“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 April 2012


Since Media Watch outed the flaky South Australian Tourism Commission for paying for celeb tweets promoting Kangaroo Island without any declarations, there’s been a noted silence on the DRINKSTER depot phone. Paying gastroporn chefwit Matt Moran $750 of taxpayer funds plus GST for managing a literary triumph like “Bring on Kangaroo Island. Saw the TV ad last night and makes me wish I was visiting sooner rather than later” is one thing. Continuing to shun DRINKSTER is another.  So just to show some neighbourly goodwill, we thought we’d put up some completely free photographs of Kangaroo Island.  These were taken by hand in our own little camera on the tour we recently paid for out of our mendicant poet’s income. Oh.  Just remembered. The camera's not ours either. And we were lucky to have the hospitality of really good friends like Caj and Jen Amadio, as you can see. There are no better practical gastronomes. Not to mention the Kangaroo Island winemakers, who opened their freshest bonnie fare. But if we were on Matt’s rate ($35.71 per word), we’d be sitting on $6,000 for this caption, so far, and we haven’t really mentioned the island yet. Although, like Matt, we have mentioned the TV ad, meaning that was obviously money well spent, too.   How does a keen player crack this racket?

If you drive and catch the ferry, Kangaroo Island is a few hours from the Murray Mouth and the Currency Creek Wine Region, off the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula in the Great Southern Ocean. You could also drive south from McLaren Vale, or fly direct from Adelaide. 

Photos and text Philip White 


27 April 2012


Expert fellow tasters Nick Ryan, left, Zar Brooks, right, and Patricia Piccinini's Big Mama, in the judges' private annexe at the inaugural Currency Creek Wine Show. Mama was really embarrassed that Zar judged  a show with his family wine in it ... photo: PhilipWhite 

Tasting The End Of The River
The Anticipatory Meditation
Of A Brand New Wine Region

WRITTEN THE DAY BEFORE: Tomorrow there’s a tasting I’m very keen about.  Stranger and Stranger executive and chief sophist at Dandelion Wines, Zar Brooks, will join journalist and winewriter Nick Ryan, and this journeyman, to taste the wines of Currency Creek.  This is a small, but very pretty appellation on an estuarine river system flowing into the lakes at the mouth of the Murray.  The water comes down from the South Mount Lofty Ranges into the reedbeds and then into the gullet and mouth of the biggest river system in Australia.

Funny that we call it “mouth”.  This implies a regular drink, which here, can be only seawater.  If you study our attitudes to it, and philosophies of management of it, we really mean “anus”.  We want stuff to flow out through it, all the time, draining that vast hinterland of eastern Australia: 1,061,469 square kilometres of it. Like a final cleansing organ or gland, the Finniss River and Currency Creek are the last freshwater inputs into the estuary before that ultimate sandy sphincter, which sometimes does one thing and sometimes does another.

During the debacle of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge trials, there was much contention about some of the Original people regarding it as a womb, with the islands inside and out being the offspring.

The Murray Mouth in much healthier times. This drains 1,061,469 square kilometres of eastern Australia. The Currency Creek appellation begins here on the left, at the ingress of the Finniss and Currency Creek waters..

Let’s go through this again.  I’m sure we can work it out if we learn to look at it from above, like a dot painting.  Without political parties, unions, or state lines. Through the customary drought, insane optimistic mismanagement, including really silly over-allocation of its waters to greedy and naïve irrigators, the entire Murray-Darling Basin nearly went Sahara. Like cactus.  So the estuary has been very very sick, parched and salty, and acidic, but is finally getting some of the dirty water off its chest after two years - three in some parts - of extreme La Niña-driven flooding right up the eastern seaboard.  The entire microzoology of the Lakes and Coorong has suddenly changed as refugee microbes flood in from Queensland and New South Wales; the e-coli emerging through the Murray Mouth has seen the Goolwa cockle (pi-pi) fishery shut on the beaches outside.

If this is indeed a mouth, she’s having a very big infectious cough.

I realize that you probably know this, but I write this anticipatory note from McLaren Vale, where I live the on opposite side of the South Mount Lofty Ranges, about half an hour from the watershed.  We are on the Fleurieu Peninsula.  The Vales here on my side ease their waters off the Willunga Escarpment, westerly, into the Gulf St Vincent.  Cross that range and you’re in rain shadow country, where Currency Creek and its neighbouring stream, the Finniss, flow out of Mosquito Hill country, Cox’s Scrub and Ashbourne, toward the south-east.  Into the Murray estuary. 

