Wine & Controversy

17 April 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m sure Max Schubert could not have imagined that a bottle of Grange (the brainchild of Schubert and a small coterie of his colleagues at Penfold’s in the 1950s) would have a role in bringing down an Australian state premier.  Indeed, it is a very early Grange – vintage 1959,  with an  intriguing story of its own, that is at the centre of evidence to the Independent Commission Against Corruption that yesterday led to the resignation of NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell.

What’s the big deal about Grange? To explain, I have taken down from my shelves a copy of Andrew Calliard’s The Rewards of Patience (Published by Penfold’s, 2004). This book has an extract from a speech by Schubert at a symposium at Australian National University in 1979 about the genesis of what has become the most premium of Australian wines.

Max Schubert, Penfold's Wines

Max Schubert, Penfold’s Wines

Schubert made the first experimental Grange in 1951 using shiraz grapes (also still known then as hermitage) from two Penfold’s vineyards in South Australia. After fermentation he oaked the wine in new untreated hogsheads (barrels), a technique he had observed produced excellent wines in France and other parts of Europe. “The objective”, said Schubert”, was to produce a big, full-bodied wine containing maximum extraction of all the components in the grape material used”.

Fast forward to the heart of the story, which is that Schubert’s experiment did not meet with applause from his managers. They decided to call a halt to it just prior to the 1957 vintage, partly due to the expense of the oak barrels central to the manufacture of Grange.  But Schubert, in his own words, “disregarded the written instructions in part, and continued to make Grange in reduced quantities.  Finance was not available to purchase new hogsheads, but some benefit was gained by using hogsheads from previous vintages. This undercover production continued through to 1959 and the wines made, although good, lacked that one element which made the difference between a good wine and a great wine”.  By which I presume he meant the new wood.

“In all”, he continued, “it was 10 years from the time the first experimental Grange was made before the wine gained general acceptance and the prejudices were overcome. As the earlier vintages matured in bottle and progressively became less aggressive [in their tannins and from the wood] and more refined, people generally began to take notice, and whereas previously it had been all condemnation, I was now at least receiving some praise for the wine. A little of this filtered through to my board of directors, with the result that just before the 1960 vintage, I was instructed to start making Grange Hermitage officially again, with ample funds available for this purpose”.

A bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange

So the ’59 Grange was the last of the “undercover” vintages, known in the industry as the ‘hidden’ Granges.

1959 was also the birth year of former Premier O’Farrell, which is why he was sent the red wine allegedly marked as bottled precisely on his birthday. At the time of being gifted to the premier by an executive of Australia Water Holdings, this particular bottle cost $3000.

Much has been made of how Premier O’Farrell could forget drinking such a wine.  But, as wine is a natural product that may undergo extraordinary transformations but will inevitably decay, even the finest of old wines have a finite life of drinkability, and the ’59 is not considered an outstanding Grange anyhow.  The premier probably didn’t drink it, as it would certainly be memorable one way or the other. This doesn’t of course explain what has become of the bottle in question; another element to the current controversy.

In wine circles, time (and political preferences) will tell whether Premier O’Farrell’s departure is to be portrayed as a dark moment in the story of Australia’s most iconic multi-regional shiraz, or a new element in its mystique.  Either way winegate, or #grangegate as it is in the twittersphere, serves as a reminder that wine is rarely a subject (or $3000 object!) of controversy in Australia.  By contrast, a case of unprecedented fraud that shocked the world’s winerati continues to play out in the United States.  In this case Indonesian Rudy Kurniwan – known as a collector with perhaps the most impressive cellar of fine wine ever – was last year convicted of counterfeiting millions of dollars worth of wine, and will be – incidentally – sentenced next week. His operation affected some of the most powerful men in the United States, for whom wine collecting is a prized hobby. Kurniwan is facing a forty year gaol term.   My understanding is that Kurniwan focused on  premier cru and other high value French brands. I haven’t heard that he faked Grange. If you are plugged into wine news networks, do you happen to know?

And, before the O’Farrell Grange, had there been any wine-related controversies in Australia? Not on anywhere near the scale of the current one.

In colonial New South Wales a feud did erupt in the late 1880s between the notoriously irascible colonial botanist Charles Moore and other members of the Vine Diseases Board. This bitter disagreement was over the identification of the pest grape phylloxera in flourishing New South Wales vineyards and subsequent decisions about vine pulling and compensation for growers. Growers resisted vine pulling while also seeking higher rates of compensation for the destruction of phylloxera-infected vineyards than the colonial botanist would countenance.

Moore, the key antagonist, declared the whole saga “unprecedented in any body connected with the government”! He even called for a government inquiry. In anger, he tried to step down from the Vine Diseases Board but the colonial secretary ignored his resignation. No major political leader became entangled in the escalating histrionics.

Director of Sydney Botanic Gardens, 1848-1896

Charles Moore, Director of Sydney Botanic Gardens, 1848-1896

As I write this New South Wales has a new premier, Mike Baird. I wonder if his birth year was a better (South Australian) vintage than 1959.









