Saturday, May 9, 2009

Power to the People

Recently I read a short article about the unsung heroes of the wine industry. To me it seems apparent that much of what is written about the wine industry is catered to the white collared wine club members who subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast and can afford to attend various ‘Grand Tastings’ on their own buck. I’ll be perfectly honest in saying that their perspective on wine might be ‘informed’ to an extent, but is largely superficial and overly ignorant and privileged. We rarely hear about the people who actually make the wine: the hearty vineyard workers who reek from spraying fish oil on the entire vineyard before winter sets in, the seasoned winemaker who has taken on the lifestyle as part of the next generation and knows nothing else, the full-time cellar-hands who work 80 hours a week for two months during harvest even though their salary doesn’t REALLY account for it, or the temporary harvest staff who travel the world soaking up knowledge and experience to channel into their own venture somewhere down the line. From my experiences, the people in the industry are as interesting as the wines themselves. A while back I took a class on community organizing and learned about the power of ‘getting to know’ one-another. As a result, I’m a firm believer in the idea that one’s life is made fuller by the people with whom he/she surrounds themselves, and makes an effort to get-to know. What follows is a BRIEF documentation of some of the notable personalities I’ve encountered during my voyage here to NZ as a worker in the wine industry. Some of them are insiders, some have loose ties to the craft, and some have nothing more to do with wine than being able to drink it, but they all in their own right have a damn good story to tell. Enjoy.

C- Old second generation apple farmer. He sold the orchard property inherited from his father that now sits under vine as most of the estate grown fruit surrounding the winery where I work. He lives in a little shack at the top of the hill in his old ‘picker’s’ quarters. Aside from being the first man in Nelson to own state of the art scuba gear, being an avid sailor, and cooking a mean steak, he’s heavily weary of organic farming and biodynamics and thinks they’re only a hippie idealistic marketing tool that produces rotten shit fruit.

S- A hard, tanned, seasoned field worker. He came to Nelson to visit his daughter nearly a year ago and has stayed indefinitely, working in the vineyard here to support his simple lifestyle. Over the years he’s done surf and ski trips around both islands solely by motorcycle, served in the air-force, and made an honest living working every imaginable blue collar job in between. His scronny figure and ‘pack-a-day’ smoking habit are a disguise to his brute strength and huge healthy heart.

R- I met this fellow a few weeks back while visiting the ‘intern house’ of a neighbor winery. As the owner of a funky wine bar in Chicago that specializes in comfort food and a stellar wine list, as well as choice entertainment (see: this man came to NZ for two weeks to see how exactly the wine was made and meet the people who made it. He strolled in with his big hair and thick rimmed glasses, instantly filling the room with a surge of positive Midwest energy. After getting over my immediate impression that he might be a ‘neo-black-Ginsberg’ we spent the next few hours talking about the Midwest wine industry, traveling, sox vs cubs vs brewers (and how Cubs fans are the worst in all of baseball), and agreed how pleasant it is to meet a fellow Midwesterner amidst the soothed chaos of world traveling. I hope to someday re-connect with this dynamic fellow.

JB- There is a micro brewery on the ‘historic’ wharf in the closest town to me, Mapua. It was started less than two years ago by an American who after visiting the region many years back found that there was a severe lack of good beer being brewed here. He was a cabinetmaker by trade, home-brewer by passion, and decided to throw all his chips in and move to Nelson to live out his dream. Though much has changed on the beer front in recent times, his brewery is producing some stellar favorites and innovative craft brew creations. The authentic Tex Mex fodder that they offer from the dismal kitchen is as close as I can possibly get to authentic Mexican food here in NZ, AND they have REAL hot sauce like Tapatio, etc. JB has done a great job of rooting himself into the local community with live local music every weekend and making the place welcoming to families with children as well as beer-ies and food-ies alike. If he’s not smiling behind the bar, JB is running around making sure everyone’s pint is full, or chatting with the random traveler.

