I could sleep for days, but the final day of the celebration is calling. This morning, it’s all about how the wine is being consumed. In a way, it’s my day, the day when the wine folk hear about how their precious bottles are performing on the shelves, in the hands of the people who drink them, of which I am one. They are riveted.
First, we hear from Shari Mogk-Edwards from LCBO in Canada, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, a government-owned liquor retail company, that is one of the biggest buyers and retailers of alcoholic beverages in the world. Shari is impressive, she talks us through twenty minutes of statistics and graphs and somehow makes it interesting. On the whole, the message is that premium wine is on the rise. New Zealand wine has a wonderful reputation and a great niche. People are very interested in organics. Most of what we sell overseas is Sauvignon Blanc, surprise!
Next, we hear from China. A huge and mysterious market for most. Speaker and educator Young Shi explains the growing taste for wine in her country, particularly among the young and educated. Young Shi runs wine classes for the public so she has a first-hand understanding of the thirst for knowledge on a consumer level.
Finally, Australia. The spokesperson for Australia’s marketplace is Jane Thomson of the Fabulous Ladies Wine Society. She begins by highlighting a huge hole in the market over there, men. It seems that Australian men have such an issue with women, that they’re afraid to be seen drinking a “chick’s drink” for fear it might make them look “feminine”, which is, of course, a word synonymous with “weak”.
“If your strength is only the other’s weakness, you live in fear.” – Ursula Le Guin
In Australia, Sauvignon Blanc is given wonderful nicknames like “bitch diesel” and “cougar juice.” It’s fair to say the topic of discussion is making most people in the room uncomfortable, and that’s interesting. Jane Thomson is suggesting that there’s a huge opportunity to market Sauvignon Blanc to men in Australia, if marketers can only find a way to make it “okay” for them. It seems to me this conversation scratches the surface of a deeper issue that is not unique to the wine industry, and has more to do with society generally, in Australia, and here too. But now is not the time or the place…
Eloquent wine critic Matt Kramer follows. I have just re-entered the world after spending a lot of time with Star Wars, and I can’t help but compare Kramer’s manner of speaking to that of Yoda. He verbalises what I have been thinking for the last three days: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is wonderful, “the world’s most reliably good dry white wine.” It’s put New Zealand wines on the map, and, given that, perhaps everyone here should take the opportunity to pat themselves on the back and say, “job well done”, instead of worrying so much about the future.
Michael Hutcheson, of Image Centre Group and Tangible Media, is the key note speaker. He’s an advertising guy from way back, a man who’s proven himself very good at making people want things. He talks of the importance of storytelling as a method of connection with the consumer. Having spent the last three days meeting such interesting people, and knowing the story that goes into each vintage, each bottle of wine, I can’t help but agree. For me, wine is much more than something to drink on a Friday night, I buy into the romance of how it came to be – the people that made it, the weather, the land itself.
It’s a nice note to end the morning on, particularly as we are splitting up again to head off to our “Wild Bunch” alternative SB tasting. It’s on a slightly smaller scale to yesterday’s classics, and this is the tasting in which I feel I truly master the art of spitting. Alternative Sauvignon Blanc’s are all about wild ferments, new oak, late harvest. It’s fascinating, especially after trying so many “traditional” wines over the past couple of days. The subtlety and complexity a bottle of alternative Sauvignon Blanc can have is something most of us don’t get to experience. Most Sauvignon Blanc is sold very young, and yet the aged wines I taste, one from 2002, are beautiful.
Our Wild Bunch experience is at Wairau River, and it’s followed by a three course lunch interspersed with tastings and talks from winemakers. We hear from Mike of Huia, as well as Jules Taylor, and Sam Rose of Wairau River. Mike talks a little about Huia’s methods and values; low intervention, bio-dynamic principles. He talks about finding the balance of their Sauvignon Blanc and I’m reminded of a moment on the train the night before, when he was telling me about the year they were able to blend the grapes from their new “Winsome” vineyard with their estate vineyard for the first time. He spoke so passionately about the rightness of that SB vintage, the balance between the tropical fruit flavours from the estate vineyard working so well with the grassy minerality of the new grapes from Winsome. He talked about this feeling of finally getting it right. Earlier in the day I turned the page of my Frank notebook to find a quote from Mary Ingalls-Wilder that said,
“The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and to have courage when things go wrong.”
Mike leaned over to me and said, “I love that,” and I felt it was a perfect description of Mike and Claire and of Huia.
Sauvignon 2016 is almost over, all that remains is a fancy gala dinner for 460 people at Brancott Estate, featuring a performance from the World of Wearable Arts, and a low-flying Hurricane doing aerobatics. No big deal. I sit down at a table next to Rose from Neudorf Wines and the The New Zealand Cellar, and realise I once stayed in her flat in Wellington for a weekend, years ago. Also at our table is an Australian sommelier named Liam from Cutler & Co. in Melbourne who works with my old friend Dom, who used to work at G&H in the very beginning. During the performance, I notice one of the performers on stage looks exactly like Auckland comedian Nic Sampson, and I discover, a few texts later, that it’s his brother Felix.
The world is small, and the world of wine is even smaller. From the outside, it looks glamorous, wealthy – a life for the privileged few. Yet the NZ wine industry is really filled with people like Mike and Claire Allan, who live in a rambling farmhouse beside their winery and have chickens. Kind people who make Morv and I lunch and then drive us out to the airport, and come rushing back as fast as they can when I realise I’ve left my laptop in the boot of the car and we’re boarding the plane.
Thanks Mike and Claire, thanks Morven, thanks Air NZ, for knocking on the door of an aircraft about to take-off, and passing a laptop through the door that has my entire life on it.
I learned so much at Sauvignon2016 that it took me a week to recover, and I’ve been working on ways to extend upon and share the experience I had with you. Keep an eye out.