“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





31 August 2012


It was the sound that seduced me. I’d be tucked in there in my bubby bed, in a silent timber house full of Bibles in the Strzelecki Ranges, and the sound would come through the whispering pines and across the bull paddock to my window.

Artie Bagnara and his boys, Aldo and Flavio, had built a bocce piste in their back yard.  The Simcas and Zephyrs and utes would arrive, Mr Panozzo in his spaceship Citroen and Mr Moscato with his giant guts rubbing on the steering wheel of his two-tone Vedette. Always with his flagon of grappa, Mr Moscato.  The sound would commence as a low hum of measured and studious northern Italian dialect: Po Valley men discussing line, curl and spin, interrupted by the clink and chink of the steel balls and the thunk of those knocked out hitting the wooden boundary beams.

It had a rhythm like the sea at Inverloch.  The hum of discussion; the hushed pause as the player took his stance and aimed her up; the sharp crack of the impact; the thunk; the resultant exclamations.


This calm musical form would gradually build as the womens’ laughter began, and what had seemed no less holy than a prayer meeting as far as noises went soon became a chaotic symphony of shouts, whoops and hollers and the clink of glasses would enjoin the chink of the balls and that exotic rabble of extreme naughtiness, deep into the night.

In the morning when our grumpy Protestant men had disappeared with the dogs into the milking shed, just as the hungover Bagnara men were busy in theirs, I’d steer my little dimpled knees up the drive, cross the Leongatha Road, and sidle quietly to that mysterious bocce ground beneath the cedars. 

It was the infant gourmand’s paradise: there’d be crunchy-crusted bread with giant holes in it, and salami stubs on bits of string.  There’d be jars half full of giardiniera, and funny cheese. Hundreds of cigarette butts there to savour, and the dregs of many beers.

And red wine. Lots of lovely red wine.

Mrs Bagnara was never angry when she found me.  She’d pinch my chubby cheek and giggle in Italian, tuck me under her big perfumy arm and carry me into her kitchen.  It may be a dream, but I reckon she had an ear ring and a bit of gold on her tooth, and where we had a bland bachelor’s sleepout on our veranda, the Bagnaras had a wooden room full of curing salamis and meats hanging there around a single naked light globe.  We drank white tea with buttered scones and ate white food: Vienna slice white bread, cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, radishes, boiled cabbage, corned beef and white sauce.  The Bagnaras ate the darkest range of aromatic meats and beets.  Black olives, for Jesus’ sake!

On our side of the road, the only things that smelled louder than our porridge pot was my grandfather’s woollen long johns and the rifle cupboard.  Once you’d got past the incredible peat-n-meat aroma of the Bagnara’s sleepout, you’d be in that kitchen with its vinegars and oregano, its cheese and pickled fish and the utterly devilish smell of coffee.  

Mrs Bagnara would set me up on a chair with the little wooden coffee-grinder with its dainty drawer at the bottom for the ground coffee.  That tiny drawer had beautiful dove-tail joints. I’d sit there clutching it between my knees and grind away, pumping that exotic air into my fresh pink lungs.

Artie would clump in from the dairy, kick off his gumboots and sigh as the coffee hit his tiny cup; she’d pop the grappa bottle and before he dribbled a teaspoon in his coffee, she’d let me taste its brilliant fire from her juicy farmer’s fingertip.

The smell of tobacco.

I reckon most of our aroma vocabulary is set by the time we’re about eight years old. As I hit sixty, I’ve spent a lot of ponderance in my eyelid cinema, watching these grainy images that have somehow survived their soggy storage.  The sound of the bocce has much more clarity than the vision.  Perhaps it’s because I had to imagine the vision in the first place, and do the movie to match the soundtrack.  But another step up is the smell division: those aromas have never dimmed a flicker.  They remain as crisp and reliable a reference section as I have: they retain much more vivid clarity and colour than any of the other senses.

And they shit on the internet.

Praise Bacchus and Pan for that. Not to mention a handy touch of synaesthesia to counterbalance the slydexia.

Anyway, I’m here to thank Italy for sending me the Bagnaras. I’m here to say that given the general conditions lately my principal aerobic exercise at the beginning of the day is the grinding of my coffee, and confess that suck I developed over the cedary Bagnara grinder has sometimes been wasted on more nefarious compounds.  I’m here to say I have an abiding love for a good moscato grappa.  I hurl the balls of steel.  I can’t keep out of Tony Marino’s butcher shop.  I smoke my meat. I want to go to Enzo’s on Port Road and let Damiano caress my ears with threats of incredible flavours which are on the table before me just before the first bottle is done.  Every time.  All the time.  And I crave Settlement wood oven pizzas. While my cigarette butts connoisseurship was never needed much after the student years, I’m sure it’s still in there waiting should the days turn hard.