Meeting's over: Sandy Mulchay, a local artist, takes a seat in her Red Chairs installation, which is gradually sinking into the vast filtering system of the estuary.  I like the notion of the electric fence keeping the sad reality of the waters at bay. This is on the lakeside near Clayton. photo Philip White ... click to enlarge.

Over that way the stones are more aggro and tortured, and vary from the heavily-mineralised metamorphic schists of Kanmantoo, where I grew up on the Bremer River, to the intensely-varied fruitcake of chaos some big glacier dumped where the Finniss escapes the hills. It’s highly picturesque, from the almost English pubbiness out Ashbourne way, with European trees (just outside the declared region), to the wild reaches of samphire and reeds between the old river ports of Milang and Goolwa. 

The vineyards seem largely to have been planted on the alluvial sands and clays of the sedimentary flats, and some terra rosa over limestone, but some have been more adventurous.  Dr. Berthold Salomon, the Austrian winemaker, planted upstream on a rocky fruitloaf of glacial moraine: the complexity of the many ancient geologies shaved up, transported and dumped by massive ice has given him a multi-epoch pudding of stones of myriad mineral flavours and water-retaining capacities.   A moraine terrine terrane, if you like.  In these ancient parts, these are my favourite geologies for viticulture.  Gimme chaos; get complexity.

It is a repeat, if you wish, of the Kurrajong Formation on my side of the range.

After a good rain, you’ll see the stream fizzing like a milkshake at the foot of Salomon’s, rounding more rocks.   He planted here because as he introduced his exquisite Salomon Undhof Austrian whites into the markets of Indo-China, Bert found he needed some good red to back it up, and reds won’t ripen in his slice of Austria.  But I’ve been up and down that eastern side of the range with him, licking rocks, finding the ones with the flavours that best match home.

While the debate about the Murray-Darling reaches anarchic crescendo, there is a persistent and increasingly laudible argument that the barrages be removed from the Murray Mouth.  These are a series of weirs which secure the freshwater coming downstream by holding the saltwater of the ocean out. It’s supposed to be like a dam, with the fresh river water flowing over the barrages and into the ocean.  Recently, it’s been the other way round, with seawater leaking back through to the dirty polluted puddle of droughtwater within.  Diluting it, if the truth be known.

Now we have big floods, she’s running back out again.

Leading the barrage removalist pack is the pin-up girl of the Climate Change Sceptics, Dr. Jennifer Marohasy, (left) who calls herself “an Australian biologist who holds unpopular opinions on a range of important environmental issues.”   She was controversial primarily for her scepticism of popular human-driven climate warming science, but now gathers more attention in these parts for her plain and simple suggestion that the entire estuary would be better off if we let the sea back in when the freshwater wasn’t running.  It is damned obvious to me that if you wanted a more natural, wetter river, you’d let its outlet do what it naturally does, no?  Marohasy  cites the anecdotal work A Fresh History Of The Lakes: Wellington To The Murray Mouth, 1800s to 1935 (Sim & Muller, 2004)  and the writings of Captain Charles Sturt, who rowed down the river to discover its narrow mouth on 9th February 1830, bitterly record that it was an impassable mess of canals and sandbanks, and then row all the way back upstream into New South Wales.  Marohasy maintains a feisty controversial rage on her blog.

She particularly supports the science proposed on the local website, Lakes Need Water.

The author at the legendary Cafe Bombora, in the dunes on the west side of the Murray Mouth at the old riverport of Goolwa ... photo SATANIKA

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if the estuary was restored and visitors could taste not only the local wines but also feast from the bounty of the sea," she says. "River estuaries can be such productive environments with Mulloway (Jew fish), oysters and more... bring back the tide!

"Just removing the Mundoo barrage would make a huge difference to the ecology of the region including the Coorong. 

"Of course it would only be in very extreme drought conditions that the sea water would even make it right across the lake let alone up as far as Jervois where the off-take pipes for the vineyards is located.   And keeping the main channel of the river fresh during extreme drought could be guaranteed without building any more infrastructure."

