Finding the wine demon

First published

When did my serious trouble with Bacchus actually begin? I reckon it was a lovely day in December 1959. I was driving with my friend Adrian Benns through North East Victoria. There are few areas more lovely. All along the little creeks that run into the Ovens and King Rivers are these River Red Gums. They look well fed and comfortable. The bark is a dazzling white and the trunks are as fat as 1000 gallon drums.

It is not dull country without seasons. In the summer it is the colour of pale biscuit; in winter often it floods and it can be as green as old Ireland. There are the marvellous ibis, the crested pigeons with the funny tufts on their heads, the flame robins and, of course, squadrons, even armadas, of pink galahs. Around the flat plain there is a perfect picture frame of mountains.

We were motoring across this plain when we saw a sign "Brown Bros, Milawa." I had returned recently from Queensland after being a columnist on Brisbane's Courier Mail. Wine was almost unknown in the North. One drank Bundaberg Rum. Indeed I had always been fascinated by the indigenous habits of Queenslanders. Rum was accepted as the socially correct alcohol to have before or during breakfast. It was like having Corn Flakes, one took one's rum with a dash of milk.

At the weekend almost half the population of Brisbane disappeared "down the Bay", which meant almost anywhere from Morton Island through to Coolangatta. Everyone went fishing and rum coupled with milk was the absolutely necessary early tonic. I grew to like it very much. I was fascinated too by the staff of the Courier. Queensland never succumbed to the nonsense of six o'clock closing. After the paper had been put to bed, and just before the presses started rolling, almost the entire staff retired to the pubs in Queen Street, where they drank over proof rum in small glasses.

Queensland's fascination with rum goes right back to the last century. The sugar mills found that for every ton of sugar they made, 40 gallons of molasses went to waste. How beautiful if they could convert the molasses into rum, into liquid sunshine. Rum was a favorite of the drovers. It was difficult to cart a dozen bottles of beer on horseback but you could always find room for a bottle of overproof. There was even a lovely song they would sing:

"God made the sugar grow where it's hot
And teetotal abstainers to grow where it's not.
Let the sin bosun warn of perdition to come
We'll drink it and chance it, so bring on the rum."

Bundaberg rum, and it's over proof rum
Will tan your inside and grow hair on your bum.
Let the blue ribbon beat on his empty old drum
Or his waterlogged belly but we'll stick to our rum
We're men who drink it, oh yes men indeed
Of the bushranging hairnecked olden time breed, 
We shave with our axes, we dress in old rags,
We feed on old boots and we sleep on old bags.
Dull care flies away when our voices resound
And the grass shrivels when we spit on the ground,
When we finally die and are buried in clay
Our bodies are pickled and never decay."

It was true, most of them drank their overproof with no added water. I couldn't believe their tonsils did not shrivel. Of course, they were shocked at the idea of anyone who would adulterate this beautiful liquor with a sickly material like Coca-Cola. The rum always was followed with a glass of beer, the beer chaser, that was the soft drink. The beer was to put out the fire.

Wine was not completely unknown. Rhine Castle Wines had a branch in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley. There it was possible to buy Rhine Castle Red or Rhine Castle White in gallon glass flagons. Back in the mid-fifties this seemed an excellent way of consuming alcohol economically. Marie and I would have a glass out of the flagon every night with dinner. As the level of fluid in the flagon went down, glass by glass, we did not notice that something strange, something very peculiar was happening to the wine. We went away for three weeks holiday, and when we returned the Rhine Castle flagon was still there, still with half a gallon of good wine waiting to be consumed. So we served it with dinner.

"Good heavens, this tastes awful," I said.

"Complain to Rosa," replied Marie.

"Indeed I will."

Rosa was the wonderful gregarious lady who sold us the wine at Rhine Castle. So when I returned the flagon to her, Rosa gave us the first of a million lessons we were to acquire about the strange habits of fermented grape juice number One, wine when exposed to air oxidises and turns progressively into vinegar. What a tragedy. When we had been drinking that flagon, glass by glass, night by night, the deterioration had been progressive, and we had the nice illusion that wine always tasted like that.

So two years later, driving through Milawa, the Dunstan brain was still splendidly uncluttered with viticultural matters. I had never been to a vineyard and I had never seen grapes growing.

"Let's go in, " said Adrian. "I don't reckon they'd mind, do you?

So out of curiosity in we went.