And the wine addiction?  Blame it all on the sound and pass the bottle.  Grazie.

27 August 2012


The author having a bit of a lie down drunk, asleep, but still keeping a close watch on his pulse ... Houghton Winery, Swan Valley, 1982 ... this photo was found in his camera when he got home.  Rumour said the photographer was James Halliday

SPEECH prepared for FACETS, a business investment and job creation conference staged at Yalumba Winery by Regional Development Australia (Barossa) by PHILIP WHITE

This speech will address issues of intoxication and civic amenity.

It’s appropriate that we seek the counsel of a great contemporary poet to explain something about wine which is rarely mentioned by those involved in its production and sale.

“I only drank professionally,” Leonard Cohen said a few years back. “I found this wine: it was Chateau Latour. The experts talk about the bouquet and the tannins and the fruit and the symphonies of tastes. But nobody talks about the high. Bordeaux is a wine that vintners have worked on for 1,000 years. Each wine has a specific high, which is never mentioned.”

In all the millions of mouthings of gastroporn and even the more technical writings on wine, you’ll have to chew through an enormous amount of shallow, endlessly repetitive praise of popular product before you find the word ethanol.

Ethanol is a psychoactive recreational intoxicant which plays with the GABA receptors in our brains in pretty much the same way benzodiazepines and barbiturates do. 

The word intoxicated is even less likely to appear.  High?  Well, everybody knows that applies only to illicit drugs.

In over 30 years of observing this community’s relationship with wine and other intoxicants, this reluctance of my wine-writing colleagues to mention ethanol and intoxication is glaring.  Perhaps this is why they call themselves wine writers, and not wine critics.

Apart from this repetitive, rote promotion of this wine or that, “paired” with this trendy foodstuff or another, one of the few fields the thinking wine writer may occasionally stray into is the contentious matter of planning and public amenity.

This brings a certain air of caring and community responsibility; dangerously verging on sanctimony. 

But even this, I suggest, is totally disingenuous.

Amenity is one of those strange words planners use.  When I discovered in my teens that there was a profession called Town Planner I was immediately suspicious of the language I would live to encounter in the mouths of humans who presumed they were planners where the rest of us weren’t.

I understood my country towns and villages like a rat well before my teens.  I knew the difference between those whose lifeblood was the dairy industry, and those whose life was grain or beef.  I soon knew foundry towns and mining villages, and by the time I’d got the sniff of that dry paper reek of Canberra, I was well-conversant with the logging towns which fed it and the newspapers.

McLaren Vale: do the vines have better civic amenity than the villa  rash? photo Kate Elmes

All these engage in constant discussion of the interplay between their quality of life and the damage wrought by their community’s primal industrial pursuit: the machine which gives the town reason to exist.

In wine regions, you’ll hear and read a lot about history and culture and pleasure and gastronomy, but nobody’s gonna hand a you a brochure saying the whole district exists purely to make dangerous intoxicating depressive drugs.

When they say amenity, I think planners mean something about the look and feel of a location, and this means what it’s like to be inside of, looking out of, as much as what it looks like to the outsider, peering in. 

These are obviously very different things.

To me, amenity seems to be part ethereal expressionism, or if you squint, pointillism, and part hard Euclidian geometry, with all its angles and edge design.  But it’s not all visual: it includes the natures of local sounds and aromas, vibrations and movements.

As communities, we seem happy to accept, or even expect, some forms of amenity which may be anathema to the newcomer or outsider.

The visitor to Nuriootpa, for example, may find strange the pitched battle to defeat a hamburger shop in an industrial precinct, whose railway, tankfarms, industrial distilleries, car yards, supermarkets and petrol stations would seem apt companions to a place specializing in the sale of food and non-alcoholic drink to those busy drivers with little time to stop and chew.

This is a perfect example of how we choose between a civic amenity of one sort and another: the intricate local cultures which promote these decisions are usually confounding to the casual outsider.

But it indicates something about us, as beasts which plan, and leads to endless postulation about how and why we exercise our hypocrisy in issues of amenity.

As wine communities whose existence is dependent almost entirely upon the production of ethanol, we are in a place with the potential for the most baroque and ornately rococo hypocrisies to emerge and thrive and live amidst us, where they are never, ever mentioned.
We may never mention ethanol or alcohol, for example, while we permit wineries which look like oil refineries into our rural landscapes.  Imagine the whingeing and perhaps even activism which would surely put a stop to a real oil refinery should one dare to enter.

We may never mention ethanol or alcohol, for example, while the entire community focuses on one minute aspect or another of the monocultural landscape we have developed to feed these refineries to manufacture ethanol.

