“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)





24 November 2013


“Money will buy you a fine dog, but only love can make it wag its tail.” Failed Texas gubernatorial candidate, animal rights activist, pulp fiction writer and rhythm guitarist from Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour, Richard "Kinky" Friedman is riding through DRINKSTER territory in the next few days. Here he is on his Springtime For Kinky tour of the very deep south in 2011, in Melbourne with his security division and somebody's dog. Kinky brings his Bi-Polar tour to The Gov in Adelaide this Tuesday night.  Unfortunately, he feels so comfortable this far south that the security division (Van Dyke Parks) has been eased out of this tour budget. 

21 November 2013


If you're in the slightest bit interested in the wine of Brash Higgins, Five Geese, Inkwell, J&J, La Curio, Lazy Ballerina, Rudderless, Rusty Mutt, Samuels Gorge, Ulithorne, Vigna Bottin, Waywood and/or Wistmosa, this afternoon on the McLaren Vale Piazza Della Vale is exactly where you should be on the first day of summer.  

Here's a previous Vale Cru maritime incident at The Victory:


Best value Oz winery of the year
Torzi and Co. trounce the rest
Bloody houses march right on

Longhop Mt Lofty Ranges Pinot Gris 2013 
$17; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93+ points 

Longhop is old Gawler High School mates Tim Freeland and Dominic Torzi.  They bought this fruit from the premium uplands of Lenswood. They pressed it with some whole bunches in the basket, and refrigerated the juice for fourteen days to settle it.  After they racked it off its gross lees, the solids left in suspension assisted the natural yeast fermentation, which they managed cool for eight weeks.  They then left it on its yeast lees for another eight weeks. They've made a wine of serious character.  It smells like quinces and pears, especially the Passe-Crassane pear, which is a cross of the two fruits.  It has a persistent acrid topnote that tickles my nostrils and reminds me of Lenswood on a dusty summer day.  Its texture is chubby and the confidence and authority it shows when settling into the mouth is invasive.  However its oily viscosity is soon matched by a stern rise of natural acidity to balance, and the sorts of grainy tannins that set your salivaries dribbling with delight and the anticipation of more of it.  It's the opposite of Kiwi Sauvignon blanc.  It's like a white, how you say, GSM? It's great with choucroute, the Alsace version of steaming hot sauerkraut, where the pork is usually salted, smoked, or both, and the mustard is dolloped on. Which makes sense, because in Alsace, the Pinot which is grey (grigio; gris) is often served with exactly that.  I can recall no other Pinot gris as fulfilling and real from these parts.  And it's $17.  You can easily pay $35 for a half-decent Alsace version.  Knockout.

Longhop Mount Lofty Ranges Old Vine Grenache 2012
 $17; 15% alcohol; screw cap; 92+++ points 

In the Grenache fashion parade, this is a muscular model of vague gender, stomping somewhere along the catwalk between McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley floor.  Because of its proximity to the Gulf named St Vincent (the patron of viticulturers), I think the higher relative humidity of McLaren Vale makes softer, more soulful cherry-flavoured Grenache than the more macho tar-blood-leather-roses of the drier Barossa. This baby's looking like it started near the Barossa and is heading, chin up, straight toward McLaren Vale.  Like most of the wines from this admirable outfit, it has that acrid summer day in the country edge.  It's enough to make your nostrils flare until that swoon of bright marello cherry and plum, and maybe a little fresh juniper berry, begins to well up. At first, I imagined this fleshy bit would continue to swell, but I've had it open three days, and it's barely moved, so maybe it's not going anywhere in the short term.  It certainly has the attitude and chassis for the longer haul.  Combining the Torzi-Matthews-Freeland mob's admirable obsession with gnarly old bush vine vineyards (see below) with the news that this one's a fifty year old vineyard begins to explain its tight, ungiving structure and determination. So, whatter we gonna do? Slop it around a ship's decanter for a while and chew it with rabbit or pigeon in red wine with baby beetroot, some pork belly fat, juniper berries and onions, or wait five years and have it tea-smoked duck at Wah Hing?  If we're lucky!  It's another fine example of the really good stuff happening in this rennaissance of interest winemakers are devoting to Grenache, all the way down the South Mount Lofty Ranges from Clare to the ocean. 

