“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 September 2015


Riverland grapegrower and staffer to local right-wing Senator Ann Ruston: Henry Crawford, a diligent defender of his vast region and its irrigation, but not above a drink of Grange, which he cannot grow and the  Riverland cannot make ... photographed here by Milton Wordley, photographer and publisher of the multi-award-winning  A year in the life of Grange, which I wrote of this good drink, which seems to be remaining viable.
"Growing grapes in the driest state, on the driest continent, on the edge of the outback, seems incomprehensible, let alone possible," says the Riverland Wine website.  

"However, Riverland wine grape growers ... are passionate, diversified, professional experts who utilise leading edge technology to deliver, with precision, quality grapes. They are, after all, producing up to 30% of Australia's annual crush! 

Some facts about the collapse of viable viticulture in Australia's biggest wine grape regions
Henry Crawford had a bit of a spray on Twitter. 

The South Australian Riverland grapegrower and shotgun rider/friend/advisor to the local conservative Senator, Anne Ruston, was pissed off with my InDaily piece of September 15th, which discussed Murray-Darling viticulture.

After my editor avoided a major Riverland/InDaily crisis by deciding to publish Henry's response In defence of the Riverland Wine Industry, Henry voiced his "disappointment and frustration at seeing someone who clearly has a passion for wine and the wine industry sink the boot into the Riverland." 

I think that musta bin me.

He then refocussed his tweeting to congratulate Andrew Hastie "on a terrific victory in Canning!" 

Obviously a very busy man, Henry.

Without mentioning any by elections in Western Australia, Andrew Weeks, business manager of Riverland Wine, the leading regional wine industry body, wrote a similar response in The Week That Was.

Andrew complained about my theorising around Murray Darling water use and abuse. He rightfully suggested that in regions of high rainfall, you'll need less irrigation to grow and make a litre of wine, duh, but the ratio of water, whether irrigation or rain, to a resultant litre of wine is about the same in cool regions as in the dry hot inland.

He did not mention washdown water for cleaning and rinsing in the winery. Between one and five litres of washdown water are needed to make one litre of finished wine. In the desert, most of this washdown water comes from the river. In the Hills, it comes off the roof.

That aside, both Henry and Andrew missed my major point. I usually write about the irrigated Murray-Darling wine business in response to its constant whingeing about its failure to make a profit. I was not sinking the boot gratuitously. I wrote in response to those pissant industry leaders who always want more government millions for promotion, more impossibly cheap water, and an ongoing distorted tax sytem which favours plonk over premium.

Like seriously, if you attempt to approach it logically, there is none here in the bullshit arcane structures and stage scaffolds these marginal Australian plonkmongers, with hillbilly politicians for protection, have somehow conspired into ersatz growth.

Like how dumb is that? And we believe it? They expect the poor bloody growers to believe it. Over-supply is essential when you're fighting for space on the least-profitable shelves of the transnational shop.

In its 2015 Vintage Report, the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia (WFA) revealed a 1.67 million tonnes national winegrape crush, "marginally lower than the seven-year average and slightly down on last year’s 1.7 million tonne estimate and 2013’s high of 1.83 million tonnes."

WFA Chief Executive Paul Evans reported a 5% increase in grape prices, but added "This is an industry average and many producers in the warm inland regions in particular continue to experience enormous challenges. Our analysis shows that 92% of production in warm inland areas is unprofitable."

Take a look at the WFA's 2015 Production profitability analysis ... the information in its pie diagrams is indicting as much as devastating.

Amalgamated, Australia's "cool climate" regions, which, in the WFA's estimation mysteriously include the warm Barossa and McLaren Vale, incurred a 43% loss in 2015. These figures compare the cost of growing the grapes to the prices achieved.

Last tasted a few years ago: the back label of the first ever Jimmy Watson Trophy winner, Henry Martin's 1961 Metala Langhorne Creek ... this bottle was brutalised by the piece of cursed bark from Portugal

Moving up along the Murray from its constipated sphincter, we first hit Langhorne Creek, where 77% of the fruit grown sold at a loss, and the average yield per hectare since 2006 is 9.2 tonnes.

The Riverland's next, with a 92% loss at 20 t/ha

Get to Murray-Darling-Swan Hill and it's 88% loss at 19.4 t/ha. The Riverina, home of the glorious YellowTail, scores a 97% loss at 14.9 t/ha.

This is Australia's major river system. Its water resources are always stretched. It flows through a desert. We've spent decades and billions investigating it and plugging its leaks and hoping that dredging its estuary will make it run into the ocean while we have more meetings and elections. 

