“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)





29 April 2014


Towards more elegant wines
Who will explain the change?
Or is the punter already on it?

In the winter of 2005 I dined with Sue and Ed Tweddell at Bob McLean’s cool Barr-Vinum restaurant in the Barossa.

Despite the number of tinctures taken, the memory is crisp: it was the last time I saw Ed, who was building his beloved Nepenthe wine brand in the Adelaide Hills. We drank a couple of his favourite Burgundies and talked about the direction Australian red wine was taking. 

“They’re all getting too big,” he said. “I can’t drink them anymore.” 

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard somebody utter such blasphemy, but in retrospect, it seems to have been a turning point, a watershed in this head of mine. The wines certainly were putting on the alcohol, pushed along by US critic Robert Parker, who was beginning to bestow perfect scores upon monster reds, some of which were much better wines than others. 

But perfect scores? Once you’ve awarded a wine such a garland, what do you do when you get a better one? 

Winemakers seemed seduced by the notion that all they had to do to get that scarlet Ferrari was let their Shiraz hang until its alcohols were in the heady 16s so Parker would hand them a hundred points and they could then treble their asking price.

I felt then, as I still do, that some humungous brutes, especially some Shiraz, could have high alcohols but still show a balance of acid and form that made them enjoyable with the right food at the right moment. In the right volume.

At about the same time, the British critics, like Oz Clarke and Robert Joseph, were beginning to joke about our bruiser Shiraz being the ideal drink to have with Brontosaurus steak or haunch of Woolly Mammoth. 

The great Penfolds wine scientist Ray Beckwith, then in his 90s, was at the same time keeping his graph of the average alcohol in Barossa reds. The line was steadily, determinedly, heading north, which dismayed him. 

This fashion bloomed malignantly for more than a decade. 

In recent years, despite very tricky vintages with record heat spikes, the more enlightened winemakers have begun to reverse this trend. Whether they pick earlier, or secretly apply a touch of the traditional Black Snake (the water hose), the more gastronomically sensitive souls are pushing Beckwith’s line back down towards the savoury elegant numbers below 14; even south of 13. 

Back where they once were. 

The author interviewing the brilliant 100-years-old wine scientist Ray Beckwith for the DVD which accompanies the book A year in the life of Grange

This vintage, wine travellers from afar – be that the east coast, Europe, the UK or the US – have sat at my table and voiced open surprise at the newfound elegance of some of these wines. The delicious Jericho Adelaide Hills Syrah 2012 is a fine example, weighing in with 13 alcohols; examples very much closer to home are coming from the Yangarra winery, which is about 100 metres from my back door. The new PF – preservative-free – 2014 Shiraz is a delightful thing, already on the market like a super premium, particularly inky Beaujolais Nouveau, at a blissful 12.5 per cent. 

Given more careful viticulture, these wines were simply picked earlier, and treated more fussily than the fashion dictates. 

Early in the vintage I shared wines like these with Mildura chef Stefano De Pieri, who marvelled that South Australia was capable of such elegance. “I’d given up on South Australian reds,” he muttered. Several troupes of Brits and Asians have cruised through since, echoing Stef’s wonderment. In my random visits to the tasting and sales room next door, I see many folks marvelling at elegant flavours they have forgotten, or indeed never before encountered. It’s hardly a scientific sample, but I get the feeling the customer is more open-minded and keen than the vast majority of winemakers. 

Which raises a tricky question: having spent 15 years determinedly teaching people that big is beautiful and very, very Australian, how shall we now convince them that such modest, balanced reds are an improvement?

Australian winemakers are notoriously awkward with such matters. For more than 30 years, they have depended on wine writers to do their educating for them. Publishers of newspapers and shiny magazines have somehow found this tolerable, even though smart advertising seems something that never enters winemakers’ budgets. This parsimony has inevitably helped with the shrinkage of newspaper wine columns, and replaced them with the fractal chaos of the blogosphere, in which anybody can become an instant critic, whether they’re on the take or not. If I had kids and a car, I couldn’t possibly afford to do what I do. Most of us blog unpaid, which means we’re completely uncontrollable. While we hate the poverty, but love the freedom, such a situation is hardly a long-term thing. Meaning there’s a lot more chaos and potential corruption to come. 

