Aussie Stomping Grounds

By Nancy Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Bogan. Bad Impersonator. For Love or Money.

These are some of my favorite souvenirs from a month-long trip to Australia earlier this year. They aren't B movies, soap operas or comic strips. They are wines. And they make me smile just to hear the names.

Australian wine country is like that. It's a new frontier of that last frontier country. Millions of gallons of Australian wines are pouring into the United States with cutesy animal-related names like yellowtail and the Little Penguin, but those are coined by big corporations to tickle the fancy of undiscerning American consumers.

Those conglomerates now control more than 90 percent of Australian wine production. About 1,600 small wineries bottle the rest. These smaller vintners consider themselves farmers who practice a bit of agricultural alchemy to produce nectars from little more than vines grown deep into the thin soil, which manage to flourish despite scant rain and sometimes harsh temperatures.

You have to have a sense of humor to tackle winegrowing under these conditions. And it's obvious in the names they give their wines -- usually backed up with a good story -- and in the unconditional welcome they offer anyone who travels down dusty roads to seek them out.

Valley Vintages

Late on a warm March day (fall in Australia), my husband, Gene, and I stood at the stone counter of Kaesler Wines in South Australia's Barossa Valley contemplating what a great name Old Bastard is for a premier wine (it's called that because it comes from a shiraz vineyard that has survived since 1893). The woman pouring samples brought out The Bogan, another plump, single vineyard shiraz. It too, she explained, is ripe with sweet revenge.

It seems "bogan" is Australian slang for a shabbily dressed child, and it's a name winemaker Reid Bosward was often called when he was a boy. He knew even at a young age that he wanted to be a winemaker, and he swore that someday he'd name his very best wine The Bogan. It's anything but shabby.

Bad Impersonator, a glorious shiraz by the upstart Two Hands, gets its name because its makers say it doesn't taste like a typical Barossa Valley shiraz. The bottle bears a photo of a very bad Groucho look-alike. Two Hands also makes For Love or Money, and one taste of this luscious late-harvest semillion explains it all: You'll give either or both for a bottle.

Besides their catchy names, these wines share another trait: They are virtually unattainable in the United States. Though a couple of hundred cases of Bad Impersonator are shipped to this country each year, The Bogan and For Love or Money -- like dozens of Australia's best wines -- are available only at the vineyards where they are made.

We didn't know any of this when we set off for Melbourne. And we hadn't really planned for our visit to turn into the great Australian winery expedition of 2004.

Gene and I went to Australia to visit our dear friends Bill and Alma, who recently retired there. While some people I know dream all their lives of visiting Australia -- or at least that's what they said when I mentioned our trip -- I admit I had never given it serious thought. I don't like hot weather. I don't trek. I'm allergic to almost everything outdoors. And while I am intrigued by kangaroos, koalas and penguins, I didn't feel compelled to go halfway around the world to see them.

I do know a bit about wine, and that the Barossa Valley near Adelaide is famed for its old-growth shiraz. It seemed that if we were going to be in Australia, we ought to take a trip to the country's most famous vineyards.

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