For more than 40 years, Philip White carved a career with words. As a wine scribe, he is revered the world over for the breadth of his vinous knowledge and vocabulary. Three years ago (almost to the day), cancer pulled the rug of mortality beneath his feet, muted his olfactory precision, and dulled his prolific words. As inspiration gradually returns, he shares his thoughts on life, death and the moments in between.
It’s golden hour in McLaren Vale’s north east. The sun casts its gaze over Yangarra Estate’s Ironheart vineyard before disappearing behind a little stone cottage and melting into the horizon.
The L-shaped biodynamic vineyard wraps its arms around the abode.
Here, wine scribe Philip White, or Whitey as he is affectionately known, sits on the porch and watches the scene unfold.
He does so every day if his health permits it.
He’s not alone. Two miniscule birds are nearby, darting to a gap in the roof where their chorus of hungry, chirping chicks await.
“Hello chickadee, you’ve got a little lerp,” Philip says with affection.
“This is my friend Katie. She’s okay. She’s not going to hurt you or your babies.” He pauses. “Aren’t they gorgeous? They’re like little rockets. I love them.”
It is humbling to be considered a friend of Philip’s. He’s known many colourful characters in his time. Talk deeply and he can ruminate for hours, but he doesn’t suffer fools. If he objects to something, he tells you – in no uncertain terms. He doesn’t mince words, preferring to carve them like a Samurai.
He tells me the birds are striated pardalotes. “They feed at the top of the trees, never on the ground. They must have a brain the size of a lentil and they can hover like a hummingbird.”
Philip has long been a storyteller and vinous commentator of ferocious veracity. He weaves consonants and vowels into things of linguistic beauty, wielding sentences like a bow and arrow and shooting without fear. When a Whitey piece hits the target (and they always do), words explode with controversy. Others disperse gently – like a dandelion in the wind.
Philip is simultaneously revered and feared. The towering writer appreciates a good story and tells one too, though lately, not as often as he’d like to.
For the past three years, Philip has been all but confined to his cottage. A cancer diagnosis in November 2018 shook the foundations on which he stood and the senses that guided him through life. With Covid raging across the country and a vulnerable immune system, visitations became challenging. Quite simply, they could kill him.
“I have basically been under lockdown here for three years,” he says. “If I get a whiff of this shit Covid thing I’m a goner. I can’t think of a better place to be locked down.”
Good friends know the drill. Call late morning, check-in on how he’s feeling. If the response is bad, you stay away. If the chemo isn’t knocking him around too much, “Rock ‘n roll.”
Today, he is chipper. He’s had word of an award received for A Year in the Life of Grange, the book he and photographer Milton Wordley released in 2013. Philip contributed the words to accompany the beautiful photos.
The book went on to win several international awards, the latest of which was the ‘Best of the Best for Wine Photography’ in the global Gourmand Awards, announced in late December 2021.
“It was the 25th anniversary of the commencement of those awards so it was announced as the best book of its type in 25 years,” Philip says.
“That’s pretty cool and cheered me up a great deal.”
Philip’s back story is well-documented. Dive deep into Drinkster, the blog he started in 2008, and you’ll get a glimpse into his psyche. His Tweets (he Tweets a lot) also provide insight into what makes him tick. In April 2021, Robbie Brechin published Blood on the Typewriter – the World of Philip White and in the not-too-distant future, Philip plans to release his own tome dedicated to Grenache.
He was born in the Warrigal Hospital in East Gippsland, the eldest of six children (five boys, one girl). The motley crew was raised in the Strzelecki Ranges where their father James (aka Jimmy), grandfather and uncle were dairy farmers.
“Dad got into religion. He started out as a lay preacher for the Methodists, then became more of an extremely independent Protestant. He quit dairy farming and sort of floundered around – we all did – through the brethren and weird, spooky hillbilly sects. It was pretty weird for a little kid.”
Jimmy’s preaching led the family to Murray Bridge, South Australia, where he took on a pastor role. “I knew the King James Bible backwards by the time I was about 10,” Philip says.
“We read aloud to each other every time we got the chance and you weren’t allowed to leave the table unless somebody read from the New Testament and the Old Testament. Then a passage from the History of Protestantism.”
As a youngster, Philip wanted to study aerodynamics. “I was impressed by the advertisements in National Geographic,” he says. “I had no idea what it was. I just knew it meant you were going really fast in the sky – quicker than Jesus.”
Instead, he chose writing.