The first time I came to this Barossa Valley to interview a grape grower, for example, I stood there on Leo Pech’s hillside in the rain, waiting for him to finish pruning a long row. When he eventually invited me to sit in his truck, he remarked on the beauty and proficiency of his vineyard.   I responded by saying a good test of its true quality would be to suddenly remove the vines, and study what was left.  A barren, dead, Roundup-blitzed landscape was what it was.

Not one blade of anything that would compete with Leo’s striving for ethanol.  Most of the Barossa looked like that for years.  Most Australian vineyards looked like that.  Many still do.  In those days of recreational cultivation, the scorched earth vineyard was not only accepted - by the same community that never mentioned Cohen’s high - but it was preferred.  It was safer and tidier and much praised; perhaps even more Godly.

Fashion has changed since, of course: we want to see a healthy sward beneath the vines now, and even restricting the Roundup to a thin stripe below each vine row is falling from favour as we strive to get greener and more responsible and let God’s earth have its way without glyphosate-poisoned stripes of dead ground.

Ethanol is sufficiently important to this community that Australia devotes 160,000 ha to vines.  Much of this is still unfortunately farmed according to the old industrial herbicide/weedicide regime, and it depends entirely upon another form of highly destructive industrial monoculture, the pine forest. South Australia has well over half of Australia’s 180,000 ha of pine forest, much of which government is contentiously selling.  The thinnings from these forests are treated with creosote or copper-chromium-arsenate to become vineyard trellis posts.

We tolerate the destruction of the amenity of that country to develop another monoculture – pine forestry in this case - in the pursuit of intoxication.  We poison the timber for the vineyard trellises so thoroughly that it is illegal to burn the old posts or dump them in landfill.

Somehow, most folks still think forestry trees and vines somehow look prettier than other land uses.

We eternally graduate and calibrate our degree of toleration.

We also tolerate, perhaps even like, the look of barley fields.  We have 4 million hectares of them.  It’s hard to work out, but I reckon around a third of that goes to make ethanol in the forms of vodka, whisky, kiddylikker and beer. 

Like Roundup grapeyards, these barley-based forms of intoxicant seem to have become less fashionable in some circles than grape and wine-derived ethanol, particularly in prospering wine-making communities.

My fascination in all this has recently led me to play about blending a range of products I found on sale in Coles.  I’ve been wondering whether we really need to waste so much of our best productive ground making drugs.  I bought 750ml screw-cap jars of Sunraysia brand juice drinks.  They’re $5 a pop full price.  I chose one each of cranberry, blueberry, prune and the beetroot and apple blend.  Coles soda was $2.45 for 1.25 l; next door in Woolies I found Finlandia vodka: $33 for 700 ml of clean, fairly neutral spirit of 37.5% ethanol.

I made a good sparkling Cabernet Shiraz first.  Blueberry makes good Cabernet base, fruited up with Cranberry.  A tiny admixture of prune gave it a few years age; a teaspoon of cold plunger coffee added oak; bitter green tea added tannin.  The beetroot/apple is dominated by the earthy beet: with it you get more Pinot characters, through to the GSM array to straight Shiraz, using tiny dribbles of prune as the ager. 

I recommend you try this mud pie business yourself: this short list of ingredients are pretty much all you need to emulate red wines of various famous sorts.  You can adjust the alcohol with the vodka. You’ll be surprised how close you can get; my Cab/Shiraz sparkler is better than most of what I see made from grapes, and an obvious improvement on nearly all the biggest-selling Lambruscos I’ve seen lately.   

It was the Sunraysia aspect of these jars which first caught my attention. I thought of the Murray Darling River System, and the total ineptitude we’ve shown its degredation relative to the water we take from it to make vast oceans of stupidly cheap ethanol.  Like at the price of bottled water.  Or even less.  Even through the drawn-out chicanery and nonsense of the current interminable enquiries, nobody seems to have mentioned the high, or whether it’s worth it.

Perhaps we can get more bang for our buck with some truly lateral thought.

First, if I can so easily emulate or improve on drinks made from grapes without using grapes, why do we waste so much water growing grapes?  These “juice drinks” are not real juice:  they’re reconstituted pulps and cheap concentrates mixed with water, and while the labels say “made in Australia” there’s little chance that all their ingredients actually came from Australia.

Let’s say that we can produce wine-like ethanol drinks from these ingredients.  How much research has gone into discovering whether we can grow these fruits and vegetables without needing as much water as vineyards do?  The drinks, with their natural minerals and vitamins, certainly taste and feel much healthier than what the cheaper wine refineries pump out in the highly-irrigated desert and Mallee.

Which leads me to the matter of exporting amenity which doesn’t suit us.  If Australians want a Murray Basin full of wetlands and River Red Gums, perhaps we can leave the river that way and grow cranberries, prunes, beetroot and whatever in a place where the necessary rain falls straight outa the sky?  Like, maybe the tropics?

