“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)





05 April 2017


Giovanni and Geoff Patritti: Grenache kings

Gippsland and the Patritti connection

by PHILIP WHITE - 170403 

It came as a certain relief to confirm today that Grenache was the first wine I tasted. 

I'd long been suspicious that those dregs of vino famiglia I'd pinched as a toddler were Grenache but it was too far back to track. 

Which led to living content that my first confirmed glug of the G-drop was from a Hardy's flagon in the bushes of the carpark out the back of the Crafers pub when I was a high school kid. 

But this very morning I discovered it had indeed occured at those previous tastings ten years earlier, at our Italian neighbours' place in Victoria. We lived in the Strezlecki Ranges in Gippsland. The Bagnara family, sharefarmers from the mountains north of Venice, lived through the pines, just across the sandy Old Leongatha road. 

Giacomo"Jack" Moscato, patron of many immigrant Veneti families, and Attilio "Artie" Bagnara had built a boccé court beneath Artie's backyard cypress trees, right beside the neat and lovely Bagnara cottage. 

When I was a little kid I'd lie in my bed 400 yards away, with the window open, listening to the clack of balls and ka-chink of beer glasses well into nights decorated with all the excited exotica of a romantic language I never knew, applied by laughing, tiddly people to a game of bowls anyone could play. 

That joy was much more alluring than the Exclusive Brethren who'd gather for worship in our big room, with their 

" ... hymns exhaled through trembling wattles; 
pious old throats filled with the Holy spit 
and sanctimonious halitosis." *

It was a great relief to discover Federico Fellini twenty years later. His movies  confirmed to me how exotic and romantic and foreign all that Italian stuff really was to a little blue-eyed Brethren kid in the hills at the bottom of Australia. It wasn't a dream after all. I had good cause for my infant jealousy and wonderment. I lived like the boy in Amarcord

While the men were in the cowsheds and the women busy in the kitchens making breakfasts I'd saunter across the track in the mornings after big boccé nights, just to try the odd cigarette butt, leftover beer, or homemade red wine. I was a connoisseur by the age of seven. 

Us Whites lived in a very white house where we ate even whiter food: porridge and vienna slice; lettuce and radishes; boiled cauliflower and cabbage; corned beef. White tea. No alcohol, prawns,or pork. 

Instead of holding an uncle still twitchy from the war, the Bagnaras' veranda sleepout was hung with home-cured meats; their shelves stacked with pickled jardinière and olives. They always had cheese with a lot more character than the stuff at our joint, but then  Artie had grown up making cheese in Italy. 

Fiorina taught me to hold the little wooden grinder between my legs to grind the morning coffee: I had never inhaled anything so good. Until Artie would add a few drops of his plum grappa to the tiny cups she'd serve him. That smelled even better. 

From the way I watched others regard it, Jack Moscato usually seemed to have the best vino. He drove a Simca Vedette, with the steering wheel rubbing a stain into the shirt that stretched over his fat belly. He'd nevertheless manage to tuck a half-gallon flagon there in the vicinity of the thighs in case of being interrupted by sudden thirst.

The Vedette had the 2351 cc flathead Aquillon V8 with the double-barrel Zenith, and when he opened the bonnet more men gathered to perve and share his flagon than I recall showing up to watch the Sputnik sail silently across one speckled night. 

The Panozzos drove a Citroen DS, which was much more Sputnik as far as aliens went. I'll never forget first seeing that spaceship float up the village street. Mum was as shocked as me. I instantly loved it more than my previous beau, the faux Americano Vedette, which used all its wings and chrome to look bigger than it was. 

At the same time, in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, Giovanni "John" Amadio (left) still grew bush vine Grenache and Mataro on Montacute Road. He owned the brand name Dry Table Wine and through and after World War II sold most of his product in barrel to the Australian government, which served it to the Italian prisoners of war we'd locked up in the gulags along the Murray. 

They were our enemies at war, yet Australia gave them wine with their meals: a far cry from the way we ignore international law to punish honest refugees fleeing from the undeclared wars we've waged ever since. 

Just as John Amadio went to the Riverland for the Shiraz he'd add to his suburban Grenache and Mataro, I'd always romantically imagined the Strezlecki Veneti crossed the Australian Alps to find Grenache on their northern side, in Rutherglen, and the King and Ovens Valleys, where other Italians grew grapes and tobacco. 

Rae and Drew Noon in their old Grenache vines on the Willunga Escarpment piedmont in McLaren Vale ... photo©Phiip White

Then Drew Noon told how the old blokes at Langhorne Creek recall sending Grenache bunches in boxes to the Melbourne market where Italians would buy them for backyard winemaking, so I thought maybe some of that may have found its way east to the mountains ... 