What if the barrages were removed, and marine brine occasionally extended back as far as Murray Bridge and Mypolonga, perhaps even Mannum, as insinuated by Sturt?  In an extreme drought, the huge Langhorne Creek vignoble, north of Currency Creek, would run out of fresh irrigation water from the adjacent Lake, the end of the Murray-Darling.  Not even the cheeky colostomy trick big vineyard developer Di Davidson helped set up, with the emergency pipeline from further upstream, at Murray Bridge, would be reliable.  That was an expensive emergency solution for Langhorne Creek when the Lake got too salty, acid and small.  They simply shoved a pipe into another place further upstream where the water was better, pumped her down and kept irrigating.  Which made the water in the Lake next to them worse.  What else could it do?

Without the barrages, that upstream water would not always be better, but perhaps the hillside vineyards upstream on Currency Creek and the Finniss might survive. Nothing is certain in these parts lately.  The establishment of big hardrock mines on the Bremer at Kanmantoo (below) and the Angas River at Strathalbyn also conjure the constant possibility of polluting accidents adding to the problems of Langhorne Creek and the Lakes System.  Dawesley Creek is constantly poisoned by the Brukunga mine tailings dam.

A year after Sturt came by, Captain Collett Barker moored his Isabella on my side of the ranges at Yankalilla and trekked across the forested Fleurieu Peninsula to explore the Murray Mouth, which was very narrow.  He swam that, climbed a Coorong sandhill and disappeared.  The local Ngarrindjeri had speared him.  They later explained they thought he may have been a whaler or sealer (both hated by the Originals), but I’m sure the sight of a person with white skin and a theodolite strapped to the top of his head emerging from that treacherous crossing might have been sufficient reason for fright fight and flight.

Pity we didn’t always involve such locals in the ongoing management of their rivers.  Since Barker bit the shellgrit, or, more pertinently, finally saw the point, the history of our estuary has been a long string of unfortunate mistakes, most of which have led to a gradual degradation of the system. Since the Canadian Chaffey Brothers developed irrigation systems and established the river towns of Mildura and Renmark in the last 1860s, grape growers and wine makers have played a very large role in this degradation.

Now it has some reasonably fresh, if not exactly clean, water in it, the river system is being provided a short breathing space for these estuarine industries: down this end, dairying is also vital, but entirely dependent on a good supply of fresh river water.

The thing that scares me about all this is the ongoing popular presumption that the floods are somehow normal.  These floods are not normal.  Drought is normal.  And ongoing.  I discussed this recently at Burra with the radical Natural Sequence Farming genius, Peter Andrews. 

He pointed out that during the white exploration of its coastlines, Australia’s rivers were barely visible: there was no mighty Mississippi or Nile Delta emergent, and no surge like the hundreds of kilometers of freshwater that whoosh into the South Atlantic where the Amazon emerges from its jungle.

“The rivers here hardly ever made it to the sea,” Andrews said.  “The water stayed in the country and kept it good.  The rivers were explored from the interior.  Somehow we’ve got to remember what it was like before us.  We’ve got to learn to spread the water out, use it where it falls, take its energy and destructive force away, slow it down, and let it fill the country while cleaning and draining it in its own complex way.  Slowly.  If there’s any left to flow into the ocean, that’ll be good.”

Maybe a gestapo of Andrews, the original riverine nations, and Tim Flannery’s Wentworth Group should be given the whole job.  Throw Marohasy in for leavening. It doesn’t look much like the Murray Darling Basin Authority
has a hope in Hell of sorting anything at this stage, not even with Craig Knowles and Di Davidson and everybody.

Ngarrindjeri genius: David Unaipon, the most famous estuary original, worked in the Kanmantoo St George's winery in the late 1800s while its owner, Charles Burney Young, and his son, Harry Dove Young, paid for his tertiary education at the University of Adelaide.  

Kanmantoo St George's Claret won the top gong at the Great Paris Exposition Wine Show of 1889, held to coincide with the completion and opening of the Eiffel Tower. That's its label below.  

St George blew Bordeaux, not to mention the rest of the world, clear off the bench, becoming the first wine from South Australia to win such international acclaim. 

Pity we didn't listen to Unaipon's advice on how his people's  estuary worked! 

When I was a kid I worked in the shearing shed where Unaipon invented the shearing machine handpiece.  Which got him on the fifty. 

