Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Original Organic Gentleman: Gil Wahlquist Remembered

A weed between two roses; Gil and Vincie 23/3/2012
Everybody knows somebody called Gilchrist. It's the sort of name that attaches itself to the family chemist, or local barber. It may even be the maiden name of the captain of the best team of net-ballers you've ever seen clout the canvas. It's a name of some conservative style!... a name which invites plimsolls to be firmly tied at ten paces!

As for your 'Wally', well there's at least one in every pub. I would go so far as to state, at some small personal danger, that a pub without a Wal is not a real pub. It's more an hotel. What's more, uninvited "Wals" have a habit of turning up at dry red home bottling sessions, demanding control of the siphon and complaining endlessly the next day about how that bloody awful port, bloody near killed them. Mind you, some  Wallys'ill have a go at anything. A source close to the inaction, informs me of one prominent N.S.W. political Wal taking to the 245 T in an effort to convince a cynical public of its benign nature. And he's still about. Trouble is, said my informant, he didn't drink enough of the stuff.              

What's all this to do with wine? Well, as often as not, Gil Walquist, lately  of Botobolar Vineyard in Mudgee still makes an appearance in casual conversation, and the occasional wine related publication, as Wal Gilchrist. This must be of some little concern to his bankers, albeit a source of joy to his accountant. "Gilchrist" in spirit he may well be, but a "Wal" he very definitely is not.

He and his partner Vincie are remarkably singular and generous individuals.

Many years ago, I had the very good fortune to spend a hazy Sunday with the Walquists in their vineyard at Botobolar above Mudgee enjoying the hospitality and accumulated wisdom of over 20 years of 'real' grapegrowing and winemaking. The Walquists established themselves as leaders in organic viticultural practice in Australia, and developed an international reputation for natural wines made from "real" grapes with  no synthetic interference. Botobolar was for many years,  the only Australian vineyard accredited by NASA (National Association of Sustainable Agriculture) and, as such, enjoyed an enviable and hard-earned reputation for quality wines from its clean environment. And all this, thirty years before the "natural" wine movement became so much a part of the harbour-side harbinger restaurants of today.

This didn't just happen. Both Gil and Vincie, through dogged hard work and enduring belief in what they were doing, managed to survive their own doubts and the cynicism of an ever decreasing group of industry Wallys. And, what's very endearing to me at least, is that they did it all with very good humour. I didn't find a couple of rabid evangelists perched atop some ecologically sound yellow box stump berating the assembled prospective guilt ridden converts. What I found was firm observation and quiet, informed certainty, presented in a positive and human atmosphere of concern for what we're all doing to our environment, and therefore, ourselves. "You spit on this earth and you spit on yourself" they seemed to be saying.

And was everything always rosy in the Walquist's garden? At the time of my visit, Gil showed me a possible infection of his newly set Cabernet with botrytis. Now while noble rot in late harvested Riesling can be magic in the wine, reds and this particular fungus are a real problem. Apricot flavoured Cabernet just doesn't excite the harbour-side harbingers, or, I must was some mechanical damage from a light hailstorm and a gentle invasion of light-brown apple moth larvae attacking some of the recently set berries. There was also a fairly complete grassing of the vineyard floor which tended to moderate growth along the vine rows themselves in what had been a dry-ish growing season.

So, what did the Walquists do about all these "problems"?. Well, they kept a low profile. They were waiting for and more importantly interested in, nature's response. Hail is a fact of life for all agriculture, and anyway, that years crop looked to be pretty heavy in what seemed to be making up into a dry finish to a dry year. The grasses in the vineyard encouraged all manner of insects which, in their turn, were a ready food source for more than the odd predatory bird.

These birds, when they realised how tasty a fat and lazy light-brown apple moth larvae is, would go quite some way in controlling the presently expanding population. And as for the botrytis infection?; an elemental dusting of sulphur, generously applied at the early bud swell and across the recent flowering period would, Gil believed,  prevent problems at vintage. "Easy, isn't it?" he calmly offered.

Mind you, there's nothing absolute about this approach to growing healthy vines and succulent grapes. I got the impression that Gil and Vincie's footprints in the vineyard were the best manure of all. I also came away with the life long gift that successful organic growing of quality grapes is often result of knowing exactly when to do absolutely nothing.

That being true, all we "Wals"  are already half way there.

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