So while the wineries failed to take advantage of the old newspaper days, when obedient writers invariably followed each other’s opinions, with columns accompanied only by ads from the Coles/Woolworths discounting duopoly and some tiny irregular sundries, winemakers now face the confounding, immeasurable mess of the internet, with its bloom of unedited bloggers, Tweeters and Facebookers. 

Every winery has a web page, but the proprietorial attitude seems to be “that’ll do it, she’ll be right”. Few are up-to-date; few are truly reliable sources of information, and most are droll and so similar that they’re practically worthless. They all look like they were constructed by the same designers. In fact, they have been. Very few have a human at the end of them.

Instead, they have what they quaintly call a “shopping trolley”. 

When you add the extreme challenge of climate change to this longstanding weakness of an industry largely dependent on folks it doesn’t employ to do its marketing for it, you set a scene which I’m sure the wine business as she stands has no hope of properly addressing. 

These few brave, sensible winemakers intent on making wines which are easier to drink and not quite so deadly are really out there on their own. 

What delights me are visitors like those I’ve mentioned, who get it. The punter is not a mug. 


Join the author and photographer Milton Wordley at Tasting Australia in Town Square (Victoria Square) at 5pm on Saturday, May 3. We'll show and discuss our book, A Year in the life of Grange, and ponder the possibility of another Australian wine gaining such fame. 

These George Grainger Aldridge cartoons are from our comic book, Evidence of Vineyards on Mars


Former New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell, who resigned when the Independent Commission Against Corruption revealed he had indeed received a bottle of his birth vintage Grange from controversial lobbyist and Liberal Party fundraiser Nick Di Girolamo. O'Farrell at first denied the gift.

Long finish on 1959 Grange
Corruption sleuths pull cork
Liquor lobby lurks in shadows

The year of the 59 Grange will always be 2014 now.

I can feel Max Schubert giggling.

When New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell resigned for forgetting he'd been sent a bottle of his birth vintage Grange by none other than Nick Di Girolamo, the wine writing racket got itself a hernia.

When the Independent Commission Against Corruption flushed the Grange yarn out, wine experts came out of everywhere; unknown heads emerged from the murk; trumpets long dormant got a chance to blow. Everything from a list of wines that wouldna got O'Farrell into trouble to widely varying opinions on the quality of the 59 flooded the digital morass.

New Premier Mike Baird had just got the job when he walked into his interview with Sarah Ferguson on Sydney's ABCTV 7:30. Opinions vary on how well he went, but from that point on it seemed the 59 Grange took on more weight than any wine deserves. To watch Baird face questions on whether Di Girolamo, as a major Liberal Party donor, donated also to his campaigns was twisty enough. Baird's dealing with her query about the nature of Di Girolamo's lobbying intensified the discomfort; his explanation of why he'd appointed Di Girolamo to his directorship of the State Water Corporation was laughable.

The whole affair brought Polanksi's Chinatown to mind.

In her exquisite summary, Ferguson suggested that the public first saw "a Labor government suborned by influence peddlers," but that "that same group of people simply switched to the Liberal Party when it moved in."

She finished by asking the new Premier if the second round of inquiries into slush funds and influence-peddling in the NSW Liberal Party could damage his premiership in the way that Barry O'Farrell's ended. To which he answered "Let's be honest about this: it's not good."

Since that wobbly start, new stuff emerges after other new stuff and everything's more volatile than even Grange. Many in Sydney must have felt very grateful for the crucifixion providing a handy long weekend in which some shit could be regrouped.

