The Early Demon

First published

ONE would think that come winter there would be peace in the vineyard, a time of delectable calm when there was nothing to do. Indeed rich vignerons do actually take a break. They go off to the Napa Valley to compare pinot notes with Robert Mondavi, or they go to Hong Kong, London, taking in Wimbledon and at the same time checking that their wines are being served at the right tables. Or they go to Burgundy to discuss how their chardonnay compares with the new season Montrachet.

That does not happen for most of us. The vineyard year is actually cunningly devised so that not a minute goes to waste over the entire year. Only the naive believe that winter is a time when one can lay back on a couch. There is pruning, there is blending, there is bottling, there is labelling.

Pruning comes first. Like painting the house or clearing six acres of blackberries this is a task that calls for character. Depending on the size of the vineyard, it can take anything up to three months. Just work on the mathematics. We have 1200 vines in an acre. There are roughly 30 canes to a vine, all of which have to be snipped. That's 32,000 snips. If there were 10 acres it would be 320,000 snips.

We know vignerons who adore pruning. It is a delicious escape. It is their chance to be absolutely alone for three months. They say each vine is a like a game of chess, an individual problem that has to be solved. That great tangle of canes has to be re-designed and the decisions made provide the yield perhaps for years to come.

Out there in the vineyard nobody interferes, the telephone does not ring, there is no TV. The dog will watch for a time, but then utterly bored, pads off. It is a chance to commune with the birds, go into a meditation trance, talk to God or whatever. We have found it hard going. It is a day's work to do just one row. We arch down the canes then tie the ends to a wire. Occasionally they come adrift and flick back with ugly results. One vigneron up near Rutherglen told me that on a frosty morning a cane flicked and got him right across the behind. For a terrible moment he thought he was back at boarding school.

"We want better results from you next term, young Alfred." I have not been caned across the behind, but across the face and in the eye. Then there's the blood. Secateurs are ferocious weapons, particularly when tired and not sure where you are snipping. It is important to have a finger count before returning to the house. Last vintage Marie was snipping away, there was a cry of pain. She snipped the fleshy part of her left hand. The blood flowed and it required four stitches to put it right. No pruning for a month.

Yes, meditation is splendid, but eight hours of it can be too much, so I prune to music. I used to cart around a radio, but as I pruned it would be left further and further away and I would have to return to the end of row 13 to pick it up. Now I have a Walkman. It hitches on to my belt and I can listen to FM radio or play tapes. Marvellous. One afternoon I was listening to the American composer, Virgil Thomson. It was a tribute to Picasso. The winter sun was filtering through and life was almost perfect.

Suddenly the music went dead. Why? I fiddled with the Walkman trying to return it to life. Then it all came clear. Ihad snipped off the headphones with my secateurs. Headphones are not the only by-product of pruning. What does one do with 32,000 canes? Plaited together they make gorgeous decorative wreaths. Some follow a trick learned in France. They have half a 40-gallon drum mounted on wheels. The drum is a mobile brazier and as they clip, they burn. It is very nice having a mobile fire on a winter's day. It can even be used as a barbecue.

Several seasons back we acquired a mulcher. It is a grand affair on wheels, powered by a petrol engine and made by Rover. There is great satisfaction in mulching, one gets a curious feeling of omnipotence. Branches, shrubs, rose clippings, all go into the wide aperture at the top and spurt out as fine chips at the bottom. The feeling is addictive, one does not want to stop. Indeed it would be possible to get carried away and mulch the entire garden.

We do mulch all the canes from the vineyard and last year we had a noble mincing session, which gave us an exultant feeling of being a super greenie. Both garden and vineyard were covered with re-cycled pinot. It was not without cost. This writer has been accused by at least one editor of deliberately creating disaster as a source of writing material. This is not true. There is a type of person who goes about things in a certain way so that he or she has a natural flair for disaster. I believe that I am one of these.