Torzi Matthews Schist Rock Eden Valley Shiraz 2012 
$20; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 92+++ points

Here's another from the same Dominic Torzi, this time in partnership with his partner Tracy Matthews.  It's from their Shiraz vineyard in the Kanmantoo Group Schist of Mt McKenzie in the high Barossa.  It smells more like it came from the staff entrance of the Mustang Ranch.  It's rude and rich and voluptuous in the fruit department, with a great mush of ripe red berries and plums wallowing about.  Maybe even baby beetroot.  Then it blasts off a topnote of musk and confectioner's sugar, and yes, the faintest whiff of the Kanmantoo pit after a blast.  Like a good explosion spreads in said mine, this bit quickly grows to the point of dominance, but, like a master tease, stops just short.  After all that, the palate is sublimely elegant, as lissom and athletic as it is brittle - it's one of those wines that's like a tantalising see-saw of what you want now and what you want next.  At the moment, it's raspy satin and grosgrain; in five years you'll have more lush silk and fur.  So now, I'd have it to contrast food, and set it in counterpoint to, say, dribbling pig off the spit.  In 2020, I'd be using its mature slickness to make harmony with more seriously slow-cooked pork belly in a cassoulet, where the meat slices are more like jelly.  And, without even being ripped off, flogged and butchered by Hungry Dan's, it's only TWENTY BLOODY DOLLARS!  It is wine like this, which Dominic Torzi consistently releases, which makes him, unquestionably, my bargain Australian winemaker of the year.  He puts thousands of more pretentious couldabeens, more narcissistic wannabees, even much more famous fadmakers well and truly in the shade. If they saw this and had a deep think, they'd soon be queuing up for their Imposter Syndrome Pills. 

One of the favourite Adelaide Plains vineyards of Domic Torzi and Tim Freeland is Frank Gagliardi's last stand Grenache garden at Munno Para.  Until those houses stomp the fence down, this fruit goes into the exquisite Torzi/Freeland Old Plains Grenache. 

Villa rash still devours old vineyards

Dominic Torzi, Tracy Matthews and Tim Freeland are specialists at finding old dry-grown vineyards and making wines of such quality that they put most more presumptuous and/or famous wine wankers to shame.  

Then you consider the price, and shame's too good a word for the rest.

They were mates at high school at Gawler, the historic township which links the Adelaide Plains to the Barossa, and have both kept an avid interest in the great old vineyards of the Plains.

Their Old Plains brand is devoted to precious remnant vineyards on these Adelaide Plains.
These five acres of 50 year old dry-grown Adelaide Plains Shiraz and Grenache have been eaten by Tupperware Tuscany.  For years these ancient strugglers produced around five tonnes of beautiful fruit each vintage for the Torzi/Freeland Old Plains wines, although the drought and heatwave of 2007-8 saw the Shiraz plunge to only 680 kilograms total, and there wasn't sufficient Grenache to pick ... Below is a jolly picnic had to celebrate the brilliant Grenache and Shiraz of Anglesey Estate in the early eighties. Owners Leah and Jack Minnett (left), entertained Thellie and Max Schubert (centre), wine merchant David Porter (satnding), winemaker Lindsay Stanley, and the author.  Max loved the Adelaide Plains fruit, and spoke with great admiration of the parcels he'd buy for Grange and other premium Penfolds products.  He was consultant to the Minnetts.  All these vineyards are now under houses ... photo Philip White

Patritti winemaker James Hongell (below) is picking Grenache  from the last of the southern suburbs remnant vineyards at Marion.  This was destined to become a Golden Arches/Colonel Sadness drive-in  slobout until we saved it during the Adelaide Vines project in the late eighties.