J- Oddly like myself in certain ways, the current vineyard manager of our estate vineyard is a kiwi bloke who got his undergrad in psychology. He spent some time working harvests in different wineries before sticking to vineyard work. He eventually ended up here at Woollaston where he now oversees all vineyard operations, pushing heavily for organic and biodynamic principles to be practiced and accepted as standard. His connection to the vines is literal, as he lives at the bottom of the vineyard with his wife and three children.

D- A Hawaiian who I recently met (today) at the local brewery/bar. He came to New Zealand seven months ago with nothing and bought a bicycle. In the time since then, he has seen most of the North and South Islands on bike, working as a WOOFFER along the way, with his ‘normal’ daily meals being porridge and honey for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly for lunch, tuna and rice for dinner, and of course plenty of local beer to top it off.

S - Although he’s not someone I met here in New Zealand, S is still a rather mysterious yet iconic character in my books. My current boss worked for him when he spent a harvest in Oregon. S has been around for quite some time in the Oregon wine industry. From the little I know of him and the short interactions I’ve had with him, he’s a ‘straight up no bullshit’ kind of winemaker who’s learned from experience and isn’t afraid to take risks. His knowledge and success are un-apparent from his simple and welcoming demeanor. What I find most striking though is that when killing time during ‘harvest’ between the end of a work day and ‘midnight punchdowns’ he’s quite keen on watching Cohen Brothers movies and bowling.

F- Though it wasn’t on my trip to New Zealand, I met a French winemaker last year at a winemaker’s dinner when I was working for a wine importer. He was the son of an established Rhone ‘vigneron’ and had gone to school for business before taking over operations for his father. The passion for the land and the crop that had been instilled in him from a young age by his father was readily evident in his stories about how he would literally talk to his vines on occasion in hopes it would add to their health and vigor. I just happened to get these stories out of him as I was ‘forced’ to sit with the group of French winemakers at a winemaker dinner in Minneapolis and there were no seats left with the Anglophones. What better an opportunity than to exercise my French speaking?

A- A few weeks back when I went to the ‘Hop-Harvest’ party I got to spend the evening with a fellow American traveler. She was from Massachusetts originally, but had most recently come from the Caribbean. There she had worked as a dive-master taking tourists and private yachts on scuba-diving expeditions. She made bank though on a ship salvage job which paid her trip here to NZ for a whole year. It was crazy to hear the stories of another fellow traveler doing amazing things in another part of the world, and her descriptions of the music and welcoming culture of the people down in that part of the world pushed it up on my list of places to visit SOON. I’m pretty sure she picked grapes here in the Nelson region after I suggested it as a work-possibility and has probably stayed unless the recent cool temperatures have sent her packing.

Mussel Inn- When I traveled over the infamous Takaka hill to Golden Bay a few weeks back (a drive that should by the way of the crow take less than an hour, but so much more thanks to endless switchbacks and tricky navigation) I spent my Saturday night at a local watering hole called the Mussel Inn, which was also coincidentally listed by my Lonely Planet guide as a ‘Favorite.’ It’s a small brewpub in the woods, mildly reminiscent of a bayou-esque shack, but filled with soul and endless stories. After sharing a pint around the fire with a local Nelsonian Glenn and his wife (who were quick to invite me to dinner anytime I wished when we got back home) I had a stellar pork pie before settling back down by the fire with some travelers I’d warmed up to from the hostel I was staying at (a gnarly mix of Canadians, Kiwis, a Brazilian, and an American). In the mix were two young kiwi blokes who I learned were nephews of the pub’s owners. They shared stories of growing up in the area, coming to the shack before it was even a commercial venture, and proved their prowess by snagging a few free rounds from the random employees they ran into throughout the night.

