Friday, July 3, 2015

In an earlier blog, I promised if I been unfairly critical of the "Premium" Selection Pinot Noir, made from French and Kiwi wine, that I wrote about, I correct any misunderstandings.

Well I don't  need to do that with this wine at all.

The original reviewer was correct in asking "In a world awash cheap, commoditised, characterless wines, do we really need one more?"

I tasted it, and can certainly say that premium is not a word I would use to describe it. My conclusion? I agree with the original reviewer; do we really need this wine? It brings nothing to the table other than a cheap price. I know there will be folk for whom price is everything, but in that regard, with all very cheap wines, I have to say caveat emptor.

I do think there is a bigger story here though. Somewhere in the debate on alcohol promotion, what's missing is a discussion on protecting consumers from pretty ordinary stuff presented as something more. I intend to contact NZ Consumer magazine about this to get their thoughts. Will report back

Monday, June 29, 2015

I always get asked, "What's news" at Murdoch James?

Well, there is certainly some fantastic news to share today.

In an exciting development that reinforces Martinborough’s prominent position as New Zealand’s premier Pinot Noir producer, and our profile as a leader in the region, we recently announced that we are removing 10 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc vines and replacing them with Pinot Noir. In all, more than 25,000 vines will be replaced at a cost of over $300,000.
Chris Shaw cutting out the old SB vines

This is not a decision for the faint-hearted. Not only is there a significant cost involved; we also had to accept it can take up to 3-5 years for the new vines to return a full crop.

Does not mean we don't like Sauvignon Blanc; it just means we love Pinot Noir more. We will still be keeping around 20% of our Sauvignon Blanc vines, but the Pinot Noir plantings will nearly double.

Roger Fraser contemplating the change
The decision was made as we have not able to meet the export demand we have for Pinot. Every year we have to ration our customer orders. Against that background, using prime Pinot Noir vineyard land for Sauvignon Blanc did not make sense in either economic or strategic terms.

Easy to say that in the office, but when I went out into the vineyard today, it was a very emotional time. To see thousands of vines that have served us well being removed was heart-breaking.

What taking out 25,000 vines looks like
I just had to remind myself, this is the start of an exciting journey, where will capitalise on the strengths of our team and our terroir. 

Over the next three years we will tell the story of these vines, as they are planted and mature. So, watch this space for lots of updates.

This is the little rascal

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Bargain Pinot Noir?

Birth of a Wine Blogger has been in hibernation for a while, a bit like our dormant vines. 
Recently I was woken from my slumber by a colleague in the industry sending me a link to a Facebook post he had published. He was making the point that a certain Pinot Noir (see link) is on promotion in supermarkets for just $10 a bottle. He went on to say that it must be made from wine at the lower end of the spectrum, sourced from the countries featured on the label, to retail at that price.  He asked, in a world of commoditised, characterless wines, is this something we really need?

Check out:

What concerns me about this, as a dedicated Pinot producer, is that Kiwi consumers will buy this wine thinking it is a bargain, try it, may not have a great experience, think all Pinot Noir is the same, and be turned off the variety forever. 
Why did he conclude that the wine must come from the "lower end of the spectrum"? 
Let's dissect the $10 and see where he is coming from. Of the ten dollars, the government collects $3.66 (the ALAC levy of about 3 cents, plus $2.13 excise duty and $1.50 GST); pretty good return for the government! 
Then, assuming the retailer takes a 30% margin ($3) and the distributor a 20% margin ($2), that leaves $1.34 for the winemaking! Let's be conservative though and say the winery sells direct to the retailer, so no fee for the distributor. In that case the remaining sum is $3.34. Let's see where we end up if we consider that.
What's left to cover the wine component after allowing for bottling costs, freight and distribution, warehousing, marketing and other related expenses? Say these add up to $1.80 per bottle. That leaves $1.54 for the wine. Say my analysis is too tough. Add another $1 back to cover that. That leaves me to ponder the quality of wine you might buy at $2.54 per bottle? 
Contrast that with the cost per litre of our 2015 Pinot Noir. That was over $13 per litre, before bottling, taxes, etc. So even if my costs are high, we can safely assume it is not top quality, hand-picked Martinborough Pinot Noir in the wine we are discussing. 
Disclaimer: I have not yet tasted this wine. I will as soon as I can get a bottle though, then I'll report back. If I have wronged a good product I will admit that. However, my comments above are based on experience and general principles. I can say with confidence is that I have learned in my 30 years in the wine industry is that it would be an absolutely amazing achievement to deliver a 'Premium Pinot Noir' (which is what the label claims) for $10, let alone $2.54. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Boutique vineyards excluded from Air New Zealand in-flight and airport lounge wine selections

