“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 January 2015


Unaipon: right on the money -
our first indigenous winemaker
deserves a little more kudos!

David 'Unaipon' Ngunaitponi was thirteen when the benevolent politicians, graziers and winemakers, Charles Burney Young and his son, Harry Dove Young, employed him as a servant in 1885. Later they built him lodgings at their Kanmantoo Pastoral Company homestead, Holmesdale. 

The Ngarrindjeri lad had always fascinated the young Harry Dove, pestering him with ingenious toys and musical instruments he'd made on his traditional country on the Murray Estuary at Raukkan (later renamed Point McLeay). Harry Dove had a bit of a word to the elders, and the young Unaipon, as he became known, agreed to go off and learn the white man secrets.

Which he did. With a withering hunger and genius.

The Youngs were a racy lot. Charles Burney had married Nora Creina, daughter of Lady Charlotte Bacon (above), the Ianthe in Lord Byron's Child Harold's Pilgrimage. It was commonly rumoured Byron was Charles Burney's illegitimate father-in-law. Harry Dove bore a striking resemblance to Byron. 

Having studied the mathematics of surveying, Charles Burney cut himself out a lovely slice of land that extended from the dairy cattle country on the eastern slopes of Mount Barker to the lower beef and sheep grazing rain shadow country on the Bremer River, five miles further east. A rakish dance hall man, Charles Burney spent much of his time at business and pleasure in the city, [read Adelaide Club] leaving Harry Dove to run the farm and winery and the thoroughbred stud at Kanmantoo.

A mad horseman, Harry Dove was a founder of the Oakbank Steeplechase. They still run a hurdles race there each Easter in his name. Which is proudly cut into the redgum lintel of the stables at Johnston's big homestead overlooking the Oakbank Racecourse. I imagine Harry Dove standing in his stirrups as he carved that graffito out with his pocket knife, wagering old man Johnston - vigneron, brewer and hotelier -  that his idea was a winner. All he needed was Johnno's paddock, some well-horsed rivals, somebody to make a book, and a few hundred punters with money.

The original Kanmantoo vineyard was 25 hectares of Cabernet sauvignon, Shiraz, Grenache, Malbec and Mataro - more or less the ingredients of the better Bordeaux reds of the day. Through his mate Sir Samuel Davenport, CharlesBurney had engaged the services of the genius French winemaker, Edmund Mazure, who there perfected his recipe for the wine style he would later call St Henri Claret at Auldana and Romalo.

The original St George Claret Kanmantoo Vineyard label ... photo Philip White
Mazure's Kanmantoo Vineyard St George Claret was fermented cool using a water-driven heat exchanger they invented, then blended and stored in seasoned 500 gallon oval oaks for six years before bottling.

Those oaks are full of wheat these days.

At the Exposition Universelle, the Paris World's Fair of May to October 1889, held to coincide with the official opening and illumination of the Eiffel Tower, St George Claret, Kanmantoo Vineyard won the top gold medal. I've held the damn thing in my hands. It's as broad as a saucer, and very heavy. These days they give you a piece of paper that comes out of some Troy or Jacinta's desktop printer in Kent Town or somewhere. 

That world championship, just by the way, was far from unique in the Holmsedale trophy cabinet. The Youngs were persistent and confident internationalist exhibitors, entering their reds in wine shows and agricultural expos all over Europe and the USA. There is a serious trove of awards and certificates in the archive.

The wine critic from The Register, Ernest Whitington, gave a priceless account of drinking these world-leading wines when he visited Holmesdale with another newspaper bloke in 1903. Harry Dove had met them in a city pub at 4PM. The rain "came down in torrents" as they drove through the Mount Lofty Tiers  - "where cattle duffing was rife in the early days" -  took fresh horses at Crafers, and were at table at Kanmantoo by 8PM.

"We sat around the open fireplace, with its great blazing logs," Whitington reported, "And talked about the wine industry ...

"By the way, at dinner there were two clarets on the table, white seal French, and St George 1897 vintage. The visitors picked out the Kanmantoo article as the French wine. But that is not to be wondered at, because a claret from these cellars took the gold medal at the Paris Exposition against the whole world. As Mr Young put it, he awoke one morning to read in The Register that his wine had taken the coveted prize, and was, indeed, famous."

