“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)





03 October 2012


Waiting For The Big Outbreak
Phylloxera Boss Has A Preach
"Public Consultation" Manqué

It’s hard to grasp what Alan Nankivell thinks he did in McLaren Vale last night.

As fifty heavy wine industry farmers and makers gathered at the meeting in the Bocce Club, Nankivell, the CEO of the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia, filled the doorway with his large frame, ticking names off a list on a clip board. 

“You didn’t tell us you were coming,” he said as I took my turn.

“I didn’t realise I had to RSVP.  I thought this was a public meeting.”

“If you’d really been invited you would have known we expected an RSVP,” he snorted.  He couldn’t very well bar me, as he’d just performed the same strange ritual on Dudley Brown (Inkwell grapegrower and winemaker and former chair of the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association), and his partner, Irina Santiago, the Sustainability Officer at the same organization. 

After a talking-to, he’d let them through, too.

Nankivell had been told by his Minister, the Hon. Gail Gago MLC, (below) Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, Forests, Regional Development, Tourism and the Status of Women, to get back out into the industry and find out why many were showing deep concern about his board’s quiet softening of the regulations which were in place to limit the spread of Phylloxera, the tiny vine root louse that killed all the vineyards of France over a century ago, and infested parts of Victoria and New South Wales soon after.

In other words, scrap the secrecy, open up to those thousands of winemakers and grapegrowers who pay your wages, and do the consulting you were always expected to do.

Gago ordered that they re-instate the pre-November 2011 Plant Quarantine Standard, and to quote the board’s own propaganda, “examine the industry’s concerns in detail and consult with the industry” before getting back to her.

South Australia’s rigid anti-Phylloxera regulations have kept this state free of the deadly bastard of a pest for a century.  Elsewhere, governed by the national Phylloxera regulations, the disease has spread.  Under intense lobbying from the huge vine nurseries and their lobbies and associations, and the biggest wine companies, who revile costly paperwork and restriction and responsibly look for every cent they can flick on to their shareholders, the South Australia board has been pressured to adopt the national protocol, which is not so rigid. 


After it entered Australia through the old Swiss grapegrowing settlements around Geelong, the Phylloxera bug soon made such a wreck of the Victorian wine business that South Australia took its place as the country’s major wine producer, a position it has never let go, much to Victoria’s chagrin.  

Phylloxera spreads via transported plant material, soil, machinery, cars, shoes and such.  It can live undetected in the soil for twenty years.  There have been at least 7 new phylloxera detections in Australia in the last 10 years but prior to that it had not moved for almost 100 years. The only way of removing it is to kill and destroy the vines it feeds on.  The only way of growing grapes in Phylloxera-infested ground is to graft wine varieties onto non-bearing Phylloxera-resistant wild vine rootstocks originally from America, a dramatic and expensive exercise which changes the flavour of the fruit.

Aficionados prefer wine from old pre-Phylloxera vines on their own roots, like the great collection of old vine vineyards spread about South Australia.  Natural vines, if you like.  France can no longer boast such flavours, as virtually its entire vignoble is on grafted rootstocks.

Some believe Phylloxera has never entered South Australia; it has never been detected here.  Some seem certain it’s already here, waiting to emerge. Many growers, particularly those with these priceless old vines, were aghast to discover that the Phylloxera board had softened the restrictions on the movement of machinery, grapes and plant material.

There is constant pressure to do this.  Big transnational companies like Pernod-Ricard (Jacob’s Creek) and Accolade (Hardy’s), and Australia’s Treasury (formerly Fosters, including Penfolds, Wolf Blass etc.) depend upon rapid and easy movement of machines, cuttings and fruit across the whole south-eastern corner of Australia.  Their wineries are in the Barossa and to a lesser extent, McLaren Vale, but they take fruit from all along the big rivers, right up the east coast and down into Tasmania.

“Historically, the board’s role is about preparing for a potential outbreak.”  
Alan Nankivell, CEO, Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board South Australia

The Phylloxera board is chaired by Robin Nettlebeck, who manages South Australia’s biggest vine nursery at Yalumba, another huge fruit shipper. He was preceded by a Foster’s man, Richard Hamilton (not the Coonawarra/McLaren Vale winemaker). Because they own big nurseries, and can afford it through economies of scale, the vast majority of the vineyards owned by these leviathans are already on Phylloxera-resistant rootstock. They may have some old vine vineyards for showing off when the gastroporn cameras are flashing, but these are infinitesimal when compared to their vast holdings of modern industrial grapeyard. Both men were present last night, watching the CEO deliver his message to a disbelieving audience.

Which is what he did.  He preached.  Hectoring, bombastic, dismissive.

Perhaps to disprove this description from the start, he surprised us all by beginning with “any questions?”