Air New Zealand (R)
In a letter dated 20 May 2015, Air New Zealand announced sweeping changes to their wine selection process. Historically the airline has invited all New Zealand vineyards to submit wines for selection and this has given the airline's passengers wonderful exposure to the diverse and exciting range of wines produced in New Zealand. It is important to recognise the current wine selection process is complex to administer, but one would have thought the benefits to the airline outweighed that consideration, particularly as Air New Zealand is seen as our national carrier. The following quote from the above letter is indicative now of the airline's current thinking: 

".... from the beginning of 2015, the airline will move to serving wines through longer term partnerships with a limited number of New Zealand wineries. In line with this a Request for Proposal (“RFP”) was recently issued to a small number of potential suppliers. This RFP covers the wine we would pour during domestic Koru Hour flights, in our long haul Economy and Premium Economy cabins and in our airport lounges."

While the notice did point out business class wines will be selected from a wider range of options, no longer is that class open to all wineries either. I think a reasonable interpretation of this is 'potential suppliers' are probably the larger commercial producers and many, if not most, of the smaller, boutique producers will be left out in the cold. That is such a shame, particularly as, just a few days prior, Air New Zealand  released a press statement advising that they had just signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with New Zealand Winegrowers aimed at promoting inbound wine tourism to New Zealand. Very confusing signals, as these tourists will want diversity in their wine choices, not something purchased via an "RFP".

An important question now is why those rejected would want to participate in the annual Air New Zealand wine awards? It would not be surprising if many elect to boycott them.

It is also likely to have other consequences for the airline. For example, as a company working on the very thing the MoU was set up to address, in our case significant inbound tourism from China, we will certainly not be inclined to use Air New Zealand as our preferred carrier as we grow the business.

Am I disappointed by the lack of consultation and the clumsy way in which this change was announced? You bet!! But, it is important to conclude by saying no-one expects a guarantee to be listed for aircraft service by right, however all kiwi wineries would like to think if their wines are great examples of New Zealand wine, they have an opportunity to at least be considered for service by their national carrier. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

No need to take your wine on holiday now!

Victoria Wines In the past if you went on holiday to Fiji, you had to take your Murdoch James Estate wines with you. I remember a holiday in Rakiraki where I took 2 cases to see me through (don't ask how long 2 cases lasted me and my mate Mike!). And a lot of excess baggage and customs duty paid too.

Liam Hindle
Well no more. Yesterday we agreed with Victoria Wines that they would import and distribute Murdoch James Estate wines in Fiji. They have 3 terrific retail shops with a very knowledgeable team. They also distribute to the wholesale trade as well, so we hope to see some Murdoch James wines on the wine lists of some of Fiji's great resorts.Click here for a link to their website.
Like Murdoch James Estate, Victoria Wines is also a family company that values great quality and enjoys sharing that with their customers. The company name comes from the location of their very first shop 20 years ago on Victoria Parade, in Fiji’s capital city – Suva. They currently have two shops in the West, in Nadi and Denarau, and one shop in Suva, with a second soon to open at the new Damodar complex adjacent to the University of the South Pacific. With a dedicated team of twenty-five people they will ensure you receive all the assistance you require to select the perfect bottle of wine with which to watch the sun set on their beautiful island home. As Liam, one the founders of Victoria Wines says "We love it, we drink it, we sell it. Enjoy!"

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sheep versus Machines - Who Wins?

In past vintages we have always used machines or people to do our leaf plucking. The plucking is intended to remove leaf material from around the bunches so that sunlight can penetrate through to the berries. It also helps air circulate and so reduce the risk of fungal disease. A good leaf-pluck is a major contributor to growing quality grapes for our wine-making team to work with.

This year we did a trial block using sheep. Were they better than machines? Well have a look at the two images and see if you can pick the work the sheep did!

Yes, the one on the right - a terrific job, a much more complete and thorough pluck, with huge savings in time, manpower and expenses. On top of that, they fertilise as they go! And we can reduce use of tractors with very positive environmental benefits. We are so happy we are going to set up as much of the rest of our vineyard as we can to use sheep more widely for future vintages. The secret is a big mob, in a small space (around 3-5 ha), pluck that block, then move to the next one. One thing that surprised us was that the sheep showed a preference for certain vines over other - maybe they are secret grape connoisseurs.

We have always been concerned that the sheep would eat or damage the grapes, hence this year's small trial. We did not need to worry - they ate all the leaves, and did not touch the grapes. We are converts!

For those following the progress of my selected Pinot Gris vine through the 2013 vintage, it is the top left photograph - sadly it did not get the sheep treatment - that will now be next year.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Pinot Gris at Murdoch James

Same Pinot Gris Vine after just 20 days!
Just to show how fast they grow, here is a picture of the same vine that was in my post of 20 November; just a touch over 2 weeks ago. Check out just how much more dense the canopy has become in just a that time. And for the sceptics who note the trunk curve is different, that's because I took this snap from the other side of the plant. Flowering looks fantastic too, so we have the promise an excellent vintage for 2013.

