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May 04th 2013 print

James Allan

A tipple, a trek and a very dark cloud

The cork may be an endangered species in Australian wine bottles, but Americans just can't seem to get used to screw tops. The idea that Islamic butchers might want to blow people up is, in some quarters, even harder to assimilate


When you move over to the US for a few months you soon learn that all the world’s cork tree farmers ought to get down on their knees and thank God for American wine drinkers. Go into a wine store here and you’ll find shelves full of bottles with corks in them, and not just reds. Almost all the whites too. You have to look hard to find a screw off top. Even the familiar Aussie wines have a cork over here.


I think partly it must be that here in the US it’s still seen as a bit déclassé if you arrive at a party with a bottle of wine with a screw off lid. Just not done. And given that, you really ought not to treat yourself at home any less well. So it still makes sense here in San Diego, if you have too much to drink (Are you listening any Tony Abbott advisors?), to say you got corked.

But those of us who know better, who know that screw off lids mean less spoilage and a whole lot less hassle, really regret this American state of affairs when it comes to wine. I’m usually the first person going to welcome American exceptionalism. But there are limits, and having to pull out the cork screw just to have a glass a wine, well, it just seems so yesterday.   But there you have it. Move over here and expect to deal with corks.

I mention that just in case you happen to be going on a long weekend to the incredibly beautiful Yosemite National Park a few hours east of San Francisco and some eight hours of driving north of San Diego. My wife and I took this trip up to Yosemite a couple of weekends ago. And if you do then you need to remember the wine (as I did) and you need to remember the cork screw (ahem, which may have slipped my mind). Forget the latter and you have to drive around looking for a place that sells cork screws en route, or do your best to recall how you did things way back in university when getting at any form of alcohol, cork screw or no cork screw, was something of a necessary life skill.

But let me say a word or two about Yosemite. Go there! It is stunningly beautiful. My wife and I had an argument about whether Yosemite or the Grand Canyon is the more stunningly beautiful. Suffice it to say that if you’re having that argument, both places are well worth seeing. Put them on your bucket list. And we were lucky enough to see Yosemite in the spring when the water is running and the waterfalls are everywhere. To put the experience in less than Shakespearean terms, ‘Wow!’.

We did all day hikes up past stunning waterfalls. We drove to another spot in the park and did the walk through all the two and three thousand year old sequoia trees.   These mammoth things are just magnificent to look at up close, while you try to absorb the fact that you’re looking at something that started its life before Christ (or in PC terms, before the common era, lest there be any ABC executives or university administrators reading this). 

I think you could easily spend a week in Yosemite without thinking twice about what to do. Unfortunately we only had three days because on our way back to San Diego we’d planned to drive down the famous highway 1, picking it up just south of San Francisco.

So it was goodbye to Yosemite for us and off we went due west to hit Highway 1. And you run into that famous highway when you hit the uber-wealthy little coastal town of Monterey, where everything oozes so much moola that Wayne Swan would dream about being able to tax everything in sight. We took in the mansions, the incredible Pebble Beach golf course, and then, right next door, the equally monied town of Carmel, famous these days for its one-time former mayor.  I won’t make your day by telling you who he was. But if you feel lucky, get some punk to look it up on the internet. Apparently he still wanders around town when he’s there, and not down in Hollywood.

Then there’s the drive on highway 1 itself. If you want a rough idea of how magnificent this drive is, then take the Great Ocean Road outside Melbourne, and multiply by 4 or 5. I kid you not. As you are driving along cliff tops (and going south you’re on the side closest to the cliff, which keeps the mind focused), the views thousands of feet down and out to sea are scintillating. Meanwhile the road meanders and the drivers don’t go all that fast. But it’s a driving experience that you won’t soon forget.

We got as far as the little town right beside Hearst Castle, one time home of the media baron of the same name. The State of California now owns much of this former estate and they do tours through the mansion itself. We managed to go on one of the very, very few rainy days of the year. You can tell right away that Mr. Hearst must have spent not a small but a big fortune building the place. There it is perched up on the top of the big ocean side hill, a sort of combination of majestic vision and bizarre kitsch.

Which brings me to more recent events here in the US, and a departure from my thus far light-hearted account of life in Southern California. I refer, of course, to the very recent terrorist bombing of the Boston marathon. Most of the usual commentators over here seemed almost to be praying that the perpetrators weren’t Muslims, but instead some sort of redneck survivalists or something.   But the odds were always against them and so it proved to be when the two bombers were announced to be Chechen immigrant Muslims.

You have to wonder at what could have got into these men’s heads, to make them overlook the fact that here in the US they were able to live a life (in terms of wealth, in terms of opportunities, in terms of tolerant treatment) that basically no Chechen back in Chechnya could ever live, or aspire to live. But instead of gratitude, they offered up something else – something that murdered an 8 year old boy, turned his mom into a vegetable, and took off his sister’s leg.

As a result it’s all been pretty sombre over here, as you can imagine. But I daresay things will soon all be back to normal. The surviving bomber will be convicted, and maybe even executed. And it will just be a matter of time until the next psychopath in the grip of a bizarrely murderous ideology strikes again.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland (presently on sabbatical at the University of San Diego)