“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)





14 June 2017


Winemaker as rock star: "Thats incredible. So proud of that being," said Tool/A Perfect Circle/Pucifer frontman  Maynard James Keenan when told of our mate Peter Gago's award. There they are, rival winemakers, in Pete's office at The Grange, Magill ... photo Milton Wordley

Gago gets AC - Australia's top gong

It's both very cool and hot, Penfolds boss winemaker Peter Gago being awarded his Companionship of the Order of Australia. The thought of a nation bestowing its greatest award upon a bloke who makes really expensive wine (and many much cheaper beauties) seems to mark a new boundary, a new outpost of belligerent defiance in a world devoid of sense, truth or direction.

As well as a certain degree of winemaker-as-rock-star, this notion has a delightful sense of the Aussie larrikin.

Not only in the sense that Penfolds most famous product, the fabulous Grange, was made and developed against the owners' explicit orders, but also considering that in 2017, no other South Australian managed to earn Australia's pre-eminent state acknowledgement, our equivalent of a British peerage or France's top gong, a Chevalier Légion d'Honneur. 

In his many interviews since the announcement, it was typical to hear Pete explain how he uses his astonishing wine collection to teach others. 

I, for one, have been blessed to share many very special bottles on those rare occasions when he's in town and not winemaking. His table reaches heights of gastronomic conversation so giddy that vertigo strikes the faint-hearted. 

Typical lunch for six, courtesy the Gago collection ... photo©Philip White
I know of nobody so generous, tireless and determined to hike the image of Australian wine internationally. Bacchus only knows how many hundreds of millions of difference he's made to Australia's exportfigures. Pete's always on a plane somewhere between top-flight tastings in LA, Moscow and Shanghai, plotting which bottles he'll remove from protective custody upon his return to Adelaide.

Astoundingly, for a bloke who spends half his year in the air, he cannot sleep on aircraft, which makes the whole deal seem even more especial.

The man is tireless.

Double-decanting 55 bottles of Grange 1998 for the Wine Spectator's New World of Wine tasting in the Marriot, LA ... There's Gago preaching his gentle, convincing gospel, below:

These photographs ©Milton Wordley from A year in the life of Grange, written by me and photographed and published by Milton Wordley. Contrary to rumour, this book was made with no financial assistance whatsoever from Penfolds or Treasury Wine Estates
Pete was also proud to point out that his award lifts wine into a world usually reserved for sportspeople, the arts, science, public servants and warriors. 

And then he reminded me that Penfolds winemakers before him had been similarly honoured: "Max Schubert AM, Dr Ray Beckwith OAM, Don Ditter OAM … they set it up and did the heavy lifting," he said, and then listed other critical members of the Grange family: "Ditto, Steve Lienert, John Bird, Baldy, Kym … of late. Lucky me happened to be holding the ball when they took the pic!"

A confident, soft-voiced self-effacement is Pete's stock-in-trade. He adores his team and disbelieves his luck, and enjoys his inheritance of a brand that built its reputation, over half a century, around a wine made defiantly against the orders of the board. Now he has, during inveterate travel between vintages, and impossibly posh tastings in the world's most exotic locations, managed to steer the wine's style very very gently away from the huge oaky leviathans of his predecessors, Don Ditter and John Duval. Raw oak was the go in their day: one needed it to be noticed. They were really good at it. The managing-directors loved it.

Since then, we learned that the overt sap of those old styles of raw American Quercus alba oak barrels never really assimilates into the wine: sure, those hearty old Shiraz flavours will do their best to suck it up, but some of those wines from the later 'seventies and 'eighties will be woody til they're dead.

Of course people still love them; collectors spend enormous amounts on them.

Max's wines were better balanced, I reckon. 

Grange snoozing at Magill ... photo©Milton Wordley
Fashions change: the world of big booze spenders has learned a lot more about natural subtlety: something Pete understands, but many directors don't. With the Barossa cooper, A. P. John, he has worked to season Grange's peculiar barrels and source them from slower-growing, denser-grained, cooler-region timbers much less absorbtive than the balsa-like barrels of old. The change has been sensibly gradual: the wines are finer and more approachable yet retain the incredible longevity Max built into the Grange recipe from the start.

It worked: Grange alone now funnels millions into the Treasury Wine Estates'  coffers.

Through generation after generation of faceless directors, this writer has watched Peter, in the steps of Max, direct a great deal of his time to the politics of protecting his beloved brand from those owners and absentee landlord bosses locked in an old Fosters building somewhere in Melbourne.

Of course Peter Gago AC would never ever suggest anything of the sort.

But I can.

