

“[The big risk] is really the disease pressure I guess.  The mildews that might start to surface and that would depend on spraying regimes that the growers have had and also I guess the weather that follows.

“Certainly you might see some splitting if we get continuing rain, and more rains to follow, that certainly might be a possibility.  There may even be some splitting even to date, but that’s still got to be determined.

“I think there will be some superb wines from this vintage that people will be able to consume.”

And the wine lake? He became a little more typically coy:

“A number of companies in South Australia have moved on their supplies.  They got empty tanks for this vintage, which is the right way to be approaching it, but, you know, there are still some supply issues in the industry.”

By the time he’d got off the air, an SMS had arrived saying “All the fruit is split and the sugar levels are stuffed.”

To set this right once and for all, I know that of course some fine wines will emerge from 2011.  I have tasted them. People who selectively picked and evaded the twin curse of botrytis and mildew to varying degrees have made sound wines, some very special. Those with access to pasteurizing machines may even have managed to get some half decent red wines back in order.  But what I saw going through hoppers in various places was pure gloopy mush.  Much of this is now schlurping its way around the bulk wine business, trying to find its way into bottles of one brand or another.

And in response to Henschke’s query about lower prices?  Uh-huh.  Much of the bulk samples I’ve seen here and there were still ridiculously expensive for what they are.  Their prices must fall to some degree, but there’s still a danger: one thing certain about 2012 is the very low yield.  Shiraz, for example, I’ve seen in the Barossa and McLaren Vale is coming off at 50 to 60 per cent of the average tonnage.  So there certainly won’t be grand volumes of very fine wine, and the temptation, of course, is to fill the gaps with products scratched together from that grey market bulk.  Beware.

The perfect example of how to be honest about your own wine occurred at a Shiraz lunch in the Barossa Ranges in the late ’eighties.  The mighty Cheong and his crew struggled with a smoky combustion stove to produce magnificent fare, and all my favourite Shiraz makers brought two bottles of their best.

It was one of those unforgettable days.  Veterans.  Peter Lehmann, David Wynn, Robert O’Callaghan, Tony Brady, Charlie Melton, Michael Waugh, Stephen Henschke … two dozen of us got into it.  I think the oldest wine was David Wynn’s 1954 Coonawarra Sparkling Shiraz.  The event was to honour the great French wineman Gerard Jaboulet, of the revered Paul Jaboulet company of Tain l’Hermitage on the Rhone.  We were all hanging out to see what he would bring, and hoped that he’d include some of his legendary La Chapelle Hermitage.

He did, of course.  Like Lehmann, he arrived in a cardigan, chain smoking.  But Gerard brought two cases of Hermitage.  One contained all his best vintages.  The other contained his worst.

I had borrowed an enormous silver punchbowl for the middle of the table; not for spitting -- there was no spitting -- but to pour leftovers to clear the glasses. The next day that huge old room smelled heavenly.  The essence of dozens of very great wines, and some rather ordinary, from many different years and widely-dispersed locations, oozed from that huge bowl.

So what did I do?  Got a mob around and drank it.  It was exquisite. In a way, it was like you’ll see from 2011 and 2012, where cunning blenders can hide the lesser wines by parking bits of them in vats of better stuff.  This occurred on a grand scale with 1974, the wettest vintage.

Of course there’ll be nothing from these recent years to match the mighty tincture from that punchbowl.  But the memory leads me to another matter: cross-vintage blending is a touchy subject in Australia.  Australians can add up to fifteen percent of wine from another year and still label it with the vintage of the other 85%.  Perhaps the laws should be relaxed: much better wines can be made. Think of most of the French Champagne you drink. All the non-vintage blends are the results of interminable blending sessions from reserves of many village sources and numerous vintages.

The Champenoise make declared vintage wines only in very special years; the rest are blends made to assure constant supply.  When asked about the quality difference between his rare vintage wines and the blended Grand Cuvée -- a truly remarkable luxury, year in, year out -- Remi Krug famously suggested “ah, the vintage occurs only now and then. God makes the vintage. My brother and I blend the Grand Cuvée.”

Should be more of it.

What's wrong with the back label listing the percentages of what's inside, if indeed the maker seeks to profess? 

At the very bottom of the vat, bits of 2011 could be diluted with slightly less terrible bits of previous years and some of the average bits of 2012 to make a better alley juice for export.  (There won’t be much: half of the source of the wine lake is under water.)  But since the authorities at Wine Australia have shut down the export review tasting panels it’ll be a lot easier to export 2011 anyway. 

I see they’re advertising for bureaucratic wine police this week.  They’ll come and audit your books to see whether you’ve done more sneaky blending than the law permits.  So on the one hand, it’ll be easier to export horrid wine, on the other, it’ll be harder to fudge the books if you’ve attempted to increase the average quality of your output with a little creative blending.

As for 2012?  Yields are very low; in many locations, quality is sublime.  Acids have held, alcohol is modest, but rising now, and pHs are mercifully low.  I have seen some utterly gorgeous red.

He missed the chance to prophesy this smoke, but otherwise, Brian Smedley was right on the money.