And if, say, we wanted more Mallee bush in place of some of our endless barley fields, perhaps we could derive the alcohol part of our sparkling red, and all our kiddylikker,  from white rum made from sugar cane in Queensland?

Now we need to take another step into the new.  What we’ve talked about so far, relative to amenity and ethanol, basically breaks down to a crude formula of bang for buck, or degree of high per hectare. 

It soon becomes time to explore which plants offer the best high whilst incurring the least degree of destruction to the amenity of a place or indeed to the well-being of its inhabitants.

I mean, I side-stepped the need for grape ethanol by using vodka.  I sacrificed somebody else’s amenity, out in the barley country where they love the look of barley, to gain my ethanol, my high.  We all know the bad side effects of ethanol, and the incredible costs it brings to communities who enjoy it too deeply. So why do we depend on ethanol for the high?

Obviously a very capable and amenable sort of a person: but why should they get ten years when manufacturers of abject rotgut are regarded as great community leaders? ... Toronto Financial Post Classifieds, 23 February 2001 ... love to learn what happened

We’ll remain incapable of exercising any clarity of logic on all these popular planning issues until we address the matter of any community’s inertial requirement for, say, x amount of mild-altering self medication. Whether it’s legal or not; government or backyard. We should investigate with an almost child-like honesty new to us, just how much of the ethanol we make for gastronomic reasons is actually used in a gastronomic way.  We should work out how much of this should come from ancient vineyards and how much we really need new ones, what varieties they should be and where they are best grown. 

How many lives should be spent protecting and nourishing them.

Then we must consider the rest of the x-pile: what makes up the rest of the community recreational/intoxicant/self-medicating gross stash?  What do we really keep in our total drug cupboard?  How much of it is safer than ethanol? Can we make mildly intoxicating health drinks using some other drug?

You bet we can.  And we can do it with much less abuse of our civic amenity, freeing up much good land for food and natural forest, if we think primarily of high per hectare.

En route to a rock concert, a quiet choof makes a lot more sense than a bottle of rum ... Mickey Eckert on the way to see Eric Clapton, who was so pissed he couldn't play!  George Terry had to play Layla by himself! 28 April 1975 ... photo Philip White

There are a quite a few people around these days who would suggest Cannabis produces a satisfactory high.  It needs bugger all water if planted in the right place, and can be used to make rope, clothes, packaging and housing.  As far as intoxication goes, one plant can easily supply a normal user for a whole year. One grape vine, on the other hand, might produce one or two bottles of half-reasonable wine; sometimes it’s down to one glass per vine.

We insist on growing grapes for intoxication in our desert, where the water abuse, and of course the amenity, is usually obscene.  A single peyote bud takes years but it needs about as much ground as a wine glass and can pack a helluva lot more out-of-mindedness than the fruit of an entire grape vine, not to mention the peyote’s a desert succulent that needs bugger-all rain.

So there I offer two natural ingredients whose essences could readily be modified so as to offer a high that would suit Leonard in a drink many would prefer to Latour without the need for any Roundup, water, or loss of amenity, personal or public (not to mention the little matter of a thousand or so dollars per bottle).  Concentrations of doseage could be precisely prescribed and explained on the label, to best emulate the intensity of high supplied by ordinary wine. 

Since apes developed a savour for one herb above another, humans have yearned to summon at will that child-like timeless suspension of the dream, where we all love to hang. 

If we squirmed away from so much brutal ethanol toward more gentle intoxicants, there would be much less community violence.  The public health bill would diminish.  And entire regions currently given over to the monocultural production of ethanol could suddenly have more space for space: gardens, native forests and recreation.

Maybe even some housing.

22 August 2012


DRINKSTER first published this suggestion in January.  The ministers and miners couldn't work out whether or not we were taking the piss. Since BHP-Billiton just put the entire Roxby scandal on hold, like the biggest hole on Earth, they'll have more time to work out how serious we were. Er, are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which, of course has nothing to do with Tom.
“Kouts” (pictured with breathalyser),  the former cab-driving Shoppie , is Minister for ALP-Billiton, Olympian digger of the world’s biggest hole in the ground.  His CV on the Premier and Cabinet website suggests he “enjoys cooking”, highlighting his dedication to the Greek Orthodox church and other things unique to its culture.  After some nonsense about football, the blurb goes so far as to claim him to be “very active in the local community as proud Member and Patriot [sic] of organisations and associations such as the St. George Orthodox Church [and the] Messinian Association.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


21 August 2012


Dr. A. C. Kelly's   Wine-growing In Australia, and The Teaching of Modern Writers on Vine-culture and Wine-making (E. S. Wigg & Sons, Adelaide, 1867) personal first edition copy of Rev John Ignatius Bleasdale DD ... photo Philip White (click image to enlarge)

Plugging the hole in Cabernet
Avoiding routines of the Father
'Twas all written out long ago

Chris Carpenter, the celebrated Jackson Family Estates Cabernet master of the Napa Valley, last week flew in to check the 2012 Cabernet sauvignon wines he’s making from the Hickinbotham Vineyard at Clarendon. 

