The demon becomes a snob

First published

Of course, few people realise just how much daily columnists suffer. I was a daily columnist for more than 30 years. If any new product came on the market; a new book, a new beer, if a new show was coming to town, if a new building was being opened, a new company created, it was essential to invite the columnists. Every public relations person knew they were desperate for material so always columnists were at the top of the invitation list.

There was a rule as rock solid as Mr Newton's Laws of Motion. Indeed there could be a Fourth Law of Motion which would read "Nothing can be launched without adequate food and drink." This still applies and my advice to anyone out of work and in need of sustenance would be to keep an eye on the reception rooms of the city's top hotels. Always there is a board by the registration desk which lists the functions for the day. Usually there are four or five. For example "Ansett Holiday Tour 4 pm." It is important to have a clean shirt, a tie, then announce yourself maybe as Alf Bloggenheimer, columnist for the City News. You will be fed, wined, and given a public relations kit.

The truth is that most hotels, most reception rooms, most restaurants, are supported by hard-working, self sacrificing business people, who are eating and drinking on behalf of business and country. As a columnist I found that I had invitations for lunch, dinner, and evening drinks almost every day. One could cope with this but then the situation became worse.

We saw the arrival of the American horror, the business breakfast. That aggressive businessman Stanley Korman started it all. He believed only at breakfast were minds clear and fresh. He would call in his executives to his suite at the Chevron in St Kilda Road. Unquestionably talks over breakfast had a special air of awe and drama. The idea spread. Already there were too many lunches, and it was easy to wriggle out of a lunch one did not want. Ah, but breakfast was tricky. It was difficult to conjure the quick excuse that one already had a breakfast engagement. If so, with whom? I went to Qantas breakfasts, Remington breakfasts, Egg Board breakfasts, and even a Moomba Festival breakfast. Of course, breakfasts, except those provided by Stanley Korman, were never teetotal. Champagne was served. It is difficult to think of a time when good champagne should not be served. However it doesn't go with eggs and it doesn't go with sausages. Occasionally we had the civilised host who served perhaps a little fish, smoked salmon or whiting at breakfast, but it was a difficult start to the day.

I would come home, say, at 6 pm and Marie would say: "Did you have a hard day at the office, dear?"

"Did I ever. There was the Vacuum Oil breakfast at Southern Cross. I had to endure Great Western Champagne with omelettes. Then at noon Orlando had lunch with a launch of their range of wines. They thought their Clare Rieslings would go well with Oysters Kilpatrick and their reds would marry with Aberdeen Angas filet mignon. Then hardly had I digested all that then I had to go to the Hilton for the General Motors launch of their V8 Executive cruiser." "And what do they give you?" Bloody champagne again, with salmon and caviar again. They never think of anything else." "You poor darling, they do make you suffer don't they? How do you stand it, day after day? Yesterday for lunch you had to suffer Spiced Pork Spare Ribs, followed by Chicken Chasseur and if that wasn't enough you had to finish with Torte au Citron."

"I know, I know," came the agonised reply. "And you know what's on tomorrow? A Hungarian trade mission. That'll be a three hour affair with Borscht. Could I get into training, just a ham omelette tonight - lightly cooked - and a glass of bicarb?"

"Of course, sweetheart. I did prepare for you a crab cocktail and a Stroganoff, but never mind the dog will eat them."

There were other embarrassments in being a columnist. It was never wise to mention the name of a product. One time I quoted a particular brand of pie, next day a great carton appeared on my desk, a gross of meat pies, 144 of them. It is difficult to know what to do with 144 meat pies delivered at 9 am. Another time I mentioned that one of the most heavenly dishes God ever created was the crumpet, a huge dollop of butter allowed to melt into all the multifarious crumpetty holes and crannies, then that done, a liberal blob of honey on top. Bliss, I wrote. You've guessed it, a gross of crumpets hit the desk the following day.

Bottles also came with remarkable regularity, particularly brands that were not selling well. There was a range of ports in honor of cricketers and Olympians. There was an Ian Chappell port and a port in honor of Dawn Fraser. Then would you believe there was a whole range of vintage port, dedicated to racehorses. The fact that a port was named in honour of Phar Lap or Carbine did nothing to improve its flavour.

