How I Wound Up in the South Pacific with Grape Skins in My Underwear
Let's get one thing clear right away. You're not reading this book because I'm some kind of wine expert. You're reading this book because at the time I set out to write it, I was just like you: I liked drinking wine even though I knew relatively little about it. Actually, I'm embarrassed to admit that for years I was the worst kind of wine drinker: the kind who thinks he knows something about wine. Carlo Rossi's mattress stains could've taught you more about wine than I could have.
I declared myself a wine expert, wrongly and assholishly, during my senior year of college, for a simple reason: because I was in college. College students think they're experts in everything, and my circle of friends was no exception. We didn't just think the world would be different if we were in charge — we knew it would be. Because we were drunk.
But we weren't just regular drunks; we thought we were so much cooler. In lieu of dank frat-house basements and warm Coors Light, just about every Saturday night my friends and I would pile into a jazz bar that sold Washington-made Hogue Cellars Fume Blanc by the bottle for about thirteen dollars. Early on I figured out that it didn't make sense to spend thirty or forty dollars on gin and tonics if I could get just as drunk by ordering a bottle of Hogue with one glass. Everyone else in the group quickly caught on to my line of thinking. One night we drank every last drop of Hogue in the place and still left with money in our pockets. (A brief word to the wise: Well-meaning as it may be, the compliment "I used to get so wasted on this stuff in college" does not go over well when you visit Hogue, now one of the biggest and most reputable wineries in Washington state.) From this experience I somehow convinced myself I was a wine expert when all I really knew was how to get drunk on wine for less than twenty bucks.
After I graduated my thoughts on wine didn't change, but my alcohol-consumption habits varied depending on what job I had or where I lived or whether I had a sex life. For example, when I had my first — and worst — job, at a public television station, I drank giant gin and tonics when I got home every night. You would, too, if you had to spend each workday assembling direct-mail pieces for a Nazi devil woman with dried saliva caked on the corners of her mouth. Because I wasn't getting laid I switched to whiskey, since one bottle can get you through long periods of unintended celibacy. And after the dried-spit Nazi devil woman fired me I went with the cheapest beer I could afford. I did, however, order wine when and if I went out for dinner courtesy of the Department of Employment. But I always ordered Hogue, or something similar.
Around 2000 I joined the dot-com boom in New York, and for a while I dated a French girl. However, I'm afraid this isn't the part where I tell you that she took me back to France and taught me everything there is to know about Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne (and the Paris sex clubs in which the wines are served). Actually, we barely ever left her apartment. We ordered in, because at the time I could only cook two things (mac and cheese, and mac and cheese with Cheez Whiz), and she couldn't cook at all. She had so little interest in food and wine — plus she didn't smoke and she shaved her armpits — that they must've kicked her out of France for not being French enough. It wasn't long before we went our separate ways and I was back on the whiskey. I needed to get away for a couple of weeks, and a friend passed along to me a magazine article about a camping and mountain-biking tour around the South Island of New Zealand. I decided to do it even though at the time I couldn't have pointed to the country on a map, but the article made the tour sound like a great way to see a new country and get laid. The first part turned out to be exactly what I'd hoped for, but the second, well, I was still drinking whiskey.
For a short time, that is. I met two Germans and a British guy named Spencer — no, we didn't have an orgy. What did happen was Spencer suggested we all take a day trip to wineries once the tour was over. I saw it as an opportunity to get drunk for a day, but Spencer, a longtime wine drinker, was informed enough to know that wine isn't just France, Italy, and California. He knew that with some science, some tradition, and a little luck you can make good-tasting wine just about anywhere.
By the mid-1970s, New Zealanders of European descent had been growing and making wine up and down the country for about a century. But it was little more than a few people growing this variety here or that variety there and maybe having enough booze to talk a couple of girls into a threesome. New Zealand winemakers eventually started making grape-flavored, bag-in-a-box rocket fuel on a commercial scale. Then someone, somewhere along the line about thirty years ago, figured out that the Marlborough region — with its three-hundred-plus days of sunshine; low annual rainfall; nutrient-rich, stony soil; and cool, maritime climate — would be perfect for growing Sauvignon Blanc. Around the same time someone else figured out that the warmer weather of Hawkes Bay on the North Island would work well for Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. A little later someone else figured out that the rugged, arid, mountainous Central Otago, at the bottom of the South Island, would be ideal for Pinot Noir. And so on. New Zealand's winemakers, generally educated in botany, biochemistry, or even food science, then began traveling to California, Europe, and South America to learn the traditional tricks of the trade. By the mid-1990s, with their scientific knowledge and study-abroad experience, New Zealanders were making wine that was just as good as or better than anyone else's — and selling it for a fraction of the price. In less than three decades New Zealand had done what the French, Spanish, and Italians needed two thousand years to do. Connoisseurs, like Spencer, knew that the Kiwis had caught the traditionalists with their thumbs up their asses.
