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The Not the Wine Show wine show


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There was an annual wine show in McLaren Vale on Friday that started out some years back under the name Not the Wine Show. This happy little affair was initially held at the same time as the Bushing Lunch. The latter is where several hundred winemakers and their staff share up the gongs from the annual McLaren Vale Wine Show in a huge noisy tent. It costs a great deal of money.

Although it hasn’t quite lobbed in the claimed season, this Not the Wine Show splinter activity re-emerged this summer as the Spring Carnivalé, the second word of which was utterly appropriate as we sure bid vale to some carni.

The format’s pretty simple. Nineteen participating producers, some of them amateurs, entered six bottles each of one McLaren Vale red wine (of any sort) that is bottled and ready for the market, if not yet actually being sold.

These were lined up, without identification other than their number, and everyone was handed a glass.  We tasted at our own leisure over a two-hour period, and each guest and participant winemaker voted for their top three wines.  The voting slips went into a box, and everybody sat down to lunch in The Currant Shed.  During that repast, the votes were tallied, and the favourites announced. The winner won a brand new oak barrel from Cooperage Solutions.

And that was it.

I could really stop writing there, but should explain what made this so special.

First, all entrants could rest assured that their modest competition would not be dominated by a giant winery whose best barrels could easily be slid aside to blend or fix wines designed to win trophies and hardly ever be seen again.

Second, all entrants could taste their wines lost among their neighbours’ and mates’ efforts, and, if they chose to, could discuss their opinions as they proceeded.

Typical of such an exercise, most winemakers I spoke to claimed they couldn’t recognise their own wine, so after the gathering’s three favourites were announced with the identity of all the others, the opportunity to retaste was very handy indeed.

Third, the show took no enormous army of stewards, glass-washers and cataloguers away from their normal work at their wineries: it cost almost nothing apart from some organising by Phil Christianson and the restaurant staff.  People tasted the wines, communed over lunch, had a leisurely schlück or two, paid for lunch, and moseyed off to barbecues and beers at home.

They had a proper chance to learn the sort of basic stuff that wine shows promise, but rarely impart.  The us-and-them polarisation was absent.

I can guarantee that none of those six bottles of each entry were going home into the show society’s lock-up: they were well and truly rung out by day’s end.

As a person who is one-third the age of this colony, it doesn’t seem to me so long ago that Australian wine shows were gentlemanly one-day affairs at which Messrs Hardy, Auld, Seppelt, Wynn, Tolley, Lindeman, Gramp and whoever addressed a table or two mainly filled with various types of sherry and port and a few glasses of hock and claret.

They would taste, discuss, agree on their favourites, then sit down to a proper feast with grand old vintages and a smoke.

Just as big wineries do today, each of these magnates had show wine experts at home in their cellars, doctoring their entries so they’d show at their best.  The young Max Schubert, for example, learned his dots as assistant to Alfred Vesey, whose job it was to prepare Penfolds’ show samples and despatch them.

While it seems that it was uncommon for these big company owners to confidently recognise their own products, there were certainly others about who could identify even rival entrants’ wines.  When The Register wine writer Ernest Whitington visited the French winemaker Edmund Mazure at his cellars at Auldana in 1903, the Inspector of Distilleries was there with a bottle of sherry which he claimed to have procured at Tolleys. “Well, Mr Tolley must have got it from Stonyfell, because that is where this wine was made,” Mazure corrected.  His reputation for recognising wines blind was legendary, and seemed to miff his rival employers.

Such champion noses, most of whom are winemakers employed by winery owners, are these days also hired by some wine show committees who carefully select judges with their current preferences of style foremost in mind.  This helps narrow, in advance, the window of possibility in the results.

These things simply don’t matter at a show like the one formerly known as Not the Wine Show.

Entrants need not fork out the $90 per bottle entry the big shows demand, nor the $200 or whatever it costs to attend the awards lunch in the revival tent.  I can guarantee that none of those six bottles of each entry were going home into the show society’s lock-up: they were well and truly rung out by day’s end.

One can hear these big societies groaning at this.  They’ll come up with the old line about there being so many shows and competitions that if one more starts the results become a confounding murk.  But this is already the case: it doesn’t take long to assemble a list of at least 45 national, state, and regional wine shows, and there are at least 20 other big competitions annually staged in Australia.

If you added up the thousands of hours spent by thousands of so-called volunteer winery employees organising and conducting these competitions, and added that hidden hourly cost to the total expense budgets of the shows, you’d have a number that would horrify any responsible industry leader.

The notion of the Not the Wine Show wine show is not necessarily any immediate threat to this huge business.  They changed the date at McLaren Vale partly because some of the usual entrants wanted to attend the Bushing Lunch: both fixtures can co-exist.

In the longer term, if such a movement were to spread, the worst it could trigger was a hiking of the socks of the bigger events.  Bacchus and Pan both know, these leviathan fixtures leave a lot to be desired.  While many of their worst aspects are side-effects of their determination to become major marketing tools in order to give them another reason for existence, this goal moves further away due to their profligacy.

Other than me mentioning four or five wines here, there was no hint of marketing nonsense at this bonnie little event.  Not even the sponsor got to bash his Bible.

One thing is certain, I know which event makes me happiest, and sends all its participants home grinning with some new knowledge and the satisfaction due those who have done something truly worthwhile.  One of them even took home a lovely new barrel.

At the risk of spreading anarchy and inciting a few new dangerous wine gangs, I recommend you find a restaurant and a mob of mates and start a wine show all your own.

Spring Carnivalé, The Currant Shed, McLaren Vale, December 6, 2013

Favourites of all in attendance, by tally:

1. William Barrett Cabernet Shiraz 2008
2. McLaren Vale Winemakers Malbec 2012
3. Clark Hill Shiraz 2011

Personal favourites of the author:

1. Inkwell Wines Shiraz Primitivo 2011
2. Bellevue Shiraz 2011
3. McLaren Vale Winemakers Malbec 2012




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