“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)





08 June 2018


The most convivial, honest and transparent Sino-Austral wine dealings I know have happened during 30 years of Saturday lunches in Adelaide's T-Chow ... he we are a decade back at the retirement of co-founder So Hon Huang (Chef So, left, with the author and culinary genius Cheong Liew) ... photo Milton Wordley

US-Oz-China tiff: Trump-triggered trade war or dirty water skirmish?

Bacchus only knows how much to-and-fro business has gone on between Australian wine leaders and politicians and the authorities and wine buyers of China in the last fortnight. 

Since I first wrote of this, the in tray has fizzed with triumphant PR nonsense from the winemakers who went to Hong Kong for Vinexpo. But trade wars and rumours of trade wars have been rife on the home front, where such things tend to be given a different level of public reportage. 

Which didn't stop the tellingly-named China mouthpiece, the Global Times adopting a stern Murdoch tone on 23 May when its editorial warned "When it comes to wine and beef, China can easily import those items from the US, replacing Australia." 

Within hours of sending a billion-dollar quiver through Australia's politicians and wine operatives, this specific threat was removed. It was replaced by a softer tone, still loaded with condescension, but calling us "Aussies" instead of "Australia". 

Underlined by a wharf slowdown, still to be accurately measured or reported in litres or money, the message had done its job. 

Even the ousted Australian Border Force boss, Roman Quaedvlieg, a self-professing "geo-political dilettante" who has "fought crime a lot" and knows "a little about border security, national security and trade issues" entered the fray. 

Quaedvlieg, left, with Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott ... photo Glenn Hunt

"In the age of free trade architecture, Single Window trade processing, blockchain, cognitive AI computing, high-speed barcode scanning and automation, the old school non-tariff (NTB) barrier of 'go slow' works a treat to put instant, precise and painful pressure on trade flows," he tweeted. 

While reluctantly mentioning the Opium Wars, which some Chinese regard as happening just a few months back, I suggest Quaedvlieg knows a lot more than most of us about the drug trade. Policing it has been his business. 

The opium ships in Lintin, China, 1824, by William John Huggins 

These current political realities, whether actual or dreamed, seem slightly less sinister than fair dinkum hot wars wars with dead people. There are fewer horrid photographs to start with. But of course the two are entangled increasingly as tariff and blockade threats and counter-blockade threats twist and turn. 

It's mainly virtual trench warfare so far, pushed along by Australia's right-wing government's delight at such a grand opportunity to scare its electorate into a 'fifties-era reds-under-the-beds panic. 

There's an election coming soon.

As a convivial mayor in a major China province once advised me, "We are a mercantile people, Mr. White. For five thousand years." 

It was revealing to see Trade and Tourism Minister Steven Ciobo sagely advise the National Press Club yesterday that only one - count 'em: one - winery had met with him for assistance in clearing the backlog of Aussie booze building up on Chinese wharves. 

It remains to be seen whether this was to get the Grange and Bin 707 flowing  or wine more along the lines of Murray-Darling stuff. 

That short fortnight ago, China began putting long-range nuclear bombers and missiles onto the islands it's built in the South China Sea. Sixty per cent of Australia's exports ship through there, most of it to China. This deployment triggered and/or coincided with much tone-deaf trumpeting and missile-rattling from the White House. Not to mention India joining our western allies' war games in those oceans to our north. 

Which in turn followed a gradual stewing of Australian discontent about the Communist Party of China attempting to unduly influence our way of life, beginning in our hallowed halls of academe: the brain farms our government has defunded to the point that they exist largely on selling retail education to Chinese folks. 

So new we have the Feds of both parties co-operating to tighten the Espionage and Foreign Interference Transparency legislation to focus more tightly on foreign government operatives. 

For fear of appearing soft-cocked, to look as tough as the hard-right Liberal-National Party coalition, the opposition Labor Party blindly supports most of their scare tactics.

All this while the Australian wine councils began to learn what it means to offend important Chinese, like those morally and politically miffed by Senator Ruston's statement  - on April Fool's Day - that Wine Australia would now decide who was a right and proper person to export Australian wine. 

Right and proper people inspiring the world  ... South Australian Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development Tim Whetstone, former Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Senator Ruston ... photo from Wine Australia

"There will always be unscrupulous people seeking to make easy money from reputations carefully established and built by legitimate Australian wine producers and exporters," she said, avoiding mention of any particular nation. Or Penfolds. China knew who she meant. 

"Wine Australia can now ensure the bona fides of potential and existing exporters before issuing export approvals." 

This was intended to put a stop to the sort of counterfeiting I'd blogged about in March: exporters like Willunga Estate Wines, Lot 21, Main Road, Willunga (a storage shed since vacated), who put BinFu Thriving VIP407 on Chinese shelves, wearing livery that even some Australians could mistake for Penfolds. 

That was obviously a McLaren Vale wine address. The shed's still there. 

While it seems to me that direct Chinese investment in Australian wineries and vineyards is concentrated in our most famous and profitable vignobles, Murray-Darling operatives have been excited to report that their troubled region is seeing vineyards sell for three or four times the amount they were getting just a few years ago. 

The A$50 million last year given by the Feds for grants to encourage winery tourism facilities, especially in the Murray-Darling, are aimed directly at Chinese investors as much as drinkers. Riverlanders simply see their land values increasing as China drinks more. 

Which is about as short-sighted and unreal as talking of drought in the past tense, which the rivers water authorities currently do as they reallocate environmental flows to irrigation. The Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources forecasts and reports show that the current drought covering much of the Murray-Darling will only worsen and temperatures are increasing. 

Given the confounding chaos of the administration of water flows and irrigation permits already extant in the Murray-Darling Basin, can we be so naive as to imagine we can continue planning the export of big irrigation wine at about the cost of bottled water? 

While the Coorong and the estuary dies? 

The Murray Mouth, back in the days when when it flowed into the sea without dredging

As South Australia's own Senator Ruston, Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, is a dyed-in-the-wool Riverlander, maybe we should begin to expect her or her boss, Minister David Littleproud, to finally relate their highly-contentious Basin management plans to the drought forecasts their Department dutifully releases. Maybe then they could have a bit of a chat to Trade Minister Ciobo and let us know whether all this fuss is largely to do with Australia selling vast amounts of inland water we don't have to China, with 14.5 per cent ethanol in it as a free novelty? 

At a minimum ratio of 1200 litres of water to make each litre of wine, what does this really cost, or earn for Australia? And China, for that matter ... is that vast nation's water shortage the main handicap on the expansion of its own giant wine industry?

The author talking wine in an early Australian trade delegation in Yangzhou ...  and below, in a less formal mood with the beloved Yiu Lai Shuk, my adopted Grandma, who's trying my hat ... Grandma, her daughter Dora and grand daughter Gi Gi were the first folks to bring classical teochew 潮州菜  regional cuisine to Adelaide, with chef So ... that's GiGi's partner Chris Sykes, centre ... GiGi took the photograph in Park Lok ... dear Grandma lived one hundred years.

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