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Ding Dong But Not Merrily On High

By Tuesday 15 December 2020No Comments

I’ve only ever been kicked out of a pub once. In 2003. We were singing The Band Played Waltzing Matilda in the front bar. We were in suits. Red rag to a bull at The Exeter. Our advertising manager Ron was pushed backwards down Rundle St for a kilometre by two bouncers but he kept his feet and held them both with his Popeye forearms. Ron was always the best at 2-for-1 deals.

Beijing has kicked out the entire Australian wine industry and now I finally have something in common with Robert Hill Smith. A special bond that comes with achieving something together like being a part-owner of a champion homing pigeon or walking the Kokoda Track.

It’s brought the industry together and we need red t-shirts with white cursive writing saying Penfolds on the front and Bin Had on the back.

It’s been 14 long days since we got the arse and Aussie winemakers are in reflective mood with a quiet resolve to do what it takes to get through it. It’s far from funereal. Hard when every second song on Triple M is Ding Dong Merrily On High. The Christmas shows are on. The attitude seems to be, let’s limp into Christmas and worry about it later.

Barossa Grape & Wine emailed an update to members on Wednesday. The main headline read “Barossa Community Long Lunch – Friday 11 December.” That’s the Barossa I know. When the shit hits the frost fan, get on it and don’t go back to work.

The show must go on like the band on the Titanic. Don’t scare people just in case panic sets in and grape prices plummet and all the life rafts are taken.

The Barossa, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek and the Riverland are the regions with the most to think about.

The Barossa Leader is not overly concerned about any local fallout – this week’s front page was about a tree that blew over. Xi Jinping got a mention on Page 77 below the Gnadenfrei Lutheran Church cleaning roster and a photo of a St Kitts farmer with an oversized zuccini and leather braces holding his brown Farrah slacks up.

One Barossa winemaker told me the region is feeling “philosophical”.

I was at The Salopian in McLaren Vale on Wednesday. Great food. Good to see decanters galore on the shelves. We should go to places that are so supportive of wine. A McLaren Vale winemaker told me the mood in the region is a “mix of panic and apathy”.

It’s demoralising for the Riverland, which was just starting to shine. Just five months ago, emboldened about firming grape prices, the Riverland had a crack at WBM (in particular, a columnist) for writing about “the glistening entrails of the Riverland wine industry”. That was written 13 years ago! That’s a long time in wine. So is five months.

Some Riverland growers used to demand that anyone who bought red grapes from them, had to take some white grapes as well. Now if you want the white grapes, you’re going to have to take some red. Thank goodness for the $545,000 Riverland on the Verge virtual reality goggles aimed at the Chinese.

Bulk wine is safe. For now. A tax on that would be checkmate for some. Australians love working out how to beat the system legally. Just ask the ATO.

The tariff applies to bottled wine under two litres. So send it in large-format bottles. It’s a trade war so wheel out the heavy artillery – the dirty big Nebuchadnezzar. Make a glass bottle the size of a ship and fill it with Shiraz and get a tug boat to tow it to China. TWE is making noises about producing wine in China. Penfolds should make a new Bin wine for China. Overdeliver to buggery, make it stack up commercially even with the tariff and wedge it between RWT and Grange. Chinese consumers wouldn’t bauk at any price hike because it’s a new product. It could be called, say, Bin Had. If that works, produce a more expensive wine called Bin Had Big Time.

But as a Barossan said, if you were a big wig in China, you wouldn’t be rocking up to a banquet with a prestigious bottle of Australian wine under your arm. Especially if Xi was in the room.

Hong Kong is still open for business; some cases of Australian wine will surely find their way to mainland China. But Honkers is having a hard time with Covid and restaurants are shut at night.

Philip White spoke for many today with this tweet: “It’s hard to express the developing smell of fear and panic around the wine industry. This flood of ex-China wine will do great damage to steady honest makers of really good wine who’ve never exported to China. Your favourite most steady honest wineries really deserve support now.”

Naked Wines got some nice press with a “$5 million rescue fund”. My bullshit radar went off like a Christmas bonbon with a little green plastic car made in China inside. But a winemaker we spoke to, assures me the intentions are good.

The bell tolls for those reckless wine businesses that popped up like couch grass with the sole purpose of taking advantage of China’s newfound voracious appetite for wine – many owned by Chinese nationals. But not all. Taking silly risks like that is out of character for the Australian wine community.

Dedicated bottling lines will be mothballed. One Chinese-owned winery in South Australia is said to have dumped its entire production on the bulk market. Expect deep discounting, especially among online retailers.

When the dust settles we will be left with genuine businesses who are in it for the right reasons – and fewer businesses built on fried ice cream. As for Chinese ownership of Australian wine assets, with interest rates so low and banks watching valuations, some of them will fall back into Australian hands.

Easy in hindsight, but a chunk of the $50 million was spent on China. Why? Wouldn’t China have happened anyway without it? The FTA opened the flood gates. China was unstoppable, we should have let it take its natural course and spent the money on nurturing the other eggs.

Savvy Australian wineries sensed trouble in recent years and went cold on China.

There were signs last year Beijing was unhinged. Coming down heavy on the pro-democracy kids in Honkers was a sign.

Some Chinese importers have been left holding the baby – lumped with wine they’ve paid for, unwilling, or unable, to pay the tariff. I hope the negotiations over who pays what are sensitive to the relationships we have spent years building. As someone said, “I don’t want to be stopped by the Military at an airport in China one day in the future and taken off to a back room and quizzed about owing money to a wine importer.”

The Australian wine industry has employed a lot of Chinese people here and in China; many of them have lost their jobs. China is hurting its own; it’s sad.

To Australia’s credit, I’m hearing no China-bashing nor hate speech.

Yesterday was crazy. NSW Wine hit back at Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s claim the China trade war won’t hurt her state. We published an article Paul Henry wrote in 2019 called “China: Is There a Plan B?”. No.

A Facebook page appeared urging people to avoid buying wines from Chinese-owned Australian wineries on a black list. That black list of 41 had to have come from within the wine industry. Ordinary. We have seen the list and chosen not to publish it.

Then China hit us with a new temporary tariff of six percent. Merry Christmas! Like shooting us dead and then a fortnight later giving us a cripple nipple.

Winemakers are telling us they want to do the right thing by growers. We’ve matured enough as an industry for that to happen.

China could return in five months or five years. Pick a nation, any nation, and people think it’s the next big thing. When I started making notes for TWTW I scribbled in my diary: “Don’t be too negative.” Like China, India is 20 percent of the world’s population. “India is a joke,” my mate says. “It will never happen.” I closed my diary. What about Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Whogivesafuckistan?

Wine is a slow burn. Good wine, like good tables, shoes and books, takes time.

The best producers are in it for the long haul and don’t get too excited in the good times or too downhearted in the bad times.

Stephen Henschke talks in a quiet monotone voice when he gets 100 points for Hill of Grace and when a vineyard burns down.

We all went back to The Exeter eventually, in dark sunglasses. Great pub. Time heals all. Something to think about on Boxing Day while watching the Test cricket with a can of Lord Nelson Three Sheets in one hand and a parson’s nose in the other – wondering when the visiting relatives will pack up the Island Star and go home.

China’s bad but it could be worse, they could stay for a whole week.

If the Rank Arena goes on the blink, turn it off and turn it back on again. It works for the Australian wine industry.

• A version of this article first appeared in the WBM Friday newsletter The Week That Was.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

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