Then in the early 60s the wine companies were looking for new ways to sell wine. There was wine in the can, exactly like the beer tinnies. There was theory that citizens at the footy, or characters going on a fishing trip, would just as soon have their tinnies of riesling or shiraz rather than Tooheys or Victoria Bitter. So cans of wine arrived on my desk.

It has to be admitted wine in the can was a one week wonder There was a certain lack of romance about taking a tin opener to a can of cabernet sauvignon, listening to the "splutt", then pouring. The wine cask, the birth of the Chateau Cardboard, was a different matter. I can remember the excitement when the first wine cask arrived on my desk, created after much scientific experiment. The bag inside was made of a silver foil and the theory was that as the wine drained the bag would collapse and the evil oxygen would have no chance to attack the product. The wine would last for months, never would it turn into vinegar like it did with the old flagons.

The PR blurb that came with the new flagons was marvellous. Here was a new era for the wine drinker. There was the age old problem that a wine bottle was never the right size. There were so many occasions when one wanted only a single glass. Now the cask of riesling or white hermitage could sit in the refrigerator, any time one felt like it one could tap it for a cool glass of delicious nectar and the wine in the cask would never deteriorate.

Unlike the cans, chateau cardboard did take off and at its peak in the 80s it was catering for 80 per cent of Australian wine sales. But often manufacturers abused the customers. Wine producers who had any wine they thought too thin, too oxidised, too lacking in tannin, too embarrassing even to give no their friends, found it better to put aside for Chateau Cardboard rather than sell it under their own illustrious label so very early I stopped buying the casks. There was a certain inverse snobbery in having one's own home bottled wine. One could say this was a very special vintage, a barrel we just managed to obtain by extraordinary good fortune from Basedow's in South Australia. Or Brown Brothers let us have 10 gallons of this because it was the last of their marvellous 1969 cabernet. After that came to an end, what could one do? The only alternative was to become a wine snob.

First I learned no longer did one simply drink wine. One looked at it. "It was fascinating to look at the '72 Grange yesterday wasn't it?" When tasting or looking one took the flat base of the glass between thumb and forefinger put one's nose into the top of the tulip shape, sniffed, rolled one's eyes in the direction of heaven, and gave out a meaningful "ahhh."

There were many things a wine man had to learn very early. The wine did not smell at all, it had bouquet or a good nose, and it was necessary to have an ingenious range of scents at one's fingertips so to speak. One could talk of raspberries, strawberries, plums, cherries, mulberries, violets, the exotic breath of the iris, the rose, the geranium, and even the gardenia. In the Hunter Valley of New South Wales they would talk of the overtones of the sweaty saddle. Wine could be ingenious.

One didn't rush in and crudely start drinking. There were points for being the slowest and most circumspect. It was important to contemplate the glass for a moment, take in the exquisite scene, then inspect it for colour. Not by holding it to the light, certainly not, the light source could be misleading. One would hold it low, against a white table cloth, in order to detect the exact nuance of shade for one's expert eye. Now one was free to take a sip.

Sip yes, but it was important to roll the drop around one's tongue as proof of dedication, with a noise, that would have done credit to the Board of Works or even a lavatory cistern. Then one needed a palate. There was the early palate, the middle palate and the late palate. Yes, the skilled wine-taster had to comment on the various stages of the raspberry, strawberry or geranium in the mouth. It sounded good though if one referred to that late taste as the 'farewell' or even better 'the au revoir.' The most damaging thing was to wake up with a farewell still on the tongue the following morning.

The keen enthusiast discovered also that wines took on human characteristics. They could be austere, they could be cheerful or sullen, gloomy wines that were strangely reticent on the middle palate. The wines could be dumb which meant they had absolutely nothing to say, or honest, "Now this is a decent, honest wine," which actually is terribly patronising. It was a bit like the archbishop's daughter, you knew she would never get you into trouble. You could have pathetic wines that were lacking in backbone or subtle wines full of mystery. They could be nervous, but then again they could be supple, ripe, seductive, full of generosity and superbly well rounded. After learning all the terms, I didn't know whether one should drink these riper reds or go to bed with them.

