With Sam Benwell and the House of Lords Journeying to Wine in Victoria

Article excerpt

Wine is a good beverage at any time. But wine is always best when it is drunk near its own soil. Wines are places. Which is why it is a good and profitable thing to set off in search of the wine belts with nose in air and palate clean instead of simply telephoning your wine merchant and placing another order.

(W S 'Sam' Benwell, Journey to Wine in Victoria, 1960)

In 1960 the Melbourne-based subsidiary of the British publishing house Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons published W S 'Sam' Benwell's Journey to Wine in Victoria. This rambling travelogue account of the wine industry in Victoria covered aspects of its history and setting in the Victorian countryside. (1) It was a well-written, neat and slender little book by a local writer, and the text was laced with good humour and affectionate portraits of places and people. It was a guide with understated literary pretensions, and it dealt, as one might expect, with the styles of wine produced by the various wineries and the burning consumer issues of the day, like whether there could be any difference between a claret and a burgundy when both wines were made from the same Shiraz variety. (2) Journey to Wine in Victoria was well reviewed, and between 1960 and 1978 it ran to three editions. (3) It was a modest publishing success. It might have achieved greater sales had its scope been wider. A wider canvas might have included other well-known wine regions, such as the Southern Vales and Barossa Valley regions of South Australia or the Hunter Valley district of New South Wales. But if its scope had been wider it would not have illuminated the Victorian scene as well as it did.

Benwell's useful and engaging little book is interesting from another perspective. It is a literary record of a self-conscious 'wine pilgrim' (4) whose documentation of his journeying influenced others. But, as reviewer Alan Bell observed, the book was somewhat out of place in Australia as its author lacked the rich subject matter he would have found in Europe. In marked contrast to 'the happy valleys of the continent, where every undulation proffers its different vinous source' the reader 'cannot forget his vital handicap--that he has been deprived of his raw material'. It was a regrettable fact that Victoria in 1960 just did not have all that many vineyards and wineries to visit. Further, the situation had got worse rather than better over the years. Bell observed that 'a pilgrimage to Victoria's vineyards last century would have enforced a book of 400 or 500 pages, not just 111 pages'.

   Three malt bred generations ... have reduced Victoria's wine
   districts, once abloom with promise, to a few last anxiously
   defended 'wine stockades.' (5)

Vine plantings in Victoria had boomed in the 1860s, and again in the 1880s and 1890s. By the turn of the century it had the largest extent of land under vine of any of the Australasian colonies. But within two decades its industry had all but collapsed, and South Australia consolidated its position as the leading wine-producing State of the Commonwealth. The vine louse Grape Phylloxera--'the vigneron's Black Death' (6)--is often blamed for wine's demise in Victoria. This was the same blight that devastated the great vineyards of Europe in the nineteenth century. While it was undoubtedly a factor, ill-advised attempts to boost the industry and the boom-and-bust cycle of the Victorian economy were also responsible. (7) War, economic depression and the better returns offered on labour by dairy cattle and wool in the twentieth century contributed to the demise of many vineyards. By 1960, when Sam Benwell published his necessarily slender little book, only a handful of stalwart producers remained scattered across the State.

Nevertheless, there was a Victorian wine industry about which it was possible to be a chauvinist, in the same way that like-minded Sydney-based enthusiasts celebrated the vineyards and wines of the Hunter Valley. …