M- A poignant character in my collective recent memory, M is a young German winemaker, no older than myself, whose family owns a wine estate back home. He’s in New Zealand to soak up all that is beautiful and share his overwhelming knowledge and experience of ‘aromatic’ grapes like Riesling with the ‘cowboy’ kiwi winemakers he’s working with here. I found it striking to hear that he has his life virtually graphed out, that his 20’s will consist of traveling the world and learning as much as he can about wine-making, his 30’s shall be a time filled with long and strenuous hours building upon that acquired knowledge and working for the family winery, his 40’s refining the business and taking on leadership from his father, and his 50’s a wealthy retirement where he can start to relax and bask in the pleasant stories, wealth, and experience he’s acquired over the years. Idealistic but admirable.

I hope you enjoyed the reading. My time here in New Zealand is ticking to a close. Please offer suggestions on topics you would like to read about, and I hope to carry on with my posting beyond my time here in this lovely land.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It Takes a lot of Beer...

I think back to one of my first days working harvest out in Oregon, which was also my first experience working a wine harvest; everyone was well spent from a long day of bottling the wine from the previous vintage and during cleanup the winemaker came down to the cellar with a twelve pack of microbrew and told everyone to stop. It was beer time! I had already been quickly romanticized with some of the rather unromantic and tedious aspects of winemaking, but for my boss to demand that I pause my duties to take some time to enjoy a fine brew seemed rather surreal. I would soon come to find that beer drinking amongst winemakers is not only commonplace, it is essential to survival amidst the chaos and confusion of the time of year we call ‘harvest’ (or vintage in other parts of the world). The old saying goes something like “it takes a lot of beer to make a little bit of wine.”

When I tell people about my experiences traveling and learning about winemaking, one of the first comments they usually make hints at the fact that I must get to drink heaps of good wine. While I will admit that finding a bottle of wine to accompany dinner or simply sip while reading at the end of the night is not usually a problem, more often than not I find my recycling to be weighed down more with empty brown beer bottles than heavy skeletons of burgundy. Don’t get me wrong. I love wine; it’s the reason I’ve embarked on this self-educating-travel-work chapter of my life, but after a long day of picking through grape bunches on a sorting line or what often seems like never-ending cleaning, there’s something to be said about cracking open a cold brew (or two). Harvest is an interesting time of year for winemaking in that an eight hour workday is considered short. When the day has been dragging on you know it’s getting close to time to finish up when you see a co-worker coming down the stairs with their hands full of bottles to spread amongst the troops . The work refrigerator is (hopefully) usually stocked with a stellar array of good microbrews. Beer’o’clock is also a great excuse to take a break and recap on the highs and lows of the previous day or share in conversation and camaraderie with the people who practically become family during the solid month or two that are Harvest. Last year I remember talking to one of the guys who had just delivered a truckload of pinot noir to our winery and asked him how his harvest was going. With a smirk on his face he quickly responded, “it’s been rough lately, not enough beer!”

Interesting enough, the two places I have chosen to work harvests have also been renowned for their hop-growing industries. The Willamette Valley in Oregon is responsible for a large part of domestic hop production in the United States. Nelson is New Zealand’s only viable hop-growing region at the moment. Driving past hop fields gives somewhat of a surreal and eerie feeling, Kafkaesque if you will; the plants grow quite tall on trellis systems, row after row after row after row. Not to mention that the aroma of hops being harvested and dried in vast kilns is nothing short of ecstasy. It makes sense then, that these two regions also have quite the array of breweries as well. (Interesting Fact: Wisconsin, my home, also known for its brewing industry was once at the center of the world’s hop growing industry. Check out an interesting article for more about the green aromatic:
Portland has no shortage of breweries and brewpubs, and hitting them up by bike is a great way to see and taste the city’s output. Nelson has more breweries than any other region in New Zealand. Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend Marchfest in Nelson city. See the link:
It was a celebration of the hop harvest, local food, and local music. I’m sure I wasn’t the only traveler in attendance (my drinking buddy for the night was a fellow American who I met up with at the hostel I was staying at for the night), but it sure did seem like it was an event made by and for the locals. One of the coolest parts was that most of the beers on tap were all brewed in small quantity especially for the event. I was even treated to a free pint after striking up a conversation with a guy in line for the tap who I would find out was a hop farmer who grew a large portion of the hops that went into many of the beers that were being poured that night.