John Menadue, left, with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at Nugget Coombs' farewell drinks in 1974

Perhaps the most notable entry to the world of wine writing was John Laurence Menadue, who sometimes seems as close - intellectually, at least - as this country's got to a figure of the stature of John Kenneth Galbraith. He was private secretary to Gough Whitlam from 60 to 67, then General Manager of Murdoch's News Limited. He's been Ambassador to Japan, and CEO of Qantas. The list goes ever on.

In his essential blog, Pearls and Irritations, on April 19th, under the headline "This is about more than a bottle of wine," Menadue wrote: 

"We have seen the awful underbelly of the ALP in NSW. Now we are seeing the sleazy underbelly of the Liberal Party.

"All political parties are at the beck and call of the alcohol and hotel lobby," he continued. "It took months for the O’Farrell government to take action against alcohol-fuelled violence. Right to the end O’Farrell was unwilling to make the trading hour changes that had been so successful in Newcastle. Alcohol sponsorship dominates our major sports. We have a ‘war’ on illegal drugs but the alcohol industry causes much more damage than illegal drugs. But the alcohol industry prevents effective government action against the alcohol industry. And guess who is the Chief Executive of the NSW Hotels Association? It is Paul Nicolaou who was engaged by Australian Water Holdings as a lobbyist in 2007. At that time he was Chairman of the Millennium Forum, the NSW‘s Liberal Party’s major fund raising body."

It may just be possible that the fascinating business being unzipped in Sydney brings attention to the whole vast world of liquor lobbying; perhaps even to the role of the most powerful wine industry operatives in this mystifying network.

I like to watch Senator Simon Birmingham, former front man for the Australian Winemakers Federation and boss lobbyist for the Australian Hotels Association, in his role as Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott with South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham.

To follow the path of very serious wine industry issues, starting with the problems of an unreliable river system being used to make Australia's cheapest bladder pack plonk, is a strange route that simply doesn't stack up as a business plan. In a country with no water we use up to 1200 litres of it to make a litre of wine three times the strength of your average beer which is then sold at the price of Evian water, thanks to a tax system illogically skewed to favour these bulk bladder pack bevvies ... sorry, I'm panting. But if you follow that on through whatever became of the Murray Darling Authority through the biggest winery names in the country to the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association "Shoppies" who end up selling it through the duopolist liquor barns of Woolies and Coles you'll be breathless.

One wonders just how much of this web might unfold. ICAC's biggest scalps have so far been the most unlikely.

Richard Farmer weighed in too, on his Political Owl blog. Press secretary for Prime Minister Bob Hawke, liquor merchant, lobbyist, advisor, journalist, Farmer's been around as much and almost as long as John Menudue. In the fever of the now fabled 59, and the furore about unchecked lobbyists, he dug out Lobbying, a speech he'd made to a conference of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party in November 1996.

It would pay anyone who needs advice in running a hung parliament to learn this speech, perhaps even more desperately than those who need to grasp any of the basic precepts of your actual lobbying, as in handing out birth vintage Granges. Apart from complaining about the lack of booze on the tables, Farmer started like this: 

"Thank you for inviting me here today and thank you for the description in your brochure as 'Richard Farmer - government relations consultant.' That was very polite of you. Whenever I describe myself as a lobbyist there is always something of an embarrassed pause so becoming a government relations consultant suits me just fine. In my trade we understand why lavatory cleaners became sanitary inspectors. 

"If you can't drink their booze,  take their money, fool with their women and then vote against 'em, you don't belong in politics," he concluded some thirty minutes later, quoting Californian legislator Jesse Unruh. "In my experience there are many in Canberra who do belong in politics. The lobbyists will never always win."

Which brings to mind another priceless Farmer speech. We'd invited him to address the Sydney Wine Press Club in Len Evans’ Bulletin Place restaurant in Sydney in June 1984. There was a disgusted hush amongst the besuited brethren when Farmer commenced with the line "Fellow drug dealers ... "

There can't be too many more bottles of the rare 59 Grange about to break the surface of the ongoing ICAC inquiry, but it seems very likely that we'll learn a lot more about all the issues I've skirted about rather gingerly.

