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The April Fool's Day grape guarantee

Opinion

Philip White questions the timing of Senator Anne Ruston’s new Wine Australia edict.

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April Fool’s Day was a strange date for Riverland Senator Anne Ruston to announce that “New regulations for grape products coming into effect today will provide greater protection for Australian wine brands and the reputation of Australian wine exports”.

In her role as Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources (read Murray-Darling/Riverland), the surviving portfolio offsider of the disgraced former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce spoke on behalf of the Australian Grape and Wine Authority, which trades as Wine Australia.

“Minister Ruston said Wine Australia now had the capacity to assess whether an exporter was a ‘fit and proper person’,” the statement explains. “Wine Australia can now ensure the bona fides of potential and existing exporters before issuing export approvals.”

This peak industry council is a Commonwealth statutory authority governed according to the Australian Grape and Wine Authority Act 2013. It is funded by winemakers but subsidised to the tune of about $13 million by the taxpayer. Its board members are nominated by the wine industry but must be approved by the Minister. It is responsible for doshing out the $50 million of further taxpayer-funded direct cash grants to wineries announced at Penfolds last year by Ruston and Joyce.

The senator’s promise is encouraging for drinkers outside of Australia. Nevertheless, the authority’s past form is worth examining.

In May 2000, I became aware that Californians Haydn Wilson and Nicole Haller, work-experience university students, had claimed that the big Riverland exporting winery Kingston Estate added silver nitrate to wine to eliminate the smell of hydrogen sulphide, had used liquid red tannin to add colour to red wines, and fermented sultana juice on red skins from Cabernet sauvignon to make red wine. They also mentioned sulphuric acid and pure ethanol additions.

I first rang Bill Moularadellis, the chief winemaker and managing director of Kingston Estate. He had not heard of the accusations and seemed highly concerned. Next was Sam Tolley, then general manager of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, the body since renamed Wine Australia, who gave a similar response. I advised both gentlemen that I would be writing of this in The Advertiser.

Tolley sent the inspectors in. Moularadellis was fully co-operative, saying he was keen to protect his winery’s international reputation and that of the Australian wine industry.

In his first announcement, Tolley stated there was no risk to public health and although the issue was of a “technical nature”, he said, “nevertheless, we take any allegations very seriously. We need to act quickly in circumstances such as this to ensure that any products which are exported are of the highest quality.”

While that news shlooshed around the world and huge British supermarket chains like Tesco and Waitrose immediately removed Kingston Estate from their shelves, back in Australia the investigation seemed mainly to focus on the silver nitrate issue.

Hughes Public Relations advised Moularadellis. Their goals were, in their own words:

  1. Minimise negative impacts on domestic and export sales;
  2. Protect the integrity of Kingston Estate Wines’ brand and products;
  3. Minimise competitor criticism;
  4. Manage media liaison and minimise media criticism and speculation;
  5. Limit the geographical spread of media coverage;
  6. Protect the integrity of the Australian wine industry in world markets.

“Within a week of the story breaking,” the Hughes summary reported, “Kingston Estate’s export licence was re-instated, but the prosecution went ahead and in January 2001 the company was fined $4,000 in the Adelaide Magistrate’s Court for using illegal additives in an export product.”

The maximum potential fine was $10,000.

In an interview for the State Library’s Oral History Collection, Moularedellis told Rob Linn this had been the most challenging period of his life.

“We used silver nitrate in our wine and we shouldn’t have,” he admitted. “Had we not used that, there would not have been a problem.

“We had a huge media frenzy to deal with because we were seen as a major exporter that had potentially compromised this whole Australian wine industry success story, and so all the checks and balances the industry had put into place to protect the industry for things like that came into being. We had our export licences suspended temporarily. You know, at the end of the day we were in crisis, and people had a crisis with our wines, because we were seen to have done something wrong.”

There was a mad scramble around the wine refineries and ivy-hung nuts-and-berries joints alike: a sweaty clean-up of those sacks and drums of reagents that tend to stack up in corners.

“The most regrettable cost for me,” Moularadellis said, “is that I gave some of the critics of the Riverland, by that action, the credibility to be able to say that we told you so. One of the lasting issues has been the fact that it gave credibility to those people that were critical of the Riverland, and it was a Riverland thing.”

The investigation and conviction rigmarole pretty much followed the late ’80s bust of Hunter legend Murray Tyrrell for adding another chemical, sorbitol, to Tyrrell’s wines, including those from the riverlands. Before running that story, I rang the Wine and Brandy Corporation to report the allegations and asked what it’d do about it.

In essence, it proceeded to test the wines, made the charge, punished the lawbreaker and used its actions to prove its policing of illegal activities was efficient, effective and protective of the rest of the industry.

But the corporation didn’t start it, I did. In detail, the story was much more rococo. After discussions with truckies in the Truro top pub, I became aware of a great deal of apple juice being delivered to some very famous wineries, none of which made cider. The rumours suggested one could make a presentable Sauvignon blanc from it with a bit of sophistry and water. Having taken the advice of industry leader Len Evans and spent all their money covering Australia with too much Chardonnay, winemakers were in a flat panic that this fad would quickly be replaced by Sauvignon blanc, which they didn’t have.

One honest fellow showed me his log book, listing what he’d delivered and to whom. I called George Mackie, then boss of the Wine and Brandy Corporation, to ask what he would do about it.

The wine police went on a buying spree around the liquor stores and tested a great deal of wine for sorbitol, a chemical that occurs in tiny amounts in apples but not grapes. A wetting agent used in tobacco, ink and enemas, sorbitol was not a permitted wine additive.

When they discovered it in Tyrrell’s wines, the authorities proceeded against the company. Tyrrell, which was on the government committee that managed the list of permitted additives, pleaded guilty, was fined and ordered to withdraw from the international marketplace all the offending wine and destroy it.

Tyrrell then sued me for defamation for my reportage in The Bulletin, along with Kerry Packer as publisher. Because I was not on staff, Packer left me to mount my own legal defence. After years of sooling his silks and whatnot at me, Tyrrell lost. His reputation, particularly in New South Wales, stayed pretty much intact: rogue maybe, but a popular one, and a patriarch.

I always felt Tyrrell, a friend of Mackie’s, was a convenient scapegoat for the entire industry. No winery was charged for apple juice substitution.

Stressed beyond belief, poor Mackie died of a heart attack.

So while we welcome Senator Ruston’s April Fool’s Day statement, I’m keen to see whether the old boys at Wine Australia are simply scaring new Chinese investors out of exporting dodgy Ozplonk.

It’d be too sicko bogan to discover it’s just a convenient appeasement for the uncaught when the Senator promises that “the new regulations will also cut red tape for exporters by halving export certificate notification periods and reducing timeframes from order to export”.

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