In a roundabout way, an appreciation of words was sparked by his father’s preaching. “I didn’t know what grammar was, but I innocently appreciated it, even if I didn’t get my head around the God bit. The King James language was so simple and clipped. It had a really big influence on the way I write, right from infancy.”
An appreciation for the beauty of words came from his paternal granny Sarah Helen Hunter.
“When I was five, I’d write poems to my granny. They’re pretty good. I’ve got some here among my four tonnes of paper.”
Sarah was a Shetlander – a Viking of sorts. “She was an incredible woman. I wish I could see her again, just for 10 minutes.”
It was Sarah who encouraged her grandson to write. “I think my family hoped it’d be about Jesus.” He laughs. “Mum [Sylvia] promised the Lord that if he gave her six sons she would make sure they were all missionaries in Africa. When the fifth child was a girl, she fell on her knees and begged God for forgiveness. She thought she must have done something wrong.”
Philip’s brothers went on to be miners and stockmen, while he set out on what would become a long career as a writer.
“By the time I was 16, I was drawn to the notion of being a freelance journalist or reporter. Eventually, I just sort of floundered into it, starting underground poetry magazines during the late 60s and 70s.”
He went on to work in government for the Department of Mines (where he and then pioneer computer programming girlfriend, Maire Mannik, set up the equivalent of the Dewey Decimal System for vast sample rock storage. “It’s now used all over the world. The first country to copy us was China and the second one was the USA.”
From there, Philip rose through the ranks of media, writing for the Adelaide Independent in 1976, and was pivotal in founding The Adelaide Review. He wrote TV news and earned a buck writing copy for IBM and Benson & Hedges.
Philip’s transition from well-paid copywriting to wine writing in 1981 was borne out of tragedy. It happened after a car accident killed his brother Andrew and cousin Jenny on their way to their maternal grandmother’s funeral in Melbourne.
“When granny died, my brothers came from different ends of Australia, met at the airport, got a cab to a car yard and bought a little Datsun 120Y to drive to Melbourne for the funeral,” Philip says. “I was supposed to go with them.”
A last-minute opportunity to present television documentary Baxter the Blast (an explosive tell-all about the British nuclear tests at Maralinga) to members of parliament changed Philip’s plans. He and co-producers Gus Howard and Harry Bardwell really needed the doco to succeed.
“I told my three brothers to go without me and I’d fly over in the morning and see them there,” he says.
“My little cousin Jenny took my place in the car.” He pauses. “They got across the border at Edenhope and stopped at the crossroad to look left and right. A couple of young lads in a 350 Monaro came around the corner doing 120 miles an hour. The Monaro blasted this little Datsun into kingdom come. It was a miracle that anyone survived the horrible thing.”
Andrew and Jenny weren’t so lucky. Philip was the one who identified the bodies.
“I had to clean out the car,” he says. “I’ve never had a more morbid, horrible event in my life.”
What followed was what Philip describes as survivor’s guilt.
“We sold the movie. I always say I swapped my brother for a TV show.”
Philip with his family at his dad’s funeral in the Callington hall. Photo: Milton Wordley.
He points to a painting hung high in his living room. The piece by dear pal Chris Cust depicts Andrew, a talented stockman, looking out from beneath an Akubra adorned with colourful sheep tags. It is beautiful. Haunting…
“I had some money in the bank and I was just going to sit in the pub and drink until I ran out of money. I sat there for three months, just trying to work out what happened.”
Like Chris the painter, Philip and Andrew were colourblind. Their bond was tight and the survivor’s guilt is still raw.
Philip cradles his brother’s well-worn hat as he continues.
“I went to the General Havelock pub and drank. Until then, I was happy working and writing for the papers and stuff but after the accident I couldn’t work, I was freaked out; PTSD and all that shit. I had some money in the bank and I was just going to sit in the pub and drink until I ran out of money. I sat there for three months, just trying to work out what happened.”
Philip was still in the pub when a friend approached and told him there was an editor’s job going at Winestate. “He said, ‘I’ve got a job for you… you can work and keep drinking.’ That’s how I became a wine writer.”
He was good at it. Really good at it. Philip shook things up as founding editor of Winestate before taking a job in Sydney to clean things up at The Wine and Spirit Buying Guide (where he sacked Len Evans), and then replaced James Halliday as wine writer at The National Times.
During two decades at Adelaide’s The Advertiser, he often caused sparks to fly; a dangerous business in a room full of highly flammable newspapers and journalists. “I was the first writer to always mention the closure in the wine review,” he says.
