May 30, 2016

So much to be sorry for

March 26 is National Sorry Day in Australia. It was instigated following a report* entitled Bringing Them Home, tabled in 1997. The report made 54 recommendations including healing initiatives, reparations and a formal apology for those affected by the policy of forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities – between the late 1800s and the 1970s – in the name of 'assimilation' and 'protection'.

These children become known as the 'Stolen Generations'. The children were raised in institutions or fostered by non-Indigenous families. Few were allowed visits from their families; most were so far away as to make that impossible. Such removal was official government policy until 1969, although the practice didn't stop then. In fact, it is alleged that these days far more Aboriginal children are removed from their homes than during the Stolen Generations, except that now they're described as being in 'out of home care'.

Some victims never recovered from the trauma of losing their family and the isolation from their culture and the all-important connection to country. Long-lost family members are still being reunited by means of organisations such as Link-Up Queensland which, as well as helping people search for and reunite with their relatives, provides counselling for those suffering from the trauma of separation.

The following day, the 27th, is also a significant day, being the anniversary of the referendum in 1967 in which Australians voted to include Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders in the census and to empower the Australian government to legislate on behalf of those peoples. It took a number of years, however, for the government to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal people. Gough Whitlam established the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1972, and in 1975 he gave the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory the title deeds to part of their traditional lands.

The 27th marks the start of National Reconciliation Week, a time to celebrate shared culture, history and achievement towards reconciling the peoples of Australia. Each year there is a theme, and for 2016 it is Our History, Our Story, Our Future. June 3 marks the end of that week and is the date of the famous Mabo decision in the High Court in 1992 that upheld the native title rights of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders over their lands post British colonisation. Eddie Mabo from the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait had challenged two assumptions under Australian law: that Indigenous peoples had no concept of land ownership before colonisers arrived in 1788, making the continent and its islands terra nullius, land belonging to no one; and that British sovereignty gave ownership of the land to the Crown and abolished any rights that might have existed previously.

The journey towards Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians continues. Link-Up counsellors are still busy soothing the pain of the Stolen Generations, and not all the Bringing Them Home recommendations have been realised. Debate rages about precisely where Reconciliation should go from here, and opinions are divided. Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples in Australia's constitution** is one of the thornier issues still requiring national debate.

A formal apology for past mistreatment was made by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 (below, the plaque in King George Square, Brisbane: click on image to read).
It included a proposal for a commission to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in terms of educational achievement, health equality and life expectancy, and economic opportunity. That gap is still considerable. I quote from journalist Stan Grant's speech as part of an Intelligence Squared debate in October 2015.
My people die young in this country. We die ten years younger than average Australians, and we are far from free. We are fewer than three per cent of the Australian population and yet we are 25 per cent, a quarter, of those Australians locked up in our prisons, and if you are a juvenile, it is worse, it is 50 per cent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school.
If you are tempted to conclude that Indigenous people should 'move on' from, or 'get over' two centuries of mistreatment and disadvantage, then read Stan Grant's book published earlier this year, Talking to My Country. It makes for sobering reading, but you will be enlightened about how it feels to be an Indigenous person – even an enormously successful one – in Australia in 2016.

It is not my intention to insult my host country, but many Australians have a lot to learn about Indigenous culture and experience. I have learned a huge amount, especially from other recent publications. Lesley and Tammy Williams's Not Just Black and White tells of Lesley being sent away from home by the Queensland government to work as a domestic servant, aged 15. This was in the 1960s. Her wages were kept in trust by the government even though she didn't know she had earned them until years later. Her nine-year battle to claim back her 'savings' presented an almost bigger challenge than being separated from her family. Her enormous courage resulted in a more than $55 million reparation package for Indigenous workers in Queensland.

The case for greater attention to 'Our History' is made starkly by Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu Black Seeds, recent winner of a NSW Premier's Literary Award. Pascoe systematically destroys the myth of a continent populated by hunter-gathering roamers prior to colonisation. Based on evidence from explorers, drovers and early settlers, he describes the construction of permanent dwellings, dams, wells and storage facilities; the cultivation of grain, the baking of bread, and the transformation of unpalatable plants into everyday staples; large-scale fishing methods; conservation, economics and spirituality. He has to conclude that deliberate and concerted denial of experience combined with wilful destruction and massacre was employed to justify the seizure of a land from its rightful occupants. The obliteration of facts has been perpetuated. 'Such is the tenacity of the Australian delusion', Pascoe says, 'it encourages an impoverished national debate.'