It was in the late 60s that it all became serious. Wine and food clubs started to proliferate. By the 70s there were so many they were almost threatening Apex, the Lions and Rotary. There was the Wine & Food Society, the Ladies Wine & Food, the Beefsteak and Burgundy Club, the Viticultural Society and organisations with very grand names like the Confreries des Chevaliers de Tastevin. They hung little tasting cups around their necks. Then there were elite clubs like the Friday Club in Melbourne. Yes, they met every Friday. They would start with several champagnes or sherries, look at two or three rieslings or chardonnays, move majestically into at least four reds, test out a sauterne with the dessert, then wind up with a vintage port or a cognac. At this stage it would be almost time for dinner.

There was the Rothbury Estate Society which Len Evans launched in 1973. Members were given tests. One started with a white ribbon, then moved up the scale to green, red, and ultimately purple. Purple suggested Supreme Pontiff status, and a palate rather superior to Michael Broadbent or Andre Simon. I knew some characters who belonged to so many of these societies they found it difficult to arrange an appointment for a meal at home. At every club they would go through the same awful ritual. All the bottles from the sparkling whites through to the heavy artillery at the finish would be wrapped in brown paper. In correct parlance they were masked. So the happy enjoyment of one's oysters or duck a l'orange was destroyed by the Guess-the-Wine Competition.

The theory was that the brilliant club member should be able to stand up, describe, the nose, the taste, precisely identify the age, the grape or blending of the grapes and then brilliantly identify the area, the vineyard and perhaps even name the paddock from which the grapes were picked. There were, and still are, only 40 people in the nation who could do this. Oh, let's be generous, make it 60. Yet Alf Murgatroyd, who worked in an insurance office and was lucky once a month to see a really fine red, was expected to perform. So you would hear Meursault described as an Oxford Landing, or a Chateauneuf du Pape as a Penfold's Dalwood.

One lovely day I heard a Bernkastel Doktor described in language that was nothing less than pure poetry. It turned out to be a cider made in South Australia. At a Wine & Food Society meeting I heard a very distinguished doctor vigneron say: "This wine is piss. I don't think I want to drink it." Alas, when unmasked it turned out to be one of his beloved vintages.

Len Evans created the Options Games when they put money in and every guess cost money. His team did it regularly for years, same day every week, ranging through the great wines of the world. This is very difficult for most of us. It takes at least 15 years to acquire a reasonable palate and by the time all bottles are opened the capital cost could be at least $20,000. One of the first times that I came across this almost mystical seance of the masked tasting was at a meeting of the Viticultural Society of Victoria. It took place at the Ritz Cafe and Tom Seabrook was in the chair. Old Mr Seabrook, father of Douglas and Tom jnr, was the great father figure of wine in Melbourne. It was alleged that Mr Seabrook, just by putting his nose into the glass, could detect the origin of almost any wine on earth.

We were half way through the roast chicken when, to my horror, Mr Seabrook said: "What do you think of the first white, Keith?" I waffled on about the wine then said: "Mr Chairman, it reminds me of a Mt Pleasant Hunter River Semillon." It is always a good trick to say it "reminds" you, this is an escape in case you are terribly wrong.

By extraordinary good fortune we had drunk a bottle of the Mt Pleasant only the night before and this was exactly what it was. Oh, triumph, oh joy. During the next course, Mr Seabrook called for comments on the reds. I was just putting my hand up, when my host Doug Crittenden grabbed it. "Don't be a fool," he hissed. "You got one right and they think you're brilliant. Shut up for the rest of the meal."

That was very good advice. My thoughts on the reds were hopeless. I had the wrong grape, the wrong decade and the wrong country. Indeed 20 years on after attending countless blind wine tastings I am little better now than I was then. I even contemplated at one stage writing a book titled "How To Cheat at Wine Tastings". After all, at least 400 books came out every year on wine and food, but practically none on how to survive at these lunch and dinner parties.

I jotted down these notes. When called upon to speak, as mentioned earlier, hold the glass correctly. Never hold it by the stem. Hold it by the flat base of the glass between thumb and forefinger. Then, as you talk, frequently put your nose back into the glass, as if to reinforce your opinion. This looks impressive.

