“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)





15 March 2016


Frank and Andrew Margan in their  Margan Hunter Valley vineyards at Broke, with the Brokenback Range in the background ... Frank loved his Hunter ... photo©Chris Elfes

It wasn't them it was us! How one wild colonial gourmand helped slaughter the sweet sherry mob

"Most Australians when they hear the word 'wine' think of sweet sherry. Most people still have a bit of a shudder to themselves, too. We have come a long way in a decade from the mid-1950s when the wine boom got going, but there is still, in spite of our progress, a hell of a long way to go." 

While we're talking personal beauty hints, you might be surprised that one of my secrets is the distillate of witch-hazel. After a hot shower, a splash of this seems to tighten those crinkly bruised bits that fester like wet toilet paper beneath the eyeholes.

Also, it's refreshing. And it smells good.

I never perform this daily ritual without thinking of Barbra Cole. One of the things I remember about the 'eighties was taking my new girlfriend Kay Hannaford to Sydney for Tony Bilson's outrageous wedding to Amanda, a Paul Hamlyn book editor. 

Because the Bilsons were, well, busy, Kay had arranged for us to stay in her buddy Barbra's flat beside David Marr's joint in Surry Hills. I found my first witch-hazel in the bathroom. When I asked who and where Barbra was, Kay told me I'd get on well with her boyfriend, Frank, who had "something to do with wine" and that they'd gone "up the Hunter."

Being advised by a woman like Kay that a bloke like me would "get on well" with another usually meant that together, our collective wickedness would far outweigh the sum of our individual inputs.  Kay's advice was seamless. The bloke turned out to be Frank Margan.

Frank at the sink: my notepad sketch upon re-reading The Grape And I in 2007

Although I'd only met him through various shades of claret or golden Semillon in the Hunter Valley, or hanging out with Len Evans, Frank was already an important part of my life, or an excuse for the way I lived it.

In the earliest bit of the 'seventies, two items made me vaguely aware of the possibility of writing about wine. The first was Michael Dransfield's ANZAC day poem, Wine-tasting.

The second was Frank's 1969 book, The Grape And I.

This was a very modern work. Like unabashedly, confrontingly, out there. Not only did the damn thing look modern, but it felt modern, and it brimmed with dangerously modern content, like the paragraph I quoted at the top.

Paul Hamlyn, the publisher, was famous for the seminal modernity of his work. One comadre of that age, sweet Gretel Penninger, professionally known as the very stern Madame Lash, warned me that Paul was admirably modern on the outside, but carried ancient guilt deep within.

Those were the days.

Gret was the new Mrs. Bilson's bridesmaid, just to show that everything is connected. She'd sewn the dresses of the bridal party from the finest leather: white for the bride; scarlet for her herself, the maid. These accentuated both lasses' admirable decolletage on one side, the cleavage of the bum cheeks on the other. The backs were bare but for a criss-crossing of perfectly-stitched leather thonging, between which the flesh bulged just enough. 

For the wedding gift, I presented a hand-made ten foot R. M.Williams' bull whip and a bottle of Goanna Oil.

Mrs. Bilson, a bowl of berries in kirsch and the author ... photographer? Peter Powditch?

When he got back from the Hunter to cook us a bisque in his restaurant, Frank thought these gifts pertinent, given Lash's relationship with his publisher and the new groom.

Without its dust cover, The Grape And I was radically white hardbound, clad in a plasticised form of bookbinder's linen. The illustrator, who is not credited, used that amazing new invention, the felt-tipped pen. The font is far-out sans serif, and there are no indents or line breaks separating paragraphs. In its day, this was as dramatic a leap from what went before as the jump from the gramophone to the i-Phone.

The dust cover shows a Frank not much remembered: posh, suave, french-cuffed, coiffed, immaculately suit-and-tied. He's sitting with a suite of old wines in somebody else's cellar. We remember that bit.

Even today, I don't have to get far into this work to realise what hot stuff it was.

In his opening chapter, Frank denied the "official fictions" of the day: the notion that Australia's waves of post-war immigrants changed Australia's deadly boring cuisine and drinking habits. He wrote of how each year, 25,000 young Australians returned from jaunts abroad, where they'd discovered European table habits.

"We were quite a bit pretentious and often crashing bores about our Trip," he dared to declare. "We spent our time looking for the cheap joints that had a touch of the European atmosphere and scorning the steak and eggs eaters and the tiled pubs swilling out beer. We wanted decent food and we wanted to have wine with it and that created a demand that started today's jet climb in the wine consumption charts.

"It wasn't the migrants - if you care to keep your eyes open you'll find they have switched to beer, or flagon red wine mixed with lemonade or soda. No, it wasn't them, it was us."

Frank wrote excitedly about the wine revolutionaries of the day, contrasting the age-old styles of the winemaking of the Seppelts and the Germanic nature of the Barossa's cottage life and its bakers and butchers to the ingress of stainless steel winemaking equipment and the radical cool-ferment techniques being developed by far-sighted geniuses like John Vickery at the Orange Grove winery now called Richmond Grove.

Frank wallowed in his beloved Hunter, the closest wine region to his hometown Sydney, marvelling at the stainless steel tanks and centrifuge the young Karl Stockhausen was installing to make revolutionary new white wines - clean and stable - at Ben Ean.

