“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)


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29 November 2017

BEER AS WINE; SHY JEW AS SUPERHERO

Such attention to detail: everyone's talking about Schlomo Weintraub
by PHILIP WHITE

This week my in-tray oozed out a press release with a covering note from a Senior Brand Manager at Treasury Wine Estates (TWE). She introduced an outfit called Co Partnership. 

It's like sooooo not today. 

"Co Partnership are true brand builders," it reads. "Their naming and storytelling created relevant and engaging content for our consumer [sic], which they brought to life with such attention to detail - everyone's talking about it."

This alliance formed to launch a new brand for the TWE juggernaut: "Introducing Samuel Wynn & Co," the release says, "a new wine brand ... showcasing the stories of Samuel Wynn, founder of the iconic Wynn's of Coonawarra Estate." 

Through a twisty series of sell-outs and take-overs, TWE has ended up owning Wynn's, which these folks push as a premium brand. 

"Our brief was to entice a younger 'less involved' wine drinker by using the language and semiotics of craft beer, a clever strategy of recruiting cross category," the release reads. 

Fair dinkum. 

"By learning our consumers are 'seekers of exploration', we researched into [sic] the life and times of Samuel Wynn to uncover the stories that best captured his bold spirit. This narrative formed the inspiration for our three adventurous names; ‘The Man from Nowhere’, ‘Last Rites’ and ‘Dice with Destiny’ - with more to follow as the range grows. 

"These stories inspired our filmic poster illustration style, with each label portraying scenes from Samuel’s escapades with a sense of daring and intrigue to capture the imagination. To build in more discovery, we nestled sayings amongst the illustrations that captured Samuel’s charm and personality 'Smart enough to be lucky', 'Risk & Reward’ and ‘Life is a Game of Chance’. Together these were embellished with a complex makeup of foils, embossing and high builds to provide a premium, tactile finish and catch the eye. 

"With a custom designed bottle that talks to the semiotics of craft beer and a unique label shape, the complete pack works hard on shelf to differentiate against the competition with an engaging tone of voice, for the inquisitive consumer entering the world of wine." 

Sorry for the huge quote, but I felt that you oughta read it all, if only to counter those who reckon I write too much bullshit. This business is brimming with it. 

Notice there is not one mention of the wine all this is designed to sell. 

Imagine how much Co Partnership charged the shareholders of TWE for this! Does anybody know where these grapes came from?

I was hardly a close friend of Sammy Wynn. By the time I met him he was still impeccably presented in his three-piece suit, stiff collar and French cuffs but was troubled with dementia and attended the office rarely. He died in 1982. But I knew his son David well as a friend and mentor, and became good mates with his grandson, Adam, after whom David named Mountadam. 

David Wynn, Howard Twelftree and the author at Mountadam, early '90s ... photo by Adam Wynn

So for many years I was entertained first-hand by the family stories, which I have since been able to further contemplate through the annual Winegrowers' Diary written for David in the late 'sixties and early 'seventies by the great Melbourne wine critic Walter James. 

David's brother Allan's 1968 biography of their father, The Fortunes of Samuel Wynn - Winemaker, Humanist, Zionist is another handy reference. 

So when considering where all this adventurous intrigue and the incredible escapades come from, it was confronting to recall the Sammy I met and later learned so much about. 

Sammy was a softly-spoken, fastidious Russian-born Jew from Poland. Five-foot-nothing in his socks, he wore gold-rimmed pince-nez spectacles, a bow tie and a homburg hat. 

While a committed socialist and trades unionist, and eventually a staunch supporter of Zion's occupation of Palestine, he bore no resemblance whatever to the fake heroes on those Boy's Own Annual movie posters. 

Sammy's real name was Solomon "Schlomo" ben David. The youngest of a humble family, he grew up dependent upon the constant pampering of domineering women: his widowed mother at first, who sold lottery tickets for a living, and his two sisters. Three bright bossy wives were to follow. 

Chava Silman and Solomon "Schlomo" ben David Weintraub at their engagement in Łódź, Poland, in 1911
 

"All his life he was to remain dependent on women," his son Allan wrote. These were invariably "egocentric and very demanding." 

The family had accepted the surname Weintraub only when the authorities of the 1800s insisted Jews adopt more conventional family names. Weintraub reflected one angle of the old family business: purchasing raisins from the Black and Caspian seas to make small batches of kosher ceremonial wine in Poland. 