First it is important to have assessed the lunch. How much did the members pay, $20, $30, $50, $75? If they paid $25 it is certain that you will be sticking to Australian wines, particularly if it is a big lunch. If it is $30 to $50 there will be some fancy boutique Australian wines and if it is $75 or above it is a Monty they will be going for Californian, French or German.

For a start presume it is not an over expensive lunch. Dip your nose into the glass, take a taste, cluck your tongue and point out that you find this wine has an extremely satisfying nose with perhaps just the faintest aroma of crushed violets. (That will really floor them. Nobody else has picked up the scent of violets. It just proves you have a much better sense of smell than they have.) Point out that you found this was a well-balanced wine (it's sure to balance somehow or other). A wine which had spent time on good wood yet still showing some bottle age. Unless the wine society is offering you Chateau Cardboard it is a 90 per cent chance that the wine has been in new or old oak and seeing it is now in a bottle, this is proof it has bottle age.)

You compliment the Wine Master for his superb choice in picking the wine to go with the main course today. It compliments exactly the Filet Mignon and who else would have considered that violet nose which goes so well with the broccoli.

(This gets you in good with the wine master and the food master at the same time, which is most important.) If you can't proceed from there say that this is a wine made at least in part from shiraz or hermitage grapes (they're the same thing) and your belief is that it comes from South Australia. (Here you might be dead lucky. Many of our big winemakers are now blending more varieties than you would find in a Christmas pudding and seeing that shiraz is our most important grape variety it's a monty there will be some Shiraz in it somewhere. As for South Australia, that State produces at least two thirds of our red wine, so what do you have to lose?

Now if it is a white wine. I think you can detect immediately if it is red or white... If it is pale and slightly acid go for riesling. Otherwise punt for chardonnay. Chardonnay is absolutely all the go in Australia this minute and you will find it in almost every area except the Gibson Desert. For no logical reason it is being priced two to three times that of other varieties.

So if it has a little colour and is slightly flabby, say: "Mmm, I find this a creamy, peachy, mouthfilling wine. It even has smooth honey-like qualities and I would suggest that is a chardonnay probably from.... At this point pick a wine area which is close to you. That's another good punt. Wine societies often like to show off their local chardonnays.

But now for actual cheating. Get to the lunch good and early. There are a lot of sloppy wine masters and if you are lucky you might get a glimpse of a cork. Often you find them under the table or in a rubbish tin somewhere. Any winemaker who has a bit of tone labels the corks and many, like Chateau Tahbilk, even have the crest of the vineyard.

Take a good look at the bottle. There are clues here. For example Penfolds and Lindemans nearly always use green bottles, and there are different shapes for clarets and burgundies. Riesling usually come in long slim bottles and chardonnays are in the burgundy bottles often with a honey amber colour, One time if there was a punt in the bottom you knew for a fact it was imported. Sometimes French punts are deeper than ours and the colours in the glass are not the same as those produced by ACI in Australia.

Our green bottles are a brilliant vulgar green but a German Mosel green is much more beautiful and the Alsatian green is different again; it is a more misty, subtler green. The Rhine Mosel too tends to be in a slightly more stubby bottle. Bottle shapes can be very indicative. One of the Stonyfell wines used to be in a short fat bottle and Peter Walker of the famous Rhine Castle family told of the day at a wine lunch when one gentleman brilliantly reported to the assemblage that this was a Pape Clement claret from Graves. Afterwards Peter discovered the secret. All Pape Clement bottles have a special seal on the glass and you can feel it under the brown paper masking.

Then again you have to know your wine master. Some of them can be mean and decant the wine. But if the wine is obviously eight or nine years old and you are getting no sediment in your glass then you will know some hanky panky is going on. Be careful, just quietly suggest this is an imported wine. Seals are a help. Penfolds have a distinctive plastic type capsule, which is hard to miss. McWilliams, Mount Pleasant too have a very distinctive grey capsule and if this has been left on the bottle it is a lovely bonus.

Waffle on for five minutes about the beauty of the wine. How you feel it was made from a hermitage or maybe a pinot grape (that's all they have at Mount Pleasant) and then say, you may be wrong, but you feel it has the distinct character of a Mount Pleasant.