From his single-room studio at the back of Holmesdale, Unaipon would ride to the Callington Railway Station to catch a train to the city, where under Charles Burney's encouragement at the big house in Walkerville, he studied anthropology, science, literature and music. 

Publicly a teetotaller, Unaipon nevertheless worked many vintages in the Kanmantoo cellars - his signature is in the cellarhands' paybooks; it appears by the names listed there that the harvest was picked (into kerosine tins) by other Ngarrindjeri people under his supervision. The bookwork shows he was certainly hands-on in the cellar.

For a man of his genius, winemaking would have been a cinch to Unaipon.

I have a romantic notion of the polite and eager thirteen-year-old lad there in the cellars with a candle, assisting Mazure (left), Charles Burney and Harry Dove  prepare and bottle the St George's Claret samples to be sent off to the big Paris show.

They must have been heady days: Unaipon was a tireless inventor, draughtsman, writer and historian; an Antipodean Da Vinci. In the Holmesdale shearing shed where I worked as a kid he devised a method of converting rotating flywheel and belt type motion to sideways lineal, and so invented the shearing handpiece, which put Australia on the sheep's back and got him on the fifty-dollar bill, although I don't think he ever made a cent from it.

Unaipon constantly experimented with boomerang shapes and flight, and in the late 1800s decided that if two boomerangs could be attached at right angles to a driven spigot, cargo could be lifted and transported. In other words, the helicopter. His direction converter in the shearing handpiece could make the prop blades adjustable for lift.

It wasn't until 1936 that Focke-Wulf built the first working chopper, by which time the old vines at Kanmantoo had been uprooted and Harry Dove Young, MLA, was no longer well. Combined with the harsh local Tappanappa schist, eutypa - 'die-back,' or 'dead-arm' - had gradually chewed away at the dry-grown vines until the yields were down to half a ton to the acre. The vines were, after all, nearly a century old.

Good quality, sure, but there's no money in that.

Harry Dove married Anna Theresa Moore; they had one child, Nora. Harry Dove died in 1944. A wiry, jockey-sized tomboy, Nora was famous for tearing about on her dad's Ferrari-class thoroughbreds, not just bareback, but with no kit whatsoever. All she needed was a strand of mane to steer one of those big shiny bastards at full gallop.

Very early in her rebellious life, Nora went off to Paris to study law at the Sorbonne and hang out with the impressionists at the Louvre. There's a wonderful letter to her dad in the files. Nora's dozing off at a boring lecture in Paris, gazing out the window at the Seine, and she sees a barge laden with her Dad's St George Kanmantoo Claret being hauled upstream into town. Her Dad's brother, Burney, just happened to run the Australian wine office in London - he was the forerunner of today's Australian Grape and Wine Authority.

Handy bloke to know if you were exporting Antipodean wine to the Old World a century back.

By the time I was old enough to mow her lawns in the 'sixties, Nora'd moved in to manage what was then Kanmantoo Station with her Beretta-machine-pistol-packing girlfriend, Ida Tate Smith. The eccentric kleptomaniac, Alison Woosterman Howgate lived in a stylish modern cottage on their large lawns.

In spite of being an expert driver of her big V8 Valiant Regal, Alison always pretended to be blind. She effected the awkward shaded spectacles worn by post war blind folks and even kept a dribbling golden labrador in harness as a prop.

On Saturdays, the expert painter Nora would run watercolour classes on the veranda while I mowed the lawn. I couldn't imagine then why you'd have a kid mow the bloody lawn with a noisy, smelly old Victa four-stroke while you were sitting there hitting the Chestnut Teal sherry and learning how to paint, but I imagine it had something to do with proving one was sufficiently well orf to run staff: the internals of the big house were managed by Miss Margaret Dadow, who similarly lived alone nearby on the farm.