While we have a government in South Australia which now regards the retention of precious farmland, local food, and the promotion of the wine business as vital aspects of this dry state's economy, we continue to see sites like these threatened or destroyed.   

The priceless farmland at Seaford Heights (below), right in McLaren Vale, is being rendered to droll dormitoria as I write. 

Government workers removing native vegetation on Seaford heights ... photo James Hook
The 650+ million year old water-bearing Umberatana Group siltstones beneath these fields reappear around Morphett Vale, north across the Onkaparinga, but there they are all covered in housing, in spite of the excellence of the fruit their vineyards produced.  

Max Schubert, for example, chose dry-grown bush vine Shiraz from the siltstones of Morphett Vale to blend with Magill fruit for his early Grange vintages. These now fetch around $15,000 per bottle at auction.

The last of this scarce, priceless geology left unplanted to vines or housing is at Seaford Heights and Glenthorne Farm.

Respected McLaren Vale vigneron David Paxton (pictured) attempted to  purchase the Seaford Heights site years ago to extend this Gateway Vineyard, which grows very highly sought-after fruit selling in wines up to $150 per bottle.  The unplanted slope behind him is where Labor is planting its lovely new housing ... photo Kate Elmes ... Photo below shows grain harvest on the same site.  This land always produced record-quality barley - the best in the state - which was contracted to eager brewers like Guinness.

Government seems to regard this destruction as the downpayment the McLaren Vale vignoble must make in order to gain a development ban over the rest of its land, regardless of the importance or scarcity of its geology or its suitability for viticulture - we've lost priceless geology in exchange for the protection of some utter crap.

This is part of the Glenthorne Farm research land, given by a Conservative government to the Adelaide University for a song for agricultural and viticulture science, native vegetation and community gardens.  Against the conditions of the deed it signed, the University is constantly scheming to subdivide and sell this irreplaceable stretch of land in the southern suburbs ... photo Leo Davis

Tractor Action: McLaren Vale farmers and vignerons blocked the local roads for hours to demonstrate against the Seaford Heights housing ... while their anger brought about the eventual planning freezes in McLaren Vale and the Barossa, the Labor government insists on continuing the development with the Pickard family, which owns the nearby building stone quarry ... there's a state election in March ... photos James Hook; Leo Davis


19 November 2013


Eight in ten prefer cheaper wine
20,000 Brits tested by Academy
Germans think Starbucks cheap 

People drink Coke.  Lots of 'em drink ridiculous amounts of it.  So it seemed a bit funny this week, the delerium that followed the shock horror revelation that when the glasses are presented blind, most British wine enthusiasts prefer to drink cheaper wines.

Surely we prefer mostly to drink things we are accustomed to drinking?

An outfit called the London Wine Academy released information it had gathered over two decades.  It had tested some 20,000 attendees to its wine education courses.  In each instance, it had presented these students with masked wines made from the same variety - one at £4.99 (about AU$8.60), and another at £19.99 (AU$34.40).  Without knowing their actual prices, eight out of ten of these people preferred the cheaper wine.

When testing, say, Majestic Wine's Aspen Hills Chardonnay (£4.99) from South East Australia, against Gerard Thomas's Saint-Aubin Premier Cru Chardonnay from Burgundy (£19.99), around 80% of those tested preferred the Murray-Darling irrigated cheapie to the posh Burgundian offering.

Presuming this British exercise would be mirrored in the Australian market, vendors of cheap wines here seemed ready to believe these findings vindicate their business.  Ridiculously cheap bottled wines aside, nearly half of Australia's wine is still consumed from bladder packs - that part of the business which attracts less tax per litre than more expensive, and presumably better quality wines.

In the quality stakes, it is this bottom half of the part of the business which uses vast amounts of irrigation water from the troubled Murray-Darling to produce wine which is three times the strength of the average beer, and sold for around the price of popular bottled water imports.

