An abstainer is a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.
My wonderful daughter often buys me books for my birthdays and other occasions. Although my tastes in reading matter are far from the ordinary, she generally manages to find me something suitably provocative and engaging. I would be concerned if other friends or relatives (except for a very select few) thought they would score a hit with me by buying me books, but I am always pleased when my daughter gives me books.
For Father’s Day she sent me three books, one of which, written by the English philosopher, Roger Scruton had the intriguing title of I Drink Therefore I Am. (I have tried to Latinise this as the title of my essay. I might need to rely on my friend, correspondent, actor and all-round polymath, Jack, to correct the Latin!)
Scruton’s book is an erudite little tome extolling in detail the virtues of European wine and the part they have played in his life. (He speaks disparagingly of Australian wines, claiming our reds have the flavour of “burnt beetroot”!). His text is esoteric but quite entertaining and certainly reveals an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject.
His book has inspired me to share with you my own life’s experience with wine and other varieties of liquor. I don’t have Scruton’s knowledge of wine, its many varieties and subtleties. But I do have a long experience of partaking of the grape. I have no doubt that my life may well be reduced in years as a consequence of my fondness for wine, but I can assure you that my life experience has been sufficiently enhanced by wine to make that worthwhile.
My first memory of wine was from an episode when I was about five or six. We were visiting relatives in a coastal town in North Queensland. They (the relatives) were friends with an Italian farmer that grew sugar cane and pineapples. My relatives and my parents were invited out to the Italian’s farm one afternoon. ( I have no recollection of going myself but I can remember some of the discussions afterwards.) The event had been a wine bottling celebration. The Italians had taken delivery of wooden casks of wine which they proceeded to decant into bottles. I think the bottles were in fact cleaned second-hand beer bottles which were filled and corked. I recall my father talking about the wine. He was bemused by the fact that the wine was red and tasted “sour”. He wasn’t particularly enamoured of the taste and afterwards, having visited the Italians on a few other occasions and been offered a drink, always referred to it as “sour wine”. Later on I was to learn that the wine was a cheap claret that the family had adopted as their quaffing wine.
My father’s experience was not surprising, because living in a small regional town as we did, table wines were few and far between. Beer predominated the drinking fraternity and to a lesser degree spirits. The only wines most hotels sold were fortified wines like sherry and port. Most of my family were ecumenical in their taste for alcohol, but in acknowledgment of our Scotch heritage, special occasions (particularly New Year/Hogmanay) always required a wee dram or two of Scotch whiskey. But in the fifties and sixties we had yet to embrace the pleasures of table wines.
Now we were a close knit family and on a Friday night my maternal grandmother (who we all doted over) accompanied by a couple of aunties and uncles would gather together with us to play euchre. Cards would be played until about 9:00pm and then the menfolk would rush off to the pub and have a few drinks before closing time (10.00 pm). According to my father this was an appropriate ritual because after an hour of drinking he could come home not inebriated but with what he, in retrospect appropriately called, a “glow”- the mellow feeling of wellbeing that arises from a moderate consumption of alcohol.
But by now he had changed his drinking habits. Whereas his fellow drinkers stuck with the traditional beer, he would have a glass of Sauternes instead. As you would most likely know traditionally Sauternes is a French sweet wine from the Sauternais region of the Graves section in Bordeaux. Heavens know where the 1960’s Australian varietal originated from, but it was certainly sweet!
(Of course since those days European winemakers have successfully argued that the adoption of the European geographical names by winemakers who don’t grow their wines in those specific European locations must be forbidden. Hence you cannot expect ever again to buy an Australian wine that was presumptuous enough to call itself Sauternes, Burgundy, Champagne, Chablis or whatever. A popular white Australian wine, that I enjoyed, was dubbed Rhine Riesling. That nomenclature has of course been since forbidden because the wine did not emanate from the Rhine district.)