They were mainly khaki jodhpur short back-and-sides lasses at those genteel soirées. Not a sherry head, Nora would stir heaps of brown sugar into dark rum in a huge grandpa's tea cup and lap it noisily with a teaspoon. She chain-smoked Alpine filters and spoke with a toasted Tom Waits timbre. It was a cool but crazy place to live, Kanmantoo in the 'fifties and 'sixties: there weren't many farming villages anywhere else whose aristocracy was an openly gay matriarchy.

Nora and Tate would climb into their best tweeds now and then, wash the Borgward Isabella, and drive to Tailem Bend or Murray Bridge to visit Unaipon in the old folks' home. They revered him. He died in 1967, when I was fifteen and still playing cowboys and indians around the old winery. He was obsessed with unlocking the secret of perpetual motion, right til the end. He was buried in the old missionary cemetery at Raukkan, beside the little Point McLeay church he preached in as a senior man. That's on the money, too.

A courteous, conservative character, Unaipon wasn't impressed when more activist blackfullas instigated the Day of Mourning to celebrate the 150th arrival of the First Fleet, so he'll probably be pissed off  by my nomination of him to my Winemaker of the Year on 'Australia Day' 2015.

If only I had that champion St George Claret I'd chink some proper crystal in his honour.   

In the meantime, there: I've outed you, David 'Unaipon' Ngunaitponi. You were a winemaker.

Milton Wordley's photograph of the White family at our father's funeral at Callington in August 2013. He was James "Pastor Jimmy" White, non-conformist Protestant street preacher. He raised us in the old Black Dog Inn in Kanmantoo. Here's his mob: left to right it's Stephen, Paul, Helen, Sylvia May, our Mum, me and Mark. Mum died the following December. Missing is brother Andrew, who was killed in a car crash with my cousin, Jennifer, en route to the funeral of Sylvia's mother. That was a very bad week. All us blokes worked for Nora on the Young's big farm as we grew up. We learnt a lot there: the basics. How to sharpen knives, clean a shearing floor, shoot vermin, herd stock, pull weeds, dress sheep. We were allowed to take redgum firewood from the property to keep our cooking stove and fireplaces fed. In the baking Bremer Valley on the edge of the Murray Estuary, Kanmantoo and Callington are blessed in summer by the relieving breezes that came off that big lakes system - Ngarrindjeri country - each evening.

FOOTNOTE: I have removed a line in this which could have been interpreted as racist. It was never meant to be. Apologies.

PS: Publish something like that story, and look what soon inevitably happens: a miracle: even the sea suddenly appears; the humble old single-storey stone Holmesdale vintage cellars grow magically into a grand chateau with belltower!




Bernie Cook said...

Jesus Whitey. Non-conformist Protestants, a Ngarrindjeri genius, racy Victorian aristocracy fleeing the Old Dart, and lesbian gentry in the South Oz wilds. Talk about minority groups! Write a book you bastard.

Anonymous said...



tonyjoe said...

yez. a book pleezze

Anonymous said...

A lovely piece, and beautifully written thank you. David Unaipon was truly an extraordinary person as were and are a great many Ngarrindjeri. As an historian who often works with Ngarrindjeri I'd be keen to know if the winery's records reveal the names of the other Ngarrindjeri who worked there under Grandfather David's supervision.


From my recollection the names are mainly nicknames or first names. I don't recall any family names.

Robyn Sweaney said...

Philip a wonderful story that I found by accident while trying to find something or anything about Nora Young. Loved the images you evoked on life on the estate with all the women running the show. I have a couple of paintings that I inherited from a friend of my grandmothers Thurza who had been a friend of Nora'. One is an oil painting of Homesdale (I think) and another is a portrait of Thurza. She had told me when she was alive that Nora had stopped painting to take care of the property when her parents died. Thats all I knew. As a painter myself I think she was quite accomplished.

Pamela Snow | The Snow Report said...

Hello Philip
I am about four years late to the party here, but happened across this article when my daughter sent it to me today. My great aunt was Ida Taite (not Tate) Smith, "baby sister" of my very prim and proper grandmother, Olive. My late father used to talk about their brother Jack referring to them as "that pair of old lezzos over in Kanmantoo". My great-grandfather, Frederick Smith (Ida's father) died while on a visit to Ida in Kanmantoo in 1945.

Great article - thank you!