Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wine Tasting in New Zealand

We just returned from a wine tasting trip to New Zealand. My wife and I were primarily interested in the wine tourism aspect – more than winemaking, although I was interested in why Sauvignon Blanc does so well there and is so bad here. I am happy to report that tourism and wine tourism, in particular, in New Zealand is alive and well.
Wine picnic in Marlborough
 What struck me most was how organized tourism is in New Zealand. Each city of several thousand residents has a tourism office that is prominently identified by the big i. Not only can this office direct you to the nearest wine trail, it can book accommodations for you in nearby B&Bs, hotels, and motels. Never mind that the population of the whole country is only about 4.5 million people. These tourism centers are elaborate with large murals and displays, tons of information racks and are staffed by knowledgeable people.
Tasting room in Waipara
The population of Washington State on the other hand is over 7 million and we don’t even have a tourism office in Olympia. Some cities, through local effort, have big is, but mostly in larger cities like Yakima, Tri Cities, and Seattle. The Washington Wine Commission doesn’t deem tourism to be that important. I have never seen a wine/travel writer in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, although it is the closest real wine country to Puget Sound, just 2.5 freeway hours away. Judging by the press, they go elsewhere. The New Zealand Wine Growers actively promotes the multiple regions in the country which is a little larger than Oregon. New Zealand has about 700 wineries, on par with Washington and Oregon.
I must say I was quite impressed with the quality of our visit. None of the wineries were snobby like some here in Washington. Most had a $5 NZ tasting fee which I didn’t have topay because I usually bought a bottle of wine. (Hey, after driving on the wrong side of the road all day, I needed a bottle of wine!) At a few, I preferred to pay the fee either because the wine was overpriced or not well made, or both.
The tasting rooms were packed with visitors mid-week and crowed on weekends. Many had full-service restaurants with beautiful indoor or outdoor dining. Those that didn’t usually had a short tapas menu. We at Bonair Winery have a tapas menu on summer weekends. We started out with a chef and about 12 menu items, but serving only about 100 items per weekend made it hard to stock 12 items. Mathematically, you would have nine of each on hand, but that isn’t the way it works. You can never guess which item will be popular on any given weekend. We have since limited the menu to about five items and let the chef go. The few number of visitors to Washington wineries makes operating a full-service restaurant uneconomical. Wine tourism in Washington is pretty much dying out. I’m not sure if it is the lack of promotion or the poor experience many have in tasting rooms. Maybe it is a little of both.
Many of the visitors I talked to in the tasting rooms had visited Napa and Sonoma, but most considered Washington to be too rainy for serious wine production. Yeah, those six inches (16 cm) of annual rainfall keep us ‘evergreen’ in the vineyards.
Wine grapes can be grown all over New Zealand, except in the extreme southern fjord country. We visited five major regions, Hawke’s Bay, Martinborough, Marlborough, Waipara and Central Otago. I will cover each region in a separate post, so stay tuned.