I mean this literally and metaphorically.
First, the metaphorical, which – as anyone who is a fan of Game of Thrones has already guessed – entails Starkish tidings of potential doom.
Sounds serious? It is. (And those who have not read or seen GoT, be warned, there is a minor spoiler at the end of this post.)
In the past fortnight I have been asked to engage publicly on how the cycle of wine corporatisation in Australia continues to turn in a direction that may yet see prized wine brands scooped up by private equity companies. Private equity companies are those beholden only to their shareholders who prey on vulnerable corporations, divide them up and re-sell for maximum profit.
The problem as I see it is that such companies may not see themselves as custodians of wine stories, land and material culture. This matters a great deal at the moment because many brands that contain much of Australia’s most valuable wine history and heritage presently belong to large corporations – the most vulnerable to private equity takeover is Treasury Wine Estates, which owns Penfold’s Grange. For a further explanation about this from my colleague Paul Docherty and I in The Conversation – click here.
While I don’t take issue with foreign ownership per se, wine history – along with the land on which this history has played out and the material culture relating to such histories – have relevance beyond the wine world, as I discussed with Jeremy Oliver and Cameron Wilson on ABC Radio National’s Bush Telegraph as a follow-up to The Conversation article. As Australia becomes a wine nation, wine history is emerging as a vital part of the nation’s complex agricultural, rural and regional past. Indeed, wine history connects country and city in ways that many other historical threads do not. While digital history can preserve elements of the past and make them accessible online through digitised images and oral histories – an element of my present research – without preservation of sites, documents and artefacts, much will become obscured to us that promises to complicate and enrich understanding of Australia’s social, cultural and economic past.
What specifically could be lost through corporate takeovers?
A good way to explain this is in terms of what is already being lost due to corporate decisions about the future of the oldest vineyard site in Australia’s oldest continually producing wine region. It is, I think, an ill omen for the fate of Australia’s wine heritage that – come October this year – neither you nor I will be able to as readily visit Wyndham Estate (owned by Pernod Ricard Australia) in the Hunter Valley as we may now. Wyndham Estate – formerly known as Dalwood – is a site of extraordinary historical complexity dating to early colonial Australia. Not only is this Australia’s oldest accessible wine heritage site but many themes in colonial history played out there – beginning with invasion and Indigenous dispossession to make way for early European-style farming. Convicts assigned to work with the Wyndham family were among Dalwood’s first labourers in the vineyard as well as elsewhere on the property. Settler women and children from the Wyndham family and the wider community helped with the grape harvest for what became a successful colonial business. Also, I have it on good authority (thank you Jill Barnes) that
Dark-in-jung man, William Bird and his father’s family helped create the Dalwood winery and once convict transportation ceased and cheap labour was less accessible, it is highly probable that Aboriginal people worked more widely in the fledgling wine industry: clearing, hoeing, ploughing, staking and pruning the vines.
Further still, Wyndham Estate is home to the oldest extant neo-classical building in Australia: Dalwood House.
Image courtesy of http://www.nationaltrust.org.au/nsw/DalwoodHouse
Just look at those doric columns! As many people I have taken to visit Wyndham Estate attest, it’s one of the most surprising sights you’ll see in a vineyard: stone monoliths at the entrance to the room designed in the late 1820s to be the bed chamber of George and Margaret Wyndham. Fortunately, Dalwood has the protection of the National Trust.
Besides Dalwood however, there are other places, stories and artefacts all over the country – some barely known, as I have discussed in my book First Vintage, that are not protected against neglect.
What is to be done?
Character preservation legislation for sites beyond those already protected in South Australia and Western Australia would be a good start. BUT, to achieve this there must be barriers broken down about perceptions of the value of history and heritage connected to alcohol. This is one of the thorniest issues in Australian history – deep fears of drunkenness and its tragic effects versus celebration of a strong (still chiefly beer) drinking culture. Yet, heavy drinking is not the only story of drinking in Australia and research shows that rural and regional Australia has been boosted economically by wine production and tourism – as have many others parts of the world. These economic benefits are connected to perceptions of wine value and quality, which in turn depend on history and heritage…
Something to ponder during the long cold nights ahead.
On a lighter note (if a reference to Game of Thrones can be called light): the GoT books by George R. R. Martin and related HBO series, have gifted popular culture the phrase Winter is Coming! – along with a fantasy world brimming with wine. And, as Season 4 draws to a close – with the final episode to air in the US in a few days’ time – I will go on the record to say my favourite characters are Arya Stark and a character called The Hound, who is doing his part to restore the Starks to power in the North. Among The Hound’s most quotable lines is: all a man needs is a flagon of sour red, as dark as blood.
Reds. Yes. And – after a late autumn heatwave – there are signs this week of the onset of actual, non-metaphorical cold weather in Australia.
This means it is time to reach into my modest collection of wine for the oldest Mudgee Cabernet Sauvignon I can find, and to plan a meal that does it justice. Though – having said that – as a colleague recently donated a posh Californian Zinfandel to McCellar, it is a toss up which New World treasure I should summon up to fortify myself against the forces of potential (private equity driven) destruction in the world of wine heritage.
Were I to tackle this dilemma in the spirit of Game of Thrones there would be a trial by combat between the Cab Sav and its American rival!!
But – as a peace loving soul – I envisage instead a civilised comparative tasting and patient reflections on the origins of each wine – a ritual accompanied perhaps by a nourishing Boeuf Bourguignon or soothing cassoulet.
The red-wine winter that I look forward to each year, is finally here.