“It was unheard of. There was a point at the ‘Tiser in the early 90s when I got so tired of cork, I wrote a column threatening to cease reviewing anything with a cork in it. Ooh, did that make some shit fly.” He chuckles. “I was the first one to put the alcohol percentage in a review. Nobody ever dared do that. I’m proud of things like that.”
Philip has a trunk full of newspaper columns. “I don’t look at them – it’s all just a blur now. I was there one week short of 20 years. I think they were scared I’d want a payout. There was no warning or excuses and they misspelt Philip in the letter. ‘Dear Phillip, thank you for your work over the years. We won’t be requiring you any more. Best of luck in your new life’.”
Their loss. Philip went on to pen a decade’s worth of wine musings as InDaily’s wine writer and delighted and dumbfounded readers of Drinkster, the blog he kicked off on 11 December 2008, long before great online content was a commodity.
In late 2018, with the stealth of a panther, cancer grabbed Philip by the proverbial jugular. What was initially (and incorrectly) diagnosed as a hernia, was in fact, aggressive cancer. He was riddled with it.
He credits a chance encounter with an in-demand doctor (whom he now refers to as Ninja Doc) as the reason he is still here today. “I’m standing there at Drew Dowie’s funeral, looking down at the ground as you do,” he says.
“The guy next to me looked a bit like Charles Bronson; black suit, white shirt, no tie – a composed looking dude who obviously had a story. Turns out he was Drew’s doctor and was famous for his expertise.”
Philip was audacious when he quipped, “You must have a gap in your appointment book now.”
The earth-shattering prognosis was swift. If the Ninja Doc and his colleagues didn’t act fast, Philip would be dead in six weeks. “That was exactly three years ago – November 2018. I walked out of that surgery, crossed the road and walked into BWS where I bought a bottle of malt whiskey. I didn’t open it, I just stood in the car park thinking, ‘What the fuck am I gonna do?’”
A mate, Simon Garlick stumbled across him and offered to drive him home. “On the 15-minute journey, my brain was like a washing machine. It was incredible how quickly all the things I thought were really important were erased. Everything became a hell of a lot simpler and in a sense, my brain became more infantile.”
By Christmas 2018, Philip was in a hospital ward getting cancer carved out of his pelvis.
“That’s where it’s all started.”
By ‘all’ he means chemo, radiation, hormone treatment and the loss of independence that came with it. “Going to Flinders Hospital every day for chemo at one stage was horrible. I’m very fortunate that I had enough good friends to get me there and back.”
Some people simply came to say goodbye.
“It all happens pretty quickly and some people just don’t cope with it. They’re already grieving your death.”
The other thing he lost was his palate and olfactory senses.
“They don’t go away, they just changed back to infantile to protect me. It was pretty quick after the treatments started. My hair fell out and I could sense things were changing. My senses were wary of all the extremes like really bitter or salty flavours. It took me a little while to work out what was happening.”
Philip could only drink what he calls “narrow” Japanese malt whiskey. “Not too peaty or crazy in any direction – just very fine. I could also drink a little Riesling. I soon realised that my olfactories were protecting me.”
Perhaps most disturbing was the temporary struggle with words.
“I quickly called it, ‘chemo demo’. It’s the way the drugs, chemo, radiation, steroids and the cancer itself work together to really fuck up your biolinguistics centre. People think I’m crazy because I sit on Twitter all day but Twitter is teaching me to write again.”
Tweet by tweet, at a maximum of 280 characters at a time, Philip shares his thoughts on the world, simultaneously rebuilding his confidence with the written word. His updates are often raw and always honest. “Some people tell me about their experiences with illness but most people don’t talk about being sick. You wouldn’t even know they’ve been near death. I talk about it all the time. Some might say I talk about it too much.”
Now, more than ever, every sentence counts.
“It took a long time for me to be able to string three or four sentences together to make a good 100-word paragraph,” he says.
“I could do that if I was on fire, but my faith in my own linguistic centre doubted the logic it takes to put 12 paragraphs together.”
His love of reading took a hit, too. “I couldn’t read any more than a page. My brain just couldn’t handle it. That’s changing now and I’m a lot more confident. I can read a 1,200- word essay and I try to write 500 words a day. I chuck it in the bin because a lot of it is rubbish, but I do try.”
Music is a solace. “Music is a really important medicine. I love listening to really good music or even better playing it but I can’t do that because my fingers don’t work. I’m taking a new drug to help me cope with peripheral neuropathy decay and it’s starting to help a lot.”
It’s terribly frustrating for a man who milks joy from creativity.
