Sunday, 7 December 2008

The meanest rich wine customer I ever had

I guess it was the early 1980s when John B. Fairfax brought back the boxes of Penfolds wine casks and got a refund. My brother and I, after many years of being a major local advertiser in The Canberra Times, had decided to give the Franklins approach of cutting the ads and putting the saving into lower prices. We took out a full page ad in the Wednesday paper (my memory is hazy as to the exact date) explaining the change in approach and the next day John B. Fairfax pulled up his Mercedes outside Farmer Bros at Manuka and carried in a couple of boxes of Penfolds wine 4.5 litre casks and demanded a refund. If we were not going to advertise with him, the then young managing director of the Canberra Times insisted, he was not going to drink wine bought from us.
Now these wine casks were no longer being made by Penfolds. Production had ceased well over a year before, probably two, and his purchase had been part of a farewell special at a real giveaway kind of price. Like all casks of that time (and I guess it still applies although it is a long time since I have drunk from an old one) the shelf life of this wine in a box before beginning to oxidise and turn slowly into something like vinegar was six months at most. This returned lot were well and truly at the undrinkable stage and as we gleefully refunded the money to this leading member of the Fairfax media empire we could but be thankful that we had never been invited to his house for dinner.
Until that day it had not occurred to me that a millionaire member of a famous family who, after doing his management apprenticeship at the Canberra outpost, was clearly destined for greater things in the newspaper business, would have been so lacking in taste as to actually drink wine from a cask. That he would buy large quantities of casks on special in the first place, apparently ignorant that they would become undrinkable within a few months, just showed me that meanness comes in many forms and good breeding does not overcome it.
I mention this inconsequential little tale because John B. Fairfax is now being spoken of as the likely next chairman of the once again publicly listed Fairfax newspaper empire. Any journalist who thinks that a return of a Fairfax family administration might herald a return to an interest in quality should think again. Rule by the penny pinching and tasteless John B. Fairfax would presage grim times indeed to some once great newspapers.
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