Like the quality of such a wine. Even if it had been through the famous Penfolds Recorking Clinic to be freshened up and re-plugged, it's worth mentioning that O'Farrell may have forgotten the wine because it didn't exactly whelm him. All those fifties numbers are well and truly twilight farm material now.  It must be 25 years since last I got my kisser into a glass of it, and it was tired then.

So where'd that bottle come from? My lobbyist was its maker. 

Grange creator Max Schubert in his blending room ... photo Milton Wordley ... for details of our book A year in the life of Grange, click here.

27 April 2014



"When we have meat before us and such food we receive the impression that this is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian wine is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep's wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see what kind of things they are. Just in the same way ought we to act all through life, and where there are things which appear most worthy of our approval, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For outward show is a wonderful perverter of the reason, and when you are most sure that you are engaged in matters worth your while, it is then that it cheats you most  . . . "

This is from George Long's translation of Book V of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (above), who was born 1893 years ago on April 26th. He was the last of the 'Five good emperors,' and ruled the Roman Empire from 161 to 180AD. In Expidition Magazine, the journal of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Elizabeth Fentress, Caroline Goodson and Marco Maiuro have published a delectable paper, Wine, Slaves and the Emporer at Villa Magna, describing their findings during the excavations of Marcus' country house near Rome.

The following was written by the 21-year-old Marcus, and shows the fresh clarity of thought and observation which intensified in his writing as he grew older.

"We are well. I overslept a bit on account of a slight cold, but this seems to have subsided, so at the eleventh hour of the night until the third hour of the day I read from Cato’s De Agricultura, and wrote a little bit, less badly than yesterday, thank god ... So with my throat tended to, I set out for my father and stood by him at the sacrifice ... Then we set ourselves to the task of picking the grapes; we sweated, and rejoiced, and, as another author says, “we left the high-hanging vintage surviving.” …[T]he gong rang, that is, it was announced that my father had gone over to the bath. Having bathed, we therefore dined in the pressing room (we didn’t bathe in the pressing room, but, having washed, we ate there) and we happily heard the peasants bantering." (Fronto, Letters, book IV, letter 6, tr. M. Andrews)

When Cicero made the following comment on the writings of Julius Caesar (Brutus, 46BC), he could just as well be commenting on the crisp nature of Marcus' prose works, which were still, of course, unwritten:

“They are like nude figures, upright and beautiful, stripped of all ornament of style as if they had removed a garment.  His aim was to provide source material for others who might wish to write history, and perhaps he has gratified the insensitive, who may wish to use their curling-tongs on his work; but men of good sense he has deterred from writing.”

Curling tongs? This is the earliest reference to spin-doctoring I have yet discovered. 

My beloved Marcus was no spin doctor. Nor, due to his sparse grammar and acuity of thought, has he been doctored. Much. Most folks regarded as stoic these days have no idea of the blunt primary nature of his seminal and formative writings; many so-called stoics who've plied the years between him and me are only sophists who will never understand what that means, either.

This is as good a day as any to fill a krater and raise a toast to one of the greatest rulers, and thinkers, of all time.  

Go buy yourself a copy of the Meditations. Pity we have no Falernian to soften up the fresh tablet. Bring me a new stylus anyway.

18 April 2014


Maynard James Keenan meets Ray Beckwith's pH meter, Penfolds Magill, last year ... photo Philip White ... three muscateers photo below, with Peter Gago, by Milton Wordley

17 April 2014


photo Gus Howard


After the twisty reactions triggered by the author's thoughts on the orange wines  served at the recent event at which he presented the Howard Twelftree Award, perhaps it's time to admit some history. 

Here he is - late Devo epoch - holding a white balance for producer/director/cinematographer Gus Howard soon after sunrise at The Steingarten in the High Barossa in the mid-eighties. You can see the thin line of the vineyard coming out of the author's head. It was one of the early morning starts shooting the first export promotional film for the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, now called Wine Australia.