It’s been fascinating to watch a fellow as intelligent, sensitive and, well, fanatical, being confronted with a vineyard so utterly removed from the prized California mountaintops which are his normal currency, but he seems quietly assured that his new Australian babies will be fine once they’ve taught him a thing or two.

With some local winemakers, we attended a tasting of some of the best new and forthcoming Cabernets of McLaren Vale in the cellars of The Victory.  While these were all admirably sound versions of the variety, and a few were really something, Chris remarked that many suffered what Strayan plonk patois calls “the donut”. This is the infamous hole in the middle of the Cabernet palate: unless the viticulture and location is spot on, the wine can be all pretty florals and blackcurrants and whatnot to sniff, and dry and tannic at the other end, but in the middle of the flavour, where we need some smooth plumpness, there’s a yawning, astringent gap.

Which led me to consult one of the single biggest influences on Australia’s preference for growing Cabernet, Wine-growing In Australia, the 1867 work by that pioneer of McLaren Vale viticulture and founder of Tintara, Alexander C. Kelly M.D.

“The Cabernet withstands both drought and heat well,” he wrote, “soils dry and warm suit it admirably; it flourishes in a light sand better than any other, but its wine is not so full-bodied as when grown in a stronger soil; it thrives above all in the graves (gravelly soils).”

And then, as a footnote, he adds “This vine is principally suited to a ferruginous [irony] soil; it is almost the only one in which it prospers.”

Publishing this recommendation in a new colony made principally of irony sands baking beneath a hot sun in strings of infuriating droughts had exactly the influence Kelly sought.  Put simply, Cabernet was tough and easy to grow, and it was indeed the great red grape of Bordeaux. But in exchange for these practical advantages, the vigneron would have to put extra work in to blend a wine with no hole in the middle if indeed the vineyard management failed to plug it.

Quoting extensively the great French ampelographer, M. D’Armailhacq, Kelly painstakingly studies the other red varieties of Bordeaux.  As we read on, we discover that the Cabernet he first praises he later names Cabernet gros, which he then suggests may tend to crop much higher than the Cabernet sauvignon, but shares its flavour profile, hardy nature and soil preferences.  He makes no mention of Cabernet franc, so he could be referring to that high-yielding aromatic cutey, or he may refer to the grape we now call Bastardo.  As far as I can ascertain, there has been no Bastardo in Bordeaux at least since the phylloxera plague struck in the later 1800s, whereas Cabernet franc's been there all along.

The next Bordeaux variety he discusses is Carmenere, a late-ripening type which is also drought-resistant.  “Its flavour is excellent and better to the taste than that of the Cabernets; he writes, “the wine from it necessarily reproduces these qualities: it is mellow, and at the same time full and strong-bodied.  It mixes well with the Cabernets, to which it gives more fullness; it keeps almost as long, and gains much by age.”

In the colder vintages, Bordeaux growers found this variety reluctant to ripen: not much was planted there after the phylloxera tragedy.  It grows well in Chile, and now we see some Bordeaux viticulturers showing renewed interest as it seems to suit the new heat.

Kelly then moves on to the “the Merlau or Merlot” which ripens so early it took its name from the merle, the blackbird which eats this variety first.  He says it’s more delicate than the Malbec, and “it has not the perfume and the flavour of the Cabernet, nor yet its keeping quality, but it possesses greater softness.  Combine with the latter, it gives and agreeableness which it does not possess when made of Cabernet alone; the mixing is therefore advantageous.”

He is not a big fan of Malbec, “as the fruit is wanting in mucosity, so the juice is limpid, and the wine has but little body; it is light and wants fullness.”  No plumping of the Cabernet there: more of the same but not so good, eh?

And then Kelly addresses Petit verdot, the Little Green One.  Like Carmenere, this type is a very late ripener, and had almost disappeared from Bordeaux until recent climate warming has seen some resurgence of interest.

Unless proper ripeness is achieved, he suggests, “it has a greenness which may injure instead of improving the wine of the grapes with which it is mixed ... nevertheless, when the Verdot is ripe, it possesses so many good qualities that, notwithstanding this drawback … it gives to the wine body, fullness, and vinosity; it has, above all, a very agreeable flavour, so that it unites well with the cabernets, and makes an excellent mixture.”   

I cannot recollect Kelly referring specifically to the Bordeaux habit of also using Syrah shipped in from Hermitage to fill the Cabernet hole; perhaps this was discontinued by his time, or merely never admitted to.  But this is where the earliest settlers got the idea of blending Cabernet with Shiraz.  It was certainly not an Australian invention, but a blend still common and celebrated much by the likes of the top end Wolf Blass reds and spectacular triumphs like Penfolds Bin 620 Coonawarra Shiraz Cabernet 2008, which is briskly selling out at $1000 a bottle.

