We didn’t know it, but when we flew into Auckland, New Zealand on December 3rd a storm was brewing. Perhaps fermenting, or batch fermenting, might be a better choice of words. It was, of course, the furor over the awarding of accolades to an early batch of the 2006 Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. There might not have been anything wrong if the 2,228 cases of this early batch, called BR315, had been appropriately labeled, but they were not. They were no different in bottled form than the total production of more than 100,000 cases!
However New Zealand wine writer Michael Cooper had determined that a store bought sample of the wine tasted different to that supplied for competition. After further tasting (in which Mr Cooper preferred the competition sample 5 of 6 times, while other wine judges Kay Morganty, could not identify a difference, and Sam Kim, favored the store bought sample 5 of 6 times) the wine magazine Cuisine sent bottles of the wine to the Institute of Environmental Science and Research where it was discovered that the store bought and competition samples differed in their content of alcohol, sugar and acidity. Wither Hills winemaker and director Brent Marris described the competition sample as made to “best represent” the vintage, and that there was no attempt to mislead critics or the public.
On Saturday (December 2nd) while we were somewhere between packing our bags and flying the Pacific the wine lost its five star rating from Cuisine. Case closed? Not quite. On Sunday (December 3rd) Wither Hills took out full page newspaper ads defending their wine. On Monday Michael Cooper revealed his role to the media and the tasting done by himself and the two other judges. When Cuisine did not offer an explanation for its action of removing the five star rating and Cooper was told that this would not occur anytime soon, he decided to get the information to the buying public. By Thursday Brent Marris has resigned as chief judge of the Air New Zealand awards and Wither Hills had returned all medals awarded to the wine. On the same day we traveled out of Auckland to Waitomo, on the way passing the Tui billboard that is the title of this post. When a beer company puts up a billboard that implies a criticism of wine in general you know that they smell blood in the water.
On Friday (December 8th) Brent Marris stated on a radio show that he was following standard wine industry practice by bottling a wine that had been harvested earlier than later bottlings. New Zealand Winegrowers’ chairman Stuart Smith suggested that Mr Marris “review his position”. On Saturday the New Zealand Weekend Herald ran a synopsis on the preceding week’s events. But more scathing was a lengthy piece by Chris Barton entitled “Sour Grapes” which showed that the wine industry was divided over the role that wine shows/judging play. That may not seem like news, but the Wither Hills incident brought the divisions within the industry more clearly into focus for the public. The question that remains is whether the industry will address the concerns raised.
On December 14th and again on the 16th Lion Nathan, the owners of Wither Hills, placed a total of $4 million in discounts in the daily New Zealand newspapers. The discount was in the form of 800,000 vouchers, each good for a $5 discount on a bottle of the 2006 Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. Brent Marris stated that the discount was Lion Nathan’s idea, “It had nothing to do with me.” You have to wonder if Lion Nathan will ante up any money for PR classes for Mr Marris, or if he’s cost them too much already? It seems a costly exercise for him to be seen and heard, instead of making wine. But then it was the winemaking that started the whole thing in the first place.
Is all this just fermentation in a wine glass? Several individuals I talked with were of the impression that Brent Marris continued to do more damage as the weeks progressed and he would have done better to state the facts as they were and not try to defend them. His attitude definitely made things worse for himself and New Zealand wine. Wither Hills was not on our list of wineries to visit but during some of our discussions I joked that we should visit and ask to taste both versions of the wine. That was greeted with laughter, but also nods of approval. Hmmm, the knives did seem to be out! In the end the decision was made for us. While tasting at Fromm Winery in Marlborough one of our party asked the cellar door staff if they could recommend any other Sauvignon Blanc wines. The answer came back, without hesitation, Wither Hills. Even though they were having problems, their wine was still one of the best.
The Wither Hills winery/cellar door is Napa Valley come to New Zealand, or at least Marlborough. Its big and bold and you can visit the barrel room or the top floors to view the vineyards. The cellar door staff are friendly, fairly knowledgeable, and unlike other wineries Wither Hills offers two vintages of its wines for comparative tasting. There is no doubt that the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent wine, much more fruit forward and refreshing than the somewhat softer, less aggressive 2005. We left impressed, and realized that we had not asked to taste a sample of the BR315. Then someone suggested that maybe that was what we had tasted!