It’s not surprising that many of the same people who make wine are also quite adept at brewing beer. Many of the winemakers and cellarhands I’ve met and worked with have quite interesting and successful beer brewing setups in their homes. When I was in Oregon we used to congregate at the apartment of our assistant winemaker on our off-nights, and some fantastic homebrews were created as a result. One of my favorites was a holiday spiced ale that was, by agreement, not allowed to be opened until after Christmas. When I opened the growler (64 ounce container) on Christmas Eve with my family, it made for a great opportunity to share some of my stories about the people and good times I had spent during the previous four months. More recently, I was invited down to the home of one of my current co-workers (shortly after he came on to work for harvest) to enjoy some of his home brew on a Saturday afternoon. It’s a pretty cool to experience the excitement of a home-brewer as they open a new bottle for you, describing the fruits of their labor whilst attempting a perfect pour into some sort of souvenir pint glass they’ve amassed over the years. Not only did we break the ice over a crafty pint, but the drinks were a mere social lubricant for me getting to know him and his wife and sharing stories of our travels and similar life/work experiences from around the world.

Just as every part of the world has its own distinct winemaking tradition, the same goes for beer. Whether you find yourself enjoying some fermented fury in the vast historically rich brewscape of Europe, sipping a watery lime infused Corona on a beach in Central America, a complexly crafted ale in one of the hip cities of the US, or in good company drinking a house specialty at a local establishment in some other corner of the globe, there are enough options out there that you might never again consider a casual bottle (or can) of watered-down corporate ‘lite’ or ‘bitter.’ Life is too short to drink bad beer (or wine for that matter). So cheers, drink up, and next time you are going out or picking up some brews for a get together, think about the source, quality, taste, and locale before quantity, and imagine the stories of all the hands that went into making the glory in the bottle that is your beer.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Recessionary Drinking

If you're not living like a hermit cooped up in a shed tucked out in the hills (like some people I know) then you've heard about this 'recession' that's been plaguing the market as of late. In the States it's managed to make front page news for at least the last six months, while in other parts of the world, like here in New Zealand, market struggles are slowly starting to show a trickle down effect. Regardless, people are tightening their grip on already tight budgets, and spending amongst the worlds fortunate is becoming more cautious by the day. Personally, I think it's partially a huge media boon, spurred on by the usual doom and gloom by the worlds 'Liberal Media', as well as huge mistakes by some people with too much money. Easy to preach as a young idealist, but why not? Enough of my rants.

That said, the wine, beer, and liquor industry sits in an interesting place. It has been said that in times of recession, booze and entertainment are the two industries to remain strong. In the depression era, people flocked to theatres in hopes that the fantastic world of cinema would ease their sorrows. Drinking, arguably, always eases one's sorrows. Though I've heard statistics about film success lately, I have read about surprising struggles for the wine and beer industries. It would, within a reasonable logic, fit that the wine industry take a blow from the impending recession, but why?

Wine has suffered its ups and downs throughout history. I recently heard that in the 17th century winemakers in Europe began to see less interest in their product because the availability of clean drinking water made wine less of an asset to the daily diet. Sometimes seen (at least in the new world) as 'a beverage for those with their noses up in the air' (this is based solely on my experiences), I think wine sales, at least in the States, might take a hit in this 'recession.' I don't think it has to be that way at all.