I remember Harry Dove Young's daughter and heir, Nora Young, and her girlfriend, Tate Smith, driving off in the Borgward Isabella to keep on eye on him when he was real old in Murray Bridge in the sixties. I would mow their lawn while they drank dry sherry on the veranda and practiced their painting skills relative to polite conversation.  Nora was the great-grandaughter of Lady Charlotte Bacon and Lord Byron.

If the Barrage Removalists have their way and such an alternative gets more serious discussion, which it will, I have a bit to add.  We now seem pretty good at predicting the La Niña – El Niño cycle, often years ahead.  Next time we’re due for another sesh of these king-hell floods, simply open the barrage during the drought a year or two before and let the sea back in for a while.  If it does more harm than good, you can always close the barrage again once the floods have pushed the salt back out.

In the meantime set up a clever suburban waste water recycling system like McLaren Vale has, and prepare the greywater from that burgeoning villa rash of the south coast, from Goolwa to Victor, so it fills the Langhorne Creek mob’s irrigation demands.  Who knows – they could well do a clean business pumping any surplus back upstream along Di Davidson’s pipe to sell it to Murray Bridge.

To add a great deal more nature to the southern end of the estuary, all the channels built into the Limestone Coast, draining its water straight into the ocean, should be removed so the groundwater once again goes into the Coorong, keeping it alive.

These things will be foremost in my mind as I sit there with my colleagues tomorrow, appraising the wines of the Currency Creek district at its first ever formal regional judging.

But by the time you read this that will be another yesterday: another day lost in taking serious positive science-and-history-based action to keep the whole damned gadget ticking along.  I hope to hell somebody, some mob, can pull something out of the hat, and when they do, that they will be believed and supported. We can do it.

Just because we’re judging at the very end of the River doesn’t mean it’s finished.


It's not all vineyards at Currency Creek: Dean Nicolle Ph. D.; B. Sc. (Hons) Botany; B App Sc. (Natural resources Management) owns and runs Australia's main eucalyptus arboretum here, too.  Dean started on this when he was 16 years old; now he runs this vital research station with many examples of over 900 species and sub-species, totaling some 9000 plants. photo Philip White

... and the judging? ...

WRITTEN THE DAY AFTER: When you simply stand there and sniff the joint, Currency Creek seems like Bordeaux.  The water is always nearby.  

Riverine/estuarine/marine geology.  

But where my pinnacle of Bordeaux, the Graves de Figeac area northwest of St. Emilion, where Chateaux of the grade of Cheval-Blanc and Figeac suck on riverine gravels, I suspect that time will also earn the northwest corner of the Currency Creek Wine Region its best marks.  The gravels here where the River Finniss emerges from the hills are not only riverine sediments, like Graves de Figeac, but also glacial, and always set me thinking of Cabernet Franc, the most fragrant of the Bordeaux varieties.

So this may explain the varietal breakdown of the region’s plantings, as in the 2008 figures of the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia.  Overlooking the notion that the Phylloxera Board might some day be expected to offer something a little more up-to-date, the numbers show that of a total of 912 ha planted by 2008, 277 were Cabernet sauvignon, 61 were Merlot, and 58 were Sauvignon blanc.   These are all Bordeaux varieties: 43 per cent of the total.  There were probably a few more Bordeaux types in the 84 ha of “other varieties” but I suspect this category would be bulging now with the hyper-fab varieties that end in O.

Sometimes, when the angles and the light are right, but very rarely, Currency Creek feels just a little like the Rhone delta, which might help explain why Shiraz is the region’s biggest grape planted, at 310 ha, or 34 per cent of the total.  But we’re stretching realities here.  These folks planted Shiraz because they’re familiar with it, it seems popular, and, you know, it’s easy to grow.  Oh yes.  It also does very well at Langhorne Creek, the next appellation upstream, to the north.

Currency Creek NEVER reminds me of Champagne, Chablis or Burgundy.  So why it has 122 ha of Chardonnay, 13 per cent of the total, beats me.

And it never feels like any part of Austria, Germany, Clare or Eden Valley, so the first class tasted, the Rieslings, seemed unlikely.  I liked the buttered toast of the Ballast Stone 2004, which I awarded 92 points; the fresher Whale Coast 2006 (93) was more like lime and ginger marmalade, and with an average score of 92 was the second best white of the day.  

