NewSouth Books, 2018, 287 pp. (plus bibliography and index), ISBN: 9781742235769, p/bk, AUS$49.99
Robert Louis Stevenson once suggested ‘wine is bottled poetry’. In their captivating new book Hunter Wine: A History, historian Julie McIntyre and sociologist John Germov prove this idea in grand style: their new book on wine is poetry indeed. These two authors are both prolific researchers and well-regarded scholars, and their expertise, in addition to their shared passion for the subject of wine in Australia, has resulted in a stunning text that is simultaneously a rigorously-researched academic work and a great story.
Vines were first planted in Sydney in 1788 and wine, from vines at Parramatta just west of the first settlement, was made in 1792. As the colonisers spread out from Port Jackson, farming practices (and ambitions), accompanied many of the men and women seeking fame and fortune (or at least fortune).
In 1828 James Webber, a wealthy landowner north of Sydney at Hunter’s River, requested ‘as many Vine Cuttings in the Government Garden as can be spared’ (p. 1). It is now believed Webber received the cuttings and ‘that these were the stock for the initial vine plantings on a handful of properties throughout the Hunter – Australia’s oldest continually producing wine region’ (p. 1). The region is a massive piece of real estate of almost three million hectares and the history of the area is as complex as the many different people who have called it home.
As the title suggests, this book is very much focused on the history of wine. As with all good histories, it includes numerous threads and many delightful diversions. There are stories of innovations and technologies, of economics, politics and properties, of rivalries, snobberies and a few myths. There are stories about people many of us will have never heard of before, as well as the big names of the wine industry such as Lindeman, McGuigan, McWilliam and Tyrrell.
Underpinning all of these tales is the land that has sustained so much joy, disappointment and trauma. It is obvious that any work addressing a living plant must acknowledge the soil that sustains plant life. This book does much more; there is a deep respect for the landscape, with geological descriptions of how the area was formed (pp. 27-29). There is too a meaningful acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land, and of the conflict and dispossession that resulted from colonisation.
Since convicts stomped grapes in the colonial era (p. 267) through to Australia becoming a very multicultural, very modern and very much a ‘wine-drinking country’ (p. 235), this grand space on the eastern-side of the continent – though not, we’re informed by the authors, actually suitable for growing grapes – has become synonymous with wine making.
This book is beautifully illustrated. Each image—including sketches, paintings, photographs and manuscripts in a wonderful array of black and white, sepia and colour — has been chosen with care and purpose, each one taking the reader deeper into the story of Hunter. They are all well credited, and there is also a very useful bibliography and an index.
Hunter Wine: A History is clearly the seminal text of wine history in the Hunter Region. Expect other historians working on histories of agriculture in general, and viticulture in particular, to follow the fine example set by McIntyre and Germov.
Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, January 2019
Visit the publisher’s website here.