“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)





26 July 2015


Media madness: It's been a big week for extravagant  helicopter abuse and minor wine scandals in the luxury living section of Australian politics and media. The author wonders whether winemakers, hacks and pollies have far too much in common ... photo DRAGAN

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity, and the scribes keep writing it all down

"After enough years newspapermen begin to pall on other newspapermen; they begin to take their good qualities for granted and wince at their shortcomings, of which the most common are a vanity that sometimes borders on the thespian and a sort of perpetual mental adolescence that I think stems from starting a fresh story every day or every week or month and never having time to get to the bottom of anything." 

I know, I know, that's a big quote to start a yarn but it's one damn lovely  sentence in every way and so fine a thing in form and content that only a fool would lay a chisel on it.

Also, it's Joe Liebling (left), a very favourite writer who covered the Second World War for The New Yorker. He filed that line about my line of work from Algiers in January 1942. Liebling wrote of the war from the point of view of a gluttonous genius: even under repeated Stuka fire in a bunker in the desert he wrote of scrambling duck eggs. His Between Meals - An Appetite For Paris is essential; his reportage of the halitosis of Charles de Gaulle a pinnacle of bitchy hiss.

Alcohol aside, in my post-war experience it has been journalists of a blinding range of ineptitudes or skill who have been responsible for the popular image of winemakers. This is because in winemakerworld there are very few operatives who will spend one dead cent on advertising their product or themselves.

They get it for free.

They have no idea how lucky they are. There are no milk writers, or bread columns. But every paper and shiny mag -  digital or tree-based - has at least one wine writer, whether real journalist or shill on the take. Their job is to promote the consumption of alcohol.

A wine writer lends convenient sanctity to those pages and pages of pension day liquor advertisements which have nothing at all to do with gastronomy.

The busy contemporary wine scribe scene is largely the way it is, internet chaos notwithstanding, due to the work of newspaper drink writers like Walter James, Len Evans, Richard Beckett, James Halliday, Jeni Port and Mark Shield (below), who in one combination or another made the game competitive from the early 'seventies on.

"Go get me a yarn about wunner them winemaker characters Whitey," the Ed would bark. Characters the winemen were: only a few hundred of them when I started; there are thousands trying to be characters now.

By characters I mean blokes who'd done not much more than drive tractors and drink beer. Blokes who'd scratch their arse with one of their hands while shaking yours with another one. And they were blokes. Apart from Pam Dunsford, Di Genders and Ursula Pridham.

Most of the winemakers in McLaren Vale were chook farmers when I began watching them for a living. Their wines mainly stank of hydrogen sulphide until the advent of the mechanical harvester, when they gained the added complexity of hydraulic fluid.

Long time ago, mind you. In many clever aspects of the wine business, this region now leads the world. Think Grenache.

But we still have these thirsty hacks on the one hand and your plonkmongers on the other. The first lot, who have a deadline every day or week seem to feel a kindred flush or some twist of bittersweet jealousy when writing about the winemakers, who have one deadline per year.

Which is not to say their lives are simple or easy: like good all-round journalists, the successful winemaker must master an unlikely range of skills. If such achievement remains out of grasp of either side, a great deal of utter bullshit will be required. I mean even more per acre than we regularly spread.

Winemaking? First, you're a primary producer who really must understand tractors and dirt and grass and water and stuff. Basic plant physiology, climate and pest management. Poisons, plumbing, irrigation. Agricultural accounting.

Then comes a layer of secondary manufacture, covering everything from factory design to basic biochemistry. Industrial yeasts, acids, clarifying agents. Flavourants. A degree of gastronomic intelligence comes in handy here. Then you'll need packaging skills, transport local and international, design, marketing and sales ... export law and public relations, the lure and lore of the restaurant and pub world.

Governments then expect you to be expert in tourism.

You have to be fluent, currently, in Hipster.

But critically, the modern winemaker must always be ready for that moment when the publisher sends the journo to do a nice colour piece for the food and wine section. For free.

There is a great deal of trust implicit here. Like the winemaker will trust that the writer never mentions the dangers of alcohol, but only lovely things about lemons and limes and roast fowl, with just the right dash of colourful character. This trust so far has been well-placed from the winemakers' point of view. The hacks are complicit. Peace in the valley.

But maybe the catalogue of winemaker skills should stop there.

It's when the winemakers take control of their own image that things get interesting. A bridge too far. Give them a sniff of budget, a loose idea and a film crew and let them go it alone and you might begin to understand who they think they really are.

Having mastered all those remarkable skills listed above, many winemakers now also believe they are great writers, directors and actors. 

The outstanding contemporary example of this is an ad on Youtube. It's called VALO Wine - a flight of unforgettable encounters. Really. Let me lead you through a few of the more unforgettable encounters.

We're in a vineyard with Mark Lloyd, who's pretending to prune. A biplane flies over low; he looks at his tank watch, drops everything and heads off to lunch, which explains why he's pruning in his dinner jacket at the wrong time of year with a watch you could swap for a house.

Because movie.

Because the inevitable medium-close-up of a chicken being dismembered by an expert. Because having almost regained control after losing it on a corner, some twat comes hooning up the gravel drive in a supercar. Then we see a row of boxes a bit like the ones girls used to carry their party 45 singles around but one of them has this giant aubergine-type thing in it.

Most journalists are happy to discuss the possibility of assistance with travel arrangements ... the author with Tim Knappstein's Boeing Stearman

Back that with the Last Supper shot with Chester Osborn as our precious loving Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ and two of the twelve turn out to be beautiful women. A little black helicopter chases the supercar through a vineyard too fast, interrupting an Italian-looking bloke who's frotting somebody on the ground. Back inside, Emmanuelle Bekkers hands the giant aubergine to Pete Fraser. They're wearing white gloves. He pulls the stalk out of it and the biplane flies past again. A bloody great luxury speedboat like drugrunners use down the Keys swooshes by, then the giant aubergine gets filled up with wine and goes back in its box. 

Luxury speedboats? Hacks love 'em

Somebody delivers a huge roast femur to a little dog on a beach. Mobster types get in a black limo near some white buses and a bit more biblane business goes past while a woman has a very high stiletto discomfort and then the supercar arrives somewhere else leading to the series of gastroporn vignettes, a tractor, more helicopter and eventually we see all these silvertails called The Masters Of McLaren Vale having a fine old nosh-up.

Fair dinkum.

Many journalists also like access to supercars

If this is not a good sharp picture of who these McLaren Vale winemakers think they are, or how they prefer to be regarded, then somebody has lost quite a lot of money.

If it's my region's wine imagery I want projected at me, and that's all they got, I want it instead from a Liebling, Shield, Beckett, James or a rogue like Evans. Give me the word of an expert; a seasoned newspaper hack who's used to standing in the shadows watching through their own veil of thespian vanity.

I haven't once mentioned the truth, but mark my words: you'd be more likely to get close to it this way. And it'll be cheaper. While it lasts.

Here are six helpful hints:

1. If selling science, technology and craftsmanship, try this
2. If selling wine, learn to talk straight like this.
3. If you need lots of money for a bright new wine, try this.
4. To show off your country and teach some history, click.
5. If it's decanters you're selling, learn how to do this.
6. Link your product to its lifestyle? Learn your clientele.

Oh, and here's an extra one at no cost:

Notice how women fit into all this? Where? 


Anonymous said...

This movie makes those portrayed look elitist and like wankers.. Everything the real Vale is not.. Ps. Sex has no place in the vineyard.

Red Blood Valer said...

I undersatnd this was paid for by the taxpayer and costs the consumer $8,800 an aubergine? Can this be true? Anybody?