The Finniss River, adjacent to the Brooks Family vineyard: dry in 2008; wet in 2006 photos Leo Davis 

But, well, you know.  At best these were like Coonawarra Rieslings.  Cute and simple.

I forgave two Chardonnays: the Ballast Stone 2006 (92) - from now on, all the scores in (brackets) are my personal appraisals, and not those of my two fellow judges – and the Fleurieu Vinters 2012 (90) which is unfinished.  Otherwise, the wines were lacklustre and somewhat like the Chardonnays of the Hunter Valley twenty years ago.  Descriptors like “hairoil”, “Brilliantine”, “lanilool” and “porkfat” kept appearing.

I first thought the Vasarelli Family’s Vermentino 2011 was a little broad and flat to be a true top wine, but my colleagues sent me back to it and we eventually agreed the call it the top white, with an average of 92.  At least one of the varieties that end in O got up!

Which leads me to the Bordeaux white varieties.  Bordeaux ends in X. There was only one bottled Sauvignon blanc in the show, while the variety makes up 6 per cent of the region’s total. This 2009  reminded me of the broad old autumnal styles Robert O’Callaghan made at Angle Vale in the late 70s, and not of Bordeaux at all.  And yet, if we looked out the window of our tasting room, we could see the slope on Hindmarsh Island opposite, where Suze Angas grew stunning crisp Semillon and Sauvignon blanc in the 90s, after the Bordeaux style of, say, Peter Vinding-Diers. That vineyard is now houses.

Olaf The Owner's famous Cafe Bombora on the Goolwa Cockle Beach, where the Currency Creek appellation meets the Great Southern Ocean: best fish temple in Australia? DRINKSTER thinks so ... Chef Joel Cousins slaughters a lemon, below. photos Philip White

The reds commenced with a fruitsalad class of varieties that end mainly in O.  Like Tempranillo.  Regardless of its geology, this Spanish brute thrives in places of high diurnal temperature range, like in Spain’s high deserts, where it plunges from over 40C in the day to below zero at night.  This does not happen in marine locations like Currency Creek.

Top red in this class was the Vaserelli Sangiovese 2010: a cheeky, sassy, bright red of overt varietal character, perfect for drinking in its youth. I really loved the audacity of this naughtiness. Pasta!

So we each move to a table laden with thirty glasses of Shiraz.  I liked the slick, polished elegance of the Ballast Stone 98 (93) now showing lovely age and mellow brooding.  This was a good indicator of what will happen to the Ballast Stone 2008 (91) a wine of   complexity, style and authority.  An as yet unbottled Wirra Wirra 2011 (92) looked ravishing; as did the beautifully perfumed Ballast Stone 2012 (91).

Best of all was the Salomon 2010, which averaged 94 points from us.  But this wine is still extraordinarily tight and austere, and will need a few more years of chillin in the dungeon to offer the sort of reassuring warmth guaranteed, just say, in the Shiraz of Langhorne Creek.

Otherwise, many of these Shiraz wines showed unripe hints of the nightshade family, wintergreen and eau-de-cologne mint.  Add to this the crass carpentry of the sawdust, planks and shavings that cheapskates now use in place of barrels, and you’ve got what?  Well, you’re not going to compete on value and quality with the Midi or Languedoc, whose wines Coles sell here for way under $20. Uh-huh.

So.  Panting.  The Bordeaux varieties.  Once again, I really liked the Salomon Cabernet sauvignon 2008 (91), an incredibly intense, strapping wine which needs about ten years to warble properly.  And I liked the svelte balance and poise of the Ballast Stone Cabernet sauvignon 2000 (92).  The Adamopoulos Show Block Cabernet sauvignon 2010 (92) was an accomplished, soulful wine with an entertaining seesaw of fleshy crème caramel and the darker nightshade greens, perhaps a little like Roger Pike’s wondrous Marius Wines from over the range at Willunga.

Our runner-up was the Ballast Stone 2001 Cabernet sauvignon (93), a smooth, composed, creamy wine with a tantalising illusion of sweetness. 

Wooden boats racing in the dammed estuary at Goolwa.  Our tasting room, in the trees to the left, looked out over this bliss.  But a couple of years back, you couldn't sail here.  It was a mucky dub. Open the barrages, and it would always be full.  And the mulloway and oysters would return ... 

