“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)





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.


steve said...

Laughing Len has all the answers innit? Since my enforced teetotal period I have enjoyed the pious pursuit of labelling all social drinkers 'users' which has given me an enormous sense of well being!
Great read Mr White

Anonymous said...

WHitey, you're gone. Thye'll runyou out of town. Out of Australia even!


If they run you of town, I know a good place to hide. Let me know where to pick you up:)
Love your work, Philip:)

Anonymous said...

Just so you know, McDonalds will be in the Barossa by end of 2013, they have the bought the planning act complying land through a front company!!

The last attampt to stop the McDonalds near Penfolds was succesful by denying the planning application for the big box retail development that was to include McDonalds.

The do gooders of the Barossa cannot stop fast food development in the region!