Australia’s first wine, and other delicious mysteries

13 April 2014 § Leave a comment

As well as wine I love crime fiction, so it will come as no surprise that I have a particular penchant for crime fiction themed around wine.

Yes, I’ve read Peter Mayle’s The Vintage Caper, a charming romp through the high end of wine collecting that that plays up the tensions between French wine connoisseurship and American pretension to it. I’ve also enjoyed Englishman Martin Walker’s The Dark Vineyard, in which chief of police Bruno Courreges toughs his way through solving a killing entwined with eco-activism in the oh-so-French village of Saint-Denis.  Equally entertaining are American Ellen Crosby’s Merlot Murders and The Chardonnay Charade.

You may know others – I’d like to hear about them.

Of course, wine history presents some of the most tantalising mysteries. Sans blood and bodies, but compelling nonetheless.

It has long been thought that the first grape wine made in Australia to be shipped to London came from grapes grown, fermented and bottled by Gregory Blaxland in the 1820s.  There is no doubt Blaxland made a weighty contribution to early wine growing efforts but wine had certainly been made and bottled prior to this in New South Wales, and some of it seems to have been sent from the fledgling colony to the centre of imperial power and scientific curiosity in Britain, as early as the 1790s.  This story is told in my book First Vintage: Wine in Colonial New South Wales (New South Publishing/UNSW Press, 2012), which has been making its way in the world for over a year now.  Indeed, some of this blog’s readers have spied or purchased a copy.


Should you not yet have encountered one of the central conundrums revealed in its pages - a teaser:

In 1791, New South Wales’ first governor Arthur Phillip reported in a letter to influential botanist and colonial supporter Joseph Banks, that ‘we have now many thousand young vines, here and at Norfolk Island … at present the old vines in my garden are loaded with very fine fruit’.

Late in 1791 too, an officer of the marines stationed in the colony to guard convicts - the colonial workforce – conducted a walking tour of government agriculture. Captain Watkin Tench wrote that at Parramatta, the site of the colony’s main farms, the vineyard at the Crescent  was ‘in beauty of form and situation … unrivalled in New South Wales’. Eight thousand vines had been planted from cuttings of maturing vines from earlier plantings of vines imported from the Cape of Good Hope. The older vines were expected to bear fruit in a year and ‘although the soil of the Crescent be poor, its aspect and circular figure, so advantageous for receiving and retaining the ray of the sun, is eminently fit for a vineyard’. Tench next visited the farm of Philip Schaeffer, ‘a man of industry and respectable character’; the colony’s first free settler and the first hope for private investment in wine growing.

How did Schaeffer come to be a free settler but neither ex-convict nor ex-marine so early in the life of the colony? After serving with Hessian (German) forces used to bolster British troops in the American War of Independence, Schaeffer arrived in New South Wales in 1790. He was aged in his forties and destitute after the wreck of his original ship of carriage, the Guardian, which had been loaded with much anticipated supplies for the colony. Schaeffer originally migrated to the colony to work as a supervisor of convict farm labourers but his limited English made this impractical.

Schaeffer’s conversations with Phillip (in German, which they both spoke fluently) revealed that the Schaeffer family’s estate at Hesse-Hanau on the Rhine River included a vineyard. Although Schaeffer had spent most of his adult life as a soldier, the experience of farming he described led Phillip to allocate him 140 acres of land on the Parramatta riverfront in 1791. This was at a time when ex-convicts were receiving only 20 to 60 acres. Schaeffer seemed to be an ideal candidate for settlement within the governor’s vision for agriculture to not only sustain the colony but to begin to build surplus production for trade. Schaeffer called his farm The Vineyard and quickly set about clearing land and planting corn and wheat, wine grapes and tobacco. It was ‘to these two last articles’, wrote Tench, that Schaeffer ‘mean[t] principally to direct his exertions’ though he thought the soil very poor compared with the river flats of the Rhine.

Philip Schaeffer planted the first private vineyard in Australia at his farm The Vineyard in 1791. This watercolour painting (above) is thought to have been painted the year after Schaeffer sold the land in 1797. Artist unknown. SLNSW, Call no: SSV1B / Parr / 6

Philip Schaeffer planted the first private vineyard in Australia at his farm The Vineyard in 1791. This watercolour painting (above) is thought to have been painted the year after Schaeffer sold the land in 1797. Artist unknown.
SLNSW, Call no: SSV1B / Parr / 6

Very poor? Phillip, also a man of the land, described Schaeffer’s soil as ‘of a middling quality, inclining to a loamy sand’.

I think Schaeffer likely made the more practical assessment.

The year of Schaeffer’s first vine plantings, Banks received a letter that implies he canvassed for information on viticulture to send to Phillip. The letter recommended that when grapes were planted, cuttings should be laid in a trench than had been partly filled with compost made of rotten manure and bread. The compost should be laid fresh around the plants and watered in as they grew. Though, with neither manure nor bread in great supply in New South Wales this method could not have been very helpful.