Not long after this the author swung in the back higher gate in the old Police Holley Hemi V8 Val with nervous/frightened winemakers Ron Laughton and Graeme Leith, only to interrupt some Orlando vineyard blokes studiously cutting the vines off at the roots with a very efficient mechanical pruner: one of the first the author had seen. The good workers said they'd been told to clean the vineyard out; yields were too low. It took a mighty tantrum in the Steingarten and a fast blast down the hill to MD Guenther Prass's office at Rowland Flat to get that destruction stopped. It had been a vineyard management decision. Guenther claimed he didn't know. 

One trusts that what they left of the Steingarten's still there.

For more information about the seventies Orange movement, click here. To tune your browser to the point where the DRINKSTER's attire is most accurately coloured, just twist the knobs till that piece of paper turns pure white. 

It's a kind of filtration.

That seventies Orange thing, the author felt, deserved a living piss-take of the randy rich dills in that very strange movement. How could you measure their success? By their desertions? 

How powerful is the new Orange People? One can hardly see somebody as straight down the line as Max Allen ever bleeding his followers to buy himself 93 Rolls Royces, like the Bhagwan did of his original mob of Orange followers. Not at all. Max might buy one, but they'll never have the money nor the greed for a fleet. 

Will cloudy orange wines take over the world? No. They don't have to. To paraphrase a bit of what Max said in his rousing speech, they were here from the start. They have been here since somebody first put rotting fruit in a bowl. They will always be here, somewhere. 

But we know how to make better wines. Even after the Armageddons to come, somebody will remember the anti-rot advantages of brimstone, and the clarifying capacity of the sieve.

A bright young Croser may come again. 

Maybe it'll be someone respectful of the Colin Gramp who put that Steingarten there with explosives fifty years back. Colin's desire for finer, brighter wines brought on the brilliant Rieslings he made in those days. He's getting very old, but when he pulls one of his good fifties or sixties out, one rises immediately above the clouds.

As for the author's Orange Lodge involvement? Well, that's a private Protestant issue. 

Beware of active Red Handers.

Perfect fruit box art portraying the active hand caught red, or orange: This image is by the great Ben Sakoguchi, from his Orange Crate Label Series


16 April 2014



Small Change White
$20; 11.9% alcohol; screw cap; 93 points

Fillets, Flipper, Filth, Furber, Snow, Filster, Whitey ... I've had some nicknames in my time, some of them completely appropriate, but I've never been called Small Change. Pardon my presumption, but I rather like it. Rhys Howlett made the wine and named it. It's 2013 Verdelho from Langhorne Creek, made, dare I say, much after the retro-rad style of Luis "Louie the Duck" Pato, leader of the Portuguese white wine revolution. It reminds me of some of his exemplary Vinhas Velhas, like the 2010, which just manages to have the same modest number of alcohols as this. What a lovely number! Verdelho can be made to taste a bit like Riesling, and sometimes it tastes a bit like Chenin blanc, both of which are surprising for a variety the Portuguese cultivated on their tropical island colony of Madiera in order to make mighty concentrated fortifieds that would last for a century or more. It was common for sailors headed to the antipodes to call by there for a schl├╝ck, hoist the odd barrel or two aboard, and a bale or six of cuttings for their New World. So we grow Verdelho. And, oh yes, did I forget to tell you that most Australian Verdelho is very very boring. This wine is NOT boring. This one's made to taste and feel more like an actual wine than, say, your most flinty austere Riesling or indeed most Oz Verdelho. It has just the right drip of gingery Iberian sweat on its otherwise tropical flesh, and the right ping of lemony acid that draws your lips to a pucker as its tail disappears down your throat. Made to slurp with crayfish, scallops, sardines, Coorong mullet et cetera, it is a lovely thing at a shiny little spend. If it had a duck on it, like Luis's posh Portuguese blends, you'd be paying twice this.