I was feeding my mulcher at high speed. The Briggs & Stratton four stroke was making its usual shriek. A mulcher has a number of tones, a normal angry roar as it starts, but when it is coping with something large and tough it takes on a soprano shriek as if it were trying to be Michael Jackson. Garden noises have become much more sophisticated.

I was pushing in cane after cane, one of them caught on my wrist, dragged on my watch and in it went to the bowels of the mulcher. Not my wrist, but my watch, the second timepiece to fall into peril. This was not my gold Omega, but a Japanese digital do-everything watch that I found in one of those letter box catalogues. This watch had timer, stop watch, international times, and calculator, but best of all it would play the delightful fish wriggling tune from Schubert's Trout.

That was the alarm. I would set the alarm for 6 am daily and lo, with this piping electronic little jingle it would play the Trout. Marie had reached the stage where she could stand it no longer, but I remained enchanted.

What a tragedy, my lovely Schubert had gone. Briggs & Stratton was still thundering and despite the disaster one could only be amazed at the machine's efficiency. It converted my Japanese watch, plus steel band, into tiny steel particles. It all went into the mulch, so out there now, probably on the rose garden, sitting around Papa Meilland, President Hoover, and Apricot Nectar are the last remnants of this little gadget that used to chirp the Trout daily.

Our first bottling was a simple affair, nine bottles. For the second we needed more than 2000. This was a majestic event to be compared with the arrival of the first child, graduation from college, or bringing home that first motor, washing it even, every day for the first month.

All year the wine had been quietly maturing in casks. You don't just leave it there; wine has to be watched over, mothered. The evaporation rate in the barrels is amazing, say, half a bottle in winter to a full bottle in summer. So almost every day we would go to the winery to check, to top up, to replace the wine that the angels have drunk. Naturally it was vital to check how it was progressing, so we would go to the cask with a pipette, suck into this glass measure 50 millilitres, lovingly let it run into tasting glasses. And taste.

"Mmmmm, it'll be very good."

"Marvellous, don't you think."

It is a known fact that parents of babies are skilled at overlooking the most amazing faults. But the time comes when the beloved child has to prepare to leave the fold, to be bottled. This is not as easy as you might imagine. The big firms really can't stand little vineyards.

"Bottles, yes Sir. How many thousand dozen did you require?"

"Actually, this time only 200 dozen."

"Ohhh, I see."

The cork people also are unimpressed with the size of your order, as for getting it professionally and hygienically bottled, nobody wants to know you.

"How many litres do you have?"

How amusing. Big firms like Lindemans, Seppelts, Yalumba, why, that amount of wine wouldn't even activate their machinery, it wouldn't even fill their tubes. Ah, but there is one mobile bottler. He is like an old-fashioned troubador, or wandering circus. Ian Matthews has a firm called Portavin, he has his headquarters in Bendigo and he spends the year touring small to medium size vineyards, bottling.

Ian is a qualified winemaker, a Roseworthy graduate. He got the idea while touring the vineyards of France. So when he returned home several years ago he set up this marvellous trailer, all gleaming aluminium and stainless steel.

The sides open up to reveal, on the left a bottle steriliser, in the centre filtration equipment, and on the right, the masterpiece, the French bottling machine, an ingenious device which fills, provides a squirt of carbon dioxide and drives in a cork all at the pace of two dozen bottles a minute. How much did it all cost? "I had very little change out of $200,000," said Ian.

In November, the Matthews travelling circus was working on the Mornington Peninsula. We took our little quantity of juice to Tanglewood Downs, Dromana, where Ken and Wendy Bilham produce fine riesling, chardonnay, semillon and pinot noir.

At 9 am we started pumping, connecting up all the pipelines, feeding in the corks. It was very like process working at the Rosella factory. You just had to learn how to keep doing the same thing once a second. We needed two workers to feed bottles from the crate into the sterilising machine, another hand to take bottles out of the washer and feed them into the line that went to the filler and corker.

Ian stood watching the filler, as glitchmaster. We found that just the slightest fault in the shape of a bottle could jam the whole works. Two more workers were needed to take bottles off the line and stack them in apple crates.

