on this rock

by crushed & stirred

The day I drove over the Sonoma County line with my station wagon full of clothes, electric mixer, wine, cheesemaking equipment, and coffee maker, it was pouring rain. It always seems to be raining on moving day. This was no exception. Sonoma’s freshwater tears. The vineyards were gray and bare, recent storms having stripped them of their last flashes of autumnal color.

Five minutes later, I was on an A380 to Sydney. What a machine.

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the southern sun

Five minutes after that, I was in Adelaide, where I briefly kept myself and my things before heading Margaret River way. There was a wedding (not mine), a dress (mine). There were white ties (not mine) and visits to McLaren Vale and the Barossa in 38 C heat (here’s a handy tool). There were many trips to the mechanic and the auto salvage yard, where a few Australian dollars buys you what may or may not turn out to be a working twin radiator fan for a 98 Ford Falcon. And some relays. And a thermostat.

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the Adelaide U-Pull-It

In the end, the old girl got us across the Nullarbor Plain on a Cookie Monster approved diet.

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blue-handed

Nullarbor. That’s Latin for hot, flat, dry, and empty. And kangaroos (nobody told me the babies were called joeys! Makes my head explode.) and emus and dingos. There was a dead camel by the side of the road.

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And then there was and is Margaret River. Resplendent Margs. Like I never knew it could be. Golden, shimmering, breezy, forested Margs, her white sand and blue bays and green woods and rolling flaxen pastures dotted with roos and sheep and trimmed with swaying bays of gum trees. And, yes, the verdant vineyards, standing on the cusp of high summer. Canopies floating green and bright in the sea breeze and little tough, green clusters metabolizing their way through these warm but not yet truly hot days.

And the birds. The mad cackle of the kookaburras and the funny hats on the galahs. And the flies! We wait in earnest for the heat to bring out the dung beetles – something I never thought I’d say. With a little competition, the flies lose their main meal, cattle dung, and leave us alone. I’m told.

Come new year, I’ll be the one and only vintage cellar hand at Juniper Estate, a 300-odd ton winery in the Wilyabrup area of Margaret River. It sits on Caves Road – the Westside Road, the Highway 29, the Silverado Trail of Margs. Home to wineries of all shapes and sizes, many of which have been thoroughly Disney-fied with playgrounds, breweries, restaurants, and ostentatious sculpture gardens and water features. These include some of the areas oldest and best names – Vasse Felix, Cullen, Moss Wood, etc. Juniper is a couple of people, a couple of buildings, one Bucher press, and a 13 year-old cattle dog called Jeepers. They make a dozen or so wines on two tiers in addition to a couple of single vineyard wines bottled as Higher Plane.

The topsoils here are gravelly – ironstone, they call it, because of the metallic content; you can pick up the stones with a magnet. There’s talk of lowered yields in scattered areas, varietals, and clones due to hail and wind at flowering that damaged vines and prompted a phenomenon known as “hens & chicks,” which will result in fewer ripe grapes in the mature clusters.

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hens & chicks in young chardonnay; the healthy-sized berries will mature fully; the shrimpy ones won’t get bigger

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an unharmed chardonnay cluster; this one was well-protected from wind and hail by leaves

But these are early days yet and there’s a lot else to do in the mean time: canopies to manage, finished wines to blend and bottle, a cellar to whip into shape and a blistering hot Christmas to spend on the beach.

As for Margaret River and me, it’s love at first sight. The rest doesn’t make much sense yet but, come hell or high water, on this rock I will build . . . something.

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