“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)





02 January 2017


In the winter of 1982, the stubbornly disorganised Clare Valley Winemakers surprised me by electing the zany, very clever Rick Robertson to its presidency. Many much more famous folk have held the position since, but I shall always regard dear Rick as the father of the modern Clare wine business. I visited him in July of that year for this interview, which I published in Winestate magazine's fiftieth edition the following month: 

If you drive north toward Clare, and you somehow manage to get past Auburn Cellars and Crabtree's and Quelltaler and the fabulous Martindale Hall, and then you take a very easy downhill turn to the right, across the train tracks, and then manage to squeeze past the new Brice Hill restaurant without being tripped over by a glass or barrel of Clare Valley wine, you may find yourself in one of the world's more unusual wineries. Ricko's. Rick Robertson's.

On the first visit, this freckled, tousle-headed Kookaburra fetishist will sit you down and ply you with wine and conversation. On the second visit, he'll probably kiss you. Then Hamish, his kid, will come out and kiss you. And Emma, his cat, will sidle by, arrogant brown-eye to the sky, carrying some vital invisible pheromone from A to B. O'Toole the elderly Irish setter could well baptise you with a few globs, and if you're especially lucky, Pepe, Rick's partner, might be there too.

Then, if things aren't too busy, which is rare, and you're a writer, you might be able to get Ricko to talk into a microphone. Like this time, very early on Sunday morning, before the Clare main street turns into a ten minute traffic jam of churchgoers, but after Ricko's had his breakfast and first refreshments for the day. 

PW: Well Sir, how did all this get started?

RR: Well Sir, I played some wine games a long time ago. Then I went to Roseworthy in '75 and '76. In '77 I felt sort of commercial, so I built half of that shed. In '78 I built the other half.  I think it was '80 when I did the balcony, and this bit. That's my little tin shed. My Ch√Ęteau Lysaght.

I started Watervale Cellars, which is the absolute opposite end of the spectrum. And Auburn Cellars. I mean, I saw the Temperance Hall for sale, and I couldn't miss that, could I? I mean, it was screaming for me, for help. It's a fortifieds fortress now, rather than a Temperance Hall. A cellar-door place. I sold it to Kevin Symons, and he's doing very well. Then Robert Crabtree came along, and I decided to sell Watervale, for several reasons, including dosh. We formed a new company, and we got half each. But now I want to develop this one. I've done that other stuff.

In the day of the malignant new Colorbond rash, Ricko loved his traditional Lysaght galvo. These are his tanks ... for rain ... photos Philip White
You know, I always said that if I ever hit thirty, I'd probably hit forty, so I'll probably be alright. I've crossed that one. It's really simple. But I really have to start doing it now. I want to get into this place, and get it off. 

But why the wine industry? 

I'm in the wine industry because I like drinking, actually. I reckon I'm pretty representative of the heavy boozing section of the community. You know, I adore lunches. I prefer a lunch to a dinner. I think lunch is more convenient. You get a longer time to sleep. That's how it all evolved. That's what I'm like.

I adore wine. Every time I look, that's the catalyst. Things revolve around it. We treat it as if it has this aura, and wonderful mystique, which is splendid. But it's just a drink, and it'll never be anything more than wine. It's a mood. It's like art.

Auburn Temperance Hall, 1982

And I really like people. You can do so much. You can express yourself, and meet interesting people. You can eat and you can have a few drinks along the way. Things like that.

I'm really imaginative too, thank Christ. 

What do you imagine for Clare? 

Ah, you know, not many Australian wineries take advantage of the air like this, the view. Like we're sitting out here. It's all get-em-all-inside-and-put-the-hard-word-on-em: you know, drink. Now buy. Hard sell. That's just a product of the 'fifties. I find that fascinating.

But you know, just look around! We're an hour-and-a-half from town, and we can sit out here and breathe. That's what Clare wine is, sitting here doing this. Having a good time. Being a person in a nice way. It doesn't have to be as serious as everyone wanting to make a trockenbeerenauslese and all that stuff.