So it all started. There was a lovely bottle tinkling noise, the sort of noise that a George Gershwin or a Shostakovich could have used to make a great symphony. But at this rate of nearly a bottle a second one could never stop moving.

I remembered years ago in California watching a cook making pancakes in a roadside diner. He had perfect economy of movement, not a wasted action. You have to learn to do the same when bottling. Waste one movement and the bottles come at you six times faster than you can handle.

But I can't tell you how beautiful the moment is when for the first time you see your crimson stuff gushing into the bottle. That's magic. It has been filtered, it is clean and it has a special sparkle in the morning sunlight.

Suddenly all the agony...memories, memories...those pains in the back in the vineyard, the desperation battling to keep infant vines alive during a 40 degree February, those times when birds ate all the grapes, the frigid hands pruning all through the winter, getting the sprays all wrong and half killing the vines, digging oneself out of bed at 2 am to plunge skins and check fermentation temperatures...yes, suddenly the agony of all this is worthwhile.

The baby is truly born. We take the clean sparkling bottles home on a truck, all neatly stacked in apple bins. And have a nice warm glow.

Of course, now that the wine was in the bottle, there was another serious problem, what to do about the label? Wine labels are all the go. Our local lighting shop has gone in for wine label lamp shades. One could have the family play room illuminated by the glow of a Penfolds Bin 389 or Moyston. City department stores have featured label wall paper. Now it is possible to surround oneself with labels, Minchinbury, Chateau Gay, Queen Adelaide or perhaps a few flashes of Wolf Blass. The French have always been very discreet about their labels.

You will have noticed the best growths provide little information beyond the name of the vineyard and the vintage year. Isaac Newton, a very good man with Laws of Motion, would have coined something like this: The Greater the Blurb the Poorer the Wine. Or maybe this: The quality of the wine is in inverse proportion to the quantity of information.

In the 1990s it is absolutely vital to have a back label. I first noticed this thing at a lunch in Carlton. It was the meeting of our regular wine team. We had oysters, minestrone, chicken livers venezia, but the drinking of the wine was slow. The reason? It was those damned wine labels. They contained so much information we weren't getting down to our serious tasting.

We even wondered for a time whether it would be a good idea, to have a label lunch with masked wine labels. It would work this way: The labelmaster of the day would soak off a few labels and remove the proprietary brands. After reading several paragraphs he would say: "Standish, I wonder if you would give us your comments on the label?" "Certainly, Mr Labelmaster. Here we have an example of a beautifully balanced prose style. His adjectives I think tend to be a little over-fruity. And if I had to make a criticism I would say they lacked rather in freshness. By his use of 'generous full-body' and his enthusiasm for phrases like 'grown in the rich, chocolate cake soil of Western New South Wales and fanned by the soft breezes blowing direct off the smooth flowing waters of Murrumbidgee' I would suggest this was a McWilliams wine. Indeed I would go further. I would say the copy was written by a junior of around 25 years and that he came from George Patterson Advertising. The style of material hasn't a long life. I wouldn't give it more than two years. Yet on the day I found it quite a satisfying label."

Do you think this is exaggerating? Certainly not. We have developed unquestionably the world's most garrulous wine labels.

I have a McWilliams Philip Hermitage which has this dissertation on the back label:

“As far as can be determined the Hermitage
grape originally came from Persia and it is
now one of the main grape varieties grown
in the Rhone Valley in France where it is
known as 'Petite Syrah'. It is also grown
extensively throughout Australia where it
is renowned for the high quality of the wine
which it produces in the Pokolbin district
of the Hunter Valley. The wine produced
from the Hermitage grape on heavy
volcanic loam on the slopes of Mount
Pleasant is a full-bodied, robust, dry red
which should continue to age and improve.”

It was an excellent wine but I did not buy it for a potted viticultural history. Another back label found interesting was this Lindemans Bin 50.