And then there was the wine Zar Brooks’ Dad grew and Zar Brooks’ wife made, and Zar Brooks markets and flogs: the dribbleworthy Dandelion Vineyards Cabernet sauvignon 2010, which I had initially ranked equal in points and style to the Salomon 2008, but which soon stuck its lean little chest out and dragged unanimous top scores from the three of us.  Of course there was some embarrassment when the wine was revealed, but you get that if you’re a really good wine-producing family which encourages its neighbours to get a wine show together, shows them how to do it, brings in two independent judges who know what they’re doing and ends up winning major bling.

Zar did a killer job setting this up with his Dad, Tony Brooks: exemplary.  But it would probably be better next year if he withdrew from judging any class which had one of his family's wines in it.  Early days. 

So what about the best bit of the Bordeaux thing: the blends?  St Emilion?  Pomerol?

Apart from one gorgeous barrel sample of Fleurieu Vintners Merlot 2012 (90), and the Ballast Stone Cabernet Malbec Petit Verdot Merlot 2010 (90) which seemed as soft and soulful as the best of Langhorne Creek blends, there was hardly anything worth trumpeting.  Sad, that.  It’s a great pity that Cabernet sauvignon is so bloody easy to grow: it needs to be balanced in a blend.  Bring on the Merlot and the Cabernet franc blends; more Malbec (the Clare clone; not the Langhorne Creek clone) … and I’d love to see some Carmenere planted if there’s a nice warm spot.

So.  What do we need?  Better canopy management with better dappled lighting on each bunch.  Fewer bunches.  Lower yields.  Less industrial mentality and more tender loving care.  Less petrochem regime in the grapeyards.  More use of older barrels in place of sawdust/shavings/innerstaves regime of the lumberjacks.  More scientific understanding of the geology, geography and weather. More wild yeast, and lees when they're appropriate.  

Add about ten more annual wine shows like this one, and you’ll be well on the way to rock’n’roll.

I bow to the audacious Currency Creek wine community for having the courage to do this, and sincerely thank the Brooks family for setting it all up.  Thanks to the Ballast Stone Cafe on the lakeside for letting us use their tasting area, and also to chef Michael Duchow and all those he harnessed to make a lovely lunch for judges, helpers, contributors and exhibitor families.  And special thanks to the Art Gallery of South Australia for letting Big Mama outa the big city so she could keep an eye on us. She relaxed after a few reds. And she was there, mark my word, to bear witness to the fact that contrary to their bullshit propaganda claims about the Royal Brisbane Wine being the first in Australia to use the 100-point scoring system, we did it first.  Mama not happy.

88 wines! More please!

23 April 2012


“Philip White somebody here from Victor or whose name was Victor was suggesting that your face should be on bottles of wine because that’s a good warning not to drink,” announced Michael Smith on ABC Drive.

Smith had invited me to contribute to his program. I was happy to, as the other participant was Michael Thorn, the chief executive of FARE, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. I respect the determination and professionalism of this lobbyist.

So?  Whose side was this announcer on?  This battle for the warning-free bottle suddenly seemed much dirtier than I’d expected, but Smith quickly realised the coarse nature of the insult he’d just read on air and added the lame sequitur:

“That’s a bit unkind, don’t you think?”

Well yes, it was.  Otherwise the conversation went politely, and to reassure the fuming me, away down here in the vineyards, bleating into a phone, in one way or another the majority of callers seemed cynical-to-derisive about government health warnings in general.

Which will not deter Michael Thorn and his FARE. This slick Canberra lobbying outfit conducts admirable work in the tatty realms of alcohol abuse.  One of their current goals is to have compulsory health warnings on wine bottles, with an emblem and some text telling pregnant women not to drink.

“Look, ah, our Foundation has been taking the lead on behalf of a number of public health organizations around the country promoting the idea that there should be prominent health warnings on all alcohol products and its associated packaging,” was his opening line.

“We propose that there be a clear health warning on the front of all alcohol packaging, in other words on the front of a beer can if there can be such a thing on something that’s circular, um, and that there be a range of um different, of different messages that go to addressing what we know are the key long-term harms and the risk of various cancers for instance, through to the short-term harms and the risk of injury from being drunk for instance, and of course the need for a prominent label about the National Health and Medical Research Council’s advice to women and that is it’s safest not to drink while you’re pregnant, or thinking of becoming pregnant.”