So in my youth my exposure to wine was restricted to my Father’s rather undiscerning taste. This was a little better than my peers who seemed to have not been exposed to wines at all. But dad’s experimentation next had him enamoured of Moselle, another sweet white wine initially derived from vineyards along the Moselle River which runs through France and Luxembourg. Australian Moselle (whatever it was) initiated a wine revolution in the sixties and seventies.
This revolution was unleashed in Australia when Lindeman released its Ben Ean Moselle. It became hugely popular, especially among women. (Lindeman ran advertisements for example in the Women’s Weekly.) At a time when Australia’s wine production was on the rise, Ben Ean probably introduced more people to wine drinking than any other product, notwithstanding the fact that the wine label contained no information of the vintage year or the location of the vineyards from where the grapes were sourced. Predictably, my father enjoyed it. But being a canny Scot he soon found that Moselle could also be purchased in, the by then, ubiquitous cardboard wine cask and he tended to always have a cask of Coolabah Moselle in his refrigerator!
And then for a time he became very fond of Marsala. Marsala is normally a very sweet, fortified Sicilian wine (although there are some drier varieties). Typically, as we have seen above, it took its name from the Sicilian city from where it originated. In the eighteenth century it was discovered by an English trader John Woodhouse. The English had a taste for fortified wines and fortunately the wine travelled well. Woodhouse soon popularised Marsala in his home country. My father would probably be appalled to know that today Marsala is principally used in cooking and is instrumental in the creation of flavoursome rich sauces. (I have used it myself in this regard for over forty years,)
But then I left home and began to be exposed to other influences beyond my father’s penchant for sweet wine. But that didn’t happen very quickly. When I went to University, being an engineering student, I was immersed in a beer culture. How could I ever forget the appalling “boat races” where students (all male, even though we did have a number of female students and tutors) attempted to skol inordinate amounts of beer in the shortest possible time! Even now I wince at the thought of these events and the sad aftermaths where young men trying to prove their virility ended up paralytic and helpless covered in their own vomit. That didn’t seem to me to be a good strategy for having fun!
Meanwhile at more civilised events wine was imbibed, yet strangely it was not dissimilar to what my father would drink. The principal difference was that although the wine was invariably sweet it had now become somewhat avant-garde to drink “sparkling” wine.
(The most famous sparkling wine, Champagne, of course has its own exalted history. Napoleon is reputed to have said:
In victory, you deserve Champagne. In defeat you need it.)
One day I vividly recall an uncle of one of my friends, who taking pity on us poor impecunious university students, took my friend and I to lunch. He asked would we like some wine. When we eagerly nodded he asked the waiter to fetch a bottle of Sparkling Burgundy. We were immediately won over and this soon became our vin du jour. Of course in those days any sparkling red was called Sparkling Burgundy. Before the Europeans placed an embargo on naming non-European wines using European regional names, still red wines were sold in Australia under the title “Burgundy”. From memory those wines were softer than the more popular Cabernet Sauvignons and were probably made of Shiraz grapes. Of course the genuine French Burgundy wines were made from Pinot Noir grapes.
On graduating from university one of my first work mates was Swiss. By then I was married (as indeed was he) and we would often visit each other’s houses on a weekend to play cards and imbibe a little wine. He was somewhat older than I was and told me that in Switzerland his family mainly drank Pinot Noir. Believing I was doing the right thing, on one occasion I brought with me to dinner a bottle of Pinot Noir. He was singularly unimpressed after sampling a glass. I was sure he had never drunk a drier table wine and quickly reverted to something sweeter.
(That the novelty of table wines predominated in those days might be exemplified by this little anecdote. I can remember early in my career being sent away to a regional centre for work. I had planned to have a takeaway meal in my motel room and accompany it with a glass or two of wine. I walked to a nearby hotel and asked for a bottle of red only to be dismayed by the fact that the attendant at the bottle shop went to the cold room to retrieve it.)