Brown Bros in the 1990s is a huge organisation. It exports a container of wine a week and it takes in grapes from thousands of acres of vines throughout North Eastern Victoria. There are so many stainless steel tanks it reminds one of the Altona oil refinery. The tasting room is more capacious than the bar in the Hotel Regent. In 1959 there was just one building, a rough hewn Canadian barn, as lofty as a Cathedral. The temperature outside was nigh on a fahrenheit century and with the fluctuations of the heat one could hear the old building creaking in its joints as if it were suffering from arthritis.

Milawa was just 17 kilometres out of Wangaratta and the Brown family had been living there since 1857. Nobody had given me adequate warning about vineyards, and particularly old wineries. They all have a heady, mystic atmosphere. Maybe it is the change of temperature from the heat outside to the cool inside, maybe it is the pungent odor, the fragrance coming from thousands of litres stored, plus the memories of grapes crushed and wine poured for a hundred years. Maybe it is all the mature oak and the nice feeling of security being surrounded by so much of what is destined to promote human joy. Whatever it is, something happens. Even the most educated palates are overcome and the wine that is poured tastes as if it is destined to score gold medals at every show in Australia.

Later Doug Crittenden, master of a licensed grocery chain, told me about this. "Never, never, buy in the cellar," said he. "I used to buy just one bottle, take it back to my motel and taste it. There I would make up my mind whether or not to buy."

I certainly went under the mystic spell of Milawa that day. I was greeted by John Brown, a large man, fair and balding. There was no stress in this man. His face radiated peace. It would be difficult to imagine John Brown ever being panicked or disturbed. He was a true tiller of the soil, he could see his life spread across the seasons and even generations. Yes he has an old fashioned strength that we city dwellers can't even hope to understand. I was to learn a great deal about this. For example, there was November 1967, a lovely Spring in the North East, a season full of promise. There was the star-filled night the frost came rolling down from the slopes of Mt Hotham and Mt Buffalo.

The grapes had just set and even by midnight the Browns were aware of its menace. You could light fires and set up fans, but it was no use. The result was devastating, the frost went through the vineyard as if it were a blow torch, an almost total wipe-out. There was no vintage that year.

Exactly a decade later in 1977 there was a hail storm of terrible ferocity. There was no vintage that year either. On each occasion I telephoned John Brown the following morning. He was as calm as if he had just returned from Church. No tears, no whingeing, not even a curse at his miserable luck. "You've got to expect it some time," he said. "Look at the fellows who grow wheat or barley."Yes in 1967 he lost his vintage, but wait, there would be a 69, a 70 and a 71. I was amazed. Had I lost my income for a year the tears would be a 100 millimetres deep, but he was a man of the land well used to the whims of nature.

On that first day this big amiable man led me down a flight of wooden steps to the coolth below. It took a little while to adjust to the dim light. He had a length of rubber tubing and for his bulk he clambered nimbly over the barrels. He put the tubing into barrel after barrel. First we tasted the riesling, then the grenache, then we moved into the robust shiraz and then the wonder of Milawa, the beautiful blend of cabernet, shiraz and the mondeuse, one of the rare French varieties, brought back from France by Francois de Castella in 1908. John Brown always called it CSM but for us it was CMS in honour of the Church Missionary Society. You can't really separate wine from religion.

From the CMS we continued to the Milawa Tokays, ports and Muscat. It was latish afternoon, eyes began to droop in that pungent atmosphere. All the barrels seemed to be talking to me. There were barriques, there were hogsheads and there were monsters, big chaps with oval faces that held a 1000 litres or more, almost as old as the vineyard. John all enthusiasm was still putting that rubber umbilical cord into the barrels. He would return and drain it into the glasses.

"That's marvellous John," I said.

He would give a whimsical smile. "Not a bad drop," he said.

That was his favorite expression, always careful not to go overboard. "Not a bad drop," he would say.

I remember one time he produced his 1962 Late Picked Botrytis Riesling, one of the best white wines ever produced in Australia. It was continually mistaken for a Chateau d'Yquem. Even when one was raving over that one John still replied: "Not a bad drop."

If one could digress to give proof of this. In the 1970s I gave a dinner party and the climax to the wine list was a masked dessert wine. Before we denuded the bottle of its brown paper there was an argument. "Was this wine a Chateau d'Yquem or was it not? What's more, what was the year?

One of the guests was Ian Sutherland Smith, a wine merchant, and member of the Sutherland Smith family of All Saints Rutherglen. Ian had no doubts that it was an Yquem, the most renowned of all the Sauternes of France. Finally he said: "If that is not an Yquem I will bare my bum in Myers window in Bourke Street."

We unmasked the bottle and it was the 1962 Brown Bros Botrytis Riesling. "When will you bare your bum, Ian?" was the natural question.