“The chemo (combined with everything) kills the ends of the nervous system. It means I can’t feel my feet. That’s why I keep falling over and breaking things. I can’t play the guitar properly and typing is pretty difficult too but at least I can correct it. You can’t suck a note back.” He laughs.
A new relationship with testosterone has been enlightening. “I have no testosterone anymore, so I can’t do what I used to spend a lot of time doing and that’s being a man.”
Chemo evokes morning sickness and perimenopausal symptoms. “If I create one little gram of testosterone the body can’t deal with it and forms tumours so I’m officially a woman now.” He smiles. “I’m full of oestrogen thanks to the chemo so I’ve got to be a funny old lady for the rest of my life.”
He pauses. “A quite like being free of testosterone. It took me a couple months to work out that a lot of the competitive shit of being a man just went away.”
As loves and lovers go, Philip has had many but never wed. “I think I’d be on my tenth house if I did.” He laughs. “I still love women of course; they are terrific. I’ve been fortunate to have been close friends with some beauties. Some really good, tough people who taught me a lot. I wish so many weren’t still pissed off with me. It’s interesting that the last few partners I had have probably been the most helpful support during my sickness. I’m really lucky.”
Philip fears no one. What really terrifies him is far more difficult to control.
“Having dealt with the skinny old prick with a scythe every day for three years, I’m really scared of what a mess dying can be.
“I wish we were a bit better at helping our fellows through that very weird thing – the end of life. I grew up on a farm so I saw beasts being slaughtered all the time. Death wasn’t a big deal but a lot of people don’t know what it’s like unless they lose a grandparent or the police knock on your door at 2am and tell you your little brother has been in a car accident.”
Philip isn’t scared of death. “I’ve watched several lovely friends die and I’ve identified lots of bodies but I’m scared of not being able to control the situation before I die.” He pauses. “The palliative care people are really good at helping you sort that stuff out. I’ve upset them because I’m still alive.”
His laughter rattles through the vineyard and the little birds cock their heads in curiosity.
“The award from Paris gave me a bit of confidence to get back to work,” he says.
“My fingers are working a bit better so I started writing again on my book about Grenache.”
He is hesitant to give too much away, but it promises to be a rollicking read; from his first sip of the stuff as a four-year-old in Gippsland, to fighting the Barossa vine pull, its beginnings as a sweet drink that killed returned soldiers, to its more premium chapter. Will the words flow like they used to? Early signs are promising.
“I wrote for 40 years and I was really good at it.” He pauses.
“I’m not scared, I’ve just got to be realistic about it. It’s just another fascinating aspect of this whole damn train ride. Like the Grateful Dead song ‘He’s Gone’ says, it’s a ‘Ten-mile skid on a nine-mile ride.’”
Photo: Ben Macmahon.
“When I started writing about wine, there were only two wine writers in Australia who had any journalistic experience. That was dear Huon Hooke and me. None of the others had previously been a journalist. That hung over the industry for many years… people without any understanding of how the big machine works. They had no understanding of journalistic investigation or simply having a chat. People were shocked at me asking some of the questions I came out with.”
“It’s not the elephant, it’s the room. People don’t talk about it when they write about alcohol. I was probably the first person to do that. I got hate mail in the old ‘write a letter’ days. It was daring to say, ‘Hang on, how much of Australia’s best agricultural land is devoted to creating cheap alcohol?’ If it was marijuana, it’d be a different conversation. It’s just nuts. I’m not against it or for it, but it does need to be talked about.”
“I managed to convince some (but not many) that viticulture is about geology, not just soil. I think that’s been a pretty big change. There’s not soil without geology, which feeds it. I’ve certainly seen a change in things like biodynamics and responsible viticulture. Here we are, sitting and looking at what would be the biggest biodynamic vineyard [Yangarra Estate] in Australia. It’s really bold of these people… a radical thing to do it. Now, at $130 a bottle for glorious Shiraz, it sells out. People are now respecting cleanliness and responsibility in farming and the staff at the winery don’t feel so shitty when they don’t have to deal with poison.”
“With the advent of natural wine, and a lot of them are what I call unfinished or unmade wines, there was a disintegration of the nature of wine criticism. Of the top 100 in The Adelaide Review, half of them were murky, you know? That was a big change and I thought, ‘Jesus you’re not going to fit in with this movement Whitey – you won’t keep up with this.’ With that change, which is dramatic, you see it when you walk into ‘Hungry Dan’s’ or BWS and see these shelves of wines with scribbly labels that don’t mean anything. They have no distinction. I think wine writing has gone a wee bit like that at the same time – to keep up. I think it’s a bit sad. I don’t know how you sort it out. Just trying to find people with really good palates is a tricky enough job. Then finding those who can write descriptively and project the feeling of drinking a wine is really hard.”