Tasting the best of Penfolds at Magill ... where special stuff like this is tucked away, awaiting a gentle corkscrew ... photos©Philip White

Peter was pre-eminent amongst winemakers to acknowledge the challenges climate change presents to the wine world. "This is the fifteenth vintage in a row when I've had to recalibrate my definition of extreme," he told me during the record wet of 2011.

The only thing that hasn't changed since then is the relentless rate of change. He's fortunate that his most famous wine, the Grange, was designed from the start to be a trans-region blend of the best fruit available, making it unusual amongst the world's best reds, as most are estate-based, from single sites, and therefore limited in the avenues of flavour possible as climate gets more ornery. Peter can blend for consistency.

Things are changing.

The writer has made no friends amongst the reactionary makers of so-called 'natural wines' which are often murky orange biological zoos boasting the shelf-life of unpasteurised milk. To think their predictable rebellion against the big refineries was a great change for the better is the equal of promoting the paleo diet without owning a fridge: like Coca-Cola yo-yos such murkulations are fashionable amongst a small slice of the community for a small slice of their lives.

If you're interested in revolution and evolution in the drink world there are much bigger challenges to face than learning to ignore the likes of Pasteur and Beckwith. In the next decades we're going to see a lot more radical transformation in this business of rehydration, staying awake, oblivion  and gastronomic relish, and it's not just confined to the wine realm.
Grange finishing its ferment in A P John American oak ... photo©Milton Wordley

Having come from a staunchly teetotal family - apart from its string of buccaneering spurruts addicts - I can't see wine as a separate entity amongst beverages: it's simply one of the more extravagant, dangerous and mythologised. 

The human spend on drinks of course spreads to cover other liquids, from coffee, tea and Bonox through the fizzy, sugary world to juices, milk and water - even blue drinks - all fields facing phenomenal challenge through environmental, ecological, social and economic upheaval and changing extremes of weather and pestilence.

The goddam coffee berry borer, Hypothenemus hampei, for example, about the worst thing a coffee grower can contemplate, has just hit New Guinea. Of about sixty coffee-producing countries this was one of the last two to be devastated. With exhausted budgets and little chance of slowing the spread, they're putting up roadblocks in infested areas, but facing the reality of losses around the eighty per-cent mark.

New Guinea is also now host to huánglóngbìng - 'The Yellow Dragon' - a bug, the Asian citrus psyllid, Diaphorina citri which spreads the deadly citrus greening disease which has in recent years ravaged the groves of California, Florida and South America. Australia is the only country yet to have the pleasure. It'll come with the breeze. No solution in sight.

The tea world is in chaos, too, not just from changing climate and newly-developing plagues and pests, but social expectation. While there are tea fiends as obsessed as to pay Grange prices for a few strands of brilliant leaf, dealers are at last realising that the expert folk who pick such stuff are generally undernourished and barely-paid itinerants. As is happening with some success in the coffee 'fair trade' system, the employment side of the vast tea business is undergoing some overdue upheaval, starting in Assam.

If you think the pluckers and graders of the best teas are hard done by, imagine how the pickers of teabag dust are treated. Lots to address there. Like making toilets available. Food. Beds. Fair pay.

Coffee's in more trouble than social in South America. Extreme temperatures, drought and disease are delivering miserable yields and while growers are looking to move to more suitable colder, damper, higher bastions, these are fast running out. Leaf rust, the Hemileia vastatrixa fungus, cost the world's coffee producers over $2.5 billion and 1.7 million jobs in the last five years. 

Grange pumpover at Magill ... photo©Milton Wordley
In South America, equatorial drought is also giving hell to the winemakers of Chile and Argentina: there's a big emigration of serious players moving their vineyards to Patagonia.


In the north, vineyards are creeping into Scandinavia.

The vineyards of Europe face incredible shortages and horrors. Shocking weather has just knocked up to half the buds off the French vignoble. New Zealand's crop's suddenly down ten per cent. California's water and heat troubles give vineyards and winemankers hell.

What's another important bevvy flavour? Vanilla? Don't go there. The price has increased tenfold in five short years. The bean of the Vanilla planifolia orchid has also been flinching in this new weather: cyclones and hurricanes have kicked the business hard in Madagascar, which produces eighty per-cent of the world's supply of its favourite flavour.

Outside of inferior petrochemical simulations, there is no solution in sight. 

Currently, there's a slow graduation of naturists from wine the colour Donald Trump's hair used to be before he took the throne to what are politely called 'craft' gins. Just in time for juniper -  Juniperis communis - the plant supplying that bevvy's major flavour, to fall to the killer fungus Phytophthora, a soil pathogen vignerons call die-back or dead-arm, which is gradually slaughtering vines all over Australia.

Turns out the silver nanoparticles natural in wormwood, Artemis absinthium, in turn kill the die-back fungus, as if absinthe has stretched a helping hand to assist gin. We gotta work together to try this in vineyards.