It seems pertinent that these lessons of old be reinforced and relearned by many makers of Australian Cabernet, who are aware that the variety is dead easy to grow, so simply turn their gastronomic brains off at that point. 

“It is a notorious fact that modern science has not found its way into the cellar of the vigneron,” Kelly warned, “who follows exactly the same routine that his fathers have pursued for centuries.”

It hasn’t been centuries since the great pioneer took up his pen, but surely sufficient generations of Australian donut Cabernet makers have forgotten his blending instructions, just as their fathers habitually did. 

I wonder how long it will be before we see an Australian blend of Bastardo/Cabernet franc, Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Carmenere and Petit verdot, and whether or not a little limpid Malbec also finds its way in.  It can add a pretty perfume, even if it does lack mucosity. 

After they’ve slumbered away a year or two their posh French barrels, it’ll be fascinating to see whether Chris Carpenter eventually decides that his first Australian Cabernets need a little tweak of this or that.  I’ll keep you posted.

13 August 2012


Some important visitors came to Yangarra to pick the organic brains of viticulturer and vineyards manager Michael Lane: above, in the High Sands 1946 Grenache  Vineyard: left, Andrew Carrick (Manager, Collections and Horticulture, Botanic Gardens of Adelaide), Michael Lane, Stephen Forbes (Director, Botanic Gardens of Adelaide) and Alexander Rix (General Manager, Planning and Property Services, Urban Renewal Authority). I love the body ling in these snaps: the sceptical scientist, the director, and the government bloke.  I learned a lot in this interchange.  Below: Rix, Lane, Carrick and Forbes discussing the science of growing grapes without herbicides and other common farming petrochems.  During the winter, when forage growth is normally prolific, these vineyards are now sensibly weeded by cattle and sheep, whose only residue is fertiliser ... photos Philip White ... Speaking of the Botanic Gardens, you have til 4PM this Wednesday, August 15th, to catch Banks’ Florilegium: a very special exhibition of illustrations from Captain James Cook’s First Voyage 1768 – 1771,  from Sir Joseph Banks’ specimens and Sydney Parkinson’s illustrations of Australian flora.  The  à la poupée printing technique involved uses up to ten colours simultaneously on one copper plate. It's in the beautifully-restored Santos Museum Of Economic Botany in the centre of the Botanic Garden on North Terrace. One of this State's best treasures.

12 August 2012


Calcrete and limestone in Coonawarra ... photo Milton Wordley

Another linguistics skirmish
The inadequacies of English
Always best to look stuff up

Twitter was the scene of a linguistics skirmish amongst wine hacks last week: we concentrated our fire on the use of the current international wine buzzword: mineral.  Regular readers will be aware of how this nonsensically vague term drives me really twisty.

“A beautifully perfumed, seductive and minerally wine,” is a typical back label usage.

My riposte is always to ask which mineral they mean; there are many. I suspect they usually mean something like chalky or slaty.  But they could be referring to the sulphate minerals, or the sulphite minerals … is it calcium or ammonium chloride they mean?  Phosphorous, arsenic or even hydrogen oxide?  In its solid form, dihydrogen oxide’s commonly known as ice: frozen water. It’s officially a mineral.

Ironstone, like this stuff at Yangarra, gives a very different range of aromas than do the calcereous chalky plains of Coonawarra ... photo Philip White

The English language is barren of words which relate specifically to aroma or flavour. We must use metaphors and similies, leaving plenty of space for confounding ambiguities.  Even when we grab innocent-looking adjectives like nice we do it ignorant of the word’s primary meanings.  The Shorter Oxford on Historical Principles lists these, from the top, as “1. Foolish, stupid. 2. Wanton, lascivious. 3. Strange, rare. 4. Tender, delicate, over-refined.”  The list goes on to cover everything from “difficult to please” to “not readily apprehended”.  Not until number #13 do we get “Of food: dainty, appetizing.”

Sophisticated is another bugbear.  Those who claim it perfectly describes their wines may be alarmed to discover it means “mixed with some foreign substance, adulterated, not pure or genuine … falsified”, all terms which frequently apply much more appropriately to the product than the marketer would ever intend.

Accuse me of being picky, but consider.  However slender the likelihood of your marketing writer bothering to consult the Oxford, what say your new Chinese agent encounters words like these in your propaganda and bothers to consult that bible of the English language to discover exactly what you mean.

It’s not as if they’re rare descriptors, but pity help the poor bastard who happens to have sophisticated and nice on the same blurb.

It always pays to look things up.

Savoury is another trouble.  Whether they use this, or its American spelling, savory, I reckon most wine people who use it think it means sophisticated and/or nice.

