- Published on Monday, 06 December 2010 15:32
- Written by Richard Siddle
The Adelaide Test has always been my favourite in an Ashes series Down Under. It's not just because the Oval is the most attractive in the country - with its cathedral, scores of trees and stylish stands including a brand new Western Grandstand that cost £50m - but because the whole occasion is the most social of the Australian cricketing calendar.
People come to the match from all over Australia - not just from other cities but also from the country districts. And that very much includes the wine community in South Australia, who flock to the Adelaide Oval by the dozens. I've bumped into quite a few of them over the first four days as well as spotting numerous others 'Out the Back.'
'Out the Back' has become something of an Australian institution. It is a huge grass area behind the Grandstand, replete with bars and eating places, where thousands congregate to make up one giant garden party. Hundreds stay there all day, able to keep an eye on the cricket thanks to several large screens, but many don't even watch a ball. It is a good place to find winemakers, most of whom will be drinking not wine but beer.
The list of those vignerons attending reads like a Who's Who of the South Australian wine industry, and is too long to list, but a few must be mentioned. Grant Burge, a real regular and once a "stodgy left-hander" (his own words), sponsors the South Australian Cricket Association, one of whose committee members is Yalumba's Robert Hill Smith, cousin of Michael Hill Smith MW. Robert's family used to entertain the teams at their winery when Test matches had rest days. Famously on one of them, Jeff Thomson damaged his shoulder, allegedly on the tennis court, and was never the same bowler.
Geoff Merrill happily admits he 'pinched' the England cricket team from Yalumba for rest days after meeting Ian Botham and Bob Willis at the team hotel bar in 1978-9. So began a lifelong friendship with the pair, culminating in the naming of his BMW (Botham, Merrill, Willis) range after them. For Merrill's 50th birthday party seven years ago, Botham flew in from England for 24 hours. "I was pretty impressed with that," mused Merrill, one of the great McLaren Vale characters. "Every wine person I know loves their cricket. There's something social and pleasant about both things. There's a great carnival atmosphere at the Oval... always has been. People like to watch the first session, go 'out the back' for lunch and a few drinks and come back for the final session."
Brian "Prof" Lynn, longtime winemaker at Majella in the Coonawarra, happily does the three-hour journey to Adelaide for every Test match there. "Cricket's in our blood," the jocular Lynn told me. "And South Australian wine is intrinsically linked to Adelaide, where there's someone in virtually every street who has some sort of connection to a winery."
Neil Pike, a fine district cricketer in his younger days, and his brother, Andrew, always make the trek down to the cricket from the Clare Valley, as do Andrew Mitchell and Dave O'Leary. Other keen watchers include three heavyweights of the Barossa - Stephen Henscke, John Duval and Charlie Melton - as well as a brilliant young winemaker with a burgeoning reputation, Steve Pannell.
Last, and certainly not least, is Martin Pfeiffer, former viticulturalist at Penfolds and now owner of boutique winery, Whistler, whose 2006 shiraz was last year voted no 10 in the world in an Aussie trade magazine's annual varietal international taste-off. Martin loves his cricket when he and wife Sally are not looking after their ten-month old orphaned kanagaroo at the winery. "Buttons", as he is known, wanders around their house and still likes to lie on Sally's lap sucking milk from a bottle.
Ah, the anedcdotes I could tell you about the many characters that proliferate in the Aussie wine industry!
Geoffrey Dean is a cricket writer for The Times. He is writing exclusively for Harpers Wine & Spirit during the Ashes series on his cricket and wine adventures Down Under