“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)





21 October 2016


If you survive as a farmer in Australia you must be good ... but does this apply to the 486 wineries James Halliday has awarded five stars

Only rank winemakers want is five star bling all red ones thanks otherwise black ones ok chiz ta

"If you're not a good farmer in this country you just don't survive," the respected ABC Landline reporter, Pip Courtney recently told us.

After the release of James Halliday's latest guide to the wines and wineries of Australia came the annual frisson of excitement about the large number of wineries awarded five stars.

It would seem that James and his team believe that most wineries that survive are pretty good, too.

Of the 2,800 wineries on his list, James awarded some 486 of them five stars, whether black or the more desirable red ones.

This is unlike, say, the attitude the mighty Michelin Guide shows the restaurants of the Old World, where the highest award is three stars. Of the 5,000-plus restaurants in Paris, for example, Michelin's completely anonymous inspectors generally regard only about ten of them to be worth the three brightest stars in food heaven.

Even more extreme and austere is that most perfect and unmatched handing-out of stars, when in Revelations 2:28, God promises, that as a reward for his Son's good efforts,
"I will give him the morning star."
Indicating perhaps that in this matter of apportionment of celestial bodies the one should probably be enough if God's your Dad.

Since the embargo lifted, on October 6th, from reviews of the new Penfolds Grange, the 2012, that frisson about very high scores spread to a minor outbreak of winetard bitchery. Too many critics, it seems, awarded the wine very high points.

While reviewing any Grange is a task certain to earn very tight scrutiny - I was content to liken it to a fit young Henry VIII in full plate armour - this matter of awarding scores is back in the digital chat big time.

Funny old thing, the notion of awarding alcoholic drinks, and their makers, a score, like kids used to get at school.

In my very early days, for example, at Winestate magazine, I inherited a three-star system for ranking wines. This seemed rather confining to the young editor. After having three or more highly-regarded winemakers individually examine and rank the wines, and then discuss them so their comments could be crashed together into one brief review, it seemed rather wasteful of that combined intelligence to then rate the better wines only three possible awards.

Tellingly, these included three, four and five stars. The worst you could do was three. There was no two, no one. 

This, however, was about all many consumers really appeared to need.

When I went on to Wine and Spirit Buying Guide, the other booze magazine of the early 'eighties, I changed that organ's three-star system to five stars. This was directly related to the average scores of the judges employed on each tasting: an average of 16/20 was worth one star, 17 two, 18 three, 19 four and the rare perfect score, 20/20 got five, bless its heart.

While a well-intentioned stab at something more rigorous, for a journal reliant on winebiz advertising this was a commercial disaster: nobody, including the readers, wanted one or two stars.

Since the publication last week of my review of that mighty new Grange, folks have given me a mild lashing for my lack of a numerical score.

"Like Whitey, I read your reviews," they'll typically say, "but before I decide which wine to buy, I always depend in the end on a score."

So in spite the critic sitting with an opened wine for several days, examining its every aspect and nuance, then composing a verbal description of the reactions, dreamings and hunger each of the most impressive drinks trigger, some readers remain reluctant to spend the money without having sufficient numbers or stars to drive the hand to the wallet.

My reaction is curmudgeonly: your actual reading must be a lost skill: what we accurately called English comprehension at school now seems a talent vanishing to the wiles of time. 

First, the teachers lost it; now the students.

Perhaps it's telling that said study was a delight to the little Whitey. Maybe there was nowhere left to go but obscurity as the ranking of students gradually became unfashionable: everybody wants five stars, so increasingly, everybody gets them. This criticism is colloquially pointed, for example, at The University of Adelaide's wine faculty: many say that to attract paying students from the countries to our north the rigour of examination is being diluted to the point where the degree is cheapened.

If you remove the importance of a realistic numerical appraisal of the performance of a student, or a wine, it looks to me that all we then have left is an understanding of the language used in a summary of their completed work.

While the scoring of wine is far from a reliable science, and increasingly remains beyond me, forgive this writer for retreating to the preferred field: the exercising of the Australian English tongue.

When James Halliday's Companion hits annually, common winemakers' reactions in my experience reinforce my tragic, paranoid suspicion that the only things many of them read are about themselves or rivals they dislike.

I suspect that this scenario extends too to civilian readers: keen to keep the samples flooding in and the publishers happy, we so-called critics stay very aware that even the literary punters have favourites which they love to see rewarded with starry or numerical bling.

Where there's muck there's brass, son.

Which leaves me with two sour conclusions. While the scores awarded by James Halliday obviously suggest he regards grape farmers and wine manufacturers pretty much as Pip Courtney summarises other farmers, he has available the tasty notion of one day adopting the gold star rating above and beyond his black and more recent red ones.

In the printing and publishing world, the price of gold-looking ink gradually decreases.

But until we see winemakers reacting to the loss of a single star as French chefs do when the Michelin Guide lops one off, that journal remains the most influential. Outside The Book Of Revelation, of course.

Leaving me pretty much content with drawn out examination and contemplation and then some actual writing, as opposed to ranking with numbers or even less complex baubles like the Morning Star.

thanks to the entire Yalumba crew for such a crisp and cruisy tasting room ... if it's easy on the eye it brings confidence so the olfactories approach all opportunities with intensifying curiosity ...  photos of Philip White by Grant Nowell; other photos by Philip White


Anonymous said...

jesus whitey how big's that wombat over the gully like a sixty footer?

Angular Esteritis said...

Back in the days when you used to taste them on the floor. Joke only. Steingaston

Magnus Ollsen said...

Australia: only arid place on earth where wine runs down hills even if there's none at the top.