“This wine was produced from Red Hermitage grapes grown in the Hunter Valley, Eden and Clare Valley and Mclaren Vale, Corowa and Langborne Creek. It was matured in small oak casks prior to bottling and is a distinctive Lineman's 'cellar style' wine. Bin 50 is a soft, round generous wine with an attractive flavour and great delicacy. It may be enjoyed now or safely binned away for years to come.

Yes, this wine obviously was made for masked tastings. It is the aim of the connoisseur first to pick the grape variety, then using the brilliance of memory and taste buds name the area. Imagine the genius who would be able to announce: "I would suggest this is Hermitage grape and after careful dissection of the flavours I would say this wine comes from the Hunter River, Eden and Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Corowa and Langhorne Creek districts."

He would sit down, of course, to the cheers of the audience. Other wines depend on the beauty and romance of the prose, like Houghton's White Burgundy.

A full-bodied white wine which is only produced in Western Australia and developed as a distinctive white burgundy style from semillon and tokay grapes. The Indian Ocean plays an important part in the production of this wine. The long dry summer and cool ocean breezes at night combine to eliminate the acidity found in grapes grown in cooler climates. The wine gives a pleasant softness on the palate and is usually served chilled.

I like the part about the Indian Ocean, the breezes and the long summer, all it needs is a nice sunset. The truth is back labels are rarely honest. No 'honest' is not quite the right word. Winemakers all have what is known as cellar palate. A cellar palate is the same feeling that springs in the breast of every mother. Despite the fact that she may have given birth to a child which is as beautiful as a Kingaroy peanut, she still thinks it is the most attractive creature on the globe and, if entered, would win first prize in any baby show. So winemakers inevitably think that the acid little chardonnay they produced at the last vintage is the equivalent of a Montrachet and their pinot noir could outpace any Romanee Conti.

But sometimes one comes across an honest label. My favorite is the product of Dr John Wilson, who also is capable of producing a very amusing newsletter.

      The Wilson Vineyard

      1990 Hippocrene

When I went winemaking in 1980, a veteran
of the trade gave some reassuring advice.
"You can't lose if the wine won't sell, then you
can always drink it yourself."
I'll let you into a secret. I made this sparkling
burgundy style for my own amusement, and
I won't be the slightest upset if no-one buys a
bottle. Cheers!
John Wilson
Polish River

Of course, it was necessary for us to have our own garrulous label. It would have been nice to have had a label designed by a famous artist. Fred Williams, for example, back around 1970 designed a label for Rothbury. It was classic Williams, lots of little blobs designed to depict a vineyard. But even if you could afford the artist, would the picture help sell the wine? One could see the day when a traditional wine drinker might send back a bottle at the restaurant with the announcement: "I never drink a red by a non-figurative artist."

I went to the Melbourne State Library, scoured through their entire 19th century collection of winemaking photographs.

None of them suited. I took colour pictures of our vineyard. pictures of grapes, pictures of vines under nets, pictures of budburst, but none seemed right. Contemporary composers have similar sufferings, all the best tunes already have been taken by Mozart. Then came a small flash of inspiration. Every November James Halliday, vigneron, doyen of Australian wine writers, wine judge, visits the Mornington Peninsula for a night of judgement. It is a tour de force, a marathon of taste and endurance that leaves one spellbound.

The Mornington Peninsula is a young area. Douglas Seabrook, son of the famous Tom Seabrook, and like his father, a great wine judge, established a vineyard at Arthurs Seat in the late 1940s. It was the victim of winds, sea air and predatory birds and lasted only a few seasons. The successful pioneer was Ballieu Myer who planted his vines at Elgee Park in 1972 and, as James Halliday has said, played the focal role in the development of viticulture and winemaking for the whole region. Nat and Rosalie White at Main Ridge Estate were the first to establish their own commercial winery in 1975. From then on the region grew at a remarkable pace. At the last count there were nigh on 100 vineyards in the area, 27 of them already licensed and actually selling wine.

Every vigneron who is even faintly proud of his chardonnay, pinot, cabernet, riesling or shiraz, submits his current vintages to James to assess on judgement day. The venue varies, sometimes it is a country club, large hotel or golf club. Like Moses coming down from the mountain James passes down the word. In the space of three or four hours he delivers his opinion on several hundred wines, their qualities, the style, their shortcomings, faults in the making and it is a marvellous thing for all concerned to have this independent judgement.