It was a glorious late-autumn day in Brisbane as we gathered to commemorate National Sorry Day in King George Square. It was a solemn and moving affair. What on earth was I doing there, you might ask. I was there in solidarity, I suppose, with a people sorely wronged in the past and still waiting for their chance at a fair go.
* The report was produced by the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, established by federal Attorney-General Michael Lavarch (Labor) in 1995

May 25, 2016

So I called up the captain, Please bring me my wine (Napa & Sonoma)

I'd never been much of a California wine fan. Once I discovered the Marlborough region of New Zealand and Western Australia's Margaret River early in my wine-drinking career, there never seemed that much point in venturing to other parts of the New World.

I expected good wine in Napa and Sonoma, however. I hadn't anticipated such appealing valley landscapes and towns.

Half way through our California road trip in February, we returned to San Francisco to drop off family members heading back to the UK. It was late afternoon by the time we crossed the city heading for the Golden Gate Bridge, our preferred route north to St Helena in the Napa Valley. The light was fading fast and the traffic was heavy yet fast-moving on US 101. It was not a relaxing drive and it took longer than the one-and-a-half hours we'd anticipated.
As soon as we'd checked in at Napa Farmhouse Inn on the St Helena Highway South, we dashed up the road to make our 8 pm dinner booking at the Goose & Gander on Spring Street in St Helena itself. The food was good and a couple of glasses of wine soon banished any leftover stress.

The next morning we awoke in beautiful surroundings. This was week two of our great holiday weather experience; and an early California Spring meant the Valley had blossomed. I am sorry to report, however, that although Napa Farmhouse Inn was a lovely house, built in the 1870s, in pleasant surroundings, it charged far too much for a room without an ensuite or tea-making facilities. The rate included breakfast, and the homemade food was excellent, but there was no choice for a meal for which I would probably never choose frittata containing sausage or a cinnamon muffin and blueberry scone. Not wishing to sound churlish, neither do I want to chat all the while I eat at that time in the morning. And how could I surreptitiously disappear the sausage under the beady eye of the chef?
We drove into St Helena, which is lovely. We had a walk around; a coffee; and picked up wine guides and maps from tourist information.
Napa County is the heart of California's wine industry. Vineyards are the most concentrated here; there are more than 400 wineries across 17 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas, or appellations); and they produce the greatest number and variety of fine wines in North America. The region stretches more than 50 kilometres from San Francisco Bay to the foothills of Mount St Helena. The climate is cool nearer the coast, where it is often foggy; and warmer on the Valley floor further north. Altitude and aspect of slope determine subtle nuances in the character of the wines. Volcanic mountains have produced well-drained gravelly soils: there are 33 soil types across the County.

Goose & Gander's sommelier had advised us about how best to sample Napa wines in a day. First up was Duckhorn, a truly lovely place, even if the tasting notes were too sophisticated for our palettes and the wines way beyond our purse. You have to make an appointment for a tour or a tasting, which costs US$30 a head. We tried a Chardonnay, two Merlots and two Cabernets, and declared the Three Palms Merlot the best of the bunch.
Duckhorn was in the Valley; our next choice was cool Cade Estate on the slopes of Howell Mountain, 550 metres above the Valley floor. They craft organic wines reflecting the unique mountain terroir of Howell Mountain Appellation. There was no mobile signal once we left the Valley so we were unable to phone ahead. Their tastings were fully booked for that day in any case, but a lady took pity on us and gave us a small glass of an impressive Sauvignon Blanc. She was happy for us to linger, admiring the view and the architecture. I prefer cool, modern designs of wineries to older, more stately buildings.
The lady recommended Cade's related PlumpJack Estate, back down in the Valley in Oakville, where you can walk in, much to our relief. PlumpJack was whacky, with oversized fences. I was able to get my hands on a bottle of Cade Sav Blanc, so all was well.
A cork tree
Napa County's wine industry is highly regulated. The maximum number of wineries has been reached for the infrastructure available. Since 2004, new wineries must make appointments for visitors, and numbers are limited. The tourism bureau and the taxation system between them maintain a tight rein over this lucrative business, even so far as to limit the number of weddings that can be conducted in a winery each year.