He lauded the red heritage left to the Hunter by that high priest of Australian red, Maurice O'Shea, and gave a loving and colourful description of helping plant the late Dr Max Lake's now legendary Cabernet vineyard, Lake's Folly.

Dr Max Lake, founder 
of Lake's Folly

"We slept in sleeping bags on the hard floor of the winery loft," he wrote. "We worked like dogs and not all the wine in the Hunter would slake our gargantuan thirsts."

I've not seen Frank since those days. Not since Barbra and him came to stay for a while with me in Esther's Cottage in Greenock, where I lived in the Barossa. If we'd repeated that performance, we would probably have destroyed each other clearing strings of laden tables. 

The last I heard from him was a message saying that unsigned copies of  The Grape And I were worth more than ones he'd autographed and that he wasn't too well. It was still a sudden shock to hear from his winemaking son Andrew that he'd died of long life in a hospital in the Hunter.

That news brought a wave of contemplation of his amazing effort, and its profound influence on the young Whitey.

Born of a poor Irish family in Sydney's south west, Frank lasted a day and a half at his first job as a Water Board clerk. He went instead to work in a pawn shop, where he learned more about the hard end of life. The worth of things. But he really wanted to play jazz trombone and become a journalist.

By the rakish age of twenty he was running the United Press International bureau in London. He came home to become news editor of the Daily Telegraph and then the Sunday Telegraph. He edited People, Australia's attempt at a pictorial like LIFE, which he bravely purged of the cheesecake girly stuff, and then Gourmet Magazine. 

Frank went into advertising where his buddy John Singleton made him creative director at his SPASM agency, where he came up with stuff like Lolly Gobble Bliss Bombs, a blistering commercial success.

For a while he ran the Australian Wine Bureau.

With his brother Don, Frank bought the DeBeyers Semillon vineyard and vintage shed in the Hunter, famously dubbed it Chateau Lysaght after the galvo  manufacturer and promptly won a special recommendation at the Royal Sydney Wine Show.

The Margan Winery today

He loved his vineyards. "I was just thrilled by it," he wrote. "Like this: four o’clock in the afternoon, not a soul around, I’d strip off all my clothes and jump on the tractor and go and yodel down the vine rows, just for no other reason than to feel the freedom of this wonderful life."

After rebuilding and running Bali's famous Hotel Tjampuan in Ubud, with his second wife, Jenny, daughter of the revered wine man Doug Lamb, Frank taught himself to cook, annually doing a six-week stint at La Rive Gauche in Nice. After opening the first continental delicatessen in the Hunter, which was too far ahead of its time, he turned it into The Cottage restaurant, where I first met him. He then opened Le Cabanon restaurant in Angel Place, Sydney, where he perfected his deadly lobster bisque.

Frank wrote six other books, from My Baby Was Blasted to A Pictorial History Of Surfing, and The Hunter Valley: Its Wines, People and History

This breathless progress eventually took him back to the Hunter with his partner Barbra. Until his final illness he worked at the grand Margan winery/restaurant complex established by his brilliant son Andrew.

No average wine has ever born that Margan brand.

As his family said in Frank's obituary notes, "Like all good print journalists there was a love and reverence for words and the disciplined pattern of their use. He lamented the death of journalism way before its analogue cremation ... unlike sport we don’t honour our past journalistic greats: they just slip off into anecdotes over drinks amid an implacable fading of the light of relevance as the great media band wagon moves on. It hurt him, hurt him a lot."

So my morning witch-hazel application has become more of a respectful Buddhist ritual, after the philosophy dear Frank learned to love all those well-lived years ago in Bali.

It may not be keeping me beautiful, but it's refreshing, renewing and it smells good. It still amazes me, the evocative power of aroma.

I shall never forget this hungry, thirsty, bright mate that Andrew best described at his funeral as "belligerent, obstinate, proud, compassionate, understanding and self-effacing."

Thanks eternally, dear Frank, for helping Australia's literary gourmands and gluttons come such a long way in those fast decades since the wine boom got going in the sherry-sodden 'fifties.

Don't worry about the trombone. You were a beauty.


pages 76 and 77 of The Grape And I, by Frank Margan (Paul Hamlyn, London, New York, Sydney, Toronto, 1969)

Frank Margan (November 26, 1931 - March 5, 2016) is survived by partner Barbra; wives Lois, Jenny and Simone; children Anthony, Sally, Andrew and Mimi; eight grandchildren; sisters Shirley and Adrienne and brothers Victor and David.


via collins said...

Aw bugger.

Geez I love that book. I have had the benefit of an eternally opp-shopping brother-in-law who has laden my shelves with gems like Margan, like Benwell, like Andre Simon. And they have invited me into a world that has become truly incredible. Had no idea Frank was still kicking on, and just hope to hell that he didn't suffer too much.

Must get some Margan wines in tribute, but the distribution lines between the Hunna and Melbourne are cruel.

Thanks for the tip Whitey. Ker-chink indeed.

Anonymous said...

If Frank Margan, as a 20 year old, walked in here now, ha. He'd be disgusted and go a back to the pwnshop and buy his trombone. Then he would launch something and change evevything.