My dear Kangarilla neighbour Bernard Smart, who I regard as a senior Godfather/Protector of upland McLaren Vale Grenache, recalls sending his grapes in banana boxes to the markets of Sydney for the same purpose. 

Premier Don Dunstan loved living amongst the Italians in Norwood. He'd joke about his suburb being easy to find in the summer: all one had to do was look for the cloud of gourmand vinegar flies. Best palates on Earth, he reckoned. 

Only when I moved south did I learn where many of those grapes had grown. 

Wayne Smart and his dad Bernard in their 1921 Grenache vineyard on the last high sand sand between Bakers Gully and the Onkaparinga Gorge, at the north-eastern extremity of the McLaren Vale vignoble ... photo©Phiip White

Bernard's two upland Grenache vineyards survived due to his appreciation of the Italian community's love of dry Grenache family wine. 

Once port was out of fashion, those of English or German backgrounds were disdainful of the variety they had planted everywhere to make that embarrassing sweet plonk. That business had been their invention. Now they didn't want to know. 

Apart from bits and pieces of dry Grenache finding its way anonymously into blends with Mataro and Shiraz in things like that Hardy's flagon, or back before cubism deconstructed, even d'Arry's Red Stripe, Grenache was rarely seen to be a particularly good grape for premium table wine. 

So prices fell and vast spreads of old pre-phylloxera bush vines  were bulldozed and burnt, all the way along the Ranges from the Cape north to Clare. It was horrible. 

Fortunately, Bernard Smart hung on: having grown up working his forebears' old bush vine Grenache on the ridge between Baker's Gully and the Onkaparinga Gorge, Bernard was not about to rip out the results of two or three generations of very hard toil. His kin began planting those vines in 1921. He had also to protect the big High Sands bush vine patch he planted on the next sandy ridge a few kays away in 1946. Remembering the Italian demand for bulk Grenache grapes in Sydney, he'd simply sell his fruit to Adelaide Italians who'd come and pick it themselves into boxes, car boots and trailers. Back to the 'burbs into the scrubbed laundry trough; through the home-made basket press and into that barrel on the back veranda she'd-a-go. 

It wasn't much money, but it kept those vines alive for another 25 years: just until the Grenache revival saw prices back up where they belonged. While I'll tell Bernard's story a bit further into this Grenache series, it was him relating his Italian tale yesterday that led me to recollect that vino famiglia beneath the sighing cypress a lifetime ago. 

So after 55 or so vintages I tracked down Attilio and Fiorina's surviving son, Aldo, and phoned him in Gippsland. 

Man, can we talk! 

After scanning half-a-century's gossip, I enquired where his community would have found the grapes for that home-made 'fifties vino famiglia

"It wasn't home-made," he said. "Every now and then we'd write to Guiseppe Patritti in Adelaide and he'd send a barrel by train from Adelaide through Melbourne and on to our local railway station at Yarragon. The station master would write to us and brother Flavio and I would pick it up with the tractor and trailer and haul it back up the hill. We'd have a big community get-together - like we did when somebody would buy a pig for smallgoods -  and bottle it in rinsed beer bottles. Somebody even found little corks for them. There were no wine bottles. 

"Nobody else in the district knew anything about wine or wine culture. We had the devil of a job convincing our non-Italian neighbours we never drank the whole forty gallons in the one sitting!" 

So. My first red ever had been a Patritti Grenache, grown on that beautiful alluvium of Adelaide's southern suburbs where only villa rash and Tupperware Tuscany now spreads. 

Apart, of course, from the tiny vineyard surviving on Oaklands Road, where the trouble this year was birds, not bugs. 

And of course the Patritti winery's still there in the houses, making fabulous old vine Grenache. Go taste. Go buy. 

Bit of a knees-up at Patritti, back in the good old days, and below, the delivery truck

That's chief Patritti winemaker James Mongell, his mum, Ines Patritti and winemaker Ben Heide in the ancient Grenache and Shiraz in the Marion Vines Vineyard on Oaklands Road, which we saved twice from genius developing councillors ... once from a Colonel Sadness/Golden Arches horror; second time they wanted a carpark ... it's the last precious remnant of what was a great swathe of southern vines.  ... I twitch with wonder that some of these grapes may have been in the first wine to pass my lips ... it's not unlikely ... photo©Philip White 

*FOOTNOTE:this is from an earlier lament, republished here at the horror of Newtown: I had a soul.

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