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Dan's Blog

THE DAMNATION of a DUMB NATION

Friday, March 01, 2019

The following is an article that I wrote recently that wine magazines declined to publish, so here it is:

We Aussies have always considered ourselves to be the, “lucky country”, and at times even the, “clever country”, when we have done something that is particularly smart or inventive. However, recently while attending a seminar at the sensational World Bulk Wine Exhibition in Amsterdam, I was given reason to wonder why we shouldn’t be labelled as a “dumb nation”.

OK, we started out as being very clever and creative by conceiving and producing the wine cask some 50 plus years ago. We were bloody clever because we called it a “cask” which has positive connotations instead of a “bag-in-box” like the rest of the world did, which has significant negative connotations.

On top of that, being clever little sausages, we put decent quality wine into them (again, unlike the Europeans who put the dregs in there to start with) so that our casks were eminently drinkable, to the extent that by the early to mid-1980s over half of Australia’s wine was being sold in casks. Being practical as well as clever, we made our casks 4.0 litres – convenient as they fitted into the Aussie fridge.

Alas, as the demand for casks grew the quality of the wine being put into the casks plummeted. In the mid-1990s Australia was running short on red wine and so most cask producers began to import cheap red wine from South America and Spain, to put into their casks. It was around this time that the AWBC caught a well-known Griffith Winery using a percentage of apple juice in its export casks. Sadly, Wine Australia stopped testing wines pre-export approval a few years ago and now they fly “caped crusaders” (auditors) around the world trying to catch miscreants AFTER the wine has left our shores – just like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted, symbolic but useless!!

In the middle of this mass cask insanity there were two voices of sanity, in that Yalumba Wines and Berri Renmano produced good quality 2.0 litre casks. Since then due to the effects of several corporate take-overs/buy outs, the Renmano casks have varied in quality. Whereas, Yalumba has maintained its quality and presence making them the sole custodians of cask sanity, somewhat like the “Last Jedi”.  Right from day one, Yalumba was the first to varietally label its casks and put bottle quality wine into them. All the other casks had names like “Chablis”, “White Burgundy” and “Moselle” – usually made from the same concoction of Sultana and Gordo grapes with the only difference being the residual sugar content.

Yalumba casks became the, “thinking wine drinker’s” mid-week wine, sitting proudly on the shelf in the fridge ready to complement the nightly meal.

As we descended to the “dark side” of wine casks, not only did the quality deteriorate, but also the size of many increased from 4.0 litres to 5.0 litres. Then the wowsers preached about restraint and responsible drinking, so that over time, the humble wine cask slipped from being the mid-week hero to the despised enemy No.1. So much so, that several of the long-term, well known brands were withdrawn from the market in acts of “social responsibility” and others were further “watered down” to the extent that very few self-respecting families would be seen with a cask of wine in their fridge. Even the iconic Coolabah brand (I can still recall the jingle from the 1970s TV commercials) was “upsized” from 4.0 litres to 5.0 litres, when the current owners bought the brand from Pernod Ricard around five years ago.

Meanwhile, back in Europe the “bag in box” (BIB) wine has slowly gone from being the dregs of wine, to becoming higher quality wine. The BIB wine is rapidly becoming more socially acceptable not only because of the betterquality wine and its inherent practicality but also thanks to its environmental credentials. Today in Europe, as part of their premiumisation of BIB, they are putting Appellation wines into BIB rather than just the cheap stuff likebefore. By doing this they are assuring the purchasers of the quality of the wine in the cask, thereby broadening the appeal of this convenience packaging.

Added to this, there is a big marketing effort underway across Europe to promote BIB, which whilst focused on the improved quality, the “greenness” and its convenience, also includes some very appealing packaging. There is even one brand of BIB which looks just like a chic lady’s handbag from one of the leading fashion houses.

By greenness I mean their environmental credentials. The carbon foot print of one 2.0 litre cask is considerably smaller than that of the equivalent three glass bottles of wine. Furthermore, an empty cask weighs around half the weight of one empty standard glass bottle, so in comparison it has a two and a half times smaller carbon footprint in transportation than the equivalent three bottles of wine. Added to this is the fact that the cask is one hundred percent recyclable as both the carton and the bladder can be fully recycled.

Interestingly, it was recently pointed out to me that we are treating the subject of casks pretty much the way most European countries treat the subject of screwcaps, with disdain, a reluctant acceptance of their existence, and with the wish that they would simply go away.

So effectively in half a century, Australia has gone from being a clever, creative nation and the pioneers in wine packaging, to being environmentally irresponsible vandals using the most environmentally unfriendly way to deliver wine to the everyday wine consumers. Isn’t that one of the signs of being a “Dumb Nation?”

Hopefully, there are some medium-sized wine producers out there which have the smarts to see what is happening in Europe, coupled with the imagination and drive to create a quality 2.0 litre cask wine range that can go replacing the “three bottle struggle” in ordinary average Aussie homes. Even more so, I hope that the 4.0 and 5.0 litre generic cask abominations fade quietly into oblivion and we re-join the civilized world where quality 2.0 litre casks are “de rigueur” for wine drinking families.  

If this comes to pass, unlikely as it may seem, it might just prevent history from referring to this era of Australian vinous events as "The Damnation of a Dumb Nation".  Australia who led the world and then stuffed up and became an environmental vandal!!!