Myf: Welcome to Our Place. Before we begin I would like to respectfully acknowledge the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people, the traditional custodians of the land this podcast was produced.
Cast your mind back to when you were a younger, of legal age but still all pimply and bursting with hormones, trying desperately to navigate an adult world. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. One way I thought I could mainline the act of adulthood, was to drink rather glamorous glass of sweet white wine from a cask. Like the Mums did at parties. Where I came from, the small country town of Red Cliffs, this was considered posh, sophisticated.
My go to cask wine of choice in those days was a four litre box. It had the name printed in an Art deco font, with a sepia toned image on the front of a lady dressed like an actor in a film that was very popular at the time, Picnic At Hanging Rock, luxuriating effortlessly in a small row boat.
The local town drunks would request this specific cask of wine at the bottle o, simply by saying “the lady in the boat, please”. Everyone knew what they meant. It was cheap and it was everywhere. For those who turned their noses up at the cask, it also went by names like the Dubbo Handbag and Cheateu de Cardboard. Clearly, it’s never had a reputation amongst the wine snobs. But I’m here to change all that.
As I got older, a poor student living in a share house, I’d keep a cask of wine in the fridge for emergencies. At the time I jokingly called it the Lonely Lady, for when you need a friend in the fridge. I could also only afford cask wine. This friend was leaned on many times, it’s intestinal silver bag sometimes blown up and used as a pillow by house guests after a long night, or as the centrepiece for the game Goon Of Fortune, which is basically spin the bottle with a Goon bag pegged to the Hills Hoist. Drink if it stops near you after spinning around on clothesline. The word Goon, incidentally, was possibly taken from the word Flagon, which was the way people previously used to consume more than a litre of the wine at a time. In a big, cumbersome, flagon.
I grew up in grape country and I am amazed how little I knew about wine back then, even though it was a big deal in my town. Most people I knew in Red Cliffs, lived on what were called Blocks. We spent our youth picking and harvesting grapes for the table, for cheap wine, or sultanas. I suspect some of grapes I picked ended up in a few casks of wine. This makes me happy.
Little did any of us know back then that the famed Goon Bag was an Australian invention, created in a town not far from my own, on what was called a Block, just like the one I lived on, and would help make wine more accessible to all and be revered for its environmental potential.
This is John Angove, son of the inventor of the Goon Bag, Tom…
John - Yeah, bag in a box and goon bag. Oh dear, that wasn’t one of his favourites
Myf - I can imagine. The idea of teenagers and young people playing that game Goon Of Fortune where they spin it around a clothesline?
John - Don’t go there…
You’ll hear more from him later.
This is our place – a podcast that aims to explore the designs of everyday Australian life as a way to explore what is Australian culture today. If culture is how tell our stories to each other, and share who we are with the world, what is that story right now? And how can we use that story to create a new a positive narrative for the future?
But back to Red Cliffs, where I grew up. Why, when the rest of the world calls the land that vines are grown on, vineyards, and the growers, viticulturalists, why were our properties called Blocks, and why were the growers simply called Blockies?
The history is intriguing…
After the First World War, Red Cliffs was one of the many designated Soldier Settlement towns, established for returned service people as a reward for their service. They were allocated a slice of land, divvied out by number, hence the name Blocks.
They were expected to be able to clear the land, establish crops and a home, all thanks to accrued interest loan that would eventually have to be paid back. Not really a thank you present, at all.
Let’s remember that these soldiers had just experienced the horrors of battles like Gallipoli, and many of these towns were miles from family and support, and for many, the land they were given (particularly in what’s now known as wheat belts) was not enough to profit from and often too arid to grow produce or keep livestock. Many had war injuries both physical and mental as well. No-one spoke of that.
History has found that the soldier settlement initiative, which also acted as a way to disperse any potentially war damaged men from the cities and put them in a situation with impossible odds, has now been deemed one of our greatest public policy failures. Before mental health was discussed, suicides were rife. For many in soldier settlements, it was a grim situation.
In Red Cliffs though, 33,000 returned servicepeople came to the town, some survived, even thrived, thanks in part to an irrigation system designed by Americans, The Chaffey Brothers – one of which who would become our Prime Minister, but that’s for another podcast.
This is Ian Cook, grandson of a soldier settler in Red Cliffs.
From Ian Cook interview:
I: My grandfather was in the First World War. And after coming back, he came to the area fruit picking actually with his wife before 1920 and decided to take up an allotment when they're offered in 1920. And so he put his name down for property and was allocated block 242 which was next door to the Secondary College now. And took up the property, had to clear the land as all the local soldiers did and, and lived in a probably in a tent initially, as many of them did. But when the house was built, he set up the property and grew dried fruit, sultanas, currants and strawberries, I think on the side or certainly passionfruit and other vegetables that he had been in vegetables before he went away at war. I never met him. He died in 1943, two years before I was born. So, from war related injuries.
M: Okay, what sort of injuries. Do you know?
I: I think he was he had been gassed and no doubt other issues.
M: Ian are you aware and I'm sure you are given that your grandfather managed to purchase so many properties that being sent to Redcliffs after the First World War particularly for some of these poor war ravaged men was a pretty steep task, wasn't it?
I: And oh, yes.
M: And they had no experience and and they spend probably, I think It was it was well aware that their mental health was in a pretty bad way for many of them. It's up and and these these properties weren't given to them. They weren't they were loans. They were given loans weren’t they.
I: Yes, it was a loan was called the grant, closest settlement grant, I believe, but it was actually a loan. And they did pay it back over, some of them a very long period and lower interest, but in fact, properties we bought from neighbours still had that loan running. And when you bought the property, you paid it out. and moved on,
M: and a lot left, because they were they just couldn't I mean, it was it was too much. It was too hard.