Pinot Gris Flowering December 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

2013 Vintage Looking Good

Pinot Gris, 26 Nov. 2012.
I went out today to take the attached photos of Pinot Gris and could not help feeling we may be in for one of the really good vintages in 2013.

I know it is not a good thing to celebrate too early but the current vintage is looking great for us at Blue Rock. Our elevated and sloping vineyards meant no frost damage at all, compared to horror stories from  Central Otago where Spring frosts did huge damage in some regions. There were also reports of frost damage in parts of the Hawkes Bay and the Wairarapa.

We are looking at a harvest with the promise of both quality and quantity. There is a good bunch count per cane so what we need now is a good flowering through end November and the crop should be an excellent one. In fact, if the flowering is too good, we may be faced with having to fruit thin so we don't over-crop the vines.That is not a bad problem to have!

I did smile to myself when I took the photos as I was thinking I have been very lax in keeping my blog up to date. At one stage I had thought it would be interesting to take a single vine and post a picture of it each week through the season, but travel and other commitments got in the way. It was so lovely out there today that I am motivated to pick the idea up and follow it through from now on; let's see how I go!

Pinot Gris before flowering
I felt it would be good for those interested to see just how quickly vines grow through the season  and how much they change over time. For those not familiar with grapes, what you see here are very much potential grapes; these wee guys still have to flower and be pollinated before they develop into full sized berries. So, what we need over the next few weeks are warm days and gentle breezes for that to happen successfully. Rain and/or strong winds are not what we want - that just washes or blows the pollen away. I'll post photos of the same bunch over time so you can follow the development of the grapes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tough Vintage for 2012

I am currently travelling in Queensland, Australia, working with our major client's key stores; Vintage Cellars and First Choice. These are both top wine chains in the Australian market, with knowlegeable staff. The stores stock a great range of wines too. If you live in Australia, check them out sometime. Make sure you buy a bottle of Murdoch James Estate wine while you are there though!

Yesterday I was in a store in Brisbane and one of the team said " I would love to work on a vineyard and make wine, it must be great fun?".

I was prompted to say "Yes it is" but had to qualify the comment to "Yes it is, most of the time". The qualifier was because this year we had a very small vintage, due to cold, windy weather at flowering time, with the result that we had a much smaller fruit set than normal with some varieties. While our white harvest was top quality and good quantity, for some red varieties we had such small harvests that we will not be able to produce a wine from this vintage. An example is our 2012 Syrah. Such a small crop means it is not able to be bottled as a stand-alone wine. Does not sound so bad until you realise the implications; if there is no 2012 Blue Rock Syrah available, customers who enjoyed the 2011 and older vintages may change to something else before we release the 2013. Then we have to work with our retailers to rebuild the brand, and that equals time and money.

In other cases, like the Pinot Noir, the fruit was terrific quality, but the crop was down 40% per hectare. So we will make excellent wines from the Pinot Noir this year, but not a lot of it. We will just have sufficient wine to supply demand, so again sounds OK, until you dig deeper....

The cost per litre of wine is much higher in a small vintage than it is in a normal one. Think about it this way: we spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in the vineyard to grow our grapes. And we have to spend that regardless of harvest size. We need to prune, mow, tuck, hand pick, trellis, etc with a full crop in mind. Now, if we are targeting (say) 200 tonnes of pinot a year, and we only get 100 tonnes, we have still spent the money - it is a sunk cost regardless of what size crop we get. So in this scenario (2012) effectively our cost of production had doubled. If the normal cost of wine per bottle was $10, now it is $20. Can we increase our wine $10 per bottle to recover that? Sadly, the answer is "no way". In the current tight market, no retailer, importer or distributor is going to allow wineries to increase prices $10 a bottle, just because of a small vintage.

So, what happens is that wineries have to absorb the extra costs and hope to recover it from other vintages; again easier said than done. This is more so with smaller boutique wineries where they have no way to shed expenses. The big industrial producers who harvest with machines, buy grapes in, and have other scale benefits are less at risk. So think about that when you pick a wine up in a wineshop; in tough times, the small producers need coonsumer understanding of their need to recover costs. Maybe spend a few bucks extra and don't buy the big brand label that is on 'special'? Ask a store team member to recommend something a just little more expensive and enjoy it in the knowledge the extra $5 or $6 dollars is going to help a small, passionate producer somewhere. It will probably be a better wine too!

Hence my qualified answer.

Yes, vineyards are a great way to make a living, but make no mistake; they are not an easy way to make a living. Rest assured, boutique winemakers don't do it just for the money!