French reds normally have splendid red capsules and with a little practice you can pick them up so that you will be able to say: "Of course, this could be a Bordeaux red." As for German wines these mostly have creamy capsules and always they are magnificently done with gorgeous crests.

As for the ports,the great vintage ports of Portugal are dipped in black sealing wax, and with a bit of luck you will be able to spot a drop of wax on the bottle. See a drop of wax and this will enable you to prove to all the perspicacity of your taste buds. Many wine masters automatically decant their vintage ports, but do not give up. There are a few old hands who believe it is murder to the wine, any wine, to remove it from its original container.

Of course, the game of guessing the wine can be played on a much higher level. There are those who are almost uncanny with their skills. One of these was Simon Borten, a retired industrial chemist who was not only one of Melbourne's best cooks, but unquestionably he had the best cellar. A visit to his house was a revelation. He would bring out wine after wine of astonishing rarity and quality, and as he did so, he would always give an embarrassed giggle. Simon had a nose like a divining rod. The bouquet was sufficient to tell him the origin of the wine. The skill never seemed to leave him.

On his 80th birthday the Melbourne Club gave a dinner in his honour. There were 12 masked wines, most of them French. Simon picked 11 out of the 12. Not only did he pick the area, he picked the actual wines within a year or two of their vintage. It was the greatest tasting achievement I ever witnessed.

Tasting went a step further and it had a title, the Options Game. Len Evans must receive the credit for inventing this form of gastronomic torture. Jeremy Oliver in his book Evans on Earth records that it really began in 1966. There were a number of regulars who used to meet on Monday at Len's restaurant in Bulletin Place, Sydney. There was Tony Albert, James Halliday, John Beeston, Neville Baker, and of course, Len himself.

James Halliday described it as "oenological poker." Each player began with $4 worth of 20 cent pieces. The masked bottle would be produced. "Which country?" Those who failed would lose their 20 cents. The next question might be "Is it a Bordeaux. Is it a Pomerol? Is it a '69, a '61, a '47? Every question cost money.

The Options Club continued its intimate battle for year after year with all sorts of intriguing variations. They sampled the finest growths, the most glorious vintages. There was hardly a wine on earth that did not pass by their beautifully honed taste buds. The team developed extraordinary skill and one would be tempted to say there was hardly a team on earth that could challenge them.

In the winter of 1975 I thought it would be marvellous if we could have an interstate challenge, a sort of Test Match as in cricket. So it was arranged. The Sydney team went into training. The rules were no jogging, no push ups. Instead they should concentrate on the task at hand. Their regimen should consist of perhaps a Montrachet, a Meursault, and an Alsatian Traminer in a hard training session before breakfast, with at least four Bordeaux before lunch, and then pant through five or six Burgundies. Neville Baker, he said, had to taper off his training because of gout.

The difference between the teams was further emphasised by dress. Peter Joyce decided his men would be correctly formal, no fancy stuff, black tie. The New South Wales team was beautiful. Len dressed them like a Test team dating back to the days of Clem Hill or even Dr W.G. Grace himself. Every man in his side had a lovely striped blazer with the New South Wales waratah on the pocket and underneath the letters: NSWOCGTVVV75. This stood for New South Wales Options Club Grand Tour Victorian Visit Vintage 75. Apart from the official team there was also a "12th Man", Dr Max Lake, the honorary team doctor.

The Victorians, led by Peter Joyce were young, and as we said earlier, serious. There was Peter Joyce, a university lecturer, Peter Walker and Joe Sullivan, both of Rhine Castle Wines, David Thomas, also a wine dealer and John Cunnington. The betting was five to one that Sydney would win. Hermann Schneider donated a splendid silver cup, to be known as the St Vincent's permanent trophy.

The Sydney team drove across in Len's splendid black Bentley. It was a good trip. They called in to see Eric Purbrick at Chateau Tahbilk on the way, and of course, tasted a few noble Tahbilk vintages. Then they stayed, naturally, at the Melbourne Hilton, where Frank Christie was the host. Christie was Len's old guide and mentor when they were both at Sydney's Chevron Hilton. Frank put them up in the magnificent Melbourne Hilton Presidential Suite, known as the Sheik's Suite, because only Arab Sheiks could afford to stay there. Naturally Frank opened bottles of French champagne in their honour. They were having a lovely day.