Lesser dictionaries than the Oxford generally agree it means “attractive to the sense of taste or smell.”

It gets tricky when it gets more specific.  “Salty or spicy.  Not sweet … dish served as an hors d’oeuvres or dessert.”  “Not overly sweet.”

The Oxford works through “Spiritually delightful … of saintly repute or memory” before hitting “Used in contradistinction to sweet, as the epithet of articles of food having a stimulating taste or flavour.”

Dig around the Latin roots and you get reams of words that sound alike.  But in the crosshairs, it’s sapor, saporis saporare, “delicacy, taste, refinement”.  Sapa is new wine. Sapiens is wise, discrete.

If I use savoury I try to limit it to something you can actually smell, the herb called savory, Satureja hortensis (above).  It’s a very fresh meadow smell as green as tarragon.  You put it in olive oil and goat cheese and use it in salads, soups, stocks and stuffings.

But hit Wiki and you’re quickly into “umami, or savoriness, a type of taste.”

Umami, a term I use sparingly on wine, is more common than you think.  It’s the smell and flavour of the glutamates, including the monosodium sort.  MSG occurs quite naturally: you’ll get a good solid dose eating a beautifully ripe tomato.  If you blanche and peel ripe tomatoes, dice them, and let their free-run juice drain through muslin you get an exquisite clear syrup which is not much like tomato juice at all.  Somewhere between there and the flavour of clarified chicken or fish stock is pure glutamate territory.

Tomatoes from the Settlement Wines garden

Glutamic acid is among the many amino acids that make up the proteins of yeast cells.  When yeast cells die, their proteins disassemble back to the amino acids that formed them in the first place.  This occurs when your yeast become the dead lees left in your wine barrel after ferment, or in that vegan delicacy, Savory Yeast.  From here we get the chicken or fish stock texture of some wines, which gives a comforting feeling as much as a flavour.

You’ll get small amounts of the monosodium glutamate, as well as the others, in lees-stirred barrel-aged wines, red or white.

I started with a whinge about the lack of English words specific to aroma and flavour.  With perfect Puritan parsimony, topped by some classically Victorian anti-Darwinian denial of human as animal, we pared flavour back, officially to four: sweet, sour, salt and bitter.  They still commonly teach that these are only things that we are capable of tasting.

Which doesn’t explain our appreciation of pure water, or chilli heat.

It was Professor Kikunae Ikeda (left), the Japanese chemist, who discovered in 1908 that the principal component that gave a common flavour to tomatoes, seaweed and meat was glutamate.  He applied the word umami to the sensation it provides.  While it simply means “delicious” it’s also perfectly onomatopœiac, sounding like the mewl of a suckling babe, whatever the language.  There are at least twenty amino acids in breast milk.

As the Prof quite sensibly went on to patent his technique for manufacturing MSG, western science was so reluctant to admit a fifth member to their quartet of dull English words for flavour that once they had niggardly admitted that we must be able to taste something else they applied the word savoury, because that’s what they thought umami meant in English.

In other words, if you were careful, you could use umami on a back label in Japan, especially if it’s a major component of your wine.  But try it on a pious and greening west, and risk the foodists discovering it’s MSG?

Better stick to savoury, methinks, and trust Bacchus that nobody ever looks it up in a dictionary.

08 August 2012


"And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the LORD." Joel 2:30-31

Biggest rivals head to bed

Hardcore beefcake action
Scary progeny guaranteed

For many, it was a great and/or terrible week.  There’s been plenty of smouldering rage and dark feelings of war in the last days of Chateau Reynella, but that’s only what's happened on the face of the Earth.  Recent big signs in the heavens have included the whole of Constellation itself becoming Accolade, which comes from the French accoler, which came in turn from the from the Vulgar Latin accollare, which means to squeeze the neck. (*1

Another is this matter of the choker’s owner, the private equity outfit gaily known as CHAMP, formally getting into bed with its biggest Australian wine rival, Treasury Wine Estates.  This is not just two humungous beefcake models lying back to read to each other, this is hardcore.  In a classic act of Apollonian trajectorialism, they’re gonna squirt into each other’s containers!

“If I made wine from a vineyard I grew and loved, like I do at Marius, and I got it right, and I was proud of it,” my sage mate Pike asked as we wondered at these signs, “if it meant anything to me at all, what would the most critical thing be after growing it and making it?  

“Bottling it myself!”

Small premium producers like Pike dream of affording the luxury of owning their own bottling line.  Contract bottlers can, and do, wreak havoc in batches too small for them to properly notice, but just big enough to provide a meager income for blokes like Pike if the bottler can get it into the bottles unadulterated.  Pike's wines are beautifully bottled, but it’s a fraught scene.  

