S.C. Pannell


I attended a wine tasting yesterday, courtesy of my excellent friend, Brad Williamson. Brad is in charge of fine wine at Dan Murphy’s Chapel Street store, and as a result of long conversations that became guided purchases, he has been kind enough to include me in various special events. Yesterday, the new Buyer’s Guide was launched, so Dan’s hosted a tasting to showcase some of the lesser-known Grenache varieties produced in the Barossa Valley. One of that region’s more distinguished vignerons, Steve Pannell, featured as M.C.

Australians love vignerons, and I think it’s because they reconcile us in terms of our cultural cringe; a vigneron understands, indeed steers the production of one of the most distinguished upper-class commodities, but appears to us in the earthy, no-nonsense guise of a farmer.

Pannell was an excellent speaker. He has a pretty amazing resume; Steve has worked at a number of highly distinguished vineyards in France and Italy, as well as having been in charge at Hardy’s wines and I believe, is now responsible for shaping Qantas’ in-flight service wine list.

One of the most interesting things he talked about was how we pay lip-service to the French, but our climate is better suited to growing Italian and Portuguese varieties. He also spoke about how he had worked in France, but realised that the French would never drink his wines because he simply wasn’t one of them.

Steve spoke about how he was aiming to make wines with a ‘floral nose’ and a lower alcohol content, because alcohol is a solvent and therefore actually dissolves the scent (which is, of course, a significant register of taste). He doesn’t believe in oaking for flavour, and he also, interestingly, said that the most potent experiences you had when drinking were when there were two separate, contradictory elements fighting for dominance.

He also said that everyone’s taste was different and that it was, essentially, in your mouth; there was no right or wrong answer (which was just as well, as I much preferred the cheaper and less-personal of the two Grenache he had bought along. When asked for my opinion, I chose to keep my mouth shut).

He said something about how taste and smell were powerfully emotional, because the most profound tastes and smells were the ones the drove you down roads of long-forgotten associations, sometimes forking all the way back into childhood.

All the best craftsman are driven by poetry, I think. And what he said reminded me of the sequence at the end of the Pixar animated film, Ratatouille. It contains the most profound incision into the role and status of the professional critic that I can recall.

Anton Ego is the most feared food critic in all of France. Dubbed ‘The Grim Eater’, he can make or break a reputation in a small number of words. The head chef at the restaurant he is about to review is a rat named Remy. Remy, while certainly a rodent, has produced a ratatouille which catapults Ego right back into the modest rural surrounds of his childhood. The sequence beautifully illustrates that while the images summoned for Ego are distant, the emotional realities are immediate, courtesy of taste and smell. His review, the denouement of the film, reads as follows;       

“In many ways the work of a critic

is easy. We risk very little, yet

enjoy a position over those who

offer up their work and their

selves to our judgement. We thrive

on negative criticism, which is fun

to write and to read.

“But, the bitter truth we critics

must face is that, in the grand

scheme of things… the average

piece of junk is probably more

meaningful than our criticism

designating it so. But there are

times when a critic truly risks

something… and that is in the

discovery and defense of the new.

The world is often unkind to new

talent, new creations. The new

needs friends.

“Last night I experienced something

new, an extraordinary meal from an

singularly unexpected source.

To say that both the meal and its

maker have challenged my

preconceptions about fine cooking,

is a gross understatement– they

have rocked me to my core.

In the past I have made no secret

of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s

famous motto: “Anyone Can Cook”.

But I realize only now do I truly

understand what he meant. Not

everyone can become a great artist,

but a great artist can come from



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