Not long after, I took a position as manager of a power plant in a somewhat remote location. Here my wife and I formed a friendship with a man who worked with me and his wife which resulted in dinner every Friday night at alternate residences followed by card playing into the early hours of the morning and interspersed with the most convivial drinking of wines. My friend Keith may have been a devout Catholic but his drinking tastes were certainly ecumenical – he would drink anything. Now this might not have been good for my liver but it broadened my perspectives on wines as we sampled red and white table wines, fortified wines and many different liqueurs. Keith, and his wife Nancy, were both considerably older than us but we forged a friendship that lasted until their deaths. In latter years we would reminisce with great nostalgia about those congenial times.
I fondly remember Keith leaving one night after the usual cards and drinks. In our lounge room we had a very large and colourful carpet square. As he left Keith walked slowly lifting his feet unduly highly as he walked across the carpet. “What are you doing, Keith?” I inquired. “I am trying not to trip over the high bits.” He replied. Of course the carpet was perfectly flat, but he had convinced himself after a few drinks, that our psychedelic carpet square was riven with peaks and valleys.
Now reasonable table wines were difficult to procure in our neck of the woods, so Keith and I began ordering South Australian wines by mail. We were beside ourselves when the order arrived selecting what to try first and trying in our amateurish way to match the wines with the planned menus for our Friday dinners.
At this stage in my career I had become a power station manager. As such, I and my peers were called to Brisbane once a month to cogitate over management matters. I was by far the youngest of my peers having first become a power station manager at the ripe old age of twenty six!
It soon became apparent to me that whilst I could hold my own on management issues, I could learn a thing or two about the consumption of liquor from my fellow managers. They introduced me to a broader, and I must say a more refined, range of wines then I had been previously exposed to. (It was comforting to learn that not all engineers –and they were all engineers – were uncouth!)
We mainly stayed at The Ridge hotel on Leichhardt St at Spring Hill in Brisbane. In those days The Ridge was a reasonable quality hotel with a good Italian Restaurant. The hotel was quite close to the National Party headquarters in Brisbane. The president of the National Party was Sir Robert Sparkes. This was of course in the Joh Bjelke-Peterson era and Sparkes was a prime supporter of Bjelke-Peterson and a key party strategist. On many occasions Sparkes ate in the restaurant when we were there. When the bar opened at 6:00pm the bar attendant, who later in the evening doubled as the maître de at the restaurant, was a jovial, dapper little fellow called Sergio. In deference to our National Party surroundings it was not long before Sergio became to us “Sir Joh” to our great amusement.
So, in these congenial surroundings my colleagues and I ate well and sumptuously, indulged in a bottle or two of wine and solved the problems of the world. But in the midst of this splendid mix of good wine, good food and good conversation the innocent-looking Sergio lobbed a bombshell –he introduced us to the Ridge Special. The Ridge Special was the most delectable liqueur coffee I have ever tasted. It was comprised of strong brewed black coffee with a shot each of three liqueurs (the names of which I can no longer remember) capped off with a generous dollop of cream. We became rather addicted to this potent concoction so that we always finished off our evening with one. Then, occasionally we would have two. Then on one profligate night of debauchery we had three! When I went to bed the combined effects of the caffeine and the alcohol were such that I lay awake for half the night with my heart rate significantly elevated and my heart beat feeling like someone striking a bass drum with a sledgehammer. After that we solemnly swore “no more than two!”
Occasionally for variety we would walk down to a French restaurant that we liked which was a BYO restaurant, or a Greek restaurant where they served Ouzo which resulted in vigorous dancing and the hurling of glasses into the hearth.
But there was no doubt that The Ridge made a significant contribution to my education. I had been given the opportunity of leading the development of a new power station and fortuitously I had just been introduced to someone who changed my life. I had just applied for a job that would enable me to start off Queensland’s next power station. On the selection panel was a psychologist I had heard of but not previously met – the man I often refer to in my blogs as the good Dr Phil – Phil Harker.