See, we're sitting here in this idyllic spot, and who's heard about it? And all the fruit's been going past, out of this valley into every other bloke's wine for years and years. The area's survived by that selling to Lindeman's and Seppelts and Blassie and Penfolds, and those companies have done well out of the area.

But we've been pretty bloody naive. No-one's had the guts to get up and say "This is it!"

No cigarette labels in my book. This is Clare. That other stuff's crap. This area deserves to be recognised for what it is, and in my small way I want it to have an identity. 

What about your wines? 

Oh, there's this beautiful Riesling named after the cat. It's called White Emma. Then I've got a few old whites - I like some age on my whites. And I've still got some stuff tucked away that'll be absolutely unreal, you know, some big monster reds. And some other stuff that I also adore. Then there's this nice Grenache for drinking out here.

I'm in the wine industry 
because I like drinking 
actually ... I reckon I'm 
pretty representative of  
the heavy boozing section

It's not as crazy as it all sounds, but it's simply limited resources. If I happen to have Semillon there and Clare Riesling (which is our name for Crouchen) there, that's how it happens. Nothing other than that. See, if I've always bought Grenache from someone, and they want to sell some, I'll buy it, and that's how this Grenache evolved. It was simply availability.  That's pretty simple.

See, I don't mind if people say this is shocking. I don't mind. Whatever they like. At least they've thought about it, and that's all you can ask. When people are doing that, and just being able to breathe and think and walk about without any razzamatazz that we impose on them then the wine industry will really win. 

I believe that very intensely. I really do. 

What should be on a wine label? 

Paintings! I think labelling's very important. Instead of standardising everything we ... I mean it's dull! Who needs it? We need some colour! 

And you blokes, you writers, you say "that wine's terrible." You're obsessed with standardisation. I'd love it if more people came to see it as a mood. I mean a mood, and not a gold-embossed con! You know, these cigarette-type labels. People must look and think for themselves.

Well, you know, I'm just anti-standardisation. That's it exactly. And you writers haven't helped much yet either.

Remember: this stuff's a bloody drink! 

Which leads us to wine shows. Your ideas on standardisation would seem to clash with the basic premise of most wine shows. 

Ahhhh! Bloody wine shows! We've always gotta judge our wines against someone else's. You know, twenty wine judges, and let's squeeze all these wines into all these categories we've worked out, eh?

We seem to be a very insular and introverted country - we always wait to follow somebody else.

Bloody wine shows. We've always got to compare our wines to those from another area. You tell me why. The Italians would go down with heart attack if Chianti was compared to Piedmontese wines. Or Burgundy to Bordeaux for that matter. I'm certainly not modelling my winemaking ideas on Europe.

I dunno, but the idea is I'm trying to make ... trying to find another direction. It's as simple as that. It's not radical. It's seeing people, and how they operate, and here comes the light Grenache with a painting on the side. Enough of the heavy monsters! Why don't we try and establish our own standard? 

But don't we need some sort of competition or show? 

You need to get up here for the Donnybrook Wine Show. You can be a judge. See that gate down there? That's Donnybrook. That's our railway station. That bit of a fence down there. Well I think it's time for the Donnybrook Wine Show. You know, it's hardly an Anders Ousbach sort of thing, but we'd all sit down there by the fence, invite various judges along, and there'll be one Robertson wine per class, and we'll give a medal for each class, and there'll be no denials, no trouble, and no comparisons.

Now this is gonna upset some people, but if it's done properly, it won't matter.

We've gotta learn to laugh at ourselves.

That's something we tend to be reluctant to do.

Hamish Roberston's shoes. Like most little kids, Hamish found Philip a very tricky word to pronounce, so he called me Fillets, one of the many nicknames which have stuck.


BruceGoose said...

Jesus Whitey. How did we forget to drink?

Emma White said...

Wharae's Ricko now Philip?

Philip White said...

Dunno Emma.

I would love to know.