Nothing happened, this celebrated event did not take place. Months later we were invited to dinner at the Sutherland Smith house. Beverley, his wife, was just about to serve the dessert. Ian came sprinting through the dining room, naked as he was born, out the door he went and into the swimming pool. His honour was saved.

Needless to say, I never got over that mellow afternoon surrounded by the oak vats of John Brown. Never before had anyone introduced me to wine as a living thing, every glass, every vintage different to the other, a variety as amazing as human fingerprints. Here was a creation of God, filled with infinite subtlety. Good heavens, why didn't we drink more of it?

From then on I returned to Milawa on every possible occasion, and in the process I learned a great deal about the Brown family. There was John's marvellous wife Pat, who ran an almost continuing hospitality centre at Milawa. There were their four sons, John, Peter, Ross and Roger all of whom became partners in the vineyard. John Brown was a survivor. The Victorian wine industry had been in a state of torpor since the scourge of philloxera at the turn of the century. Brown Bros in 1959 did little bottling. John sold in bulk to companies like Dan Murphy, Stan Keon, Sutherland Smith, Jimmy Watson and Rhine Castle.

The people who kept him going right through the 30s and 40s were the Italians. Between the wars there was an invasion of Italians into the North East and they became producers of hops and tobacco. They adored the rich Milawa reds which they could get for around a shilling a gallon. The law stated bulk wine could be sold at the cellar door and the minimum was two gallons. So the Italians came up with every kind of container, big five gallon bottles, barrels, wicker-covered demijohns.

The Italians liked their wine fresh and young. "They would take it right out of the presses, if they could get it," said John Brown. The ratio was five gallons of red to one of white. It was mainly the Yugoslavs who preferred the white.

I observed all these people getting their containers filled. I said to John: "Can I do that too?" So I became a member of a very serious cult, the home bottler. One of the first containers I acquired was a huge bottle. Chemists used to put them in their windows filled with colored water. This one must have contained more than 60 litres and we would carry it on the back seat of the Holden like an extra passenger.

It was a summer day in February when John filled it with his beautiful CMS and Marie and I set off on the two and a quarter hour drive back to East Malvern. We veered away from Sydney Road and took a short cut through the city via Lygon Street. We were just passing Queensberry Street when there was a "CRACKKKK" from the back seat. It must have been the expansion caused by the heat. Our beautiful glass bottle had split in half. All I could do was pull over to the kerb, open the back door and watch a waterfall of lovely Church Missionary Society flow into the gutter. We were both almost in tears. Any Australian bystander, I am sure, would have laughed, but an Italian was there on the corner. Immediately he sensed the true agony of what happened. "Mamma Mia," he said, "what a tragedy! We drove home with wine lapping around our ankles. It was six months before the smell of wine disappeared from the Holden and the carpet and upholstery was for ever the color of burgundy.

This was young wine that we were buying from John Brown, not just your bulk quaffing wine, but the best reds and whites from his vineyard. Obviously they were worthy of maturation. They needed to be kept for five, six or maybe 10 years before they achieved their full eloquence and glory. This was difficult, we had a bottle for dinner every night, and why not? The cost of production including purchase of wine, corks, transport, everything was around one shilling or in todays terms 10 cents a bottle. It was that glorious time, never to come again, when there was no tax on wine.

But my skill at putting wine aside was poor. There was only one way to overcome this, buy twice as much as we could possibly drink. Very quickly this became easy. Eric Purbrick of Chateau Tahbilk gave us an old brewery barrel. Not only did this make transport easier, but it also doubled our intake. Now we were receiving Tahbilk Shiraz, Tahbilk Cabernet and Tahbilk Marsanne as well as the fine wines from Brown Bros.

Regrettably we lived in utterly flat East Malvern, where every dwelling suffered from rising damp. There was no space under the house and no possibility of acquiring a cellar. We stored wine in all the cupboards, we stored wine under the bed. We did not go as far as one of my friends, who loosened all the floor boards in his house and stored his wine under the planks. It made life a little tricky for him. For example if he were looking for the 1960 Brown Bros Cabernet he had to remember it was under the fifth floorboard from the dining room door.

Wives have to be patient and understanding with this sort of thing. They have to be sufficiently generous not only to sacrifice cupboards in the bedroom but also to give up all the top cupboards in the kitchen.

There was no escape. Eventually we had to use the woodshed and store the firewood outside against the side fence. It was remarkable how quickly that woodshed filled. Some of my more erudite wino friends said: "Keith, you can't do this. Have you any idea how hot that wood shed gets in summer?" I put the wine in cartons and wrapped every bottle in a copy of the Sun News-Pictorial, but I did have fears when room temperature reached around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, I had fears until come the summer of 1965 I was touring the Hunter River with the ebullient Len Evans.

