If you want to know why the wine industry's up the creek without a paddle, just look to those at the top. Join the Wine Institute of NZ Inc and stuff up a good thing.
There's no doubt about it, New Zealanders are great at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to things agricultural.
We've read and heard a lot over the past six months about how the grape-growing and wine-making industry has sunk into the doldrums. The most comprehensive, and honest article was written in North & South magazine by Mike White, which finally told us some home truths. Namely, the soft-cocks at the top of the Wine Institute, who'd been pushing exports by bulk, had stuffed up.
Leading winery owners such as Michael Seresin did not hold back, as when telling of his shame at finding New Zealand sauvignon blanc on sale -- two bottles for 10 quid -- in London. Our New Zealand brand is stuffed. Will it recover? I very much doubt it.
But Philip Gregan, NZ Winegrowers' Chief Executive, has for years boasted not of the quality of exports, but of the dollar value of exports, and the tonnage of exports.
The current crisis is not "a perfect storm" as Gregan told White. It was predicted years ago by one of this country's top winemakers, Neil McCallum, of Dry River, but stupidity and greed blocked the ears of those who hurtled into the real estate agents' offices to throw money at land, land, land so they could plant endless hectares of sauvignon plonk in Marlborough. No one stopped -- duh! -- and asked the question, "Who is going to drink all this wine?".
Or, "Do we need to make good wine?".
At the same time, the Wine Institute -- to which, I might add, we are required by legislation to belong -- is herding everyone into 'environmental sustainability'. From the 2010 vintage, we will not be able to enter at least the Air New Zealand wine awards unless our vineyards are accredited sustainable (and these are very loose standards according to which part of the country your vineyard is).
This is all about marketing overseas, and New Zealand's so-called clean green image. But what about financial sustainability? In the past six months, eight major vineyards and wineries have gone into receivership, two of them with debts of $20 million. Imagine what that has done to those local economies, to employment in those areas?
Yet in the latest Winegrower magazine, Philip Gregan's editorial, 'Lessons from 2010', blathers on in platitudes about nothing.
Do you remember the summers or 1986 and '87? Back then I owned The Gables Restaurant on Russell's waterfront, and I can't remember who it was, but someone gave me a sample of nectar. It was Kevin Judd's Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. First I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. When I came to my senses, I wrote out a cheque for $30,000 to secure as much as I could for my customers. We couldn't get enough of this -- demand well outstripped supply.
Cynics believed those early vintages of Cloudy Bay did so well because of clever marketing strategies -- supplies were deliberately withheld, creating a false demand. But that wasn't the situation. It was simply a fantastic wine. Judd was -- and still is -- a gifted winemaker for whom near enough wasn't good enough. He wasn't in it for the money, for the exports, for the bulk sales.
Today, Cloudy Bay is owned by Moet Hennessey and, at least to my palate, lost the Kevin Judd magic. Judd's moved on to his own label -- Greywacke. But in a recent article he had this to say about his then winemaking policy with Cloudy Bay:
"It was never a contrived scarcity, we just never seemed to have enough. The markets then were growing much faster than our production could increase. We always had a policy of organic growth and there was never a huge amount of money to feed back into the company or business to fuel rapid expansion.
"The company also had a policy of never blending inferior batches, so in the years when yields were down, or weather affected fruit, production levels also dropped."
This should be a mantra for the wine industry, which is whining on about not enough money for investment, poor returns, and 'only just breaking even'.
Winemaking is not a get-rich-quick-scheme. If you want ponzi, buy Lotto. If you want idyll, buy an airfare to Provence. And finally, we have people capable of making astounding wines, so why do we continue to make piddle, then send it overseas and let the industry leaders boast about it?