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  • Robbie Brechin

“It’s pure, uncut Whitey or nothing at all”

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Overwhelmed. Humbled.  Two words ricocheting around the world of wine writer Philip White. Even those Whitey has glared at with gimlet eye and wounded by the rat-a-tat of his keyboard have come forward with offers of assistance, including cash.   

Then there are mates like award-winning photographer Milton Wordley, who has been a lightning rod for the volunteer squad meeting Whitey’s (almost!) every need as he undergoes punishing cancer treatment. 

Milton causes goodwill to pour in from all angles. And so came to pass last week Milt's blog, People of Wine: 10 Questions, broadcasting news about the Langton Fine Wines' online wine auction for Whitey’s medical and other expenses.

More Samaritans got struck by blog lightning. One of them is Sandie Coff, daughter of Penfold’s legend Max Schubert.  Result: A donated bottle of 1976 Grange signed by Max, who was a great mate and mentor to Whitey.

There's still time to bid in the auction, which contains many rare wines, until it closes at 8pm on Tuesday, February 5. Check them out by clicking on Philip White Fundraiser auction. To make a cash donation, contact Milton directly.

Chapter Two - The Whitey Chronicles - Robbie Brechin's biography of wine writer Philip White to be published later this year by Wakefield Press.

Why a biography of Philip White?  

Often the question, sometimes from the baffled or bewildered, who can’t see the point for one reason or another. Always hard to explain, because we see lightly-known individuals from a distance, through a glass tinted or fragmented. 

At the risk of sounding like a cowboy, I had a hunch. Based on a portrait that was unusually busy and intense – think Van Gogh - but that also included myths, downright lies and misconceptions. 

Your parents might not be impressed, but simpler souls can be captured by snapshot character assessments such as Womaniser. Drunkard. Brawler. Polymath. Orator. Poet. Musician. Ratbag. Philosopher. Wit. Environmentalist. Reformed petrolhead. Toss in a few more descriptions and we could make a Hemingway-Wilde-Hoon*-Aristotle composite.

And the elegance of his writing is underpinned by a jingle-jangle, a rabble-rousing god-free attitude that reminds me of Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson.

How wrong can a poor man be?

When Whitey disagrees, your first red flag is the timbre of his voice, which notches up. 

Then, not quite both barrels, but buckshot across the bow: “I used to get a bit annoyed when people used to liken me to Hunter S Thompson. I'm sure he had an influence on me as far as bravado goes and risqué behaviour. But I didn't like being likened to him too much, and I still don't.”

And it’s when you get to better understand Whitey that you realise Thompson is way down the list.  “Those writers who were in Paris - Paris was good to them because the franc was worth nothing between the wars and on their meagre income, they could live quite well. So you had F. Scott Fitzgerald who was rich, but all those other interesting people  like Waverly Root, Joe Liebling, Janet Flanner, I ended up searching out bound copies of their works. In a sense, a lot of my language is American-English influenced by French culture.”

Pigeon-holing is hazardous at best, but don’t even try with Whitey.  

Call this son of a preacher man a mesmerising orator one day, and the applause will be loud.  On another day, not so much.  It’s an observation made by fellow wine writer Nick Ryan, of the Australian. 

Some of their peers make extra income from conducting corporate tastings for a wine company.  This has never been an option for Whitey, even if he wished it were so.  His ethics and blunt delivery make it problematic.

Ryan: “Whitey might do it once, but he'd probably scare them off. Half the room would love him and half the room would say they're never coming back again.  The reality is the corporate world is not suited to Whitey. It’s not ready for him. They’re all too boring to understand him. He’d never pander to that audience.

“It’s pure, uncut Whitey or nothing at all.”

While we’re chipping away at the gossip-mill, let’s bring in the “womaniser” accusation. One, Whitey himself can’t recall ever making the first move at a romantic level. Mates say he has always ended up with strong, highly intelligent and independent women. He has been hurt by the ending of a relationship more than once. 

I didn’t know at the time, but when I was sharing a single malt whisky with Whitey one December day at his cottage among vines, the two women attending to his needs were both ex-girlfriends.  The air was perfumed with ease and love beyond the sweetheart zone.

Another misperception bites the dust.  But so it goes, with Whitey, at so many turns.

Did I know Whitey had so much depth? Was so stubbornly, highly-principled? Was such a staunch defender of the earth, water and the right to bucolic peace? Could play guitar in a such a distinctive way? Had real friends in high places? 

Nup.  And the marvel is I’m learning more every day about this curious man with boundless curiosity.

* Hoon – Fred Hoon, fast car enthusiast (deceased, suddenly).

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