“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)





20 April 2016


While the mighty Lindemans was building million-litre steel tanks for bladder-packs at Karadoc, near Mildura, A. P. John, the Barossa coopers, were building nine of these 100,000 litre oak vats for making marmalade at the Riverland Fruit Cannery ... posted in pursuit of a juxtaposition of philosophies ... note the total volume of these vats is still 100,000 litres short of one of Karadoc's new tanks ... photo Glen Schulz, A. P. John

The nature of consistency in mega-bulk and micro extremes: it's a tricky business both ends

Lindemans' wines propaganda unit showed a dangerous naïvete when it first invited little Whitey to its glittering Karadoc artifice to show him a thing or two.

It was the biggest winery in Australia back then, nearly forty years ago.

Jacko's Don't Stop Til You Get Enough was rockin' the stereo as I drove; video was still killing the radio star, and as a sort of musical warning for the flood of Sauvignon blanc to come, the Kiwis - Split Enz - held the Number 1 slot for eight whole weeks with I Got You. 

The Kiwis eventually got us fair and square. But Lindemans never got Whitey. The writer was prepared. It was a handy thing, coming to the wine racket from the mining business.

Some basic rock-hard geo logic prepared me to enter the vine from below, through its roots.

Awareness of the scale of huge refineries for petrochemicals and giant enriching plants to extract the good bits of rocks and dirt was handy, too.

Knowing how the professionals did it brought me to the wine industry's early emulations of such machinery with a finely-jaundiced derision.

And an understanding of the precision required when assaying things like silver and gold, arsenic and plutonium instilled in the young observer the unlikelihood of the wine business ever affording such accuracy in marketing its most profitable ingredient: the depressant drug, ethanol.

Once you cross the Murray at Blanchetown, it's old seabed all the way to Mildura and beyond to Karadoc: brine-filled limestone laid down as the oceans came and went with the ice ages and Australia began its voyage from Gondwanaland to India about 40 million years ago. We're nearly halfway there.

Soil profile at Coonawarra ... photo©Milton Wordley 

I thought about this as I drove, understanding that the top reds they would show me came from the highly irrigated Coonawarra, at the bottom of the Murray-Darling Basin. Famous clarets: St George's and Limestone Ridge. (Pyrus wasn't dreamed of until a last-minute experimental blend up and won the Jimmy Watson Trophy years later in 1986 and somebody had to think a name up real quick so they could inform the media.)

I was doubtful that they'd be showing me much wine from the extremely-irrigated, high-yielding grapeyards anywhere near the actual winery, which was spreading its steel and concrete over the flats between the Gol Gol State Forest across the River to the north and the giant salt pan three kilometres to the south.

'Karadoc' comes from Caer Caradoc, a rugged crest in a hogsback ridge in Shropshire. With a good twist of Camelot myth, this was named in turn after Caratācos, or in the Welsh Caratawc or Caradog, the savage Catuvellauni chieftain who led the wars against the Roman invaders.

Vision of Caratacus by William Blake 

Lindy's PR told me they thought it was an aboriginal name.

Anyway, the boss there was particularly proud of the gantry system they'd installed. The grapes would be tipped from the harvesting machines into big steel grape bins. They'd haul these to the winery, hoist 'em off and slide  'em along this overhead pulley affair to be poured into the nearest empty crusher.

Nothing ever stopped.

The other thing they were very proud of were the first million-litre tanks in the Australian wine industry.  I'd seen much bigger ones in oil and gas, but these were the beginning of something new in wine. Each of them seemed to be in the care of its own young winemaker whose job it was to ensure nothing went wrong with its contents until that great day when the phone on their desk would ring and a voice would announce it was the turn of their tank to be sucked through the underground pipes and squirted into the new-model silver pillows, then boxed and sent to the cities.

I knew from very early on that the burgeoning wine industrialists of the day were teaching themselves to use impossibly cheap irrigation water and the petrochem web of fungicides, herbicides and fertilisers to mine the Murray Mallee for grape sugar. Their scorched earth policy showed much less environmental sensitivity than most miners were forced to adopt under the conditions of their leases.

But these Karadoc blokes were the first winemakers I encountered who actually dressed like miners: steel caps, hi-vis vests, safety glasses and hard hats with a Dymotape name and rank on the front.

Imagine a great chef dressing like that.

That day, as a phone rang somewhere and the bag-filling machine swapped its supply line from one giant tank to another, I noticed the boxes didn't change. Some tiny secret code somewhere may have changed but this wasn't like changing the vintage or anything. Even if a publisher did ever risk the litigation possible should I honestly review bargain bladder pack wines, there would never be any solid guarantee that my reader would be buying the wine I wrote of.

Million litres each, sure, but different tank, different wine.

Bacchus only knows how much method has changed at Karadoc, which is  much bigger now, and is part of Treasury Wine Estates, who don't boast of it much.

Supported by a compliant wine show system, that sort of vast industrial monoculture went on for decades. It happened in beer, too. For years all the beer in Australia - Coopers excluded, bless 'em - smelt and tasted of the hop essence peddled by Carlton United Breweries after they'd monopolised the Australian hop industry and 'rationalised' it to the extent that nobody, including their own brewers, had easy access to traditional fresh hop flower cones.

They owned all the hops then boiled 'em up into a goo and they'd flog that until all the barrel and bottled beer in Australia smelt like the brewery slums of Richmond and Burnley.

Twenty years of this 'rationalisation' mentality eventually triggered a very predictable revolution. Blokes started growing Mennonite beards. Young women began dying their hair grey, and everybody started making orange wine. Brown wine. Craft beer. Gin, for Bacchus' sake.

In a gentle hippy sort of way, the booze of the western world took a colourful swirl from mono to chaotically retro-fractal.

photo©Philip White 

So when an editor suggested a few weeks back I should take a bit of a look at the craft beer world, it was confronting, after we hung up, to realise my reluctance to enter that realm comes from the same fear of discontinuity I first developed at Karadoc.

Small batch beer production is extremely variable, especially when managed by untrained opportunists without a full brewers' kit. Like a hop kettle. I refuse to call anybody who doesn't brew their own hops a brewer. A brewery has its own hop kettle. It doesn't buy a half-made essence from somewhere else.

It's a lot harder to make a good beer, especially a consistent one, than it is to make a good red wine.

A still is an even more confounding and tricky beast to run.

So forgive my fear of batch variation in megabulk goonbag alleyjuice as much as in tiny-batch bearded beer, wine and spirits.

I'm still trying to devise a way of approaching this.

So far, one responsibly-made Australian wine vintage a year has proved a tricky bugger to explain.

In the meantime, in the spirit of retro as much as a more colourful, reliable drinking future, I'd be happy to taste new discoveries made by genius revolutionaries of the calibre of great deceased wine scientists Dr. Ray Beckwith and Stephen Hickinbotham. Bring that on. That's different.

That'd be the ramparts getting the storming they deserve from fair dinkum Caradogs. If only there were true warriors out there with that skill set.

Just a little reminder from George from not too many years back ... BUT HERE'S NEWS: Treasury Wine Estates boss Michael Clarke has called for the winding-up of the WET rebate and told the Global Food Forum (yesterday, 20th April) that cheap wine is damaging Brand Australia

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