Drinking whilst thinking of becoming pregnant?  This is surely as crazy as the South African motion currently on a similar discussion board there, suggesting that it be made illegal to sell alcohol to pregnant women.

I know hordes of lusty publicans who’d love to do the checking.

Wowser and proho lobbies are strange critters.  One of the truly great examples of their capacity for idiocy was the government’s late eighties Grim Reaper ad campaign which ensured that an entire generation of kiddies grew up thinking (1) you got AIDS if you went ten pin bowling and (2) that all homosexuals were very scary dangerous people. As if to appease the outraged homosexual community, the same mob followed that up with the even more scandalous campaign which attempted to tell us that AIDS came also from heterosexual sex: a series of ads which made those same kiddies terrified whenever their parents nuded up and looked like cuddling in bed.  

It was like "Daddy.  Are you wearing a franger?"

One presumes that our winemakers are in their own smoke-free rooms, quietly battling the chance of such a thing reoccurring.  But stop a minute and consider their dismissive attitude to the truth in the labels they use.  Ridiculous claims in microscopic back label texts.  Wondrous artworks designed to transport the drinker sexually, geographically, gastronomically, and stylistically, not to mention the way a poshly-liveried bottle can assist with the escalation of one’s socio-economic status.

The scourge of the critter label fad, finally fading from international favour, seemed even to present some of the world’s cheapest plonk as a cute thing for kiddies. 

That’s just the beginning.  Dammit, I’m not even thinking of becoming pregnant, but I want to know how much ALCOHOL is in the bottle.  

That’s my responsibility.  

And it’s their responsibility to tell me: they’re obliged by law to tell us, but they’re given a handy 1.5% margin either side of the alcohol level they proclaim.  So you can sit reluctantly nudging the 14.5% alcohol red your lover has just proffered at table, wondering if she’s thinking of getting pregnant after dinner, all the time yearning for something a shade lighter, when in fact it’s really 16%.  Can it be that hard for a vendor of ethanol to be so ignorant of the strength of their product?  How can they not be more honest about it?

And then they hide the number from us.  They print it in tiny point sizes like flyspots, in colours nobody can decipher in broad daylight, let alone through the gloom of a restaurant.

It’s obvious to me: such a lot deserves tougher regulation.  This is an industry used to bullshitting its regulators and customers while it sells a very dangerous depressive drug, which it passes off as a healthy gastronomic item.  While they smugly maintain this ancient regime, it seems certain that quite a lot of the real estate on their own product packages will faithfully follow the tobacco packaging template.  Whether they like it or not.

Sedna got me through high school.  It was better than Dexies. We could buy it from just about any pharmacy, priced like sweet sherry: CHEAP.  It was basically heavily fortified barrel-aged Grenache, jammed full of Kola caffeine, which is a brand name I would have registered then if I had any business brains. It cost about the same price as a pasty and two Cokes, but you could just walk into a chemist and get a bottle in your school uniform. When I finally had the opportunity to ask Mr Benno Seppelt where he found the awkward Sedna  name, he asked where I thought he got the Kola Nut.  Good question for a schoolboy. I eventually worked out that Sedna was Andes backwards but I could never understand why crazy rich Benno put dairy cows on it. It was all pretty trippy ... photo  Philip White

When asked to summarise his position in conclusion, Thorne said “We are trying to work with government at the moment to establish how this pregnancy warning label is going to find its way onto alcohol products and we will continue to work with health ministers around the country to persuade them that generic warning labels should be put on all alcohol products so I know there’s lots of work to be done.  I hope it doesn’t um take as long as it did with tobacco warning labels because in response to that last caller it is absolutely clear that warning labels on tobacco, along with other measures have saved millions and millions of lives and I hope that we can do similar things um on the alcohol front.”

My preferred summary came from a caller, Brendan of Basket Range.

“A friend of mine who’s quite overweight recently bought a chair,” he announced in a sage drawl. “Clearly sitting in a chair can reduce your fitness. And er, I just think that chairs need to be labeled, er, with that warning er, to protect those who purchase chairs.”

Which is not so funny.  I recently bought a mop with a health warning on it.  My face or not, this campaign’s gonna get real dirty.

To read a full transcript of this interview, click HERE.