Sure, when funds are tight, you have to make cuts. As a citizen perhaps you would opt towards that box of wine instead of that 1.5L bottle, or the $8.99 special instead of your $12.99 favorite. Please reach beyond if possible. In the wine business, perhaps it comes in the form of reducing the number of NEW oak barrels you buy for your latest vintage, or even the amount of fruit (that will be made into wine) you decide to buy from local growers. Perhaps you will create a second (budget) label of wine that at a lower price point, will be aimed at the average consumer. It's hard regardless. If you create a stellar wine at a low price point this year, then it will be hard to raise the price in the future. If you cut corners or the climate simply makes for a bad vintage, your luck in the recession will only get worse. It's hard to form opinions with so little invested in the industry (besides my days, nights, sweat, passion, and hard work), but I think with perseverance and patience, success is anyone's gain. It's exciting to see where things will go from here.

That said, I think that there are fantastic buys at all ranges of the price scale, from all parts of the world. In these times, all wineries are considering the budget squeeze and considering the effects on the buyer as well. It couldn't be a better time to buy wines. Whether you have a $100 or $10 budget you WILL be in luck. As always, with the higher end wines (in my opinion) your established French, Italian, and American producers will not let you down. Do your research on the producer and the vintage first. For any collector or investor, there will always be exceptional vintages that will hold their value and only get better in the bottle as time progresses. For mid range, there are sooooo many options. If you're willing to spend $50 on a bottle, I'd assume you have some idea of what you're looking for. Find a wine store where you are comfortable with the staff and their suggestions. They can lead you to a bottle that will fulfill your dreams. For those of us looking for something to accompany dinner, that will dance memorably on the palate and still fit within the restraints of the wallet, there is hope. Look to import wines. Whether it's the diversity and history in Spain, the technology blended with culture/location in Portugal, blending of old world varietals with new world experimentation in Chile, tradition and progression in France, massive climatic differences of Australia or budding possibilities of New Zealand, you're sure to find something interesting. For $10 to $15 you can get yourself a quality bottle of vino and expand your knowing of different wine varieties and regions of the world. Not to say that there aren't good value American wines (for those of you who feel inclined to buy only local). There is so much wine being produced in the States. I once heard that grapes are grown in each of the 50 states. Why not support the local vintners and taste the nectar that comes from the earth on which you set foot? In addition to the long respected Napa/Sonoma stronghold, other regions of California, as well as Oregon, Washington, and New York are gaining ground with their innovation and open-mindedness in viticulture and wine-making practices. Have a look, and a taste!

When it all comes down to it, spend within reason, but don't forget to enjoy the simple luxuries in life. A bottle of wine might only last for a few hours, or minutes, but it will carve itself into your memory and lead you in the direction of new tastes and opportunities.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Now that I've been living in New Zealand for a little over a month, I've finally settled in and among other things I've undertaken the task of buying a car. Since cooking is a way for me to relax after a long day and channel my creative energy into a sensory packed output, I was quite excited at the prospect of being able to take a trip to the weekend market, as well as the supermarket in a suburb nearby. I stocked up on lots of fresh local produce, from apples (an historic Nelson staple whose market is sadly dwindling by the day) to silky organic lettuce. I also packed plenty of frozen meat and canned goods into my cart in anticipation of the late harvest nights to come when all I will seek is an easy, wholesome meal. That was on a Sunday, and the following Monday I was blessed to recieve a package from my lovely lady in the States; among a few other pleasantries, it included a bottle of the prized Sriracha sauce, a sweet and spicy nectar of a hot sauce which I tend to add, more often than not, to my culinary creations. How does this relate to wine you might ask? The story continues.

With all of the plenty at hand, my palate craved the can of potato leek soup that I had purchased, and after a long Monday of work it seemed worthy enough to be cooked. I doused it with heaps of Sriracha to add a tinge of red and an excess of spice. To lighten it up I also made a light balsamic salad. After preparation of the meal was complete, I brought it out to the picnic table where I dine, weather permitting, but felt a glass of wine was in order.