After being appointed I sought Phil out to help me devise strategies to help me develop a workforce that whilst being very productive might also get enjoyment from their work and their workplace interpersonal relations. We would meet regularly for dinner at The Ridge where we developed our workplace strategies. During the course of this my own personal development was accelerated and I learnt many invaluable lessons. These were priceless opportunities for me and undoubtedly facilitated by the imbibing of good wine.
At our first meetings, whilst he had little appreciation of wine (and just like most of us as novice drinkers preferred sweetness) it didn’t take long to develop his palate to embrace good reds and whites.
As an aside we developed what I still think of as a revolutionary workplace program. I had Phil run programs with the workforce on “What it means to be Human” which greatly enhanced their understanding of human relationships. Not only did we run these programs for the workforce but ran them again out of hours where employees could bring their spouses and even their children if they wished to learn more effective ways to relate as human beings. These workshops were hugely popular, not only because the good Dr Phil knows his stuff but he presents it well drawing on many of his own clinical cases that adds credibility. But we didn’t stop there, in the regional communities where I worked we also ran parallel workshops for the teachers from the local schools. We tried as well as we may to expand the understanding of the human condition not only in our work environment but in the attendant community environment. I have derived great pleasure over the years from the myriad of people who have told me that exposure to the good Dr Phil has changed their lives for the better.
Now this was revolutionary stuff. Most of my peers were devoting their energies to quality management, management by objectives, and a host of other trendy management efforts to compel the efforts of employees to be constrained and measured and optimised. Our approach was just to help people become better human beings, confident that in doing so they would become better employees. And the outcomes were clear. The enterprises I managed using this philosophy, aided by the good Dr Phil, easily outperformed my competitors.
Now I am not going to assert that the success of the enterprises I managed was due to drinking wine with my esteemed mentor, but I am sure it helped!
(As an aside I would assert that Phil’s influence made a huge difference to my workforce. But I would like to pay tribute to another gentle and inspirational person that I called upon to support my workforce who also made a significant difference – Susanne Rix. I called upon Susanne to run workshops for my managers to help them manage stress. She taught them basic relaxation and mindfulness techniques that were very effective. This was in fact a basic form of meditation. I was gratified to see some of my management staff retreat to a room occasionally during the day to listen to her relaxation tapes. I was more than gratified when some of their spouses came to me to say their partners were a lot easier to live with!)
Over the years since those halcyon days Phil and I continued to have frequent lunches enhanced by a bottle or two. We would often invite other like souls (eg Bruno and Edward among others) to stimulate our conversations. The owner of one of the restaurants where we would lunch often asked me when we were going to get together again because she liked to loiter and listen to the conversation. But in recent years this has waned because the good Dr Phil escaped to Tasmania to enjoy a cooler clime.
But another person who contributed to my knowledge and enjoyment of wine was David. David was the CEO of a church-based organisation focussed on financing the operation of the various church pastoral enterprises, particularly their schools. He was good at his job and managed the Church’s finances, over which he had control, very well. David engaged me to do some strategic planning for his organisation and to work on some staff issues. David had been friendly with the good Dr Phil (who had lectured David at university as I recall) and that connection led to my engagement. (David and I had also so been on the board of an indigenous school. I was the chair and proffered my resignation when I believed the board were reluctant to hold the CEO to account. But that is another story.)
Suffice to say, when I was in Brisbane, David and I would often dine together. It always surprised me that for an executive in a church based organisation he always seemed to have a generous entertainment budget. When we dined we always drank superb wines. His knowledge of wine was far greater than mine and he introduced me to a stellar array of the best Australian vintages. David was a generous and affable host and I fondly remember our times together.
After the Ben Ean revolution Australia quickly reverted to a passion for red wine. Our wine exports soared largely as a result of the growing reputation of Australian red wine. But then we discovered Chardonnay. I have never been a great fan of Chardonnay. For a few years when I was (frequently) invited to evening cocktail events Chardonnay was the predominant drink served. The oak in Chardonnay overwhelmed my taste buds and I longed for something less complex on the palate. I resorted to Riesling and found those wines emanating from Clare Valley and Eden Valley seemed to suit my untutored taste. And in latter times I have enjoyed Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. As for reds, I prefer softer reds, predominantly Shiraz.