I: Mental health then was a non issue, of course.
I: And many of them were shell shocked or suffered in many different ways. But though, the community in Redcliffs was, I guess, different to how Mildura started, because it all started in a couple of years. And they were mostly soldiers who took up the properties. And so some of them, yes, couldn't cope at all with the physical work or the mental side of it, and opted out fairly, fairly quickly.
But there were many who stayed. And there's two and three, four generations, or three generations, at least, who have stayed on in the area.
It wasn’t only returned soldiers that worked the arid land, in the 1940s through to the ‘70s there was a wave of migration in Australia, consisting of people often escaping war torn countries of their own. Many were attracted to the area of Red Cliffs because the climate and landscape presented similarities to the Mediterranean. The blocks often sold cheaply as soldiers had abandoned the land earlier which allowed the migrants to set up farming that is now generational in families.
When I lived in Red Cliffs, I had very little idea that the grapes used to make the wine that filled my much loved, reasonably priced cask, came from land that was hard fought for, both physically and mentally, from many generations of Australians.
Growing grapes was hard graft, but it was the ability of the farmers to make something out of absolutely nothing that perhaps led to one of the greatest innovations in wine delivery the world has seen. The world loved it too. And it all happened, on another solider settlement, a couple of hundred kms down the road in a riverside town called Renmark.
John Angove’s Dad, Tom, lived on a Block too, and while tinkering about in a tine shed, he invented the wine cask, the good old Goon bag, the bag in the box. Call it what you wan’t, but don’t call it a cask…
M: John, I wanted to talk to you about the fact that the wine cask as well was often seen as you know, it had nicknames like the Dubbo Handbag and you know, funny titles like that, which I love and, and kids today call it, call it the goon bag. I was wondering if you had any understanding of how your Dad felt about those kind of names that they…
J: Oh, he hated them. And he also hated being called a cask.
M: Oh, really,
J: it's not a, a cask is a wooden vessel in which you mature premium wine. And he always referred to it as bag in box.
M: Bag in box.
J: I think once he was overseas and saw a product in a in a box in a plastic bag, and I think it was battery acid or something weird like that, and thought hang on that concept could work really well with wine. Let's put wine inside a plastic bag, drop that plastic bag inside a cardboard box. And when you draw the wine off, the flexible bag will collapse on the wine and keep the air away from the wine. What a wonderful idea.It would have been in the mid 1960s, 1965-64, somewhere there. And he came home with this prototype. And I remember saying to him dad, there's no way in the world that anyone is going to buy good quality wine in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box. It's just not going to happen. Dad said well, we'll see. We'll see.
M: We'll see. All right.
J: And so He then said about setting up a system to try and actually get the process into flow of actually getting bags of wine filled with wine inside cardboard boxes, because there was no production equipment. As there is today. He had literally to start from scratch as to exactly how to put the sale unit together. But he persevered and persevered and eventually put out a range of table and fortified wines in these one gallon packs. And they took off.
J: And so He then said, see, yeah, I told you so.
M: Well, it was a brilliant concept. And I'm so glad to have discovered that it came not far from where I grew up. And from a similar similar I guess, a similar state of mind, which is it seemed, I mean, these blocks were, were a place of hard work and ideas and innovation and probably most Australians wouldn't, wouldn't, know that would they…
J: look I think the the soldier settlers and and also the Italian, Greek migrants who came out and start, they worked incredibly hard. And at a time when grape growing was a very much more labour intensive activity than it is today. Because today, you sit in a conditioned tractor cab and go up and down the rows and then you (20:00)sit in your air conditioned automatic harvester and go up and down the rows. It's a very, very different game.
M: Goodness me. It's a very different game for when I was a kid too, with your expert knowledge John do you think that the because quite a quite a few of our grapes, half of them would go to sultanas and the other half would go off to a winery, do you reckon in the grapes that I picked in, in the 80s would have gone to somehow maybe end up in a in a box somewhere in a bag in a box.
J: guarantee. guarantee. Yeah, guarantee.
M: I love it. I love it. That makes me happy. JOHN, I've got everything I need for these. Thank you very much. You've been very generous with your time. But I just wanted to tell you too, as part of this little podcast when we launch it, I'm making my own wine. It's, it's only in a bag. You know how they do it now in the sort of, it's kind of a modern little, little plastic bag.
I'm doing my own version as a little promo for it. So, because I've always because I've always had had that had the because, I used to call as a student when I was very poor and living in a share house. I used to call the bag in the box, the Lonely Lady because it was always in the fridge for when you were lonely, or home alone. So I'm releasing my own little line of the Lonely Lady inspired by your father's invention, so… There you go it all comes full circle.
J: That’s fun.
So there you have it. The humble Goon Bag comes full circle. There’s so much more to it than simply having a friend in the fridge. It’s a tale of hardship, of trauma and impossible odds, of dreams, of hope, and most of all, of innovation. All to bring you wine that was initially derided by the snob, for many folk it was more easily accessible, relatively cheap way to experience wine, which in turn, no doubt encouraged the industry to grow into what it is today.
Now it’s time to fulfill my life’s dream. To make that cheap drop of white wine with a broad, fruity palette that appeals to so many, and, in the spirit of Tom Angove, chuck it in a bag with art deco font, a sepia toned picture of me looking like I’m a cast member of Picnic At Hanging Rock (hey, it’s my Deb photo from 1988, that’s close enough), give it a reasonable price point, and there you have it, The Lonely Lady. For real. For when you need a friend in the fridge. Which, these days, is often.