Decanting Success: Celebrating a Monumental Achievement in Wine Writing

By | 5 June 2024

Has Andrew Caillard MW produced the definitive history of Australian wine?

By Nick Ryan

Nick Ryan reviews The Australian Ark: The Story of Australian Wine by Andrew Caillard MW.

Before anything else, a disclaimer: The impartiality a reviewer requires is beyond me here. The first time I held this work in my hands, tears came. Andrew Caillard has been a mentor to me from my earliest days in wine—occasionally without trying, often without knowing.

Two decades ago, desperate to escape the only office job I ever had, I applied for a position at Langtons, the wine auction house Andrew had co-founded. It wasn’t a particularly exciting job, little more than a store man, but at least it was better than running the copy department of a direct-mail wine club business with colleagues who viewed me as either a drunk or an idiot. Or both.

In applying for the job, I submitted an underwhelming résumé and several issues of a glossy lifestyle magazine that had, in a clear indication of how little it cared for the subject, allowed me space to write about wine. I was summoned for an interview, to be conducted at an inner-city café near the Langtons headquarters. It began thus:

“Right, you should probably know from the outset that you’re not getting this job. Now, how do you have your coffee?”

What seemed like a quick dismissal, which I initially perceived as overly harsh, evolved into an extensive, meaningful discussion that directed the course of my career to where it currently leads. Caillard identified potential in my literary efforts that I myself had overlooked. “I’m not going to let you squander your time in a mundane job. You need to commit to writing wholeheartedly and expand your scope,” he insisted.

Shortly after our pivotal conversation, Caillard embarked on an impressive project—the focus of our discussion—a laborious yet groundbreaking three-volume collection spanning over two decades, weighing around four kilos, and demanding significant shelf space. This mammoth undertaking was his practical application of the advice to “commit to writing wholly and expand your scope.” Indeed, Andrew Caillard MW not only advocates excellence but also personifies it through his decisive and significant contributions. Originally tasked with creating a simple pamphlet, he instead crafted a comprehensive narrative of over half a million words that profoundly altered the perception of how Vitis vinifera found its way to and thrived in an ancient land.

In 2006, motivated by Dr. Max Lake’s influential 1966 book The Classic Wines of Australia, Caillard aimed to produce an enhanced and refined edition. Lake’s book captured a transitioning era from predominantly fortified wine production to a focus on dry table wines and was concise enough to require additional sections just to exceed 100 pages. Unlike Lake, Caillard accessed a broader spectrum of wines, though it was not his intention to extend Lake’s concise work by a factor of 18.

As he began cataloging Australia’s most significant wines, a grander vision started to take shape. The mere mention of a few vintage bottles scratches only the surface of the true narrative. Consider the vast human endeavor behind those wines—the tale of how the grapevine traversed the globe to a remote, previously uncharted territory. It’s the story of this vine’s propagation alongside European expansion across a sprawling, ancient land, and how this spread and the lofty aspirations of pioneers attempting to transplant venerable traditions onto new soil reflect the transformative ideas that shaped a burgeoning nation. It also considers how these imported concepts clashed with the indigenous relationship to the land, rooted in a history far older.

Caillard’s comprehensive examination of the role of viticulture in the origins of colonial Australia stands as significant work in his book. The Australian Ark: The Story of Australian Wine unfolds across three volumes, each devoted to a specific era within the nation’s wine chronicles.

The initial volume, Australian Colonial Wine, spans the era from 1788 when the First Fleet landed, up to the formation of a united Australia in 1901. Here lies some of Caillard’s most insightful contributions.

The narrative of early European setup in Australia is often marked by brutality and hardship, a theme prominent in works like Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore (1986). Caillard does not overlook these harsh realities, but he also illuminates the historical figures from a unique perspective through their interactions with viticulture.

One notable historical detail Caillard presents is that of Captain William Bligh of the HMS Bounty, widely recognized for the infamous mutiny. He discloses that the first vineyards in Tasmania were actually planted by Bligh himself in August 1788 during a stop at Adventure Bay, an aspect often overshadowed by the more sensational parts of his history.

John Macarthur remains an enigmatic and disputable character within the annals of Australia’s colonial past. Known for his extreme ambition and cunning intelligence, he has famously been associated with the sheep industry and mutinous activities. Historical narratives often praise him for introducing Marino sheep to New South Wales, which catalyzed the development of a prosperous wool industry during the colony’s formative years. However, his involvement in the Rum Rebellion, the sole coup in Australian history, casts a shadow on his legacy.

Macarthur staunchly believed that the universe should cater to his desires. When Governor William Bligh of New South Wales, who was just as uncompromising, challenged this view, Macarthur led 400 armed men from the New South Wales Corps—officially tasked with maintaining order but primarily preoccupied with their lucrative alcohol trade monopoly—to overthrow him. The specifics of Bligh’s reaction as his residence was invaded remain unrecorded, but it might well have been an exasperated protestation akin to “Oh, bugger, not this again.”

Yet, it is in Caillard’s exploration where we uncover new layers to Macarthur’s story, particularly through the involvement of Macarthur’s affluent progeny in the import and spread of grapevines in the colony, adding depth to our grasp of Macarthur’s impact. According to Caillard, the expansive Macarthur estate, Camden Park, played a pivotal role in the narrative of Australian wine.