And from my very first sip of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at ten-thirty or so on that morning, I knew it, too — I was tasting something special. My mouth zipped and zinged, and though I couldn't describe the flavors I was tasting, I was sure of only one thing: I wanted more. I was hammered by noon, with five wineries still to go. At one point I stole the tour guide's microphone in the van and started singing karaoke — "The Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson — even though I didn't know the words. I might've taken off my shirt, too, but I don't remember. From winery to winery and sip to sip, the wines just got better and better. From the time I got back home to Brooklyn, whenever I was in a wine shop I either bought wine from New Zealand or asked for something similar. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was my new Hogue.
The difference, though, was instead of drinking just one wine from one place I was drinking the same type of wine from several different Marlborough producers, so they all tasted slightly different from one another. Because the wines were all different I assumed there had to be something different about each of the winemakers. I assumed that what's in the bottle says as much about the winemaker as, say, what the food on the plate says about the chef. It never occurred to me that there might be other elements involved, some completely beyond human control.
For a few years after that trip I was still guzzling whatever New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc I could find at night, and spending my daylight hours working the copy desk at a small business magazine. It was better than working for the Nazi devil woman at PBS, but the same could probably be said for cleaning up monkey shit at the zoo (which, I imagine, is very similar to working at PBS). So out of a desire to drink more, work less, and maybe satisfy a little curiosity, up sprang the idea of just throwing myself into the lifestyle: getting a job at a winery and writing a book about it. I mean, how hard could it all be? Only thing to figure out was where to go.
I thought about France and California, but I couldn't imagine a winery would let an idiot with no training anywhere near their facilities. Plus, a quick Amazon search showed that the world needs another book about French or California wine about as badly as it needs another Starbucks. I had my heart set on returning to New Zealand, but had no idea where to begin.
I got some help when I attended my ten-year high-school reunion. One person I considered a friend back then, a guy named Jim, told me that he'd just returned from New Zealand, where he did forestry work. He explained the ins and outs of getting a one-year work visa. Right then I knew I had my one-way ticket to the good life, strolling through vineyards, having three-hour lunches, and gulping the wine I already couldn't get enough of.
I got the visa, then cold-called a guy in San Francisco named David Strada, who does marketing work for New Zealand wines in the United States. I pitched him the idea of working at a winery and writing a book, and though he had to have known right away that I had no clue what I was talking about, he was nice enough not to hang up on me or call me a moron. What he told me was that I couldn't have called at a better time.
It just so happened that New Zealand was about to enter the most pivotal time in its brief winemaking history. David said that the grape volume of the 2004 harvest in Marlborough was projected to be 50 percent higher than ever before. I think he was trying to tell me that I was asking for trouble, but all I heard was that there'd be 50 percent more wine for me to drink. Despite the disconnect, however, he agreed with my basic idea of getting an up close look at the people and the process, and that in order to do so I needed a winemaking family to welcome me into its home and workplace. And put up with me, of course. But I also needed them to put me to work. Just as no one would have trusted Bill Buford to write about English soccer thugs if he hadn't become one, I reasoned, I knew I had to make wine in order to tell the story of the largest wine region in New Zealand (not to mention one of the most prominent in the southern hemisphere). I couldn't imagine that the work would be all that difficult, though to remain completely objective and open-minded (and make my credit-card company panic), I made it clear that wherever I worked, I needed to do it for free. Allan Scott Wines & Estates gladly accepted my offer.
This was actually the first winery I approached, because I had a good feeling about the place when the two Germans, Spencer, and I stumbled in there for a tasting toward the end of the day way back in early 2001. For whatever reason, I remembered liking the wine from there more than any of the others. Even though I'd never written anything informed or coherent about wine (or anything else, some would argue), convincing Allan to let me into his world proved easier than I thought. This is pretty much how the first phone conversation went:
Me: Hi, Allan. This is Eric Arnold calling from New York.
Allan: I already told you I fuckin' hate aluminum siding. Stop calling.
Okay, not really. But the call was nearly as brief. I asked if he could put me to work at his winery while I wrote a book, and he said sure, no problem. He never asked if I was a serial killer, planned to smuggle heroin up my ass, or both. He just told me to show up whenever.
Easy. Good life, here I come. I quit my job and a few weeks after our brief conversation, I was on a plane to New Zealand, timing my arrival for mid-March (just before harvest). On the last leg of the journey, from Auckland to Marlborough (the northeastern tip of the South Island), I stared out the window of the little propeller plane — as it bounced over row after endless row of green vines stretching across the valley — since it was all I could do to keep from throwing up. My nausea only increased once the plane was safely on the ground, because the enormity of it all had just begun to sink in. I'd landed in a country I didn't know, to work with people I didn't know, in an industry I didn't know, and then write a book about it. Which was something I'd never done. It quickly became clear that it wouldn't get any easier.