Nicely fortified the powerful NSWOCGTVWV75 drove to Two Faces restaurant in South Yarra. The captains inspected the wicket, observed that the light was correct, that no intimidating odours were coming through the air conditioning. Several bottles of Pol Roger champagne were opened merely to cleanse the palate, then the captains tossed. Evans won and Tony Albert, a fine 14 stoner (all the Sydney team were 14 stone), renowned for his steadiness, and resembling Colin Cowdrey, opened the batting.

Herman Schneider was the field umpire and master of ceremonies. He with fellow umpires, Doug Crittenden and Berek Segan, had chosen six whites and six reds, all of which had been decanted into unlabelled bottles.

Schneider asked five questions on each wine, each question asked with considerable cunning. He might ask whether it was a European wine, or some other? Was it an appellation controllee wine, or not? Did it come from the Loire area, Burgundy, or some other? Could it be a '66, a '67 or a '69? Each team member who scored a question right won a point. The first over bowled was 1969 Haut Brion. The New South Wales team had not expected him to lead off with a classic French white Bordeaux and at the end of the first round it was Victoria nine points, New South Wales six. They moved on to a Seppelts Great Western Chasselas 1963, followed by a pinot chardonnay, Paul Masson from California's Napa Valley. The battle was see-sawing, first New South Wales ahead, then Victoria.

The tension was so great it was reminiscent of the 1932 bodyline series. A young member of the Victorian team was so worried every time he picked up a glass his hand was shaking. There were dry biscuits, dry bread and Perrier water to preserve palates.

On to a Penfolds Wybong Park Rhine Riesling, then a Traminer Auslese 1966. Victoria did well on the last two wines to have a slight edge at lunch, 67 points to 66. There was a 10 minute break, a call for quiet.

"May the best nose win," said Evans and went into battle again. There was a Best's Great Western 1964 followed by a Wantirna South 1972 red. Now Wantirna is an outer Melbourne suburb, and the wine, beautifully made, came from the vineyard of Reg Egan, a Melbourne solicitor. This caused an explosion. Evans was furious. "You wait until you come to Sydney," he cried. "We'll spring a Dubbo Cabernet, a Back o'Bourke Shiraz, a Collaroy Chardonnay!" It was intimated this was a wine they would never forget.

"Remember Wantirna South" would become a battle cry like "Remember Pearl Harbor." Yet New South Wales scored best on the Wantirna and after the next wine, a Louis Nicholas Pomerol 1937, the scores were dead even, 96-96. The last three wines were Chateau Reynella Commemorative Cabernet 1963, a 1955 Corton, then a Chateau Tahbilk Cabernet 1962.

The final result was Victoria 129 to 125 for New South Wales. It was the upset of the century. Did we say the bookmakers were offering five to one on New South Wales? Even the keenest bulk red bookmakers at Jimmy Watson's wine cafe had been offering 10 to one.

"My team is magnanimous in defeat," said Captain Evans. "We were beaten on the night by a better team." However he was not pleased. His eyes hardened like ACI glass when he pointed out that his team had to contend with four Victorian wines and not one from the Lower Hunter.

Doug Crittenden replied that New South Wales had gone down not on the Victorian wines but the classic wines of France. Hermann Schneider presented the St Vincent's trophy to the winning team. St Vincent, we were told was the patron saint of vignerons. Len Evans said St Vincent was the patron saint of headaches.

It was agreed that the St Vincent's trophy would be a perpetual challenge cup on the lines of the America's Cup. Clubs from all over the world would challenge, say, from London, San Francisco, Paris, Rome, Cape Town, or wherever. It would be the duty of the local club to find sponsors and put up the $10 million or so for the challenger.

However it never came to pass. Even now it seems it would be wonderful idea if we could stage annual Wine Test matches between competing wine producing nations. It could certainly be as exciting as some other Test matches one could name. Nor could it ever be interrupted by the weather.

Follow onto the next chapter, The creative demon