In November 1991 our first pinot was there to be tried by James, very young, very innocent, it was. James was not unkind. He thought it light, well made, good taste, but rather a virginal wine. Marie and I went home and pondered over the thought that our wine was a virgin.

Finally there was an idea. Who thought of it first? Was it me? Was it Marie? Was it David? Melbourne's most famous virgin was Chloe, well, if she was not a virgin, her beauty, the perfection of her girl like figure symbolised virginity. Of course, I had been in love with Chloe all my life. Many attempts have been made to find a landmark for Melbourne. Paris has its Eiffel Tower, London has its Tower Bridge, Sydney its Opera House, but Melbourne what? The Yarra? The Exhibition building? In my youth there was also a search for tourist attractions; Captain Cook's cottage, Phar Lap, the stuffed racehorse at the Museum, the armor, helmet and breast plate of Ned Kelly, the bushranger at Melbourne Jail, the Botanic Gardens... None of them as a tourist attraction was the equal of Chloe. Chloe always should have been the landmark. She represented the soul of Melbourne.

As mentioned in chapter three, Jules LeFebvre, a French painter who specialised in romantic nudes, painted Chloe in Paris in 1875. At the Paris salon of 1876 Chloe won the gold medal of honour. Little is known about Marie, the model for Chloe except that George Moore in his 'Confessions of a Young Man' wrote:

"Her end was a tragic one. She invited her friends to dinner, and, with the few pennies that remained, she bought some boxes of matches, boiled them, and drank the water. No one knew why; some said it was love."

Chloe came to Melbourne for the Grand International Exhibition of 1880-81 and was exhibited as a fine example of French art. A famous critic of the day Anatole de Montaiglon spoke of "the immaculate whiteness of her body"..." the clean immobility of her pause"..."Everything is young and of the same youth; the delicacy of the wrists and ankles, the slenderness of the calves and legs, the virginity of the is indeed the precise chaste elegance which precedes the fullness of beauty, of which it is the first flower."

Dr Thomas Fitzgerald, later Sir Thomas, a distinguished surgeon at the Melbourne Hospital bought the painting and offered it on loan to the National Gallery.

The appearance of Chloe in the gallery in 1883 caused a controversy that went on for weeks. John Russell of Emerald Hill demanded the removal of this "indecent picture of a naked woman."..."Would any of the gentlemen trustees permit a nude picture of their daughter, or sister, to be hung there; and if not, why anyone else's daughter?"

A group of art students which included such names as F. McCubbin, F. Longstaff, Louis Abrahams and Alexander Colquhoun wrote a letter in reply to Mr Russell. They said:

"We think it is our duty in the cause of art to protest against his sweeping condemnation of a work so pure and elevating in sentiment and masterly in execution as J. LeFebvre's picture of 'Chloe.'...We would be the last to wish to see anything in any way bordering on the indecent in our Gallery, but maintain that in the present case any indecency whatever exists only in the remarks of your correspondent."

But the controversy went on. 'A Mother' wrote:

"Can it be right that a mother cannot take her daughter to a public gallery, never to speak of her sons, without feeling her cheeks tingling with shame."

After just one month Dr Fitzgerald asked for the return of his picture, no doubt to the immense relief of the Gallery Trustees. The publicity made Chloe's reputation for all time. When Sir Thomas Fitzgerald died in 1908 Young & Jackson's Hotel at Number One Swanston Street, bought Chloe for 800 pounds.

When you consider a working man's salary was around five pounds a week, this was a large sum of money. Henry Figsby Young was the owner. He was a collector of sculpture and good pictures, but also he had a flair for a good stunt, so he made excellent use of Chloe and put her in the public bar.