Small Change Red
$22; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 92 points

Same bloke; same gastronomic ethic and wit; same region; made from 2013 Langhorne Creek Grenache and Shiraz. It's beautifully heady and scented, somewhere well beyond morello cherries, past beetroot, even past Guinness, away out in those swoony nether regions of black fruits and spooky licorice roots which have not yet evolved. It's viscous and silky and barely tannic, as if August Clape were suddenly to make a Beaujolais, or Pope Frank were to burst out in tongues and begin chasing shielas round the nave. It makes me crave those big gamy Calabrian snags they build out of scrapings and other odd shreds of critters that fall off or get sliced or ground or chewed off or blown away, even get run over, and miraculously escape the smokehouse, ending up in ordinary feral sausages for the grill. Which makes me realise the wine has no discernable oak, which pushes it even further out and away from the mainstream plonkers. I get the feeling Rhys has been plotting these wines through all those years of exile he spent working for the Bordelaise winemaker, Jacques Lurton, at his Kangaroo Island vineyard. Neither of these two Small Changes happened without a lot of thought and an uncommon wallop of gastronomic intelligence. Try here to buy' em.




One bottle of tired old Grange ... New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell has promised to quit for forgetting it.

"As soon as I can organise a meeting of the parliamentary party next week, I will be resigning the position and enabling a new Liberal leader to be elected," O'Farrell said at this morning's press conference.

When challenged yesterday by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), O'Farrell denied being given the bottle by Australian Water Holdings (AWH) executive Nick Di Girolamo. 

AWH is being investigated over allegations it invoiced Sydney Water for lucrative expenses then used this taxpayer's money for handover to political parties, executive salaries and other dodgy business.

The ICAC inquiry has already reached far into the top ranks of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Federal government, triggering the 'standing aside' of Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos.

This followed the ICAC inquiry hearing claims that Sinodinos, a former AWH director and treasurer of the NSW Liberal Party, "stood to make up to $20 million from a contract with the state-owned Sydney Water Corporation."

Sinodinos was also the right-hand man of former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard.

O'Farrell this morning admitted to a "significant memory fail on my part" after yesterday telling the Commission he was "not a wine connoisseur," and denying the gift was delivered.

He claimed yesterday he could not recall the 28-second phone call transmitted from his phone to Di Girolamo's at about the time Di Girolamo claimed he'd had the wine delivered to the Premier's door to congratulate him for his 2011 election victory.

The Grange label was dated May 24, 1959, which happens to be O'Farrell's birthday. The gift is not listed on O'Farrell's pecuniary interests declaration. The rare bottle, said to be worth AU$3000, is from the last of the 'Hidden Vintages' of Grange, when winemaker Max Schubert made the wine secretly, against the instruction of his Sydney-based employers, and their savage MD, the fearsome Grace Longhurst.

ICAC officers linked the gift to allegations that AWH had lobbied O'Farrell "over an agreement with the state-owned Sydney Water to roll out water infrastructure."

Di Girolamo had told ICAC that O'Farrell phoned him to thank him for the gift.

At this morning's press conference, O'Farrell admitted that a personal note from him to Di Girolamo was in the possession of ICAC.

O'Farrell insisted his forgetfulness was truthful, but said "I do accept there is a thankyou note signed by me ... As someone who believes in accountability, in responsibility I accept the consequences of my action," he said.

"In no way did I seek to mislead wilfully ... That would go against everything I am.

"But this has been a clearly significant memory fail on my part, but I accept the consequences of my actions."

It must be said O'Farrell's scalp was an unexpected result for the ICAC inquiry.

Barry O'Farrell image taken this morning from the website of the Premier of New South Wales

Respected journalist Mike Carlton tweeted this morning "Have to say it's a shame about Barry O'Farrell. He was a good premier, and I am sure he was honest. I liked him personally ... 

"I suspect BOF genuinely forgot about the Grange. And the thank you note. I've known him a long time. He's not a liar. 

"If we send a bottle of Grange to Abbott it might work its fatal magic again. Anyone want to chip in?"

Plenty of opportunity here for those seeking to scalp politicians ... photo by Milton Wordley, from our book A year in the life of Grange ... this morning's shenanigans would have made a perfect final chapter!