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The perils of the good life


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Being the sort of fellow who’s too well versed in the dangers of falling over and hitting one’s head on the concrete or whatever turns out to be at the end of the fall, your correspondent has learned to look out for other vertiginous souls, especially when they’re committed ethanologists in bigger frames than his own and they’re close.

We can hurt each other.

Like falling from the height of one fathom is risky. That’s six feet in the old money; it sounds neater than 1.8542 metres, which is the accurate and actual length of the body the author still inhabits. Even without the extra mass of the body, the five or six kilogram head alone can exert some serious stress on its brittle ball of bone containing the mushy brain, once gravity has had its way and there’s concrete or bricks or tiles or whatever at the end of this brief journey.

Towards the centre of the Earth.

Take Kit Stevens MW. Kit was an ethanologist of the highest order, and the first Master of Wine this author encountered. By high, I mean at least six-foot-six.

There are none like him amongst today’s 322 members of the Institute of Masters of Wine. These are spread across many countries: 75 are from outside the UK; there are 23 in Australia. The gruelling course takes three years; many fail; many try again at the final examination, year after year.

Born in Singapore of British parents, the young Kit was evacuated to England in 1941, leaving his father to die on the Burma railway and his mother, a nurse, to catch the very last ship out during the Japanese invasion, only to have them bomb the rivets out of it. Pen somehow managed to reach shore after a lonely swim of many hours, and eventually made it back to England, where she settled with Kit in Heathfield, Sussex, in a place called Church Gate House.

Which has a precipitous staircase.

As well as being ponderously large of height and rather awkward of movement, except when at the cricket crease, Kit was rather proud of the considerable size of his pomposity. He felt that a proper Englishman had every right to be pompous. A Marlborough House and Charterhouse boy, he was amongst the first of the Masters of Wine, joining their rank of 33 in 1972. There indeed is enough excuse for a great deal of pomposity.

What helped Kit get away with it was his brilliant wit, razor-sharp wine intelligence, and uncommon worldly wisdom. He was a fine practitioner of mischief. And he was both brilliantly fussy about wine and very thirsty.

In my magazine-editing days in the early ’80s, he was my mysterious European correspondent. To save postage, he’d send his witty, pity 1200 words per month on tiny pieces of A5 or A6 rice paper or an aerogramme jammed with elegant but tiny fountain-pen cursive.

When he eventually lumbered up the stairs to my office I was immediately impressed by his capacity to make the finest bespoke Savile Row suit and impeccably tailored shirt look rather lived in, and he carried a bulging leather briefcase in each large paw.

He was for a while the agent for Tim Knappstein’s Enterprise Wines, and in 1982 spent a night fighting a bushfire to help save one of Tim’s Clare vineyards. That next morning he lumbered up my creaky stairs with his leather briefcases, impeccably dressed but with ash all over him and firehose mud caked about his enormous Church’s brogues.

“Whitey,” he hissed with great pride, adjusting his sooty hair, “we saved the vineyard. My God I’m a real Aussie now.”

The wine regions of Australia have just entertained a touring group of Masters of Wine – over 40 of them, mainly from England, led by one of their number, the wine tour guide Tim Wildman MW. From my distance, the hospitality offered them appeared appropriately lavish – one morning I noticed an extravagant dismountable pavilion had appeared miraculously across the hill in the Grenache. It seemed more likely that I’d knocked my head again than somebody’d built a vast white house there overnight; it vanished as quickly as it came.

But no, as I soon saw on Twitter, it was the Masters of Wine. Rather than post their news on tiny sheets of airmail rice paper, these latter-day Masters use their telephones to report their excited, rather breathless progress across Australia in 140 characters max.

The first such mass invasion was 15 years after Stevens began his work bringing the wines of France to Australia and spreading the Australian wine word across the world. In the early ’90s Hazel Murphy, who ran the Australian Wine Bureau in London for a decade, brought a jumbo half full of British merchants and MWs here for a week of imbibition and appraisal. These folks, too, went home confounded and deeply impressed. Under Hazel’s stern determination our wine exports to the UK increased from 765,000 litres per year in 1986 to 73 million litres at the end of 1996.

These things work.

However, to this staunch antipodean, many of these merchants came with the air of old regional officers of the British Empire, here in their colony to show the convicts a thing or two about pricing. While some Australian wineries did very well exporting proper premium wines at a good profit, the vast majority of what we’ve sent since has been aimed straight at the supermarket discount bins where it must compete with basement level slurps from France, Italy, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Moldova et cetera: often places with much more water than Australia and a labor force that costs a pittance compared to ours.

I won’t mention the Murray-Darling Basin nor dare suggest we export our precious water in bulk, disguised as wine but priced more like bottled water.

This bulk wine business has yet to grasp the notion of value adding.

Nor dare I suggest that with the now-normal drought, el Niñio and global warming, our bulk wine business may end up covered in worse than dust and ash once the firetank’s empty and the whole thing falls over again and knocks its head.

Which is what happened to dear Kit, who in August 2004 was found dead with a broken neck at the foot of that staircase in Church Gate House. I shiver to think of that fearsome tumble.

I prefer to recall my favourite farewell. We’d just conducted a pre-Christmas champagne tasting, which left our little crew with several hundred restoppered bottles of the very best, just a few glasses missing from each. We took these to a cool beach bungalow on Brighton, invited our mates and lovers, and drank.

I swam out beyond the breakers to look back at this bonnie vista: the crowded summer beach, the neat housing, the blue hills … it was just so friggin’ cute and Aussie. Then I noticed a kerfuffle: the throng parting: parents pulling their kiddies away from something.

The towering Stephens had removed his tailored garments. All of them. He strode down that beach calling me. I swam to shore and we stood there in knee-high surf and shook hands.

“Whitey,” he said, “I’m off to England. Thank you so much for such a brilliant day … oh, and watch out for Spain. They’ll soon be killing your reds.”

As he strode back through the gawking sunbathers, majestic, mighty, pompous, I noticed his tanned arse. In ultra-bold headline capitals, one cheek bore the word BON. The other, VIVANT.

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