Some modern-day Pasteur, Beckwith or Gago could attend to that. But Pete's busy and the other two are dead. There's plenty of room for aspirant AC recipients in the world of drinks. We're gonna need 'em!

Peter Gago with Dr Ray Beckwith OAM and Don Ditter OAM at Ray's 100th birthday lunch at Kalimna ... photos©Richard Humphrys

I haven't even mentioned cider. Or beer. Anybody tried brewing ergot-infected rye yet? That's the source of LSD, which the neuropsych world is finally beginning to admit has its practical uses. Psylocibin mushrooms are enjoying a similar flush of scientific interest, proving good for PTSD. And cannibis-infused wine has been secretly made by clever little cellar rats for decades. The world is changing its attitudes to these things. I'm not joking. When Max invented Grange, it was a revolutionary underground action which was ridiculed, derided, and made virtually illegal with the company.

The plight of the Australian dairy farmer is no brighter than the New Guinea coffee-grower. Milk, like all these beverages, deserves its own essay. Which is related to Australia's strangulating price-chopping supermarket duopoly as much as to the diminishing availability and escalating price of water. 

Which is another fairly important drink, especially to the weaned: you can't beat the old fresh water.

And when there's not too much of it splooshing down in inconventient places, even that's running out ... just in time for US researchers to finally discover water receptors on the mammalian tongue, adding some logic to the tired old sweet, sour, salt and bitter reception mantra.

Even as a kid, I was suss of that bullshit, with the map of the tongue and its four neat appellations. Where, for example, were the receptors for capsaicin, the heat of chilli? And as water doesn't begin to quench thirst til it enters the blood a metre or two down the duodenum, how does our mouth know to tell our brain we've had enough before it even gets there? There had to be water receptors.

For rare video interviews with vital Penfolds winemakers and details of our book check Milton's website. Milt's the bloke in the centre, below. This is Pete emceeing our launch in the Grange cellar, at which Sandie Coff, Max and Thelma Schubert's daughter (seated), made a lovely speech about her brilliant Dad and life as a winemaker's kid at Magill ... we won many grand international awards with this book ... photo by GiGi

Which is where it all happens, from Grange to greengages ... putting pressure on other great Gago-like creative, scientific brains to further stretch the envelope of beverage reality, luxurious and essential. Like the University of Manchester researchers now using modified graphene oxide membranes to filter salt ions from brackish water, making it quite safe to drink.

Any invention that can unlock the 97 per cent of Earth's available water which is dangerous for humans is a very big deal: 1.2 billion of us currently lack access to reliable supplies of clean drinking water.

There'd be no Grange without water: all these things are inextricably entwined, and this writer for one is certain we shall see great brains that like that formidable Penfolds list work together to devise solutions that the rest of the world has not even dreamed of: solutions that please our petty desires for titallation and luxury as well as supplying us with the sorts of liquids essential for life to continue.

We ain't seen nuthin' yet.

Congratulations, Peter Gago AC: thankyou for pushing the boundaries.

And opening the door.

Citation from the Governor-general of Australia,
General Sir Peter John Cosgrove, AK, MC


Mr Peter GAGO,
North Adelaide SA 5006

For eminent service to the Australian wine industry as an internationally acclaimed winemaker, to the global promotion of excellence in oenology, marketing and research, as a mentor, and to the community of South Australia.

Service includes:

Chief Winemaker, Penfolds, since 2002;
Red Wine Oenologist, 1993-2002,
Sparkling Winemaker, 1989-1993.
Co-author, four books on Australian Wine and one book on Wines of the World (with Dr P. Iland, OAM), 1995-2017.

Awards and recognition includes:

Appointed Global Network Ambassador, Great Wine Capitals, 2017.
Recipient, Bragg Membership of the Royal Institution of Australia, 2016.
Named a Baron of the Barossa, by Barons of the Barossa (Australia), 2015.
Recipient, Winemaker of the Year, Gourmet Traveller WINE, 2014.
Recipient, Len Evans Award for Leadership, Gourmet Traveller WINE, 2014.
Listed as one of the 50 stars of 2013, Wine Business Monthly (Australia), 2013.
Recipient, Winemaker's Winemaker Award, The Institute of the Masters of Wine and The Drinks Business (UK), 2012.
Listed on the 2011 Power List, 'comprising the 50 most influential figures in the world of wine', Decanter Magazine (United Kingdom), 2011.
Recipient, Winemaker of the Year, Wine Enthusiast Magazine, (USA), 2005.

A quiet Krug with the greats in the old Grange headquarters: the author with Peter and Maynard ... photo©Milton Wordley

The Flinders Granges by George Grainger Aldridge (sold)


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