We called at Tulloch's winery. The 1960s was a comparatively innocent period. The vignerons of the Hunter River did not feel they had to impress visitors who might indulge in cellar door sales with oak panelled tasting rooms and wineries that looked like castles complete with battlements. Tulloch's architectural beauty was on a par with a shearing shed. The veteran master winemaker was Hector Tulloch and naturally he was impressed by the arrival of Len. Immediately he started pulling out his finest vintages going right back to 1950 and even earlier.

We tasted red after red after red. I noticed that to get these lovely old wines Hector Tulloch had to climb stacks which were right under the bare galvanised iron roof. No insulation and the iron acted just like a splendid radiator. I said: "Mr Tulloch, don't terrible things happen to the wine when it gets up over 100 degrees?"

"No, not a thing," he replied. "Been doing it for years. It's OK as long as it doesn't boil."

After this I had faith in my old woodshed and it was remarkable how quickly it filled. Eventually it contained nigh on 3000 bottles, which gave one a nice feeling of security. I had read my Bible concerning the 40 years of plenty and the 40 years of famine: Come pestilence, drought, taxes, we had sufficient wine to last the family nigh on a decade.

I had not counted on pestilence. One of the beauties of having such a store was being able to check on the progress of say, the '62 Everton from Brown's, or the '63 Shiraz from Tahbilk. It was in February 1970 that I spotted something very odd. Bottles appeared to be leaking and developing ullage. How could this be? Always we had purchased top quality corks. I was a little embarrassed about this, because I had been circumventing the retail market. But one had to show courage in a time of crisis, so I went to Dan Murphy and showed him one of the guilty bottles.

He looked at it carefully, "Keith," he said, "you have the cork borer."

"Cork borer?"

"Yes, it is a little insect or beetle that likes cork, bores his way into the bottle. He doesn't drink much wine but eventually he destroys your wine."

"What can I do?" I pleaded. "Do I spray?"

"There's only one thing you can do," replied Dan. "You have to replace every cork in every bottle."

"B-b-but it could happen again." "Indeed it could. So what you have to do is seal every top with paraffin wax."

It was a time of terrible urgency. That weekend the entire family was pressed into action, Marie, David our son, and three daughters. The production line included cork extractors, cork putter-inners, and packers. The job took the entire weekend. It was quite remarkable how the Wood Shed Bin survived. We still have some of those bottles, the tops coated with wax, the same wax that Marie used for putting on the top of her home made strawberry jam and marmalade. The bottles go back over 30 years, they have been cooked in the heat, chewed by beetles, corked twice, and some look most picturesque like bottles that once held candles in some old shearing shed. The paraffin has dripped down the side, and they still taste glorious. It is hard to kill a robust old North-Easter.

Bottles were always an interesting problem. Originally in Australia there was a creature called the bottle-oh, technically known as the marine dealer. Ours called around once a week with his horse drawn wagon. He cried out "Bottle-ohhh in a long wailing voice." He wore a splendid waistcoat with red buttons. He had a white cavalry moustache and a superb slouch hat. His tips for the races were unerring. He would pay a few shillings for a bag full of bottles.

Alas, he disappeared for ever in 1960. So many charity organisations discovered there was money in bottles. But the garbage collectors were the greatest menace to the bottle-oh. The garbos carried sacks on the sides of their compactors and paid nothing. Ah, but what a remunerative sideline it was. Our garbo admitted to us one day he had been on a holiday to the South of France on the proceeds.

Home bottlers had different approaches to their task. Some had no shame. They used the old 26 ounce or 750 ml beer bottle. There was not a great deal of style when one opened a crown seal recycled Foster's at a dinner party, but it worked. Nor was it as silly as it sounds. In 1963 John Brown made an experiment. He bottled some red wine, put a cork in one bottle, a crown seal on the other. In 1978, 15 years later, he opened those two bottles and the red wine with the crown seal was actually in better condition than the wine with the cork. Champagne, of course, before it is disgorged and capped with those fancy wired down corks, is kept for several years under crown seals, I asked a member of the Heidsieck amily why they did not use crown seals entirely instead of corks. "Actually, it would be bettair," he said. "But you see, you would lose ze POP"

Yes, some home bottlers were intensely practical. One of our team had a friend in the paint business and he discovered a wonderful cache of clean turpentine bottles. They were triangular in shape, beautiful for stacking in one's bedroom cupboard. He thought so much of his home-bottled wine he took it into all the best restaurants. He even had the effrontery to take a turpentine special into the Florentino. The shocked waiter carried it past the table holding it by two fingers as if it were a dead rat.

