Book review — Halliday wine companion and autobiography

James Halliday: Australian wine companion 2013 edition
Hardie Grant Books. RRP $34.95 (paperback)

James Halliday: A life in wine
Hardie Grant Books.  RRP $45 (hardcover)

This year’s review copy of Australian wine companion 2013 arrived with a bonus – James Halliday’s easy-reading autobiography, A life in wine.

The companion’s just as the name suggests – a well-thumbed, much-loved reference that can’t really be reviewed every year, given its predictable content.

Over time it’s become the equivalent, if unofficial, of a Michelin guide to Australian wineries and wine – and as much a marketing tool for successful vignerons as it is a solid, consistent guide for wine drinkers.

Such is the companion’s reach and value that each year a flood of winemaker press releases alerts me to the coming release. Indeed, vignerons value Halliday’s endorsement so much that it appears in marketing material of all kinds, including roadside signs in our wine regions.

Among Canberra wineries, Ken Helm set the pace this year, as always, emailing just days before the book arrived, “I look forward to a chat about wine in general – even Halliday’s wine companion 2013 – Canberra wineries did very well again”.

We haven’t chatted yet, but Halliday puts Helm towards the top of his quality pyramid with eight other Canberra makers – Capital Wines, Clonakilla, Collector Wines, Eden Road Wines, Lark Hill, Lerida Estate, Mount Majura and Nick O’Leary.

Each of these received a five-star rating. But there’s a hierarchy even at this level in Halliday’s system.

He awards five black stars to wineries offering good wines in the current review, with at least two of those rating 94 or more out 100. Wineries consistently making exemplary wines (with two or more currently rating 94 or more) earn five red stars. Wineries at the very tip of the pyramid – with a long, acknowledged record of excellence – have their name printed in red.

Clonakilla remains our only wine on that tip. But Alex McKay’s Collector Wines knocks on the door, with five red stars. The others mentioned above rate five black stars (Helm demoted from red last year). Closely following on four black stars and one white (that is, almost five stars) are Brindabella Hills, Four Winds Vineyard, Gallagher Wines, Lake George Winery, McKellar Ridge Wines and Shaw Vineyard Estate.

A surprise casualty this year, after last year’s rating of four black stars plus white star, is Bryan and Jocelyn Martin’s Ravensworth Wines. Ravensworth received heaps of accolades this year, mine included, making me wonder whether the wines were tasted. Martin says he sent samples. We’ll know when the online Wine companion 2013 goes live.

I wondered, too, about the absence of Long Rail Gully from the Canberra list. Richard Parker makes bloody good wines – worthy of a five-star rating in my view. When I phoned the winery, Garry Parker, Richard’s father, replied, “We’ve never given him [Halliday] our wines”.

Halliday requested samples last year, explained Parker, but at the time he didn’t have enough wine to send. However, he anticipated having a full complement shortly, once they’ve finished bottling recent vintages. Vintages due for release (and destined for Halliday’s review next year) include 2011 cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, 2009 shiraz and 2012 riesling and pinot gris.

Wine companion 2013 gives profiles on 1,381 wineries, detailed tasting notes on 3,722 wines and ratings on another 3,053 wines. Many of the tasting notes come from Ben Edwards, Halliday’s collaborator and heir apparent.

Several Canberra wines make it to Halliday’s best-of-the-best list: Clonakilla and Gallagher 2011 rieslings, Clonakilla Riesling Auslese 2011, Clonakilla Murrumbateman Syrah 2010 and Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2011.

Halliday’s autobiography makes a pleasant afternoon’s read (and a lot of laughs), packing an exceptionally busy life in wine into about 250 pages.

I’ve known Halliday since 1979, selling wine to him, sometimes at mates’ rates, when I was with Farmer Bros, sponsoring his top 100 in The Australian during my time at Vintage Cellars, as a fellow reviewer at countless industry tastings and well-lubricated events and as a judge at various wine shows – including the first five years of the Limestone Coast show at Coonawarra.

Everyone in the industry, including me, always felt in awe of Halliday’s productivity. For me working full time, running a family, judging at wine and beer shows and filing a gradually increasing number of weekly columns for the Canberra Times seemed more than enough work.

But Halliday has an ability, it seems, to work non stop. How else to explain how as a partner in Clayton Utz, a notoriously demanding employer, he established not just one but two vineyards and wineries – Brokenwood, in the Hunter Valley, and Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley, at the same time judging at Australian and overseas wine shows and writing numerous books and columns for newspapers and magazine.

At age 50 in 1988, he retired from Clayton Utz, but continued a prodigious work output as viticulturist, winemaker, author, judge and key player in the reform of wine shows and promoting the Australian wine industry.

All this, and he found time, too, to drink deeply and well. The great wine experiences literally slosh through the book in mouth watering detail. Halliday shared the passion generously across the years with a growing circle of friends and industry acquaintances. But the book focuses more on the inner circle and especially on his much-loved friend, Len Evans. Evans rollicks life-like through the book, which Halliday wrote largely before Evans’ death in August 2006.

On 16 August 2006 my world changed forever” writes Halliday in the preface, giving an account of a joyous, wine-filled night at Evans’ house, Loggerheads, in the Hunter on 15 August, only to arrive in New Zealand the next day to learn of the death.

The sense of loss lingers through Halliday’s personal, frank and at times very funny account of his life in wine. The more you love wine, the more you’ll love the book.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 8 August 2012 in The Canberra Times