France got me going in wine, and certainly widened my horizons but Australia is HUGE ... horizons with no end, mostly mental horizons. I'm soon reminded of this ...
Landing in Brisbane, early Sunday, I headed for Noosa, arrived at the Thomas's to find only Barbara; David is in hospital! But he talked his way out, only a small matter of a pacemaker!
I first met this tireless Tasmanian in 1982 when he contacted me about how he wanted to set up a wine merchant business like ours, in Australia. Why not? It seemed a long way off.
So we explained how we did things and David wrote it all down. He writes everything down ... in detail. Drives you mad. He started up in Sydney and called himself Cellarmasters, was quite successful. We continued to advise. I went over and he took me on a glorious wine tour from the Hunter, the Yarra, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Barossa and everything in between. But that is David for you, the Great Organiser.
His abilities became evident when Cellarmasters suddenly blossomed and became bigger than Laithwaites. I started taking more advice than I was giving. He can be blunt, can David. Told me I was doing things all wrong, was a typical bloody whingeing Pom etc etc. What made it worse was he was right! Stung, I started to think about being a bit better organised and we did prosper. So now I could be rude back. And I bloody was.
So it has gone on to this day. David and Barbara now live at Noosa Heads, right on the beach. David had a heart do some years ago and sold Cellarmasters for quite a few bob ... to Foster's lager of all people! He misses the wine trade, I know. All is not well in Aussie wine. We talked about it, sorted it all out, finished our wine and went to bed. The surf boomed all night until the Kookaburras did their wake up routine. "Laugh Kookaburra, laugh Kookaburra" (the kids here sing a song about this fisher king) but not this early!
Early flight to Cairns, paused one hour, then on to Uluru or Ayers Rock. The flat desert looked surprisingly green (after six years drought, it has suddenly started raining - always does when I visit anywhere). In the middle of the flatness is embedded this huge, great, bright, red rock. Down an unmarked dusty, red road in intense heat to the encampment - a camp only in the sense that Chateau Latour is a sort of farm - called Longtitude 113. The tents here have air conditioning, hi fi, hot showers, flushing loos, sexy lighting and mini bars ... and big double beds with an uninterrupted view of mesmeric Uluru.
As the sun went down we found ourselves up this deep cleft in that rock. It didn't seem to get much cooler as the shimmering red walls radiated heat all around. A couple of glasses of champagne and some strawberries went down well - hardly bush tucker but nice. At dinner they were over-generous with wine and it was still very hot. Went to see the night sky ... never seen so many stars ... and even galaxies. The clear air and no light pollution means you can see stars right down to the horizon. Embarrassingly, I fell asleep for most of the star talk and woke up facing the opposite way to everyone else. They said my snoring had been impressive.
Slept well but woke very early and lay in bed, watching the extraordinary dawn. It must be a combination of the flatness, the clear air and the red rock. A strange sense of looking not just at a very big rock but of looking at everything in the world ... with a strong sense of your place on a small planet.
Later, met some UK customers. Really nice ... of course ... and then others, dining on The Ghan train, a gleaming, giant, aluminium snake about two miles long. The endless desert was as awe inspiring as Ulhuru. You really wouldn't want to be there on foot ... dead cattle, car wrecks, scorched riverbeds ... better in the jolly 'bar car'. And so to Adelaide, very early again.
Killed time in the Central Market ... Adelaide is a city that eats very, very well. All the nationalities are here and all growing their own foods and cooking. There are more restaurants per head in Adelaide than anywhere else in Oz.
Hired a car and drove out to McLaren Vale, home to many a monster Shiraz. This is the real purpose of the trip. It's a place called 'Red Heads Studio' - a whole new venture that is just about to start.
Found local winemaker Justin and his wife Emma with Phil, French Paul from Castillon and my son Henry - and the first delivery of grapes; Tempranillo - at the new 'studio' winery, the Aussie 'Garage' ... the red shed. Pretty good timing, arriving from the UK.
The crushing had just that minute begun, the new equipment turning for the first time. Not that there is a lot of equipment ... a small crusher/de-stemmer, forks, shovels and muscle. Some of that muscle was a little soft that day. After four weeks and nearly fifty tons of grapes to make nearly fifty different wines, it will be much harder muscle ... and will hurt in the meantime. Micro-vinification is not for wimps.
Sat around the winery, amongst the empty vats, meeting, greeting, catching up, drinking Coopers Sparkling Ale until late. The whole idea of a 'studio winery' involves late nights. We have ten top winemakers coming here, after their day jobs, to make 'the wines they really want to make'. They will come here to make their dreams.
We also have something like fifty winegrowers (who in the Aussie way usually sell all their grapes to the big merchants) sending in small vanloads of their choicest hand-picked fruit ... old vine, top of the hill, dry soil stuff ... more raisins than grapes. These guys are hoping our winemakers will demonstrate just how wonderful their grapes are. If it all works, there will be a bunch of happy winemakers, and a bunch of happy grape growers and (because I paid for this winery) I will get first pick of the fabulous wines ... for happy customers. Win, win, win ... if it works.
Sunday, up late, drove along the beach for lunch at the Star of Greece with Dusty cooking. Watched the Eng v. Aus cricket 'till 3 a.m. ... stayed up because for once we looked certain to win ... right up until we lost ... again. Monday, to Market 190 for breakfast, ran into 'Sir' Keith Smith (ex-owner of Tatachilla), more coffee, then took him to visit 'my' winery. He and his accountant chums opine that Red Heads is likely to be the only winery this year to show a return on investment ... simply because there is hardly any investment.
Justin has begged, borrowed or stolen most of the equipment, and constructed our cooling system out of a redundant milk cooler and plastic piping. It cost about 1/100th the price of a bought system plus it keeps the bottles of Coopers cool.
A massive and dusty 4x4 and trailer pulled in from the Outback ... turned out to be all three generations of a family from our village in Oxfordshire. I did another winery tour, then headed out to Victory Inn at Wilunga - staggeringly good old wines but a real pub complete with a rogue's gallery of friendly regulars.
Tuesday, up early at the winery ... started out back with Emma doing eggs, bacon, tomato muffins with a St Hallett sparkler fresh-pressed oranges. Life's tough in the outback! But we have to celebrate our launch, because today it starts coming in seriously.
The power failed, probably because every winery for miles around switched on its pumps and crushers at the same time. So the boys were working out how long it would take to empty the tanks with buckets. Phil's phone kept ringing ... 'yeah yeah, bring it in' ... '2 tons? Sounds great ... can do ... fantastic...'
The magpies warbled, and the flies were back. Lance came in with a plastic bag of fruit, Shiraz from up in the Adelaide Hills. Still has lots of acid, good thick skins, lots of water, but if they are left a week or so they will dessicate, the water and acid will go, and the baume (potential alcohol) will go right up.
There is zinfandel coming in this 'arvo' ... and so it goes ... and so must I ... back home.
Three weeks later I'm in Madiera (work!) and the phone goes. It is Justin and it must be very late in Oz. He is the night watchman. They have put forty tons through and only been sleeping four hours in 24. Fit to drop, but very, very happy. It's a wonderful vintage. Jancis Robinson has published a report on this new 'studio winery' of ours. Loads of people are calling in ... Kym Milne came today and there's this New York wine merchant due tomorrow. I'm going to have to move quickly to make sure I get some of these gorgeous wines from that fabulous country down there.
And when they arrive, you will be the first to know!