The current drive to replace the Wine Equalisation Tax with an excise, or volumetric tax on the amount of ethanol in each container, is led by Pernod-Ricard (Orlando-Jacob's Creek) and Treasury Wine Estates (Penfolds-Wolf Blass et al), two giant winemakers who've decided there's no future for them in making big irrigation bottom-rung wines to feed the discount bins.

Beer and spirits are taxed by excise.

If taxed by excise on the amount of ethanol in the product, rather than the WET system, which is a tax on the price of the product, cheaper wines would increase in price, while the more profitable expensive wines would be cheaper.  The bladder pack vendors maintain such a change would prove an utter disaster for their businesses.

Most perversely, this British report came within days of another, the results of the study of neurobiologist Kai-Markus Müller, of Aspach, in the Swabian-Franconian Forest region of southern Germany. Having worked for Simon, Kucher and Partners, a big international company which helps manufacturers devise suitable prices for their products, Müller is fascinated by businesses which make their money converting water to something they can sell at a profit.

His recent target was Starbucks, the Seattle-based international which makes its billions adding coffee to hot water, and selling this, with a little added fat and sugar, in wasteful cardboard and plastic cups.

Instead of testing folks in the tasting room, Müller simply exposed his subjects to the image of a €1.80 ($2.45) coffee on a screen.  The image re-appeared several times, each with a different price tag.  He tested the reactionary brainwaves of each person by electroencephalography, and discovered most of those tested would be happy to pay between €2.10 and €2.40 for the same coffee.

"Everyone thinks that they've truly figured out how to sell a relatively inexpensive product for a lot of money," he says. "But the odd thing is that even this company [Starbucks] doesn't understand it ... In other words, the company is missing out on millions in profits, because it is not fully exploiting consumers' willingness to pay money.

" Classic market research doesn't work correctly."

Müller talks of primitive neuronal mechanisms "deeply buried in the human brain, that we can't just deliberately switch off."

"When the brain was expected to process unexpected and disproportionate prices, feelings of shock, doubt and astonishment manifested themselves," he said. But his testing shows that in many instances, our feel-good factors indicate that we would be happier paying a little more than what we are actually charged - even for products we are used to consuming.

Citing the fact that some 80 per cent of all new products fail, and soon disappear from the shelves forever, often through lack of precise price research, Müller concludes "A study like this has never been done before, even though scientists have been studying brain waves for decades.  Everyone wins with this method."

We accept now that supermarkets, and presumably their giant liquor outlets, like Dan Murphy's and Liquorland, track their customers by the GPS device in our smartphones as we wander through the aisles, and they keep precise files on our buying patterns.

Being prone to far-fetched imaginings, this writer can't help sewing all these factors together. Surely the day's not far off when the huge scanning laboratory called the supermarket can be tuned to adjust prices for each consumer, not just when we stroll the golden aisles, but when we view products for order and purchase on our screens at home?

Perhaps the wine business that maintains its supply of cheap plonk is a necessity for the nation's well-being could extend such research to discover that an increase in the price, say, of the bladder pack, might not be such a business catastrophe after all?  Could they indeed eventually make enough money to pay a greater price for their irrigation water, thus creating a more sound business model for the management of our greatest river basin?

This is something, surely, that an august body like our Wine Research Institute, or indeed Pernod-Ricard and Treasury might begin to investigate, rather than repeat the rote application of the sorts of market research Müller claims to be, quite simply, kaput. 

Maybe even Coke and the bottled water vendors might make a little more money.

18 November 2013


To see the great cartoonist/illustrator George Grainger Aldridge at work, and the two of us discussing our funny book, Evidence of Vineyards on Mars, check this ABC 730 report ... it's encouraging to see they've listed the keyword literature!

