Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bill’s a legend

February 15

Straddling the peninsula that makes up the northern bit of New Zealand’s North Island is the pulsing metropolis of Auckland. The city is home to a full quarter of the country’s population, and apparently the object of scorn and hostility for the other three quarters of New Zealanders, which is pretty much what you would expect. As a New Yorker, I can sympathize.
Locals complain about crowds and traffic, but although Auckland is the largest city for more than a thousand miles — until you reach Sydney — it still has just about 1.3 million people.
Kevin Parish, Bill King and I arrived there yesterday and immediately headed to the Villa Maria winery, where we met representatives from Family of 12, a coalition of a dozen winemakers that have joined together to market themselves.
We met representatives from a few of those wineries and were taken to a large table in a board room where, to my horror, each place setting was appointed with 28 glasses and a spittoon.
A wine tasting.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I don’t like tasting wine. I like drinking it. Wine is meant to be enjoyed with food — one variety, or possibly on a weird night two, per course at maximum — not to be swirled, smelled, slurped and spit out by the dozen. Now, if you're a winemaker, a sommelier, a beverage consultant, a wine buyer or a wine writer, you have to taste wine. It’s your job.
And that’s one reason I'm none of those.
Still, I was a guest, and if your hosts want you to taste 28 wines, you taste them.
And they did apologize in advance, acknowledging that working through 28 wines was not the ideal way to appreciate them, but what else could they do?
Swirling, smelling and slurping are really perfectly fine things to do, but the spitting, oh the spitting.
I'm a bad spitter. Sloppy. The wine got caught in my beard. It dripped on my notes. I drenched my napkin wiping my mouth and, to the credit of my hosts, one of them handed me another napkin.
It was both nice and deeply humiliating that they were paying attention.
I did my best. If I tasted or smelled something distinctive, I said so. “Lychee!” I said. And “smoke!”
Bill later thanked me for drawing their attention away from him, so he could taste in peace.
Bill is a great and powerful man. He tried 28 wines without spitting. Or so he claims, and I believe him, even though I think I would have fallen down.
After the tasting — first of Sauvignon Blancs, then one Chenin Blanc, and on to Chardonnay, Riesling, nine (9!) Pinot Noirs and finally Bordeaux blends — we chatted, and I picked some of my favorite Pinots and sipped them, actually swallowing.
The representatives from Family of 12 said they were going to concentrate on presenting Chardonnay in the United States at the NRA show, since that’s what Americans like. Bill suggested that perhaps they shouldn’t be focusing on such a crowded market, although he admitted that since New Zealand was sort of a blank slate in the minds of American consumers, he wasn’t sure the best way for them to proceed.
We both restated the notion that, as a small country, New Zealand should aim for niche markets and charge higher prices. Bill said that for Pinots in particular they should be charging more so that they’ll be taken seriously.

From Villa Maria we went to Auckland’s Viaduct Harbor (excuse me, Harbour) for dinner at Soul.
Being an American, I expect meals at restaurants in touristy parts of town to be boring at best, but at Soul chef Gareth Stewart’s food was creative and delicious.
Of course it didn’t hurt that we were being specially looked after by owner Judith Tabron.
We told her about our tasting that afternoon and Bill confessed that he didn’t spit, at which Judith memorably declared: “You’re a legend!”
Then she sent out three wines per course, and so I take back what I just said about two wines per course being the maximum acceptable number. Three works.
I had a beer first, actually, a Speight’s Gold Ale

Then with my smoked paprika-spiced prawns on grilled watermelon with cucumber and mint relish, Judith gave us two Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs — S. Claire and Brancott — and an Aurum Riesling from Central Otago.
Then with my roasted rump and braised shoulder of lamb with garlic confit and slow cooked pukekohe onion, she served three Pinot Noirs — 2006 Te Tera from Martinborough, 2005 Tohu Reserve from Marlborough, and 2006 Bannock Brae from Central Otago.
Having drunk six glasses of wine, I didn’t photograph the desserts, which were a lemon tart with raspberry essence, buttermilk sherbet and a bitter chocolate marquis.
We also had a Whitestone Moeraki Bay blue cheese from Oamaru (south of Christchurch).
We drank a No. 1 Family Estate Cuvée from Marlborough, a Pegasus Bay noble Chardonnay from Waipara, and a Cottage Block noble Riesling from Marlborough.
Kevin did not drink with us as he had to drive us to the country town of Matakana, where we were staying at Quest, a collection of townhouses, of which we each got one. So I had a kitchen, a living room, bedroom and two bathrooms. Two televisions, too.

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