Badass Beverage: The Wonderful Vineyards of Oz

Dan ties in Raimi's new OZ film with Australian wines, because why not?

I am a fan of Sam Raimi. I love how the Evil Dead movies gradually switch gears from horror played fairly straight to flat out slapstick comedy as Ash slowly loses his mind. I love the hyper-intense reality of The Quick and the Dead, that wonderful exposed nerve of a movie. Raimi shows a pure grasp of the superhero in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (aka: Superman in Ancient Greece) and the first two Spider-Man films, and the pulp origins of the superhero in Darkman. Even his failures, like For Love of the Game and Spider-Man 3, I think are interesting failures.

So I can’t really figure out why I don’t care about Oz the Great and Powerful. The marketing makes it look dull and banal, but response for the film has been positive. Maybe I just don’t like James Franco.

On the other hand, that little porcelain doll thing gives me hope.

She just creeps me right the hell out, and also makes me kind of sad. She’s like a wounded puppy made of knives. You want to make sure she’s okay, but you also don’t want to need a tetanus shot.

Sam Raimi has earned my trust, and despite my misgivings, I am going to watch Oz the Great and Powerful. And to get in the right mindset, I’ve been drinking lots of Aussie wine.

See, it’s a well-known fact I just made up that L. Frank Baum based the land of Oz on that land at the bottom of the world, Australia. That country even gets its nickname from Baum’s books, and not from the much more reasonable phonetic shortening of Australia to Aus. to Oz. Also both have flying monkeys.

Not buying it? Well, tough. I’ve already got this bottle of Shiraz open, so we’re drinking it.

The Weird History of Australian Wine.

Most New World* wine gets its heritage from the French varietals. And while Australia’s most important grape (here called Shiraz, but genetically identical to the Rhône Valley’s native Syrah) is French in origin, the first wines made in the country were from African vines.

In the late 1700s, New South Wales was still a penal colony. The First Fleet, aboard which were the first several hundred convicts, took a pit-stop at the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa.

Cuttings from local vineyards were taken, and travelled to Oz to be planted and eventually make wine for the new inhabitants of New South Wales.

It didn’t take, but the idea was sound and subsequent settlers continued to take vine cuttings with them in the hope of finding success. By the mid-1800s the southern coast was dotted with vineyards, many of which were exporting quality wine (mostly fortified wines similar to Port), and by the end of the century Australian wines were ranked among the best in the world.

And then our old friend phylloxera struck. That son of a bitch.

The wine industry in Australia spent the next hundred years slowly trying to recover. Right as a solution to the phylloxera blight appeared, the first world war crippled production. Once the war ended, the Americans ushered in the stupid stupid Prohibition that set human civilization back a thousand years**, and Oz followed suit (though not as wholeheartedly). Then Prohibition fell apart because nobody really wanted it anyway, and World War II began.

After the war, things started to get better. Wine was being produced again on a regular basis, but it was mostly sweet and fortified table wine that nobody liked. Gradually, people started to make money, and people with money started to take a keen interest in wine. And here’s where things get funny.

In the 1990s, right at the height of the wine boom, the Australian government declared that Australian wine was A Thing Now. Huge efforts were taken to ensure Australian wine would get a foothold in the global market, and would help establish the country’s image in the public consciousness. This was actually part of the government’s (successful) attempt to reinvigorate Australia’s tourism industry. It’s why Crocodile Dundee is a thing.

The Australian government offered farmers huge incentives in order to ensure Australian wine had a place in the market. And giant piles of money went to winemakers to help them produce more and better wine. As a result, Australia’s wine industry is incredibly modern. They helped usher in the varietal-first approach to wine, invested in drastic technological advances (many of which have been adopted throughout the world), eschewed tradition and convention in favor of innovation, created the model for how to market wine***, and did so while bottling some damn good juice. Then shit hit the fan.

And Everything Was Going So Well.

The recent history of Australian wine is fascinating and kind of sad. For all of Australia’s technological advances and vast production, wine is ultimately an agricultural product. Australia wanted to become the world’s largest producer and exporter of wine. Bacchus felt otherwise.

In the early years of the new millennium, Oz faced a weird problem. “I am making way too much of the stuff that people want” is not usually a bad thing, but overproduction was becoming a major a concern.

It starts in the vineyard, you see. The vine wants an easy life, and it wants to produce lots and lots of grapes for animals to eat and take elsewhere and shit seeds that become new vines that want an easy life. And an easy life makes it easy to have a lazy life, and a lazy vine produces fat juicy grapes that make fat boring wines. So the vine has to struggle. It’s why we seek harsh, inhospitable soils made from the powdered bones of the dead (like in Chablis) and hellish volcanic dust (Etna in the south of Italy, for example, makes amazing wines thanks in no small part to the vineyards being planted at the foot of an active volcano).

It’s also why we prune. Vigorously. A vine that produces 100 grapes instead of 1000 is going to spend just as much energy on those 100 grapes as it would on 1000****.

The Australian government was paying top dollar for grapes, and when sales of Australian wine started to fall, it was felt this was because of a drop in quality just as much as oversaturation of the market. So the government started to pay to have vines pulled in order to favorably cull the grape. Less wine would be made, but it would be better.

And then a decade of drought, and wildfires that devastated huge expanses of land under vine. It got so fucking hot in Oz that they had to add a new color to the heat index.

And that heat does not treat a vineyard well.

It isn’t fair to say that Australian wine has bottomed out, and I firmly believe that it has not. But there are those who still say that Australia is the next big thing (kind of like Argentina was a couple of years ago), and I can’t agree with that either. I believe the Australian wine industry is undergoing a sort of awkward adolescence, trying to define itself and its place in the world. I think Australia’s best years are ahead of us, and I’m looking forward to them, albeit with a skeptical yet optimistic eye.

Kind of how I feel about Oz The Great and Powerful, really.

*When we say New World, what we mean is Not Europe. Even in countries with a long history of winemaking, a history that predates European contact, the influence of European varietals, and especially French varietals, is so prevalent that they can safely be classified as New World wines.

**I have Strong Feelings about Prohibition.

***There’s a reason you’ve heard of Yellowtail, and it’s not because it’s any good.

****Of course, we also have to make sure we don’t prune too judiciously. A vine’s sole purpose in life is to produce grapes, and if pruned too closely the vine will die.