With his sharp intuition and fear of the nascent Germany, Schlomo saw real trouble coming to Europe's Jews. He engaged his domineering sweetheart, Chava Silman, in Łódź in 1911; they married in 1912; in 1913 they took a third-class passage to Melbourne, an uneventful trip. On arrival, there was some kerfuffle about the spelling of Weintraub, which the customs men thought must mean cooper. Sammy's terrible English was no help. So for simplicity's sake, and his delight at the opportunity of a bright new start, Schlomo ben David Weintraub became Sammy Wynn. 

Right from their arrival in the colony, Sammy was delighted that there was an abundant supply of fresh grapes and plenty of wine of all types and quality. He worked as a farmhand, and then did a stint in a cork factory. With those scant savings, the few sovereigns Chava had sewn into her hem back in Poland, and some generous vendor finance, he was able to purchase a wine shop at the top of Burke Street, near the parliament. That grew into what eventually became the very famous Florentino's restaurant. 

David Wynn was born upstairs there. 

The wine shop, which sold much more sweet fortified out the back than premium table wine for the politicians within, took a scholarly upmarket turn in 1922 when the great Hill of Content book store opened next door. The transfusion of customers led to the growth of a bright co-operative salon atmosphere between the establishments. 

While Sammy went on to build a thriving wholesale and retail wine merchant business with his son David, an empire that extended from the Yenda winery at Griffith to Romalo opposite Penfolds Grange at Magill, the firm seemed only to boom into a modern form with David's post-war influence. 

An Australian Air Force man who was determined to be an architect or a sculptor, David had returned from the War with an even more refined taste for the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy. 

The notion of Sammy being the "founder of the iconic Wynn's of Coonawarra Estate" is dodgy - the place was notoriously unreliable. While he'd loved buying the best of its vintages for blending and sale through his shops, Sammy never really believed the Estate could be profitable and opposed its purchase. 

David always made it clear the rejuvenation of the business was his Bordeaux-inspired idea. Coonawarra was on its knees: he paid for the distillery and cellars, vineyards and other land according to the number of sheep each acre could comfortably run. 

The father became the son's reluctant and longsuffering partner. 

"In good years, the wine can be superb," Allan Wynn wrote in 1968. "In bad years ... it is barely drinkable." 

This risk, driven by Coonawarra's inclement, frosty weather, is what eventually convinced David to sell Coonawarra and invest instead in his beloved Mountadam at the top of Eden Valley. 

The huge dry-grown bush vine Modbury vineyard (see label left), whose wines were made in Edmund Mazure's old cellars at Romalo, Magill, went to the Dunstan government for suburban housing. 

David launched the pioneering Burgundy-inspired Pinot and Chardonnay adventure at Mountadam in 1972. Adam became winemaker in 1984; David died unexpectedly there in 1995; then, after some poor health Adam sold it to Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessey and left winemaking forever in 2000. 

Schlomo and Chava's many descendants spread across the world today. Like the actual truth about the family history, they're pretty easy to find. They tend to be a very bright, influential lot. So to ask how the Wynns reacted to images of their timid ancestor repackaged as James Bond, Biggles or some punk gambler in a beret, I made a few calls. 

"No Philip, none of the family members were consulted and we are all a little bemused by the whole thing," I was told. "Someone sent a photo of the labels and initially we thought it was a joke. All a little strange really and somewhat misguided. Those stories are apocryphal at best." 

Apocrypha? Now there's a name for a wine based on bullshit that talks to the semiotics of craft beer, no? But the easier lesson I'd learn from Sammy is the markup you can add if you bottle some of the flagon wine that goes to paupers out the back and sell it instead as 750ml. premium to the politicans dining at the front.

Wynns Modbury in the mid 'sixties

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ripper read, mate, and bloody fantastic insight to the Wynns family and the weird machinations of TWE. As a former and long-term resident of the Modbury district, I knew there had previously been vineyards there, but had no idea they were Wynns', nor that there was ever a 'Wynns Modbury Estate' label. Priceless stuff! Cheers.

Philip WHITE said...

Thankyou. That Modbury wine was one of the last I got to share with David, who was in good health at the time of his sudden death in the garden at Mountadam the following year. He had friends up to lunch. That wine came from late-harvest dry-grown Semillon and was as fresh as a daisy. When I asked the secret of its longevity David did that impish chuckle and grin of his and said "Sulphur." It was probably made by Norm Walker. Who learned with his dad Hurtle, who learned from Edmund Mazure ... who was a truly fascinating and influential character: type his name in search box top left to peruse; lots there.