In October 1792, Phillip reported Schaeffer ‘doing well’ (despite lacking manure and spare bread!). The governor would depart from New South Wales only a few months later. In 1795, Phillip’s successor, Acting Governor William Paterson, advised Banks that Schaeffer had produced ‘ninety gallons of wine in about two years now … the vines I think produce better than at the Cape’. He predicted that within two years New South Wales would be self-sufficient in wine and brandy (which it wasn’t, but that’s not the point).

Paterson’s remark about Schaeffer’s first wine raises a question. Had the Hessian settler made wine from the grapes at the government farm even earlier? If so, this would be the first vintage in New South Wales. A tiny shard of evidence suggests that he had.

The shard of evidence is revealed in First Vintage.

A teaser … but no spoilers!!



Movies, Tokaji and an 18th century wine tour

26 July 2012 § 1 Comment

Your favourite wine movie; do you have one? Let me know if you do.

To help you decide there’s a recent story about film world luminaries drawn to wine growing and Brian Miller’s tremendously entertaining piece on wine at the movies in Winestate.

I have several favourite wine movies but top of my list at present is not mentioned in either of these reports. It’s Dean Spanley, a clever and poignant meditation on fathers, sons and mortality with a subtle reference to the magic of wine.

Dean Spanley features Peter O’Toole as a witty, goggle-eyed old curmudgeon who has become increasingly rigid in his habits since the death of his eldest son at war, and then his wife from a broken heart. Jeremy Northam plays his son; increasingly exasperated with his father’s refusal to express grief and desperate to make sense of the injustice of his brother’s death. In his search for solace, son takes father to a public lecture on reincarnation by an Indian prince who is hilariously uninterested in the idea of future lives since he’s content with his present wealth. His next life could not possibly compare!

At the lecture, father and son encounter an irreverent, resourceful fixer (Bryan Brown) and Dean Spanley, an edgy, enigmatic clergyman (Sam Neill; a film world wine grower who owns Two Paddocks in New Zealand).

It’s gradually revealed that when the Dean drinks Tokaji he’s transported to a past life as a dog. I won’t say more than this about the story except that Neill’s performance is deliciously canine.

But I would like to say a little more about Tokaji. « Read the rest of this entry »

Meet Maurice O’Shea

24 June 2012 § 2 Comments

Meet Maurice O’Shea: a far sighted vine grower, a magician when it came to blending wines; a vigneron who could see the world in a wine glass.

Source: National Library of Australia, photographer Max Dupain. Reproduced with permission.

O’Shea died in 1956 but I met him through his love letters along with stories of him which still ripple around the wine industry, tales told by folk near where I live in Newcastle NSW, and a transcript of a talk O’Shea himself gave to food and wine connoisseurs in Sydney in 1950.

Why was I reading his love letters? They’re in the Local Studies section of Newcastle City Library. As long as you’re a responsible member of the public you can pop in and read them anytime. Or you can read impressions of the passionate way O’Shea wrote, in the early 1920s, to his future wife, Marcia Fuller, in Campbell Mattinson’s The Wine Hunter, The Man Who Changed Australian Wine (2006) or Peter McAra The Vintner’s Letters (2007).

Love is lovely, yes. But when I went searching for O’Shea what I really wanted to know about was his work with wine. I was to speak about him at an event in the Hunter Valley NSW to honour his work at McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant, Pokolbin; the unveiling of a heritage cairn; one of four in a growing series of cairns which celebrate the heritage of Hunter wine growing. « Read the rest of this entry »

The world in a wine glass

24 June 2012 § 10 Comments

I think about wine a lot. About how the grapes were grown, which grapes were grown, where, why, how and by whom; how the wine was sold, to whom; what it tasted like.

I explore threads of stories and events, people, places, plants, businesses, scandals, tragedies and triumphs which particularly featured wine in the past. I do this for the same reason a historian of anything takes on their particular specialisation: I want to understand how now became the present by looking at then.

Oh. And I do this because I love wine.

[Unnamed woman drinking wine, c1930] Photograph: Sam Hood, hood_07059h, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

As I see it, wine isn’t only a source of pleasure and release, it’s a way to understand something very specific about being human: the desire to have constant access to a drink that we don’t actually require for survival but which we would absolutely prefer not to have to get along without.

More than this, wine has cultural and symbolic meaning quite apart from other forms of alcohol like beer, spirits or cider. Wine illuminates aspects of human behaviour which are not limited to a certain gender or to particular classes or cultures. It operates as a source of stories and knowledge which ranges from providing a living for early modern European peasants through to a complex culture of trade culminating in outrageous heights of luxury and excess. Wine is a drink for men and women of any social class; and it is often not considered in wine history that wine growing as opposed to wine drinking is a culture loved by children. There are many nuances such as this that we miss in wine history if we do not begin at the plant production origin of the process in the vineyard and follow threads of inquiry through harvest, fermentation and then the supply chain through to consumption; with branches of cultural meaning created along the way. « Read the rest of this entry »


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