14 November 2013


The elegant, racy wines of the Hickinbotham Family of Mornington Peninsula have a certain pedigree.  Alan Robb Hickinbotham founded the Roseworthy Oenology course; amongst many other significant achievements, his son Ian conducted what was probably the world's first deliberately induced and monitored malo-lactic fermentations at Wynn's Coonawarra Estate in 1952 and '53.  With his wife Terryn, Ian and Jude's son Andrew runs the family vineyards, winery and microbrewery at Dromana on Mornington.

Hickinbotham Mornington Peninsula Aligoté 2012 
$29; 12% alcohol; screw cap; 92+++ points 

A few weeks back, whilst drinking the Trentham Estate Verdejo 2013, the first example of that Portuguese white variety grown and made in Australia, I was tempted to mention the Vino Verde made by Lindemans to combat the invasion of Mateus in the early 'eighties.  Last week, whilst communicating with the venerable Ian Hickinbotham, who'd written since to remind me that as Penfolds state manager he'd introduced Grange to Victoria long before it reached the retail shelves of Sydney, I enquired about the Aligoté his son Andrew Hickinbotham and partner Terryn pioneered since 1988 at Dromana on the Mornington Peninsula.   

Regular readers will recall my constant bemoaning of the fact that there's a much wider range of flavours in your average deli fridge than you'll find in the biggest Australian wine shops.  So I like it when folks like Trentham and the Hickinbothams bother to extend that terribly narrow menu with new stuff that doesn't end in O.  Contrary to the common belief that Burgundy grows only Chardonnay and Pinot noir, Aligoté is that region's second biggest white, with somewhere around 1,700 ha planted.  Aligoté, say its few passionate fans, lost out to Chardonnay in Burgundy (and Australia) because Chardonnay grows like weeds in comparison.   

This brisk, austere Aligoté smells a little like fresh meadow grass, like you may find in Sauvignon blanc, but has a racy slash of Bartlett and Bosc pears, and maybe the exotic cherimoya and sapodilla fruits, which I rarely see in Savvy-B.  Acid-wise, it's closer to really good Chenin blanc.  Typical of the Aligoté, it has enough dusty tannin and dry natural acid to trigger a wince, along with a pressing hunger.  It's a delightful and unusual flavour for Australia, and one which should be pursued with more vigour than we're showing the broad, soft "orange" varieties like the sweaty Mediterranean whites.  Regardless of the suitability of their terroir, these may be suddenly faddish amongst our cargo-panted school of winemakers, but have yet to prove their favour amongst your actual drinkers.  In a country this hot, surely we need higher natural acid, not more sweat and grease.  Try this with bottom-feeding fishies: flounder, scallops and prawns.  Go get. 

Hickinbotham Mornington Peninsula Coffee Rock Merlot 2010
 $37; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap; 94+++ points 

Contrary to the common bullshit about Merlot being mellow - the pronunciation of both words is nearly identical in the USA - the grape is dead serious, beautifully perfumed, properly tannic red, as you'd expect of a Bordeaux type.  Consider Petrus of Pomerol, for which you'll pay around $3000 per bottle and wait a decade or two to drink at perfection.  The 1945 aside, Petrus is hardly mellow.   

Mornington's fairly close to Bordeaux in climate, if a little cooler in the higher spots, so it's a lot more likely to produce proper Merlot than the poor buggers who torture it in our irrigated deserts.  This wine is not Petrus.  But rather than being mellow, it's a beautifully delicate, quietly authoritative drink with pretty meadow bloom topnotes over a base of expensive "fragrance-free" face cream.  It also has the slightly threatening darkness of the blackberry briar, and maybe the Deadly Nightshade.  Its palate is slender and serpentine, sublimely elegant and poised, with long, extremely fine-grained tannins. 

If you need a hint of its potential, consider the 2004, which I have now in my glass.  This older one is more oaky in that mocha sort of manner, but is a sublimely elegant, refined beauty approaching its optimum.  For the obsessive, I should point out that its headspace - the amount of air between the wine and the screwcap - is about thrice that of this 2010, so this new one will probably take longer.  Sacrifice your best lamb.