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Shooting for positive spin amid the smoke


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What a sick old week for the wine industry, er, communications, and I don’t even refer to the savage Dry vs Wet Wars, whose main engagement lines are in King’s Cross, Sydney.

So far, the wine business has managed to stay out of dispatches from that unwinnable horror.

Let’s go inland. In the midst of all this aggravated talk of alcohol and violence, the last thing any winemaker needed was a link to firearms. Like, what has wine to do with shooting in New South Wales national parks? Well, there are growing calls to boycott the products of those international champions of the Critter Label, Casella Wines, who make Yellow Tail Wines at Griffith.  Since news broke of them being the major sponsors of the Sporting Shooters Association (SSA), the drivers of parks hunting, things have gone all fizzy.

I’ll admit to a previous life of hunting goats in the Flinders Ranges, and wild pigs out on the flats. Destructive vermin.  When I was a kid, we’d shoot rabbits for the pot. Underground mutton. After dormant decades in the trigger-finger division, I shot a clay pigeon last year, and I boast like a hunter – one shot: one hit. Not bad fun for some, having the odd clean shot.

But Sydney Morning Herald state politics editor, Kirsty Needham, unstitched a yarn no wine writer had dared touch when she reported that “the Casella brothers are all keen shooters”, and Marcello Casella had converted part of the old McWilliams winery at Yenda to a factory for the Terminator ammo brand. Needham wrote further about the soaring popularity of shooting in the Griffith region, with its burgeoning gun clubs and ammunition manufactories, and its handy proximity to the Cocoparra National Park and the Binya State Forest.

Needham finished with a savoury twist by quoting local SSA treasurer, Trevor Allen, who complained about “the ‘Mexicans’ coming up from Sydney and Melbourne with their guns”.

“They don’t have respect for anyone’s property or live stock,” Allen said. “They threaten the farmers.”

Range wars.

This news coincided with Griffith grapegrower Rod Gribble telling the same newspaper’s environment writer, Peter Munro, on video, about the heatwave’s devastating blitz of his wine grape crop. Gribble talked frankly of how frosts had damaged his vineyards before the heatwave, with the combination of conditions leaving his 2014 vintage in penury. He explained the nature of ‘hen-and-chicken’, where grapes develop unevenly within each bunch, so you have some small sour, bitter, pea-sized berries amongst other fatter sugary ones.

No good.

Whether they were frosted or not, this ailment is fairly common this year in vineyards right through the Mount Lofty Ranges, from the Fleurieu to Clare, as well as other parts of the south-east corner of this big dry baking/blazing chip of a country.

That week-long heatwave was severe and long enough to stop the vines taking in water – they shut down, get sulky and go dormant around 32-35C – so while the pea and lentil-sized berries simply toughened, tightened and shrank, the fatter, sweeter berries went to raisins through evaporation in the heat, giving discomfiting sweet-and-sour flavours when the whole caboodle goes through the crusher.

Ethyl alcohol, sure, but finesse? Nah.

Back to the annual problem of communications.  Marketing.  There stood poor Gribble, in 45C heat, an excavator uprooting his worthless Semillon behind him, his Chardonnay vineyard a parched and bleak slab of industrial monoculture, bare earth reflecting heat up into the vine canopies from below.  While he held badly damaged bunches in his hands for the camera, he probably knew he would have the wine industry’s local propaganda division to deal with once his clip went to air.  Which may explain why he had to say, in obvious contradiction to everything else, that “the grapes will make excellent quality wine … there’s no doubt about that”.

And then, tellingly, he added: “but the quantity – you know, we get paid more on the quantity than the quality – and the quantity is really going to be reduced.  And that is going to affect us dramatically.”

Communications, see?  After the fires in the ranges east of the Barossa, I was reticent to ask mates there about vineyard damage.  I ask the reliable folks for vintage reports each year, because in this business, truth is my currency.  Spin-doctoring rocket-polishers are a direct threat to my credibility.

Who knows what Mother Nature, who’s obviously very pissed off at us, holds in store as the remnants of the year’s wine grape crop struggles through to harvest

Going by the Country Fire Service (CFS) reports during the eastern ranges blaze, I would have thought the entire region from Springton, north through Keyneton and Hill of Grace to Truro, and across to Angaston, was cactus.  But apart from a few rows of vines in Flaxman Valley, which was almost a separate fire, it seems very few vineyards were damaged.  The fire went mainly up the Mallee side of the ranges, in the gorges where they meet the eastern flats, and scorched north toward Truro.

Contrary to popular goss, vineyards do burn.  On Ash Wednesday, which I cannot believe was 30 years ago, old vines, particularly bush vines, burnt in Clare.  Last vintage, modern irrigated vineyards burnt at Currency Creek.  In a twisted piece of reality, the plastic dripper lines there worked like cordite fuses in some places, burning along beneath the vines once the power went off, the pumps stopped, and the water dried out.

Regardless of the residuals left in the ground from cindered Permapine posts and plastic, those vines seem largely to have revived.

A buzzword favoured by city-based wine scribes is “smoke taint”.  From my inquiries, the winds that fanned those fires up the east side of the Barossa ranges dispersed the smoke so efficiently that many weren’t even aware the fires were close.  Because I have mates who grow grapes all through that region, I sat up all night listening to the CFS reports.  In such a conflagration, one doesn’t ring people to ask whether they’re burning down as it happens.

But I must say that the CFS reports are chaotic.  Listening all night to CFS reports on local ABC 891 during the peak of the blaze, I could have been forgiven for believing that all of Eden Valley was ash.

Not so.

If the local ABC stays on air, and refrains from feeding us cricket or broadcasts from Sydney or Brisbane, and instead leaves a good broadcaster on air with the phone lines open, immediate reports from farmers or folks on site are much more reliable and accurate than whatever the CFS has the time or ability to patch together.

ABC 891 did a good job during the eastern Barossa Ranges fire, keeping the lines open all night.

The CFS volunteers are heroes.  They were fast into the Barossa Ranges, dousing big River Red Gums with retardant even before the blaze reached them. As the fire chewed up the country at speeds of up to 50km/h, these fireys saved countless homes and humans.

And many big trees and vineyards.

As in the particularly tricky 2011 vintage – too wet; too mouldy – there will be good wines made from 2014 – too hot; too toasted – but these will invariably come from the better winemakers and growers.  The sorts I generally recommend in these epistles will have the best chance.

So.  That’s my first go at summarising the 2014 year.  Who knows what Mother Nature, who’s obviously very pissed off at us, holds in store as the remnants of the year’s wine grape crop struggles through to harvest. There’s a long way to go.

In the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see whether Casella’s love of guns helps it regain its grasp of the US Critter Label market.  Armaments are very popular in that big free country.  If Casella became famous as a sort of vinous Shooters’ Party, perhaps its US sales could outweigh any loss of domestic sales.

It’s all a matter of communication.

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