Allan picked me up at the airport, only a couple of miles from his home, vineyards, and winery. Calling the area desolate on that late-afternoon weekday would've been like calling Dean Martin a bit tipsy. We didn't pass a single car as Allan drove me past some small homes, a couple of vineyards, and a sheep paddock...and that was pretty much it. We turned onto Jacksons Road and passed Allan's winery on the left and the Cloudy Bay winery on the right, both embedded in large vineyards. We then pulled up to Allan's house, which was hidden from the road, surrounded by tall trees Allan had planted himself. The wood and stone two-story house kind of looked like a bed and breakfast, but without the old hippies and stale muffins.
We went inside and sat in the open, airy living room. After a few minutes of get-to-know-you chitchat, Allan, who was slouched on the leather sofa, let out a long sigh. "This year will be the leveler," he said, explaining that many Marlborough wineries would either grow or fold after the 2004 vintage. Hundreds of acres of new plantings were producing a crop for the first time, and a rainy February threatened the quality of the dense crop being carried in established vineyards. This just happened to come at a time when contract growers, who sell grapes to wineries such as Allan's, had raised their price per ton of grapes to their highest-ever levels. In some cases they were delivering grape volumes double what was expected — and therefore collecting double the money from the wineries. Some wineries would be able to maintain a respectable level of quality and sell all their wine, while others would founder and ultimately get acquired or absorbed by their neighbors. It was an incredibly tense time. "I don't want anyone to go broke," Allan said quietly, eyes fixed on the muted television. It could have been showing Girls Gone Wild and he wouldn't have noticed. "We just have to make sure we survive first."
A few minutes later he fell into an early-evening snooze, lightly snoring with his head leaned back and his mouth gaping open. The guy's industry — his whole way of life — was transforming in front of him...and he was passed out with a complete stranger sitting three feet away. The stranger felt pretty awkward (How long do I sit here? Do I wake him up? Flick his ear?), but Allan, even amid tense times, could be totally calm and cool.
Maybe it's because Allan's been in Marlborough pretty much since the beginning, and he's seen and done it all. In the 1970s Allan was planting large vineyards for Montana Wines, the largest producer in New Zealand. He started at less than a dollar per hour, and by the end of the summer he was a vineyard manager making NZ$14,000 per year. Years later he was poached by Corbans, which would also become part of the Montana empire, but by 1990 Allan was ready to venture out on his own. It was small potatoes at first, since Allan and his wife, Cathy, only intended to make a few thousand cases a year, and would spend long evenings pasting on labels by hand in their living room. Today the country has more than five hundred fifty wineries producing more than 14.5 million cases a year (exporting about 1.5 million cases to the United States). Allan Scott Wines grew with everyone else. Allan and Cathy's operation now produces more than sixty thousand cases of multiple varieties every year, and has several large vineyards. It's a full-time job for many — especially Allan, owner and operator of the company. The vineyard manager is Cathy's brother-in-law Brian, an old curmudgeon, and the head winemakers are Jeremy McKenzie and Allan's son, Josh — two guys who work hard and play hard, often at the same time. Not necessarily sober, either.
So if Allan was calm, cool, and snoring, I figured maybe I should be, too. After all, I thought as I went to bed that night, I just showed up to relax, get some sun, and help make some wine, right?
Wrong. From the very next morning, my first at the winery, there was no question that what I'd signed up for was getting wet, cold, dirty, sunburned, sore, scraped, bruised, broken, and completely shit-faced. And then doing it all again the next day. As if to emphasize the point that this year was gonna be a doozy, a local farm-supply company handed out free, ugly red T-shirts with the bold, black words the big one stamped across the front. Making wine in a faraway land might sound romantic, but even in a normal year it's a grueling lifestyle embraced by some extraordinary as well as frighteningly ordinary people. It's every bit as exciting and fun at some times as it is boring and exhausting at others.
Wine in general, and New Zealand wine in particular, took on a lot more meaning after my work at Allan Scott Wines and the countless hours I spent meeting and speaking with other winemakers in the region, sitting in their cluttered offices and around the kitchen tables in their homes. Turn the page and you'll learn how wine is made in Marlborough, who makes it, why they make it the way they do — and why it tastes the way it does. Just as I did. Beyond that, it's up to you to decide if you like New Zealand wine or any wine at all. You've always relied on your experiences and instincts to figure out what you like to eat, where you should live, or whose pants you want to try to get into. So by the time you've finished reading, you should be informed enough to undergo the same kind of trial and error to figure out what kind of wine you like to drink. Certainly you can figure it out if a miserable, undersexed idiot scarred by abuse at the hands of a Nazi devil woman at PBS eventually can.
And the best part is, unlike me you won't ever have to pick grape skins out of your underwear.
Copyright © 2007 by Eric Arnold