Except for a brief period during the First World War when she went on loan to the Red Cross and raised 300 pounds at sixpence a head to see her, she has been there ever since. The American troops during World War 2 and, again, when on R&R leave during the Korean war, were particularly taken with her. One drunken American...I think it was circa 1943 threw a glass of beer at her, an outrage at the time which was akin to the murder of Les Darcy and the poisoning of Phar Lap.

Chloe was even involved in international intrigue. Just before World War 2, Hans Runnrich, a crewman aboard the German luxury liner Bremer was accused in the United States of being a spy. However he had an alibi. At the time of the alleged offence, he said, he was in Melbourne. He could remember the place well. There was a railway station with a hotel opposite and in this hotel was a nude painting in the bar. The case was dismissed.

There is no record of her tingling any cheeks with shame. Indeed in 1988 the Historic Buildings Council thought Chloe of such importance to the nation that it gave her official classification, she was never to leave the hotel. However she is no longer in the public bar and she is behind glass to protect her from any assailant like the American serviceman in 1943. Chloe stands as aloof and as beautiful as ever in the first floor Bistro. I like to pay homage to her and to toast her with a glass at least once a month So you can understand how important it was to have Chloe on the label. Two of our top wine dealers and two distinguished winemakers said: "Don't do it." The message was this: "You never put a naked woman on a label. The feminists will go mad, they will demonstrate outside the wine shops."

"But this is history," I pleaded.

"It doesn't matter. Women won't like it."

It seemed that shades of the old National Gallery were returning. Then there were other problems. The Princes Bridge Hotel, as it was correctly called, was owned in New Zealand. For almost a year I contacted the local representatives seeking permission to use Chloe. There was no answer. "The directors will discuss it," they said. Did they? I don't know, but it seemed they were very careful not to say 'Yes'. I was in a state of despair. It seemed best to forget Chloe. The family saved her day. Marie loved Chloe as much as I did. "'You hang on to her," she said. Our son-in-law, Peter Cudlipp, managing director of Luscombe & Partners Advertising, said: "You go for it. I may not be a wine expert but I do know about marketing. Chloe will make a wonderful label." Our nephew Peter McIntosh, a solicitor and expert in copyright, said: "You don't have any worries. Chloe is long out of copyright. You can go ahead regardless. All you have to do is register the label with the patent office and I will do that for you."

Luscombe and Partners with Robin Stuart took over the production of the label and it was actually designed by Philip Suter of Suter and Suter. He did a very good job indeed. Chloe on the label looked just as beautiful as Chloe in Young & Jacksons and we were convinced Jules LeFebvre would have been happy with the reproduction. Lindemans, Penfolds, Rothbury, McWilliams and such, of course, have marvellous machines for labelling at high speed. Humble little wine producers put their labels on by hand. It calls for a very straight eye, the front label has to match the back label, all angles and lines have to be correct. If the bottles have been brought from a cold cellar into a warm room, there is condensation. You have to look out for bubbles, sections that have failed to stick.

My technique for a smooth operation is to place the label on the bottle making sure the edge is parallel with the side of the bottle, run a thumb straight down the middle, then to make sure all is bubble free, work thumbs progressively out to the edge. It has to be confessed this is a most soothing operation with Chloe. At our house we tend to label while watching television, and if I do 10 dozen bottles, my thumbs might actually stroke Chloe 600 times in one evening. It can be awkward if the television program becomes too interesting, then I might discover that Chloe has gone on upside down or that I have forgotten the back label so that Chloe is there on the bottle, front and back.

First public mention of Chloe was made in August 1992 by Terry Laidler on radio with the ABC. The following morning I received a telephone call.

"My name is Ashley Harris. I am manager of Young & Jackson's Hotel."

"Here it comes," I thought. "I hear you have a wine with Chloe on the label," he continued.

"Yes, we do."

"Where can I get some?"

"But," I said, "I talked to you people for a year and never had a response."

"You weren't talking to me. There are different owners now. Young & Jackson's is now leased by Carlton & United Breweries."

So developed a very happy relationship. Chloe was sold in front of Chloe and the Princes Bridge Hotel became our best customer.

Follow onto the next chapter, Achieving divinity