But regardless of how much of this country's strictly limited freshwater they use, these viticulture regions remain insolvent, and still howl for millions of government dollars to help them with their international marketing. 


Which leads me to quality. If your product is of a good enough quality, and there's a demand for it, you'll find a buyer who'll help you trade at a profit without leaning on the taxpayer, whether for cash or impossibly cheap fresh water. Which should be worth more than cash in the driest State in Earth's driest continent.

Generally, modest yields are a good start on the long, uphill road to quality. You get lower yields, and less water in your wine, by using less of it.

Compare those figures above to McLaren Vale, where 34% of the fruit grown made a loss, but the average yield was 6.8 t/ha.

On Mornington Peninsula, only 2% of the crop made a loss and the average yield was 5.1 t/ha.

Given Andrew Weeks' numbers showing that the total volume of rain and irrigation needed to make a tonne of wine is about the same in cooler and warmer regions, it's obvious a great deal more water is wasted on loss-making in the ailing Murray-Darling.

And sure, McLaren Vale also depends partly on irrigation, but most of that comes from recycled, cleaned water from the seaside suburbs. Unlike Clare and the Barossa, which both have private pipelines direct from the River, McLaren Vale uses no Murray-Darling water. And that stack of unprofitable fruit? I'll bet most of that's grown on the wrong geology for the wrong reasons by the wrong people.

One of the most significant independent measures of the quality of Murray-Darling wine - red, at least - is a major trophy whose entry template seems custom-built for the sorts of wine in which the hot irrigated regions purport to excel.

The Jimmy Watson Trophy was set up for the 1962 Royal Melbourne Wine Show so the independent judges could find the best one-year-old red in the show, in order for Watson's wine bar to continue the deceased Jimmy's habit of serving great fresh young reds to table in cleanskin, decanter or jug, direct from barrel.

Such bargains made Jimmy Watson's the legend it is.

The author with Brian and Judson Barry at Brian's 84th in 2011... Brian's not been well

Other than that Stoneyfell Metala Langhorne Creek 1961 blend which won the very first Jimmy Watson trophy, wine from the Murray-Darling has won it on only one other occasion in 53 years. This was Brian Barry's brilliant Berri Co-operative Winery and Distillery's Cabernet Shiraz Dry Red 1972. I shared the last known bottle of this with its wise old maker four years ago, and while its cork looked like a drowned mouse, the wine still afforded us a flicker of its former vivacity.

This dearth of premium quality is locked in a deadly embrace with the price people dare pay for really hot region wines: there's little glory in competing in the international discount bins when the world is awash with cheap wine and there's no water left in your river system.

Bill Moularadellis's Kingston Estate, pride of the Riverland, is the sixth-largest winery in Australia. Its 30 million litre capacity can handle an 80,000 tonne annual crush. While it takes fruit from many regions, 95% of its product goes offshore in bulk.

Bill recently told ABC Rural the prices his winery paid for grapes unfortunately had little to do with how much they had cost to produce.

"We're responding to international market opportunity, and international markets dictate the prices," he said. "We're totally dependent on the export market, so we're exposed to those cold winds of market reality."

Breathing the cold winds of market reality: the author speaking the truth in the very bad Wine Press Club war room with the king hell operatives, including Bill Moularadelis, left, who obviously disagrees, Stuart McNab (since suddenly vanished from his frontline attack role at Treasury, but out there plotting something somewhere) and emcee Brenton Quirini, Empire Liquor ... photo AAAgent Davise

Which pretty much says it, but Riverland Wine's Chris Byrne added further advice. Unlike Bill, Chris doesn't own any 30 million litre wineries.

"Growers and winemakers alike have been trying to grapple with the harsh reality of being part of a global trading business," he said. "If growers can't  become more competitive, they'll need to try something new. We've been saying that now for a good seven, eight, nine, 10 years. We've been saying, know your numbers. If you don't take the trouble to know what your own numbers are, then you may be getting further and further into debt or becoming less and less sustainable."

Since 2010, about 200 Riverland growers have uprooted their vineyards. But if all the figures these great bodies present are reliable, we still face the reality that of the fifty or sixty-plus thousand tonnes of wine the Riverland annually produces, no more than eight per cent of its contributing fruit is grown at a profit.

If you're an ethanol dealer using riverwater and naive human goodwill to mine the desert for sugar via high yield viticulture you could learn a lesson from the miners, admit the boom is over because no-one wants your produce at the price, and get on with improving your plans for your comeback with a more attractive, profitable long-term product.

Besides, we need the water to grow food.


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