Red, red wine, goes to your head, sang UB40 back in the eighties. “Makes you forget..” It certainly had a potent effect on Premier of New South Wales, Barry O’ Farrell’s memory. The NSW premier completely forgot he had been given a bottle of the most expensive wine ever produced in Australia, the legendary Penfold’s Grange Hermitage. The lapse has cost him his premiership and he has been forced to resign.
The first ever vintage was laid down in 1952, and seven years after that, young Barry, future NSW Premier, was born. To commemorate the thus auspicious date of 1959, a supporter gifted the Premier a bottle from that year, worth $3,000. It was a generous gift indeed, and it was intended to mark the success of the state Liberals getting into office in the March of 2011. The person who sent the wine, Nick Di Girolamo, testified that he did so at the Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac)
When called to the Icac this Tuesday, Barry O’Farrell said he could not remember receiving this wine, and was certain he would have remembered if he had. This all seemed convincing enough, as to an Australian, a bottle of Penfold’s Grange Hermitage is akin to the Elixir of Eternal Youth, it is priceless and held in the highest of regard.
However, it came to light that the well-mannered Mr O’Farrell had hand-written a delighted thank-you note and made a phone call to express his gratitude for the present. Written on official notepaper, the letter was gushing about the “wonderful wine” and noted that “1959 was a good year” even if it was fading into the distant past.
Phone records also confirmed the short call he had made to Di Girolamo on April 20 2011, which was the day the wine was delivered. It was brief, only 28 seconds, but there was no doubt he had made it.
Just to put the nail in the Penfold’s crate, the courier company who delivered to the Roseville home of the NSW Premier, provided documentary evidence of their doorstep drop, where it was left, somewhat recklessly, given its value, on the front porch.Wine aficionados will shudder at the thought of it overheating in the sun.
In his resignation speech, O’Farrell said he honestly could still not recollect this wine, nor what had happened to it, but as a man who believed devoutly in accountability, he had to accept the consequences. He blamed a “significant memory fail.”
He also explained that he had received an “avalanche” of gifts, letters, emails and even other bottles of wine (of lesser value) when he took office, and in those frantic early days he had not been able to keep track. He had been overwhelmed with the enormity of the workload, and this was compromised further by a death in his family.
The Icac was keen to establish whether the expensive tipple had swayed the Premier’s dealing with the Australian Water Holdings (AWH) of which Di Girolamo was Chairman and been given favorable treatment. AWH were after a big contract to deliver the water infra-structure to the north-west region of Sydney. O’Farrell insisted that the records would bear him out that all proceedings had been done correctly and at “arm’s length” on “departmental advice.”
Some might say the tragedy here is not so much the Shakespearean hubris of a man falling from high office, but the mystery of what happened to such a delicious drop?
The assisting counsel for the Icac, Geoffrey Watson, asked O’Farrell to admit that it was not the sort of bottle anyone would open on an average Friday night to accompany a spaghetti bolonaise. All O’Farrell could say was that he could not speculate. No doubt he was desperately hoping that had not been the case, and he had wasted the opportunity of some divine connoisseurship. At $3000 a bottle, that would have been hundreds of dollars per sip.
Losing a Premier in his first term of office is not good news for the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, particularly as it clashed with quite a red-letter day on his calendar; the arrival of the visiting Royals, Kate, Will and George, the nine-month old future Head of State. O’Farrell was to have hosted a reception at the Opera House yesterday, in the tightly scheduled royal trip. Putting a brave face on it, Abbott said that the resignation was an “act of integrity” and that he admired the NSW Premier tremendously. In the end, it seemed, he did speak in “vino veritas.”
The opposition was quick to raise their deep concerns, worrying about the impact of lobbyists and donors in the Liberal administration and the ethos of “mateship” gone debauched.
Last year, the member for Redlands in Queensland, Peter Dowling, also got into trouble over red wine. In his case, he was sexting his mistress pictures of his penis dangling in a glass, giving rise to such headlines as “Coq au Vin” and him the nickname, “Plonker.” He had to stand down from his chairmanship of the Ethics Committee.
The downfall of the NSW Premier over a bottle of Penfold’s Grange Hermitage is a tale that will make Australians cringe for years to come. Partly because of the bizarre memory loss of the elected representative of state, but mostly because a bottle of the best wine ever bottled went so tragically astray.
By Kate Henderson