… and now for something completely diff, well, almost completely, different.
Campbell Mattinson’s book, The Wine Hunter: The Man Who Changed Australian Wine, is not only one of the best wine books I’ve ever read, it’s deadset one of the best books I’ve ever read. Hands down. The book is a fusion of fact and dramatisation, not unlike Sebastian Faulks’ masterpiece, Birdsong. And, not since reading Birdsong has a book taught me so much, and made me feel such real emotion towards a story, a place, and its characters. Characters who vividly come alive, courtesy of Mattinson’s masterful writing conveyed as a digitised blot of ink on a screen. Despite having to read it as an eBook on my iPad (it was the first digital book I’d ever managed to finish… and yes, I’m a fan of the sound that cork makes as it pops from the bottle), it’s all here – joy, humour, excitement, tension, sadness. And, it’s about wine!
If only Tim Winton had more wine related narratives in his books!
Right from the off, The Wine Hunter sets the scene and the tone of this remarkable story in a series of short sentences that shudder and jolt like the bullocks on the page.
“THEY CAME. Like mad folk. With bulls and bullocks and angry steers, with seed in their packs and hard jumping wood as their seats…”
An adventure has begun, right before your eyes, and it doesn’t let up until the very end.
Maurice O’Shea was Australia’s first legendary winemaker. There’s a line in the intro to the book that speaks of Max Schubert, creator of, arguably, Australia’s most famous wine, Penfolds Grange, who once said that he felt, “‘humble in the presence of the O’Shea wines'”… and that, “(O’Shea) did so much to convince us… that it was possible to make an internationally competitive Australian table wine.”
O’Shea did this in the Hunter Valley, at Mount Pleasant, in a wine region that, today, is the playground for Sydneysiders who want to get away from the mad rush and neon lights of the city. To indulge and relax at the various resorts and spas that have been built around these old, old vines. It’s a place for international travellers to easily get their Australian wine fix. It’s a place for baby boomers to finally see the bands of their youth, live, in all their nostalgic glory. It’s a place for hen party’s and weddings and weekend corporate functions. And, each and every one of these activities, events, functions and parties help to grease the gears of the wine country economy. It’s always been hard for the Hunter Valley to survive on wine alone. Even now, the region accounts for less than 1% of the total wine produced in Australia.
But it has history. Loads of it. And I don’t think this history gets recounted nearly enough.
Less than 100 years ago, in 1922, Maurice O’Shea was making his wines up against the slopes of the Brokenback range. Up against the blasting summer heat and sometimes pounding, summer rain. Up against the pressures of disease and rot that will inevitably follow. Here, he made some of Australia’s greatest ever wine. Without electricity or refrigeration, or any other modern convenience, like motor cars or telephones. He did it without being featured in specialised wine magazines, or winning untold trophies on the wine show circuit. And you know what? He did it without pesticides, or herbicides. He did it without specialised yeast strains, acid fixes, or tannin adjustments. He didn’t go anywhere near di-methyl-poly-siloxane, or hydrogen peroxide (which is used in hair bleach and glow sticks). He made some of Australia’s greatest ever wines without using egg whites or isinglass, or a pad filtration unit.
He did, however, do it all with a broken heart… (but you’ll need to read the book to find out why).
The Wine Hunter is one of those books that wannabes and other writers of wine will read and feel envious at how well Mattinson captures the spirit of the times, the place and its people. The deftness at how he’s able to go deep into the heart of a man he’s never even met, who made wines that most of us will never ever drink, and most surely will never, ever meet. And yet, at the end of the book, as Mattinson himself says, you feel as though you miss Maurice O’Shea, just as you would miss any one of your life long friends. To envy that accomplishment is understandable. But for someone like me, that is a gift.
But this isn’t a book only for wine writers to learn from. It’s a book for everyone and anyone who wants to know about the history of Australian wine, past, present and possible future. For what it’s worth, I think The Wine Hunter should be included on the text book list for all first year’s who study viticulture and oenology at an Australian university. I think this book should be on the shelf of every winemaker and grower in Australia. It should be read by anyone who thinks they have an opinion on Australian wine, and I feel ashamed that I didn’t come to reading this book sooner.
The Wine Hunter: The Man Who Changed Australian Wine was first published in 2007, and has sold steadily since then. But, for the last five years, it’s been sold out. This lead Mattinson to release a newly revised and updated edition, in 2015, because, “almost every week someone would contact me, trying to track down a copy… and I’m tired of responding to them with, ‘I’m sorry but it’s sold out,” Mattinson told me. A ‘limited edition’ reprinted version is on it’s way, due to arrive on book shelves in the latter half of this year, but for now you can download and read it via iBooks, Amazon and other eBOOK retailers… (less than 100 years since Maurice was up there on the Mountain!)
It’s one of the great Australian wine books, but it goes way beyond wine itself.
And, the best part about it, for me anyhow, is that I’m able to walk, drive, visit and see many of the places that feature in this book on a daily basis, because I live where Maurice O’Shea lived. In the Hunter Valley.
D// – The Wine Idealist.
Links and Further Reading