Woolworths owns Vinpac, by far the biggest contract bottler in the country.  It sees and samples your wine long before you get it on the market. Any bright upper-echelon manager who didn't consider keeping an eye on this to steer Dan Murphy's purchases and the styles of wines Woolworths makes at their giant wineries in the Barossa should be hauled before the shareholders.

On the other hand, surrendering the precious juice of one's toil and soil to one’s foremost rival, or indeed outright enemy, for the final ritual of packaging and sealing seems nuts.

But that’s modern business for you.  CHAMP’s Accolade exports more volume for less money than Treasury; Treasury exports lower volumes for more money than CHAMP’s Accolade.  CHAMP owns the perfectly-named Accolade Park, a huge, fast, bottling and packaging factory in Bristol, UK, which could use some more work; since it now exports so much wine in bulk, Treasury’s bottling line at Wolf Blass in the Barossa could be busier, too.  

So CHAMP shuts Chateau Reynella, as this writer has long maintained it would relentlessly do, and sends that wine to Treasury for bottling in the Barossa, in exchange for Treasury doing its UK bottling in Accolade Park in Bristol. As indeed Tony Keyes prophesied in his essential  Key Report a month before they'd admit to it.

This announcement, along with the news that set the southern Vales smouldering - the bit about 175 people getting the flick - was made in a masterpiece of sophisticated manipulation of media, workmen and women, and message, which they said was necessary to avoid  trouble at the Stock Exchange.  Man, it was crisp!

But it leaves the local wine business reeling with wonderment and terror.  If these two arch rivals can do their swapping of juices business in the name of heightened efficiency and economic rationalism, what other signs and wonders will they provide?

It was perhaps not quite a fluke that this news came the day before Caltex announced it would be closing its oil refinery.  Australian drivers would be henceforth buying their fuel from foreign refiners, whose costs were lower.  Just as oil refineries make raw oil sufficiently explosive and clean to be safely used in motor vehicles, so wine refineries clean and sanitise grape ethanol to make it safe enough for human consumption, with or without explosions.

And that's somebody's oil refinery at the top by the way.  Wineries look like this:

As CHAMP’s Accolade seems intent on leaving Reynella and indeed the historical Tintara winery in the main street of McLaren Vale, both sites ripe for the type of lucrative subdivision we saw fester on the site of John Reynell’s heritage vineyard, why wouldn’t they use up some spare capacity in Treasury’s arsenal of refineries to save a little more money?  If thousands of little guys can get by without the inconvenience of owning your actual  winery, why can't the big guys?  There’s room at Treasury's Rosemount, for example, at McLaren Flat, to make heaps of wine for Accolade.

These huge companies already trade enormous amounts of bulk wine, or buy it from the same grey market traders.  They don't like the cost of running wineries.

Increasing the business of CHAMP’s Accolade Park in Bristol obviously makes it a juicier morsel for sale, just as Treasury’s Wolf Blass bottling hall becomes more alluring.  But showing the world that these two awkward giants can get along so nicely may well be presenting acquisitive companies like China’s scarily-named Bright Food with an even tastier titbit.  This state-owned leviathan is busily buying into the Bordeaux trade; it is often cited as a likely buyer of Treasury.  

Watching James Packer’s Treasury share trading is probably a good barometer.

Now that Treasury has appointed itself some flash new internationalist directors (*2), it will be even more signs and wonders, methinks, and that smoke billowing on the horizon could well be Accolade.  To start with.

There’ll be more human casualties every time a bomb goes off.

It may suddenly seem sensible to have the bottom 80-90 per cent of Australia's wine made in one big factory, and then divvied up.  It would be in the shareholders' interest.

As for moving your refining offshore to save your shareholders a few cents per litre, how long will it be before Jacobs Creek or Bright Foods or somebody starts exporting wine made in China into Australia?  

Forgive me Lord for my impertinence. And praise Bacchus for showing me the light.


1. Pardon my stutter while I repeat my suggestion that big wine companies seem intent on branding themselves with the sorts of names you see on Korean cars.  Which may go part of the way to explaining why they also share the same sort of resale values ... Accolade is a true-blue screamer, and a very good reason why experienced writers should be engaged when boozemongers enter the words business.  I may be overestimating them, but apart from their ignorance of the necking implications, those responsible for Accolade may have been of such sophistry as to imagine their new name had subliminal implications of naughty alcohol and safe lemonade, not to mention the obvious inference of the clap. There already was a Honda called Applause, so I suppose they held back on that. What the hell was wrong with Hardy's Wines?

 2. Non-executive director Paul Rayner will become Treasury chairman, replacing the outgoing Max Ould. As of September 1st., the three new non-executive directors will be Ed Chan, a former president and chief executive of Wal-Mart China, Garry Housell, director of several companies such as Qantas and Orica, and Michael Cheek, a former chairman of Finlandia Vodka Worldwide.