Last I heard (15+ years back?) his chronic asthma had forced him to a climate of constant humidity and he was in far north Queensland running the tourism consideration, playing with the fortification of a mango liqueur and hanging out with Bill Skate.

I think Pepe had moved too, to live somewhere nearby. But that's nothing more than a hazy memory of a sentence heard but now half gone.

I'd love to know anything from anybody who knows.

Touchstone said...

Philip: Chad A. Evans here, scribbler and imbiber, and sometime occupier of your seat at the Exeter in the 80s . . . Rick and I were close mates and I followed him with my family up to Townsville. Bailed out of the Brigalow Belt of the tropics after a year or so, back to Adelaide. Heard from Rick that after a few years as Director of the Magnetic North Tourism Association he ventured into producing Mango Ricko liqueur. I happened only a few years ago to find myself blending tropical fruit wines in Ingham and asked around about Rick. I even saw an old long neck bottle of his liqueur on display at the famous Railway Hotel. One dubious source informed me that he ended up a solitary old alkie in Fortitude Valley. I would like to know what happened to him as well.

Anonymous said...


My name is Mary and I happen to be Ricko’s Daughter, vintage winter of 1982. Hamish, as mentioned in this story is my brother, who ironically doesn’t drink wine at all.
I happen to be sitting with Ricko on his neighbours verandah as we speak. They just googled “Rick Robertson” and this article came up. My dad’s neighbours asked me why I hadn’t thought to put his name in to google before, but honestly, who thinks to google their own father?

Anyway, what a surprise, he hasn’t changed at all! In fact the only difference to the Ricko in this story and the man that is my father, is that he is now known as just Richard, Dad (to me) or grandfather (to my 3 children).

He happily lives on a beautiful island off the coast of Queensland. He still has a fabulous love affair with the god Red and it is still very entertaining if he is ever given a microphone.

It has been an absolute blast wandering upon this blog post. I can assure you that there will be many corks on the table as a result of this finding!

Cheers, Mary Robertson

Touchstone said...

Great news about Rick, Philip. So he has been tucked away in an analog paradise the past 29 years since I last saw him up in Townsville. Could you pass along my contact details to Mary Robertson, who I certainly remember as a toddler, as I would enjoy saying hello to Richard etc. You probably have my email already. . . chadarth@gmail.com ... you might pass it along to Mary. If "Ricardo", as I used to call him is wondering what the Canuck scribe has been up to he can always google Chad A. Evans, or gawk at my latest: https://peoplethingsliterature.com/2015/11/13/fifteen-rounds-with-chad-evans-author-of-vincent-calvinos-world/

Chad Evans

Hamish Robertson said...

Hi all,
I thought I'd update everyone on Richard's passing. This came out of the blue. What we thought was a bit of asthma tuned out to be cancer and 3 weeks later he was gone. It was all mercifully quick and painless for him.

In accordance with his strict philosophical regimen we organised a heroic sendoff. A "very long lunch" where we emptied the cellar in his honour.

Dad would be delighted to know that Macleay island is still recovering.

His Daughter (Mary) and her 3 sons live just down the road and they were all able to catch up over a cuppa daily. I live afar but we spoke often and openly. My sister and I had a great relationship with him.

Dad was a character right till the end. Always trying new crazy ideas and yarning on the verandah with a bottle of wine.

He didn't sit idly by waiting for life to go by. He Lived it. With relish and would encourage everyone to do the same......so raise a glass.

He will be missed.

Hamish Robertson.

Philip WHITE said...

Thankyou Hamish. That's sad and bad but sounds merciful. Please pass my regards to your kinfolk and friends. Richard was a bewdy. A very rare bird. I'm sure many wine industry folk would say the same.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ive just found this page through a web search on Richard Robertson.
I am trying to contact Mary & Hamish about Richards birth Parents.
I can be contacted at heath.boucher@gmail.com

Heath Boucher (Perth, WA)

Deborah Dominici said...

I would love to contact Mary and Hamish as well I just found out Richard is my half uncle I never met I want to meet his children