“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 July 2017


Making wine without grapes in the Ava laboratory, San Francisco ... should arid Australia give its scarce waters a break, cease mass irrigation of unprofitable plonk grapes and let the hackers take over?

Ava wine hackers raise US$2.5 million

The derision had dribbled to a drip: the naysayers had all wandered off somewhere else when Daily Wine News, a local Adelaide index, reported that San Francisco's Ava Winery, which turns out to be a lab more than a virtual winery, was hacking wine. Like making it from things we call chemicals rather than growing it. 

Faster, cheaper, safer, they claim. 

My allocation of said derision had come in response to my suggestion a couple of weeks back that perhaps one solution to the environmental, social and economic damage wine grape irrigators cause in the Murray-Darling Basin could lie in making an equivalent intoxication from other stuff somewhere else. 

This was not a new thing: for decades I'd been suggesting that given the industrial anti-nature 'nature' of much of the bladder pack wine manufactured in the vast refineries of our hinterland, some of it could well be replicated more efficiently, cheaply and reliably elsewhere by science rather than romance and failed community business plans. 

Like remove the pretense, the illusion of gastronomic and epicurean excellence, even the tease of the stuff always being good for you. 

One valuable goal in mind is the notion of saving our scant supplies of fresh water, which is a fairly important gastronomic item. 

The Ava story is tantalising. These brash belligerents dared to name their virtual wine-hacking factory Ava, taunting the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms authorities, supervisors of the boundaries of American Viticulture Areas. 

Then their audacious attempt at a web-driven start-up was a hot success, raising a brisk US$2.5 million by July 15th. Winemakers worldwide seemed to exhale their usual delusionary miasma of relief when New Scientist nerds - not wine experts - declared that Ava's chemical attempt at Moscato d'Asti smelled like a plastic pool shark. Nyah nyah, toldja so: failure!!! The bad thing had gone away. 

Typically, few of these Australian winers realised that all this happened last year. That was July 15th 2016, folks, and those New Scientist tasters had compared a three-year-old Ruffino to a brand new bench-made Ava hybrid. Leaving me recklessly to presume that the conspirateurs, Mardonn Chua and Alec Lee, are hard at work in their laboratory, nose to the chemical winestone, spending their US$2.5m  with all due diligence. I wish them huge success. 

I love playing around my kitchen, making replica wines from essences, Absolut, juices, teas, powders and my Soda King. Mud pies. I can even get close to Coke with a few common kitchen ingredients. Just need to wobble down to the pharmacy supplies for some phosphoric acid for that final essential C-C tweak. 

I don't usually stock phosphoric acid in my spice rack. 

Which brings me back to the pool shark. Bacchus only knows the number of Murray-Darling bladder packs - even bottles - that have crossed this palate that would make a mere pool shark seem a very tasty morsel indeed. I've never engaged the company of a blow-up lady, but I reckon some of them would taste better than some of the plastic I've encountered in wild colonial goonbags. 

There's never any point in revelling in "I told-you-so" derision, but while last week's piece on poisonous vineyard herbicide, insecticide and fungicide sprays seemed to raise the ire of the same mob of industrial irrigators, Caroline Henry was writing about the soil, geology and groundwater of Champagne, France, being "riddled with chemical residue" for Wine Searcher.  

Forgive me for quoting her quoting him, but Henry quoted Daniel Beddelem, regional director for the Marne area of Eau Seine et Normandy, the local water controller in Champagne. 

"Pollution levels have reached such toxic levels that a study earlier this year estimated that some 2.8 million people in France – mostly in areas where there is intensive agriculture, such as Champagne and the southwest of France – were drinking polluted tap water as a result of pesticides and nitrates leaching into the water table," she reported. 

Naming Monsanto's glyphosate as a prime culprit, these experts listed a string of problems magnifying along Champagne's main river, the Marne, which to me echo many of the troubles of the Murray-Darling. 

Unlikely as it may seem, even the calcerious nature of the geologies of the Marne Basin and much of  the Murray-Darling may be triggering similar hassles:  "The problem," Wine Searcher reports, "is further exacerbated by the fact that it takes several years for the chemical traces to completely disappear from the groundwater, as they tend to cling to the chalk omnipresent in the Marne region. This historical build-up has created a certain urgency to restrict the current use of pesticides and more specifically herbicides to prevent further pollution and possible mass degradation of the region's water sources." 

Remembering that this is a romance business, this alcohol, it's typical of the world of wine reportage to be a little sloppy with dates and details when nasty threats appear in what wine industrialists have always expected to be a complacent, wine-friendly press. Forgiving that, it seems that inexorably, like at last, there's a move toward facing some very pressing questions. Like would we need glyphosate at all if we replicated our cheap, nasty plonk in a modern food technology factory rather than your actual winery? 

Apart from facing the fact that so many Murray-Darling irrigating grape-growers cannot make a profit, this writer, and others, I'm sure, would like to see some thorough scientific study going into the sort of research the brave Ava people have pursued. 

Let's find out how much poison we can avoid. Like glyphosate. 

Let's more accurately find out how much water we can save. 

How we could alleviate some public health costs with a safer, cleaner, more healthy and sanitary intoxicant made without the gastronomic pretense of droll industrial water-and-environment-abusive grapes? 

How many new economies can we build to replace the heartbreak we continue to inflict on Murray-Darling grape-growing communities? 

I might leave it there. I actually prefer not to rant. Let's see if I can find some peace and quiet up the exquisite end of this here tasting bench ...

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