Philip is a fierce advocate of nature. In 2009 he was awarded the Trott Family Trophy for his devotion to conservation and the environment, in particular lobbying to protect McLaren Vale’s Glenthorne Farm, a green buffer between development and the southwest. He is a Barossa Baron for his efforts in environmentalism; both on and off the page. “I call it ‘Proper farming’. I knew all the blokes who thought they’d defeated nature by changing trellising psychology and mentality. The attitude of, ‘We’ll change the soil composition and we’ll double the yield.’ It never, ever made much sense to me. It was just sad.”
“If you’re a dynamic, sensitive, reactive person you change as you progress through your life. It’s inevitable and it’s not your fault if you gradually become a person that your partner no longer appreciates – and vice- versa. A great skill that we’re not taught at school is how to say, ‘Look, I think we should split up’ or even how to do that. If you’ve lived with somebody for years you learn a lot about each other. It’s really stupid to throw all that knowledge away, especially when one of you is in trouble or needs some glee or understanding.”
“Bacchus knows it was never my goal to be popular amongst some wineries I’ve been critical of, so it was an amazing thing, and humbling, to see how many of them kindly donated premium wine to the fundraiser auction Yangarra boss Peter Fraser organised with Tamara Grischy at Langtons and my photographer mate Milton Wordley. Man, I wept when that money came. It meant I could pay immediately for transport and the scans and treatments I could not afford to wait for in the public queue. I dunno how I can ever thank everybody for getting that together. I was far too sick to be of any help – I was bloody dying: hardly knew what was going on. Madge and the gang at WBM were full supporters, too. They just got together and got it together. Everybody helped. You saved my life!”
When Philip writes, he goes deep. Literally. The rocks piled on his porch are an indication of his love of geology. Many-a-winemaker tells stories of Philip not only tasting a wine, but striding through a vineyard and grinding the earth between his teeth.
“When I was 16, they were looking for copper around Kanmantoo to build a big mine,” he says. “I used to knock off the school bus every afternoon and run out and help a geologist as a field assistant – looking after their samples. By the time I was 19, I had almost a PhD understanding of the geology in that town.”
By the time he worked for the government mines department, he was like a bloodhound chasing blood from a stone. “While I was in the mines department there were plenty of wine- aware geologists and a really good mapping division. My dear mate Billy Fairburn, a Yorkshireman, put up his hand at a meeting and said, ‘I think we should ask the Minister for a budget to do the geology of all these South Australian major wine regions’. He was laughed down but Billy and I made a pledge that we would carry on and get it done.”
What eventuated, some 30 years later (with the help of a stellar group of geologists) was McLaren Vale Geology Map. “It is now regarded as the best wine region geology map in the world – there’s just nothing like it. It was really cool to help finish that off.”
“As a teenager I found myself running away from religion, getting out on a Saturday and drinking fortified flagon wine – mostly Grenache.
“Then I discovered Sedna, the Seppeltsfield tonic ‘health wine’ that had all these essences from the Andes in it (Sedna is Andes backwards).
“One bottle was like drinking a slab of RedBull. It was 22 percent alcohol Grenache off the Para vineyard at Seppeltsfield. It was really good wine with all these tinctures – Kola nut for Christ’s sake. You could get it at the chemist, you just had to say it was for your granny.
“We’d drink a bottle on Friday night and still be buzzing at our Monday English class.
“Then I got to the Barossa just in time for the vine pull. You could quickly see that all the lovely old varieties were going to just go so I got into sort of an unseemly partnership with Robert O’Callaghan.
“It turned out to be much to his advantage because he became the hero of ‘Save the vineyards’.
“We managed to stop the vine pull. We were too late in a lot of cases but it did stop. That was evil. It was the big companies just trying to clean the Barossa up so it would be like Coonawarra. They didn’t have to talk to all those annoying peasants… gardeners.
“That was a fairly quick lesson to me about how shallow it all was.
“If you live up there and drive past the Seppeltsfield mausoleum every day… that was built on port. That wasn’t built on Jimmy Watson winners. And a lot of that port went to just destroying people; blackfellas, soldiers returned from war (if they were lucky enough), and their wives and widows – they were all on the sherry till they died.”
• This article was first published in the January-February 2021 issue of WBM – Australia’s Wine Business Magazine. To subscribe click here.
• Main photograph: Ben Macmahon.