However many bottlers, particularly young doctors, liked to give home bottlings a certain tone. They had special labels done, a particular favorite was a woodcut of tubby little Bacchus holding a bunch of grapes in one hand and, if you looked carefully, his little penis was peeing into a glass of wine. The thing to do was plead for empties from restaurants like the Balzac or Fanny's. Very high quality bottles came from there. Then there were those who went marauding up Heyington Place and St George's Road, Toorak at 6 am on Tuesdays. Tuesday was garbage collection morning and one would have no trouble finding all the best quality French bottles, first growths no end. Some enthusiasts home bottled only in French champagne empties. At our place we prized the lovely Noilly Prat vermouth bottles. They held a litre. Always we felt that a 26 ounce 750 ml bottle was regrettably small in size.

Home bottlers believed deeply in point five dinners. A point five dinner was half a bottle of wine with each meal. So the talk was like this. "How was dinner?"'It was a point five." It could go as low as point three or even up to one point five a head but a home bottler felt less guilty if the arithmetic referred to litre bottles.

Home bottling became a great fund-raising thing - Lions Apex, School Parents' Associations. I went to one incredible night out at Camberwell when they bottled more than 600 gallons. The place was ankle deep in shiraz and jolly parents were going off down the street, their bottles clanking in wheelbarrows.

Various political parties were in it too and we did our best to home bottle several candidates into the House of Representatives.

Our bottling methods at first were crude. Oh indeed, we did try to wash the bottles rather well, we did remove the old labels even if they did admit to being a Chateau Lafite or a Chateauneuf du Pape 1958. The system was to run a tube of three eighth inch plastic tubing from the barrel. Suck on it very hard until the wine began to flow, then insert into the bottle. The tube had to be squeezed to stop the flow each time but that was not easy and inevitably the floor was awash with red. Circa 1960 it was possible to buy only crude corkers and one literally bashed in the cork with a hammer.

In 1962 I went on a Canadian Pacific Airlines junket to Paris. I knew if only I could find the right place there were superb lever action brass corkers to be had, devices that squeezed the cork, then with one push of a handle smoothly drove that cork into the bottle.

I explained what I wanted to the concierge at our hotel. Ah yes, he said, I should go to Les Halles, the famous markets de Paris and there I would find a shop that dealt in everything for the winemaker. But how would I ask for a corker? What was the name for it? The concierge thought that was very complicated. I would have to ask for "un machina pour remplir le boucher de bouteille," an instrument for putting the cork into the bottle.

I did find the shop in Les Halles and I told the French shop assistant of my requirements. He called over the manager and they both looked at me with amazement. I had learnt French, passed my leaving and even continued with French at Melbourne University, but I had discovered this earlier. When I used my expensively acquired linguistic skill upon the French I could well have been speaking Hindustani.

I left the puzzled pair, hunted round the shop and eventually found the very thing, an utterly beautiful brass corker. "Voila", I said in triumph. The manager beamed. "Monsieur, c'est Le Corker!" He knew exactly the sort of person I was. Then he brought out another marvellous syphoning device with a brilliant little tap that turned off when the bottle was filled.

I returned to Melbourne with these gadgets and was the envy of all bottledom. But a friend of mine went one better. He had a hogshead which held 52 and a half imperial gallons which produced nigh on 400 bottles. His garage, set into a hillside, had a concrete roof. He put the hogshead on the garage roof then ran a fat nylon tube down below where we did the bottling. Here he had a dear old fashioned lavatory cistern which was equipped with a ball valve. As soon as the lavatory cistern was filled with cabernet, CMS or whatever, lo, the ball valve stopped the flow. Marvellous. From the lavatory cistern there was a series of three eighth inch plastic tubes with taps. I tell you, with this set up we could bottle almost as fast as Seppelts.

We had eight or nine years of this. Costs rose. Eventually we were paying as much as one shilling and sixpence or 30 cents a bottle for our beautiful wine. It was in 1967 that the great wine boom began. Suddenly Australians ceased to be barbarians and discovered the glories of the natural resources God had given them. Len Evans, Dr Max Lake and others predicted that by 1970 or 1971 there would be a shortage of red wine in Australia.

For us 1968 was the climactic year. Vignerons all around the country discovered the way to glory was to put their best wine into bottles under their own labels. First quality home bottling wine was almost impossible to find.

Alas, never again, were things the same for the home bottler.

Follow onto the next chapter, The demon becomes a snob