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Discovering wine and other surprises


Whitey wonders whether there’s much difference between discovering claret as a kid in 1971 and young folks hitting intoxicants now.

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Thredgold drove trains. He also drove a fine line of cars. One of my faves was his pale grey ’48-’53 FX Holden. This was the father and mother of the FJ. It had illegally cut and welded rims to hold tyres so wide you couldn’t even get ’em in those days. So you bought Michies and stretched ’em and it was lowered the body to the point where it was level with the tyres: a few inches off the tar. The cops would book you if the bodywork was lower than the top of the tyres.

Because the illegal lowering removed most of the suspension travel, it was pretty bouncy, but good for 110 MPH on the Monarto Straight when the night air was cold. You knew you was movin’.

Another night. It was dark. We were in transit from the Big Smoke over the hills to my joint at Kanmantoo. It was before Dunstan built the freeway. Deadly winding roads full of semis driven by madmen on speed. Threddy bunged her back to second and slid in to the Crafers for a dozen Southwark big bottles and for some reason I bought a half-gallon flagon of Hardy’s Claret.

I’d never really drunk wine before. I was still at school. Stephen Sprigg, son of the publican at the Great Eastern Hotel, had helped me develop a love of vodka and sars when I could get it. I’d sunk a bottle of Seppelt’s Sedna down the Bay earlier in the evening where they had a jukebox on the sea wall. We met two girls and one of them pulled a little dagger out of her stocking welt to show me how sharp she could get it. That set the young Whitey’s brain racing. I put in my two bob and played the Stones’ ‘Little Red Rooster’ three times.

Anyway, Thredgold got me into the car and we headed back towards Kanmantoo largely sideways, but here we were in the Crafers pub carpark with all the trucks and dirt and I was in trouble.Having managed to buy such a volume of the Devil’s Brew at an obviously illegal age, I hid in the bushes out the back of the pub, drank too much and lost him. Thredgold had parked somewhere else and had gone inside for a glass on the bar. I was too young to drink in the bar. When I got back to where the car was in the drive-in it wasn’t. He musta been troubled over me. I was a notorious hitch-hiker: I’d head anywhere at whim: just stick the thumb out and go.

And I could get there. I went to Cooktown once, hitching, just to show my Father he couldn’t nail me down when he sold my ’38 De Soto behind my back. So I couldn’t go anywhere. I sent him a post card.

Anyway, Thredgold went home to the city, presuming I’d hitched a ride home to mine. Back to that same hardcore preacher father, who ran the Womens’ Christian Temperance Society. Ha!

Eventually out there in the foggy Crafers dark I lurched into Mr Riggs, a teacher from my school, who was relieving himself in the shrubs. He eyed the flagon and steered me inside. There were a lot of school teachers in there in the smoke. Some pubs didn’t have wine with their meals then. They shared the remains of my goon and Mr and Mrs Riggs sensibly took me home to their house at Mount Barker, and made me a coffee and a bed. I got sick in the hand basin. Mrs Riggs helped me clear it. I remember stirring it with my finger.

Other than dregs of homemade red I’d had at our Italian neighbours’ bocce court as an infant in the Gippsland mountains, taking an investigative wander to their joint before they all got up after a big night, I’d not really thought of drinking red wine before. It seemed very raw, dark and dangerous. I imagine now that claret was some sort of mixture of Grenache, Shiraz, and Mataro with maybe some Cinsault and Carignan. Who knows?

Cabernet was getting very posh then. That woulda gone into bottles.


Seppelt’s Sedna Tonic Wine. Photo Philip White

The Sedna Tonic Wine would have a lot to answer for. We could buy it for a few shillings at the chemist. A sincere boy could get it in school uniform by saying it was for grandma. It was a very strong port made from the same Seppeltsfield Para Vineyard Grenache (which now goes for a swillion bucks, straight, at 100 years of age), steeped in dodgy herbal stimulants from the Andes, which, as Mr Bill Seppelt explained to me decades later was Sedna spelled backwards.

Now I know it was a close approximation to the original Coca-Cola.

When I hear ‘proho dries’ whining about the young people these days, drinking caffeine with their alcohol, like Red Bull and vodka or whatever, I recall Sedna with a wicked snarl. A bottle of that on Friday night and you’d still be wired in Miss Mizing’s English class on Monday. Whoopee. Bring on the Dylan Thomas.

Mizing, bless her, turned my hillbilly brain on. She got me writing, and taught me about Dylan, Donovan, and Beethoven in the days when English classes had no room for music. One day, lost in the city, I knocked on her door at her little cottage at 303 Carrington Street and she showed me my first dry vermouth and talked to me about the stage.

I am forever in her debt. Does anybody know where she is, if she is still? Somewhere on Mornington Peninsula the last I heard …

So what’s the point of all this sick nosto? I was grovelling through the ‘flu’ last week, gazing at my ceiling, wondering how young folks hit intoxicants now.

Let’s face it. You can buy ice, like deadly crystal meth, anywhere. Especially in the bush. I keep meeting people who shouldn’t have them meth shakes and paranoid sweats. Totally fried. Loco. Smack is easy to find. Eccy’s resurging. In a lot of pubs, it’s easier to blow a jay than it is to buy or smoke a cigarette. That’s a relief. The acres of drive-in bottle-o are lined with sugar-rich nonsense in stubbies and cans: kiddylikker.

And if the radical Weather Underground of wine has any sway, I s’pose the thinking drinker moves smoothly into the great wave of reactionary natural wines, craft gins and backyard beers and ales, always nursing an embittered distaste for great famous expensive wines.

Can’t blame ’em, considering the monochrome muck that makes up the vaster proportion of grape ethanol on the market at any time. Or the refinery bulk beers, like those of the industrially beleaguered Carlton United Breweries.

After all those years, pubs, roads and railways, Thredgold called by to visit a few weeks back, with Spriggy; both now retired.

Shit it was good.

Apart from their wild driving skills, they were the first drummers I ever met. We taught each other the basics of rock’n’roll. So a lifetime later we went to the zappy Salopian for lunch and whipped up a buzzy din of anecdote and recollection over a simply perfect lunch.

Of course that beautiful food was aeons removed from the egg combos and melted cheese and first pink chops of the ’70s. Otherwise nothing much has changed, like directionally. Kids still work cars. It’s a long time since I saw a stocking welt. But the old rock’n’roll still throbs in the heartbeat and when that goes really dangerously wild the nostalgic bit of me likes to dream that Sedna was probably safer than the chemical cocktails now common.

Is that old age bleating through the mist? Maybe. Now I’m a grown-up I prefer to keep thirsty on the grounds of remnant yoof.

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