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Protecting what matters in Australia's party capital


Wine writer Philip White considers life in Australia’s new party capital – Adelaide’s southern suburbs – and discovers we still have the same problems as California’s Napa Valley.

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Listening to ABC Radio Adelaide breakfast, it often seems on a Monday morning that the southern suburbs I live near are the new party capital of Australia. The excitement those announcers show infamous south coast parties they missed is feverish. It’s like listening to some Exclusive Brethren panting about the sin they heard about and dream of… loud music, strippers and cars on fire? Good Lord!

Near a beach in a wine region? Devil worship!

I live down south. In a straight line, I’m a touch over 10 kays from the actual beach. I’m out in the vineyards. I get to visit various bits of that coast regularly but the closest I got to a party was watching some poor Torres Straits folks’ house burn down with all the presents when the Christmas tree shorted.

Their mob came from all over Australia to meet the rellies there at the beach. Sank a few beers and a red round the barbie and hit the hay. They awoke just in time. All got out empty-handed to stand on the road and watch the flames eat their kinfolks’ house and a Commodore then jump the fence and open up the roof next door, revealing a flourishing dope crop.

The cops showed that joint all the attention, believe me.

The neighbourhood looked after the homeless: gave them beds, clothes and gifts. Drinks. Poor people. Good people. It was their Christmas.

When public architecture is a systematic aggravated assault on the landscape, as it is along most of this lovely battered coast, and the civic planning means everybody builds an extra house on their back lawn so there’s two or three times too many of you and not a blade of grass, you got trouble.

Plenty of ratepayers, sure, and folks to work in Woolies/Coles/Bunnings/BWS/IGA and the Colonel Sadness fat joints and whatever and join the Shoppies Union.

But that’s not enough to have a proper healthy community. Of course, you’ll get kids throwing rocks at cars on the freeway. There’s nothing else to do. There are no other jobs, and all authority and government treats you with disdain and suspicion anyway.

While some of those coastal residents seem to think they live in Joni Mitchell’s Malibu it’s usually a lot more like Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.

Move east through vineyard country and over my agricultural side, where the Willunga Embayment crosses the fault line and hits the Willunga Escarpment, I see a new wave of Malibu pretenders putting their chrome and glass monstrosities there on the hills’ face. From that perch, far from the beach, they can look over the vignoble and the troubled housing along its coast, right out across the Gulf St Vincent, the patron saint of vignerons and vinegar makers.

I visited friends in the village the other afternoon and was astonished as the sun sank to see the reflections in all that mirror glass which has been carefully mounted along the range so everybody can see what you’ve achieved. How much money you can spend on bedazzlement. Land there rarely hits the market and it’s tricky getting planning approval to build your pile where everyone can see it but, man, they’re growing along there as sure as gold teeth.

Once the Sun’s fizzed out in the Bight, its reflections in their windows are replaced by electric light pollution. All that big glass needs lots of lights or people can’t see it. And then there’s the bloody Cube glowering all night over the town, lit up like a deconstructing prison on the northern horizon. The nightscape of poor old McLaren Vale is quickly following the mentality of the Malibuans and the Tortillans, in spite of all those years we spent trying to save the region’s distinctive and unique agricultural nature.

Willunga Escarpment from the Currant Shed on McLaren Flat. Photo: Philip White

We never imagined this country night skyline filling with lights.

When Leon Bignell, the re-elected Member for Mawson, was working on the Barossa and McLaren Vale Character Preservation Acts (whew), he visited California’s Napa Valley to learn about their clever and far-sighted Agricultural Preserve law of 1968. The folks there were really helpful; their law was duly noted. It heavily influenced ours.

But I wonder how different our acts would be if the minister went there to research them now?

The Napa’s at war with itself over its version of our hills face; our Escarpment.

As the Napa Valley floor has no room left for vineyard expansion, many conservationist residents want to put a stop to agricultural incursion into those oak woodlands and the headlands of the watercourses. They say it’s time to stop agricultural sprawl up the hillsides, especially after last year’s fires ate so much of the savannah forest that previously covered a third of the county.

They don’t want more vineyard creep. They support Measure C, an item to be voted on in California’s June 5 poll.

The editorial board of the local paper, the Napa Valley Register, includes the publisher, the editor, and five members of the public. They’ve called Measure C “a legitimate cry of frustration by many county residents who fear that their leaders are not acting to protect their way of life and their environment”.

“Just as we did not wait for the start of urban sprawl before enacting the Ag Preserve in 1968, so too we should not wait until there is a tree-clearing gold rush in our back country, or until our aquifers begin to fail, before protecting the national treasure that is Napa County,” they wrote.

Vineyards, forests and hills in Napa Valley. Photo: EPA/John G. Mabanglo

But they then recommend citizens reject the measure as it was “premature to take such a draconian and risky step … drafted without any of the usual steps that a major piece of legislation undergoes: hearings, public input, and expert vetting, from both outside specialists and staff that would be responsible for interpreting and enforcing the law.”

Reflecting our Character Preservation Acts, even a minor tweak to Measure C “would require a whole new ballot initiative in some future election,” they concluded, calling it “the right idea in the wrong vehicle.”

One major complaint suggests the wording of the measure would see more housing and extravagant “lifestyle” tourism attractions installed in the hills face forest for all below to see. They say the obsession with stopping vineyard creep will open the door for villa rash.

The polarised rivalry is much the same as anywhere else that tries to get itself sorted for a better future: a collection of significant residents took a full-page ad supporting Measure C; David Pearson, chairman of the 550-strong Napa Valley Vintners, released a calm statement defending woodlands and water but insisting “we must do this in a way that promotes sustainable growth … Measure C will lead to sustained regulatory battles and result in unintended consequences that will not serve the goal of protecting our water and trees … [it] is not the right vehicle for this.”

So there. Other end of the earth and whatter we got in common? Same old same old. This Napa entanglement has ancillary issues: comtowers, roadways, bridges, streams, aquifers, forest, tankfarms, helicopter noise, town hall meetings … they might approach it differently, but it’s all the same as ours.

I’d suggest the new Minister for Planning should visit the Napa to learn this stuff all at once, but I’m scared he’d come back with a plan to plant lovely shiny new houses in the forests all those amazing volunteers planted on Willunga Escarpment over the last 25 years. Those hills had been cleared.

In the evenings, when the sunset lights up their windows, the new heroes of the hills’ face could all head down the cool Malibu/Tortilla Flat coast to maintain the region’s image as the party capital of Australia. You know: drink Shiraz; never pay the stripper; burn something.

ABC Adelaide breakfast will promote it.

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