The Salt of the Earth
by Dudley Brown
Lets drink to the hard working people
Lets drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Lets drink to the salt of the earth
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back breaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth
Jagger / Richards
After our truly bizarre detour down Croser Lane at The Wine Rules, over the past few days I’ve been repeatedly reminded of why I chose this place – McLaren Vale – and this industry to spend the second half of my life. We have Shiraz swinging at near perfect ripeness, a wine shed still under construction, equipment arriving and much to clean but on Sunday the 10th we’re kicking off Inkwell’s 10th(!) vintage with a social hand-pick and de-stem (no crushing these berries). We’ll have a BBQ and cold beer to follow for all who help out. Then, we head down the vintage rabbit hole for eight weeks of sleep deprivation, manual labor and fixing things that broke. We live all year for this.
In preparation for the pick, we hired a contractor to bring a gang through to drop un-ripe fruit and fruit from short shoots to push the overall quality up a notch. Its expensive, but as the goal is “great”, we do all we can. Anyhow, the gang foreman and I were chatting and he told me that a grower known to be a lower grade grower had just had him bunch thin for him. This is an unusual exercise for lower grades because of the expense not yielding much benefit.
He asked the grower if the winery had demanded it. The grower said “no, I just noticed that the fruit from these short shoots wasn’t as good as the others and I want to grow the best I can.” My friend was dumbfounded telling me the story. His point was that the amount of change we’ve experienced regarding practices and quality has been phenomenal in recent years.
In 2005 we grew for Hardy’s. Unassuming Willunga boy Paul Carpenter was the new red winemaker at their Tintara winery in McLaren Vale. (Paul is now at Wirra Wirra). Following on from Dr. Erika Winter’s book Winegrape Berry Sensory Assessment in Australia (2004), Paul started a voluntary grower education program in berry sensory analysis in the lead up to vintage. Every week five or ten growers would come and taste different grades of Shiraz at the current level of maturity / ripeness. It was a revelation for all of us.
What Paul built was a bridge or common language for growers and winemakers to walk and talk on together in understanding fruit quality, ripeness and wine qualities. They repeated the exercise in 2006 and I participated again. It informs how I think about fruit and wine to this day. This is a great example of how to make a difference even in a behemoth company that was rapidly losing the plot. It didn’t cost much at all. Just some time and enough caring and perspective to figure out how to look at the world from the other guys shoes.
That was just eight years ago. Today, even the growers we thought would never change-up are changing quickly. The result is that demand hasn’t been this strong in nearly ten years, prices are climbing and there is a bit of hope and cheer for the first time in memory.
What makes this important? One – research is important and it takes a long time to trickle through. Two – the real heroes today are the folks who know how to embrace, extend and communicate advances across the grower and winemaker divide. They sit on both sides of the divide but Paul Carpenter is one of them.
I called Paul this morning to make sure he was blamed for the above directly by me personally. (No good deed should go unpunished.) He took it in slowly and said “bloody hell, that’s amazing” because he understands the implications of this change in mindset over the long-term. We were both very excited, talking about it because we both care deeply for the folks who keep this show on the road – growers. It is this willingness to listen, to change and to go forward again that is the essence of what planners call “regional resiliency” in planner speak. I call it sustainability and faith and hard work. I’m proud to be among these people.
There are so many wonderful and unsung folks in so many nooks and crannies of this industry that are constantly tinkering, learning and experimenting that it is impossible to list them. People that listen, offer alternatives, share experiences and just talk. It is such a cool community to be part of that it is a wonder that supply doesn’t exceed demand by ten fold rather than a mere 30%.
These values and people are precisely what Dad’s Army has lost sight of from their lofty perches. They are the solution to all that troubles this industry. Their lesson is that it isn’t easy but is definitely do-able and that change starts in the heart not the mind.
So, a toast to Vintage 2013 and to the folks that don’t get attention for doing so many things right and those who take chances when all seems dire and keep sharing, extending and talking.
Btw – Inkwell will kick off Shiraz picking in McLaren Vale with a social hand-pick on Sunday (10 Feb) morning at 9am. Let us know if you want to stop by and help out, we only have so many snips and so much food and beer! Both inadequacies can be remedied until Saturday at 11 am when DJ’s Growers and Ellis the butcher close.