IT'S THE DIRT STUPID...
Mid-winter is a time for contemplation. There are over 100,000 vines to prune and I wake up each morning contemplating with some satisfaction that I'm not going to be the one pruning them.
Instead my mind has been drifting back to vintage and the richly entertaining phenomenon that is the intern. At a Family of Twelve dinner at Kumeu River a couple of weeks ago we were swapping intern horror stories.
I don't know what it is about owning a winery, but it seems to prompt friends, acquaintances, people you once sat next to on a plane and a host of others to email you. It generally goes something like this:
I'm sending this note about my son Aaron. He's going through a bit of indecision right now, not sure where his next move is, and his parole officer is completely useless. So I was thinking that if he could work a few weeks in your winery vineyard it would help him to clear his head, get a new perspective on life and help him kick the habit. What do you think?
Wow, thanks Ted. We were just talking about running a therapy group during our busiest time of year and, come to think of it, I don't remember sending you my children to work at your hedge fund and demonstrate their computer skills by trading 2 billion roubles while you’re out at a long lunch.
Now I don't want it to sound as if all interns are a liability, some of our best friends started out that way, but the potential for people you don't know to wreak untold damage to your wines and vines is always something to add a little frisson to the morning coffee.
Anyway, as I said, the family got talking about this at our last dinner together and from those conversations, here's just a few guidelines for those thinking of applying for a job and for those who may be tempted to hire cheap labour:
1. Why we don't let interns work in the winery any more:
I thought this was the hose to tank 5, but I’m sure that after you blend it into the other tanks of Riesling the pink colour won't show.
This one didn't happen to one of us, but it did to one of our close friends. And, no, the colour didn't come out.
Having said that, a similar accident by an intern at Villa Maria several years ago led to the creation of a tank of Chardonnay and Viognier: should that be Chardier or Viogonnay? Anyway, they liked it so much they started making it as a blend. I don't think they pay the intern a royalty, though!
2. You can kick the kid out of the city but...
Last year I went in to the smoko room in the busiest part of vintage to find one sorry individual sitting there while all were hard at work outside. I asked what was wrong. He lifted his head from his hands with a look of abject loss.
There's nothing you can do. We tried everything. There's no way out of this, I just don't know what I can do. I've been wracking my brains for an answer. But I'm going to have to go.
I asked if I could do anything to help with his problem.
Nothing .If an iphone is outside coverage, that's it.
3. Beware the Heir to the Domaine
These guys usually taste your wine then respond: It’s very Frooody, isn’t it? So, are there people out there who like to buy this sort of wine?
4. Department of the bleeding obvious
Walters law states: Once a forklift has raised its cargo to a considerable height, it is no longer able to leave the winery via the door through which it just entered. However across New Zealand every vintage there are a number of interns that rediscover this useful piece of physics.
5. The molecular chef or a flavour too far
An intern at Nautilus just had to find out what Caustic Soda actually tastes like. He now knows that, as well as exactly how fast you can run to a cold tap and how quickly the New Zealand emergency service can respond to calls. Unfortunately I don’t think he can taste much else these days.
6. The budding sculptor
Judy Finn at Neudorf told me of this excellent example. A great way to demonstrate the power of Boyle's Law is to try to pump out a wine tank without first opening the lid or some other way for air to enter. It's pretty dramatic and converts a very expensive and useful piece of stainless steel equipment into a gigantic sculpture of a crushed beer can. One intern, having wasted $16,000 of the winery budget in this way was so excited that he could only think of having his photo taken with his new creation to email to all his friends. In case you wonder where they get this attitude, when said interns parents visited the winery some months later the first thing they wanted to do was to view the creation in question and seemed rather disappointed that their son's greatest work had been sent to the scrap-yard.
On a more serious side, James Millton called me the other morning, (not to suggest that James is serious, just the conversation took on the rather more sombre side of contemplative). Conversation started up around his trip to Bordeaux and the UK, but swung to his local regions situation. In Gisborne, Pernod-Ricard have recently told the vast majority of their growers that they won't be needing any more grapes in future, thank-you-very-much. The public line is that the market has moved away from Chardonnay and the other grapes they grow in those parts, so they don't need them any more. The truth is closer to the fact that with the glut of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, they can source most of the fruit they need there and have decided to focus on Marlborough and source it cheaper and more conveniently.
So, what are we to learn from this? Firstly, the corporate reaction to perceived market shifts. Chardonnay's out, so lets bale out as quick as we can. But does this mean that in Burgundy, Dominic Lafon is top grafting his Meursaults to Pinot Gris, or Anne-Claude Leflaive has switched to running a drive-through carwash? I dont think so. Wine producers worthy of the name don't chase marketing trends, they make them happen. If Pernod-Ricard can't sell their Chardonnay, then, just maybe, they should think about how to make it better rather than throw the farmers who have earned them profits for the last few decades onto the scrap heap. In a region where 40% of the population are indigenous people who often don't have the most flexible skill sets, this is a regional calamity.
There is a touch of irony in the fact that Pernod-Ricard are the largest producer of wine in New Zealand. The French are often keen to portray themselves as artisans fighting New World corporate giants, well here the boot is on the opposite foot.
Family businesses can't work this way. They need perspectives that last decades... generations, not to the next quarterly statement and the next shareholder's meeting. And, when things go wrong for them, rather than bale out and distance themselves from the problem, they have to dig deeper and sort it out properly. Within the family of twelve, every member makes at least one Chardonnay. Come back in a couple of years time and we'll still be doing it.