In his preeminent volume, Caillard reshapes what is generally accepted about the early history of wine in Australia, positioning himself as a meticulous and discerning historian. He discusses the optimistic prospects envisioned by many that this newfound Eden in the Southern Hemisphere could transform into a prolific vineyard for the Empire. Further, he delicates to how Australia’s growth throughout its first century was influenced by maritime arrivals, from the arrival of Silesian Lutherans fleeing religious persecution and settling in the Barossa Valley during the 1840s to the devastation of phylloxera which besieged the burgeoning vineyards near Melbourne in the latter part of the 19th century.

The second volume, Federation to the Modern Era, covers the timeline from 1901 to 1982, depicting the fluctuating fortunes of a wine industry in search of its identity. The text elaborates on how the newly unified country carved a niche for itself as a major wine producer. Between 1925 and 1939, Australian wine exports to Britain averaged over 12 million liters annually, surpassing the quantities imported from France during that time.

The narrative then shifts to the decline of this success and how the industry confronted some of its darkest times in the 1940s. The author examines how Australian wine navigated through the major crises of that century and another significant tragedy when three important personalities in the Australian wine scene—Tom Mayfield Hardy, Sidney Hill-Smith, and Hugo Gramp—were killed in what was then Australia’s deadliest air disaster.

The impact of post-World War II migration from southern Europe is credited with introducing a more diverse wine culture in Australia. The establishment of enological studies at Rosewood Agricultural College in South Australia is highlighted as crucial in developing a technically skilled generation of winemakers who would later gain international acclaim.

Further exploration is done into the careers of influential winemakers like Max Schubert at Penfolds, Colin Preece at Seppelt Great Western, and the iconic Maurice O’Shea at Mount Pleasant. The narrative also acknowledges Ray Beckwith, a less celebrated wine scientist, who perhaps played the most crucial role in advancing Australian wine (refer to Andrew Caillard MW, “The Boffin Behind Grange: Dr Ray Beckwith,” WFW 20, pp.168–69).

The third installment, Contemporary Times: Reflections and Perspectives, closely aligns with the career path of Caillard. In this volume, the neutral tone of a historian gives way to the intricate view of an engaged contributor—a perspective crucial to appreciating how Andrew Caillard uniquely crafted this publication.

Arriving in Australia in late 1982, Caillard soon joined the Wine Marketing course at Roseworthy. By 1992, he had earned the title of Master of Wine and received the Lily Bollinger Medal for his outstanding tasting skills, marking the beginning of his thriving career as a fine-wine auctioneer. His influence on the Australian wine scene has been profound ever since.

His unique role within the Australian wine community, as an outsider deeply integrated into the inner workings, provided him with the insight needed for this endeavor. At Roseworthy, his distinctive background, consisting of an English public-school upbringing, contrasted sharply with his classmates, many descendants from longstanding wine families. Despite being an anomaly, his connection to Australian wine runs deep.

Caillard regularly emphasizes his lineage through his mother, a direct descendant of John Reynell, pioneer of the first commercial vineyard in South Australia in 1838. His British accent, persistent despite many years in Australia, adds charisma to his persona. This distinct characteristic made inquiring about his book’s progress over 16 years unexpectedly delightful, often met with a frank and humorous, “Fuck off!”

Caillard has been a central figure in the Australian wine industry for over forty years, maintaining his independence from the various groups and factions that have emerged during that time. His perspective remains clear, free from personal agendas or conflicts. Unlike others who may have advanced through connections, Caillard earned his reputation based on widespread respect.

For many, the challenge of creating such a comprehensive work would be daunting, yet Caillard succeeded, driven by his love for his country and its wine producers. He acknowledges that the project might not have reached fruition without the involvement of Dr Angus Hughson as a publishing partner and the financial backing from key figures in the Australian wine industry.

The significant investment in the project is evident, with over A$30,000 spent on image licensing alone, and a deliberate choice to print in Australia to support local businesses despite cheaper alternatives available elsewhere. The result is a magnificent book that is both visually stunning and satisfying to hold.

The essence of the project is encapsulated in Caillard’s compilation of the Classic Wines of Australia, which permeates all three volumes with insightful essays. The Australian Ark also features valuable appendices such as a detailed list of vine importations from 1788 to 2023, a registry of Australia’s historic vineyards still active since as early as 1842, and comprehensive lists of alumni from the nation’s leading winemaking schools.

Encompassing the grand narrative of Australian winemaking, this tale is undeniably pivotal to the nation, yet its appeal transcends borders, captivating anyone fascinated by how wine mirrors the breadth of human emotion. This work is not merely a contribution to existing literature but stands as a significant oeuvre in its own right.

The Australian Ark: The Story of Australian Wine (three volumes)

Andrew Caillard MW

Published in Australia by Longueville Media & The Vintage Journal; paperback priced at A$199, hardback at A$399, linen hardback collector’s edition at A$499, leather collector’s edition at A$999. In the US/UK, published by Académie du Vin Library; hardback available for US$250/£200, leather collector’s edition for £10,000; featuring 1,760 pages, 500,000 words, and 1,100 illustrations.

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