Lucky for me there was a recently opened bottle of Riesling open in the winery lab fridge, to which I had free reign. I couldn't have picked a better choice. Now to many, Riesling is often conceived as a wine-too-sweet-for-drinking. In my first experiences, that was the case. I believe the first Riesling I tried was a cheap bottle of German Riesling, perhaps a Spatlese, which is even middle of the road in terms of sweetness by German standards, but the only way I could drink it was with a super salty cheese at dessert. For more on German wine classification and its complexities one might consult any number of publications; My habit lately in enlightening my mind on new topics is wikipedia:

I guess my point is that, like all wines, there is more to each grape varietal than one simple style. That is the joy in trying wines from different producers in the same part of the world, or trying the same wine from different parts of the world. I remember the first time I tried a decent Riesling from South Australia at a grand tasting a few years ago and I nearly spit it out. It was nothing like I was expecting: way too dry. Perhaps the aromas and flavors were also a bit too subtle for my immature palate, but I was told it was a quality wine. Needless to say, I had, and still have quite limited knowledge of the grape and its possibilities.

When I was working my first harvest in Oregon last fall I was quite excited to find out that Riesling was one of the grape varietals that they produced at the winery. Imagine my excitement they day that the grower arrived, near the end of the harvest, in his shotty old flatbed diesel truck stacked full with rotting wood bins piled full of ripe Riesling. I had the pleasure of unloading them and soonafter rushed to pluck some berries out of the bins and put them to a taste test. The thich skins of the grapes gave way to a semi-firm gooey flesh, which instantly reminded me of childhood and the gummy candies I used to guiltfully sneak onto the counter when I went with my dad to the hardware store on a Saturday morning to buy paint. I am curious to try the soon-to-be-bottled wine that came from those specific grapes, but regardless, it was definitely a treat to try the raw form of such a mysterious grape.

Back to now. With a few more Rieslings having glazed my palate since then, I was so very pleased when I arrived here to Nelson, NZ, and got a chance to taste the wines they were making from the Riesling grape. Not uber viscous and sugar bombed like one might normally conceive a dense Riesling or an ice-wine, but not bone dry like my first encounter with the South Australian pour. The Rieslings I have tried here thus far have been spectacularly balanced. The acidity is enough to make your tongue salivate just a bit, the sugar just enough to make you want a little more (with aromas and flavors of the local fruits), the body heavy enough just to make you hold it in your mouth just a little longer, and the complexity enough for you to be tasting the wine long after swallowing (or spitting if you really must).

All said, I couldn't have been luckier to find an open bottle of Woollaston 2007 Riesling sitting in the fridge to pour with my modest meal. The light, halfway sweet texture was a perfect compliment to my over spiced, heavily salted, creamy potato soup, and the acidity also jived well with my vinaigrette salad. With the late (New Zealand) summer sun still beating down, even after dinner, it was fresh enough to have another glass as an aperitif after dinner.

Riesling is not even my favorite grape; There are so many grape varieties I have yet to even try (see Italy), and I have a hard time choosing sides in the first place. It is a fantastic example though of how one might shatter pre-conceptions of a wine through trial (and error) and the numerous wine styles that exist around the world and the endless food-pairings they might enable, all from one grape. That being said, I highly recommend you try and seek out a recent vintage of New Zealand Riesling, but don't stop if you can't find it or it doesn't please you, there are many others that await.


Saturday, February 28, 2009

Looking Foreward

As I delve deeper and deeper into the wine world, past sales and into the hands-on aspects, I am beginning to see all of the intricacies and subtleties that encapsulate this vast industry. As a young traveler with a relatively small budget and modest palate, I feel that too often wine is skewed as something for the higher-ups of society. It was never meant to be that way. As a matter of fact, wine-making has very humble and agrarian beginnings. Through my travels and writing about their results with an emphasis on the wines I encounter, where they are produced, and the people who make it all possible, I wish to share my first hand experiences and learning in the hope that somehow I might make wine more accessible to the common man; the basic premise behind wine consumption, in my mind is, if you enjoy it, then drink it. It does not matter if the bottle costs $5 or $50. If you can relate what you're tasting to something vivid in your collective memory, that's the golden ticket. Be with me on the journey...