Having identified which ones you wish to visit, check whether you need an appointment or you can walk in; whether there is a restaurant, food is served at all, or you can picnic. I would recommend you research and book well before the day of your visit, to avoid disappointment.

From PlumpJack we drove to Calistoga in the north of Napa. We took Petrified Forest Road up and over the hills into the neighbouring valley at Santa Rosa. Rather like in Australia, the road didn't have that name for nothing. Along the way were signs to the only petrified forest in California. Not being quite sure what such a thing was, we had to stop and investigate. The events described in the creation of the forest date from millions of years ago in the Eocene Period. I tell you, these ex-coastal redwoods looked for all the world like wood, but they were hard as iron. We followed a trail map and marvelled at the phenomenon,
We were spending the next two nights in Sonoma town, at An Inn 2 Remember in West Spain Street. Once again, we were staying in a kind of B&B. Our room was small but comfortable; there were no tea-making facilities (this is an important requirement). The centre of town was a stone's throw away. Breakfast was included in this much more reasonably priced accommodation, but it was communal, with everyone served the same thing at the same time. We chickened out – sometimes we're miserable wotnots – preferring to choose exactly what we wanted to eat, without enforced chit-chat, at the Sunflower Caffé in Sonoma Plaza.

The first night we ate dinner at Della Santina's, a traditional Italian. So traditional was it that the same, short, unfamiliar Italian opera track played over and over until we nearly screamed. The stocky Italian waiters seemed unaware of it, the food was unexceptional and, despite being served traditional limoncello lemon liqueur on the house, we hastily took our leave. 

Sonoma town is a great little place. We devoted most of the next morning to wandering round, discovering all sorts: architecture; wide avenues; Redwoods; art; a great bookshop; local inhabitants; shop signs; cool bars; and the best kitchen gadget shop ever.
Not forgetting the wines, of course. Sonoma County lies between Napa and the Pacific Ocean. What it lacks in quality compared with Napa it makes up for in quantity. It has 16 AVAs across six fertile valleys, and produces a huge range of both red and white wines that reflect many different soils, local climatic conditions including fog and ocean breezes, altitude and valley aspect. The precise number of wineries depends on who you talk to and whether or not you include producers who do not have a tasting room, but it may well be in excess of 400.

We had sacrificed half a day's tasting in order to get to know Sonoma town, but that was OK. Our hour in Readers' Books, for instance, was sheer delight. I am still wondering if Virgin's excess baggage charge would have been as high as the cost of shipping our pile of books back home. All I did was ask, 'What are Californians reading at the moment?'

The must-see winery this day was, in fact, in the southern Napa Valley, but closer to Sonoma than where we'd been the previous day. Artesa is an architectural wonder with beautiful views to San Pablo Bay and the surrounding Carneros hills – and the wines are pretty good, too. We bought an Albariño and a Cab Sav. We would have given our right arms for a plate of chorizo, but there was no food on offer because we weren't part of a tour. Those regulations again!
Vista Terrace
We were starving and headed back to our favourite Sunflower Caffé for a quick bite of lunch before the next tasting, of six Pinot Noirs, at Walt, in the centre of Sonoma. We sat in the shade of two enormous Redwoods, tasted some fine reds, and listened to the story of Walt. All seemed right with the world.
That evening we ate dinner at The Girl & the Fig, a French restaurant. I liked the name and I enjoyed the food, but, having seen how green California golf courses were, and knowing Coca Cola are bottling precious water supplies for vast profit, despite the prolonged drought, I was beginning to find this sign a little irksome. 
We went for a last walk around the Plaza before bed. Early next morning we were headed south again, to Bakersfield, at the southern end of California's Central Valley, and inland 215 kilometres east of Pismo Beach. Why Bakersfield? A convenient overnight stop on our way to Death Valley. A lady in a jewellery shop in Sonoma, having asked us where we were going next, excitedly reached for her phone when we told her. She explained that there was a 'super-bloom' of Spring flowers in Death Valley, a once-in-a-decade phenomenon, and showed us the report and the photos. I had been hoping some flowers might be out early, given the glorious weather we'd been having, but this was beyond my wildest dreams.