As the questions gradually emerged from an audience who’d reasonably expected to be asking their questions after his presentation, Nankivell responded with repeated versions of “Okay we’ll be answering that later ... yes, good question, I’ll be answering that soon ... any more?  Yes, we’ll get round to that … ”

He wobbled racily through a hazy history of his organization, and while he mentioned many events which occurred before his time there - back when he ran the Alzheimer’s Association - or other issues which he plain couldn’t remember in detail, he went to great lengths to explain that “historically, the board’s role is about preparing for a potential outbreak.”

As the questions now came steadily, his tone became even more hectoring.  When Drew Noon MW, revered grapegrower and winemaker, interrupted and asked if he could make a comment, Nankivell shot back “A comment or a question?”

“A comment,” repeated Noon.

“Well it better be brief”, spat Nankivell, who showed more obvious tetchiness while Noon methodically and calmly made point after pertinent point.

Without mentioning the fact that the big nurseries (like the one the board’s chairman manages for Yalumba) would stand to make embarrassing millions selling grafted rootstocks if Phylloxera did perchance cross the border, Noon put the very simple question:

“What benefit does South Australia get from this change?  Who benefits?”

More irritation.

When Nankivell said “We have no evidence of the restrictions being breached,” Noon gave an example he said he’d reported to Nankivell, who reacted as if Noon was delusional.  He did eventually admit to a major breach committed by the giant Bunnings hardware and garden supply chain which was caught illegally selling vines from a Phylloxera-risk zone in Victoria through four South Australian stores.  And then he recalled others, but the whole attitude was one of “trust me, trust the board” as he waved the Phylloxera protocols around like a streetpreacher whacks his Bible.

When venerable grapegrower and community elder John Harvey said “What I reckon you’re telling us to do is practice safe sex,” there was more fluff and bluster.

“It’s about cutting red tape,” Nankivell preached.  He wanted us to believe in him.  Many obviously didn’t.  So he went on and on about “people doing the right thing by themselves because it’s their business.  They won’t take risks with their own business.”

Three stages of Phylloxera, dining on vine hair roots, greatly enlarged.

And yet, when cornered, he said “you can’t legislate for everything,” and kept coming back to a sermon about how people should be diligent at “their own farm gate” and control possible Phylloxera infestations by checking trucks, machinery, and grapes being delivered.

By which time, of course, it’s probably too late.  The preponderance of truckies who remove the speed limiters from their prime movers in order to keep their business, at risk of huge fines and the loss of their licenses, is a good example of how self-regulation beats hard law in extreme times. But were such a pressured trucker to bring the bug in on a dirty truck or on grapes, it would give Nettlebeck’s organization the chance to show off its brilliant science with aerial surveys and whatnot, to measure the spread of the disease.  Within metres.

After which, no doubt, the great expertise of members of his board would come into play as the big nurseries replaced dead vineyards with new grafted rootstock-based vines, to save the Australian wine industry.

In which case the license we’d lose is our priceless old vineyards. Forever.

The Henschke Hill of Grace Vineyard, planted in the 1860s: many of these great old heritage vinegardens would fall quickly to Phylloxera ... photo Milton Wordley

Some figures from a previous blog: At about $5.50 a grafted cutting; 2,000 vines per hectare; 5,427 hectares of vineyard on its own roots and a Phylloxera invasion in Coonawarra, you’re looking at a $60 million gross income for the vine nurseries, without considering the cost of vineyard labour or machinery.  Or the loss of production the growers would face during the many years the changeover would require. And that’s just Coonawarra.  Many of them are already on rootstock, but South Australia has 75,000 hectares of vines.

Nankivell went on through a grand list of very obvious risks, which he ranked from “very high” to “high”.

At one stage, former chair of the board, Foster’s man Richard Hamilton took to his feet and pointed out the biggest threat was what he called “the afternoon tourists”, who could have stood on Phylloxera-infected ground in Victoria in the morning, flown into South Australia, and nonchalantly wandered into your vineyard in McLaren Vale, Clare, or the Barossa, in the afternoon.

“I’ve got a beard,” he said.  “A footbath is one thing.  You can get them to wash their shoes. But Phylloxera gets everywhere.  If I’d been in a Phylloxera outbreak, it’d be in my beard, in my clothes, on my skin.”

At which point I recalled the official derision shown me in 2009 when I dared mention the Tour Down Under bicycle races through most of South Australia’s cooler vine regions, not to mention McLaren Vale and the Barossa.  In this admirable event, people fly in from Victoria and all over with their picnic tables and portable fridges, set up in the shade beside or in somebody’s vineyard, and celebrate merrily until the bikes have gone past. 

As Nankivell continued, I couldn’t help thinking that even the mere fear of Phylloxera would send the more responsible growers to buy prophylactic rootstocks to secure their vineyards in the face of the threat which the CEO of the Phylloxera board had just then responsibly promoted.

