Funny how things come about. In December 2011, I was approached by the commissioning editor at New Holland Publishers, who said she liked my blog, DRINKSTER. When she asked how I’d feel about writing what she called “a biography of Penfolds Grange”, I explained I was flattered but was already working on an idea for a Grange book with my close friend, the master photographer Milton Wordley.
I told her how Max Schubert had been a mate and a mentor, and that for 35 years I’d been itching to write about him and his creation. So I was delighted at Milton’s invitation.
“I’m old enough to do it now,” I said.
And Milton, in the course of his long life in photography, had photographed Max on numerous occasions. They knew each other. You couldn’t write about Grange without introducing the great and humble Max.
For a moment there I thought we had a publisher. Wrong.
“I’ve now seen Milton’s work,” she wrote back. “It’s very respectable. I’m sure he would produce a very nice book. I wasn’t bowled over … if you would prefer to work on that project and that project alone, that indicates that you’re not the right author for us. We need authors who are proactive and driven and passionate about their work … For this project to work, it needs to come about organically. It needs to be something you WANT to write.”
So here we are. Milton threw his idea at Penfolds chief winemaker, Peter Gago, and arranged with Penfolds to gain access to its people and property, and off we went. Milton photographed every stage of Grange growing, selection, harvesting, winemaking, maturation, blending and promotion from the beginning of vintage 2012 right through to 2013.
He decided from the start he would publish the book himself. “Every old photographer I know has a shedful of some book they decided to self-publish,” he says. “You give a few away to your mates, and sell a few, but most of them sit there rotting in the shed. It’s crazy. I’m crazy.”
On Friday, we were at the excellent Finsbury Green printing house, watching the last leaves of A year in the life of Grange come off the press.
If I do say so myself, it is a big handsome book, and a very fine example of the sublime quality of printing that Adelaide can produce.
Mark Orel and his crew at Finsbury Green have obviously enjoyed stretching the capacity of their amazing plant to print Milton’s photographs with a level of finesse and pinpoint accuracy that too few clients desire. It’s all on art paper thick enough to chew.
It’s tricky writing around photographs which speak perfectly well for themselves. It took me a long time to find a voice for the narration, and then the best part of the year pacing about my flat, discarding great swathes of well-intentioned, but unnecessary text. Rather than limit the story to photo-captions, it was necessary to begin with some background, so I kick off in the kitchen of the blacksmith’s cottage at Moculta, where the young Max Schubert’s mighty nostrils began to work:
“It was a world of smoke and dust. The acrid whiff of the shotgun and forge; the smithy’s leather apron; the earthiness of the manure and straw of the stables. The sweat of men and horses. The perfume of starched cotton beneath his mother’s hot iron. The fire which drove the kitchen stove. Its bubbling pots. Pickles and conserves. Plum jam. Bienenstich and streuselkuchen. Pipe tobacco. The carrots and beets Max pulled to pay for his schooling. Blood pudding and ham. And the smokehouse with its smouldering red gum sawdust and its hanging würsts and bacon, where the Schubert boys were exiled when they did wrong.”
Once I did decide to explain a photograph, I soon discovered that every one of them unfolded remarkable yarns, like that of McLaren Vale grower Don Oliver.
“Thank God he chose Shiraz, not Cabernet,” said Don Oliver of Max Schubert. The Oliver family has grown grapes on the same McLaren Vale farm, Taranga, for 172 years. Their Shiraz first made Grange in 1989, and it’s done it another nine times since 1996.
Of his viticulture, Oliver said: “It’s a sort of controlled neglect. It’s all borderline. We can’t get it from a text book. We’re not beating them up, but we treat our best old Shiraz lean and mean. Keeps the berry size down; the bunches smaller. We only give them compost and moisture when the leaves are yellowing. Just to keep them ticking along. Like in the sand it takes 16 or 17 years for the roots to get deep enough for Grange fruit. We’re not too worried if the trellis falls down in the old vines – we don’t put machines on them anyway.
“They certainly make the risk worthwhile when we do make Grange,” he marvelled. “It’s sensational money: next level down’s a helluva drop. But it is a fantastic thing to know you actually grow the stuff. It’s the top of everything we’ve done in all those years … They treat us like kings.”
And we finish like this:
“During this year, I have been very aware of how Max Schubert would have loved being involved in the making of this book. There have been many moments when I itched to phone him, just as I regularly did when setting forth on my life in wine, all those lucky glasses ago. Max was always there for the best advice but, like Ray Beckwith, it was on the condition he would never be credited as the source. This has as much to do with the type of men they were as with the stifling corporate secrecy of the Penfolds of those days. In that home stretch of their lives that I witnessed, they shared an old-fashioned combination of confident pride and quiet humility.
“Like Ray, Max had a child-like trust in the acuity and persistence of his curiosity. Both men had deep faith in their ability to question the status quo, the state of the art. They were improvers, always testing their brains for better ways of doing things.
“Now I phone Peter Gago, who has become another treasured friend and wise mentor in this very different age. As is manifest in these pages, and in the glass both darkly and bright, Grange is secure with Peter and his stalwart team. Like those who made Grange before them, they are a curious generation: a school of winemakers of rare gastronomic intelligence who show unflinching respect for their vinous inheritance, but combine this with an untiring, continual review of how and why things are done, always pestering their own science and art for better ideas.
“So we leave you with this account of a fresh year in the life of Australia’s greatest wine and the many who continue to contribute to its permanence, spiced with the inevitable past and its quiet heroes, and blessed with a future that will astonish and delight wine lovers for the lifetimes to come.”
A year in the life of Grange will be available in late October. For distribution details, keep an eye on this website.
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