“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


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.

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