22 April 2012


blurry old days blurry old photographs

Wine tasting

The dead-weight of years crushing down, down,
largely destructive, yet has crushed from these barren lives
a wine we'll call Australian, since no tariff has been paid.
Taste it. Not bitter but with the dust of the outback
prominent. Slide it around the palate. See with what rosy light
the chandelier blazes through this blood you suckle on.
Consider the delicate bouquet of revolution
it was a good year for martyrs.
Jan Palach lit up half the silent east with his death agonies
taste the ashes you thought were sediment from long storage it is hard
to forget. Remember too the vintners whose feet trod flat the grapes,
trod flat the barbed wire at Lone Pine so the press could sing,
sing of "significant advances", of selflessness. Taste it at V. C. Corner,
how many heroes then trod flat the fields to grow the grapes
you think you taste.
An amusing little vintage, you call it, vampires of humanity,
from your penthouse the world is beautiful the filth of streets
is far below
the dead cannot be smelt unless the wind changes bringing you
the sound of death of city solitudes of  labourers returning
home exhausted
from factories you control. You suck their lives away,
their spirit, an amusing little wine.
They toil that you can celebrate your profits, play aristo with some amusing friends
drawn from the ranks of profiteers, scuttling from
Europe to get near the cash,
jetting from Texas to pick up the pennies
better men would scorn to touch.
It was a good year, you say, the auditors agree; inside
a wilderness a hermit
listens/the change he speaks of to the world will come;
dare you face it?

Michael Dransfield
Windhover, 1972

Michael Dransfield was a poet, inspiration, and fellow hitch-hiker.  He was a man who could take you to the elves in your valley. He wrote this poem in the Blue Mountains, I reckon, on ANZAC Day (which this year falls this Wednesday). Maybe Rodney Hall published it on ANZAC Day in The Australian. That woulda made sense.  Doesn't matter now.  But it was the first time I considered wine becoming literature, more than being the writer's lubricant and a mere facilitator.  It set me considering the idea of writing, not just about wine, but about the many intoxications and complications it offers, good and bad.

And the way it smells of summer dust.  

A year later, Michael died in hospital on Good Friday, 20th April 1973, aged 24.  The nation was told it was a heroin overdose, but Michael couldn't afford to buy a heroin overdose.  He took as much of it as he could afford,, but I reckon he died from complications arising from the end of his starving itinerant piece of shit life. 

The Coroner didn't write that.  I wrote that.

Poets cannot afford to buy heroin, cocaine, or great wine.  Most poets eat shit and drink piss. Some, like Bob Adamson, have been finely placed by the universe to fish the Hawkesbury and determinedly, gradually write himself to bits.  Adamson probably eats the best of all the poets I know, but that's more than rare luck boyo that's well-earned, fish-gutted respect of a river before you get the biro out.  Love to the fierce Juno.

Michael had slept under one too many Tasmanian bridges and smoked too many discarded butts mixed with all types of dubiousness; the pneumonia got him. 

Most didn't find out until a few days later, when Rodney Hall published this poem in The Australian as a tribute to one of Australia's most promising poets, ever.  (I think he also published I Tell Myself I'm Through With Love, which should be tattooed on every architect.)  

On the 39th anniversary of Michael's death (yesterday), the Rochford Street Review published a series of articles and discussions of this remarkable, but little-known Australian literary pioneer.   

I've spent many pensive moments wondering how different Australian poetry would now be if he'd miraculously survived.  It's like pondering what Australian winemaking would now be had Stephen Hickinbotham not got killed.  One thing is certain: you don't get too much poetry like this in today's Weekend Australian! 

And another thing probly is, too: knowing this joint, there are quite a few great poets among us whom nobody'll know til they're dead: under a bridge, under the knife or plain old under the gun. 

The best measure of any society is the condition of its poets' teeth. Of Australian poets, only Sir Les Murray can afford a smile for the camera.  Unless you get such ivory envy that you open yourself to the horn business, and get back to Michael's observations of those who grow them through their foreheads.

In the woods around the castle live unicorn.  They roam the paths and glades - I see them often. Many are silvery, some white; one, glimpsed sometimes, is golden. They are like magical horses, like mystic Arab horses. Very early, walking at dawn, I meet them.  They know me, but they are shy, and do not stay.
Michael Dransfield