Wine & Controversy

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 of Grange, which is that Schubert’s experiment did not meet with applause from his managers. They decided to call a halt to the experiment 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 bottle of red wine allegedly marked as bottled on his birthday. At the time of being gifted to the premier by an executive of Australian Water Holdings, it 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.










About @DrJulieMcIntyre

Historian of nature/culture through studies of wine production, trade and consumption. Also trans-imperialism, migration, mobilities and business. Budding connoisseur of Semillon and Riesling.
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