His line grew to a grand crescendo about self-policing being the best measure, and then, right when I thought he’d be asking the sinners to come out the front and repent, Jim Banman, a senior grower, asked Nankivell if he’d like us to show our opinion with a display of hands.

It was all too obvious that most hands would go up if the question was “how many of you are not convinced?” so Nankivell said “what would you vote on?”

Backyard grape sales from a Phylloxera-infested area

He then finished with a neat non sequitur, and told us there was nothing to vote on, that we weren’t there to vote, and that he’d come to make a presentation of the new brochure, Phylloxera Risk Assessment undertaken by the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia.

It was like an Irish Knock Knock joke.  It goes like this:

"Say knock knock."

"Knock knock."

"Who's there?"

And that was it.  Apart from a very strange discussion which Irina Santiago and I both witnessed between Robin Nettlebeck and Dudley Brown.  Obviously startled at the polite vehemence these respected grapegrowers and winemakers had just shone upon his organization, Nettlebeck mysteriously said “McLaren Vale is obviously a bit different to the Barossa, isn’t it.  You don’t get so much fruit coming in here from outside.”

I pointed out that Accolade was planning to move its vast fizz manufactory to Tintara, in the main street of McLaren Vale, which would see thousands of tonnes of grapes being delivered from all over Victoria.  In a disbelieving tone he asked whether I’d asked Accolade for confirmation, and went back to Brown.

Which was good for him.  Initially, workers said Accolade would move its fizz action to Chateau Reynella, but that factory now seems destined to become a humungous Bunnings, the aforementioned garden supply chain which committed the Phylloxera regulations breaches mentioned above.

“Perhaps we could do something different for you?” Nettlebeck said “ ... something special for McLaren Vale?”

We left, mystified at whatever it was he had on offer.

What could it be?  A special wine district which nobody can leave, or enter?

Oldest Shiraz vineyard on Earth, still producing?  Probly.  Langmeil's Freedom, planted 1843 ... gone and forgotten should Phylloxera cross the border

When CEO Nankivell, or indeed chairman Nettlebeck, go back to Minister Gago to wave their brochures and boast about the excellence of their consultation with the regional stakeholders, we can only trust their report has been shortcut by responsible wine folk who cc her into every communication they make with the Phylloxera board.

Written submissions about the proposed relaxing of the regulations close on 16th October, this month.  Oh, hang on: I just read the back page.  They haven’t invited you to comment on the relaxing of the regulations at all.  Instead, they want you to endorse their proposed actions “to address the ten risks of highest concern,” as identified by them.

In which case you might just as well drop the Minister a note about the proposed relaxation of regulations.

In the meantime, if chairman Nettlebeck really wants to do something good for McLaren Vale, indeed the whole of the South Australian vignoble, he should recommend that the Phylloxera board be composed mostly of independent experts, and not major wine company apparatchiks or vine nurserymen.

For an independent chair, I would nominate somebody like the horticulture king of this state, Stephen Forbes, director of the Botanic Gardens.  He appreciates many types of Phylloxera, is an expert in economic botany, and he reckons he’d be happy to fill such a role.

Then, I can think of no digestible reason whatever for the Phylloxera board’s minutes to remain secret.  They should all be on its website, vested interests listed every time.  If the Reserve Bank board can do it, surely this lot can get properly transparent.  

In the meantime, they should be reinforcing and toughening the anti-Phylloxera regulations, if only to avoid that outbreak they believe they’re historically here to manage. 

To read viticulture scientist James Hook on this subject click here.


SM said...

Excellent piece, as usual. The arrogance is breathtaking; it stretches credulity that not only can no one answer the key question - why SA's previously more than adequate regulations need changing at all - but that all concerned appear utterly non-comprehending of why their proposals need to be questioned at all. Pompous, nanny-knows-best mentality. Knock the stuffing out of them.

Ian Hickman said...

I wonder if the Government's rather slack attitude on this would change if they were told by the people that stand to lose most if phylloxera was discovered in SA, the grapegrowers, would aim to recover the phylloxera tax that they've paid for over 100 years. Every cent. Plus interest. Would there be grounds for some kind of class action if the phylloxera board has not achieved what they've been paid to do by grapegrowers for over a century?

Anonymous said...

Great reporting by Phillip White again. I find it worrying at the "above the law" behaviour of CEO Allan Nankivell and Chairman Robin Nettlebreck. I also find it interesting that their opinions and the board they represent, on managing Phylloxera, are so self righteous and they can be so dismissive of other peoples concerns. I agree with Phillip White that the board should be run by independent experts with no possible vested (or should I say invested) interest in strategy development or outcomes. Minister Gago needs to reign in these two rednecks. She needs to open up the boards minutes for everyone to see. Its a pity Minister Gago did not attend the meeting herself. I wonder if the mood and presentation would have differed. Has anyone asked Peter Gago of his opinion on this? I hope someone does. I watch with interest.
Steve F

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