(Mind you I was quite surprised one night when David said to me, “You say you don’t like Chardonnay. That’s because you haven’t been introduced to good Chardonnay.” He promptly ordered a bottle of rather expensive Chardonnay which proved to be a most exquisite wine. Nevertheless, the more ubiquitous varieties served at cocktail events still had no appeal to me!)
Most of my favourite recollections of drinking are unsurprisingly not so much about the wine or the liquor, whatever it was, but about the company. I have always enjoyed sharing a drop, of whiskey or wine with my old friend Larry. Larry stood by me during difficult times in my career and proved to be in those tough times my most loyal supporter. That was not an accident because Larry and I shared some basic values which I based my management ethos on. Our families were also close and we shared many fabulous times together. I don’t see Larry as often as I would wish today, largely as a result of geographical separation but I cherish very much those times when we can share a drink, reminisce and solve the problems of the world.
On leaving the electricity industry, I was given a gift of a dozen assorted bottles of expensive red wine, among which was a bottle of the fabled Grange hermitage. I saved it until my daughter’s marriage. On the day after her marriage she hosted a lunch for a dozen or so selected friends and relatives. After most had gone I opened the bottle and drank it with her and her brother in law (a lawyer with a taste for fine wines). It was understandably superb and rendered even better in my eyes because of the occasion.
When I look back on my long history of imbibing, a few things become apparent to me.
Firstly, it is undoubtedly true that drinking wine in the company of good friends stimulates conversation that can be both entertaining and meaningful. And in those circumstances the quality of the alcohol is a subsidiary concern. The presence of good friends renders the quality of the wine not so important. But in truth, good friends and good wine is a truly superb combination.
Invariably drinking wine with good friends leaves me in a mellow frame of mind. It is therefore beyond my comprehension that many young men on drinking too much are disposed to violence. It may be that wine allows our self-defences to melt away. If we harbour a vulnerable self the dropping of the veil of conventional conformity reveals our underlying fear. If we have achieved some reasonable sense of reconciliation with the self the removal of the veil reveals resilient self- assuredness and love.
Roger Scruton writes:
Ancient philosophy, Christian religion and Western art all see wine as a channel of communication between god and man, between the rational soul and the animal and the vegetable kingdoms. Through wine the distilled essence of the soul seems to flow into the veins, awakening the body to its life. And having swamped the body wine invades the soul.
Secondly it would be remiss of me in such an essay not to mention the strong connection between food and wine. On top of the enjoyment for its own sake, the experience of both food and wine are enhanced by compatible association. The sophisticated voices that try to dictate to us what wine should be consumed with what food should be treated with scepticism. It is surely a matter of individual taste.
On a personal note I must admit that I like to cook with wine and sometimes I even include it in the recipe!
Of course, as i must tell my good friend and avid environmentalist, David, (not the David mentioned above), one of my motivations in drinking wine is my concern for the environment. Wealthy people often indulge themselves by buying luxury cars, big boats and many expensive trinkets that end up as junk thus polluting the planet. They amuse themselves by travelling and staying in luxury accommodation all the while in many ways adding to the environmental burden. But I get sustained enjoyment from drinking wine from which the only by-product is biodegradable urine and even the bottles can be recycled! So I acquire a “glow” not only from the consumption of the wine but through my selfless act in preserving this environmentally stressed world!
I suppose in the era of the nanny state, I should also post a warning about drinking too much. A lady doctor who I went to for some years helped me put things in perspective. “An alcoholic,” she said, “Is merely someone who drinks more than their doctor!” So that is a yardstick you might choose to remember. If you have any doubts, try taking your doctor out to dinner.
And finally there is no doubting that wine improves with age. In my own case I have definitely noticed that the older I get the better the wine tastes!