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07.18.2010

This Wine Designed by the Government Just For You

I'm one of the last people you'll see jumping on the Mondovino bandwagon to bemoan the homogeneity of the world's wines thanks to the evils of globalization. But nonetheless a recent announcement from New Zealand, definitely has me a little queasy.

You can read the story yourself, but here's the gist of it: the New Zealand government is spending $12 million dollars to improve and bolster the market performance of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Not a bad idea on its face, right? Nice to see a government backing its wine industry and helping it continue to succeed in the marketplace.

But here's how they're going to do it according to project leader Roger Harker: "They want to create a pipeline of New Zealand-centric flavour styles that will generate excitement in the marketplace and further stimulate demand." And according to the New Zealand Herald: "The signature herbaceous, grassy style of New Zealand sauvignon blanc could be played with "at the edges" to create a diversity of tastes at the upper end of the market."

Now, to be honest, I'm not exactly sure what either of those quotes mean, but I really don't like the notion of "coming up with new styles of Sauvignon Blanc." As if the grape just needed a little more tweaking to broaden its range.

Experimenting with wine is all well and good when it involves trying to plant grapes in new places, growing the grapes in different configurations, trying out different clones of the grape in different situations, trying out a new kind of barrel, or different temperatures for fermentation. And indeed the article suggests that some of these will be the kinds of things that $12 million gets spent on. Fine.

But the idea of engineering the flavor of Sauvignon Blanc to try to appeal to specific niche markets in the world that don't like the style that New Zealand seems to most easily produce sounds a bit like a cross between New Coke and the stuff that passes for takeout Chinese food in the Midwest: completely concocted in the vain attempt to appeal to some sense of what you think your customers' palates really want.

Now, I'm willing to accept the possibility that this kind of flavor engineering is merely the interpretation of the journalist who wrote this article (lord knows it wouldn't be the first time a reporter inserted implications that didn't belong), but if it is true, I take it as a very bad sign for the New Zealand wine industry. The country has made gigantic strides with wine consumers by producing excellent wines that are also excellent values, and as a result the country has earned some trust based on its consistency. The last thing it should do is throw that away by trying to artificially broaden the range of what New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tastes like.


Read the full story.

Comments (20)

07.18.10 at 10:21 PM

Not knowing what the government has in mind it's hard to say how different it is from what winemakers currently do to manipulate flavor and texture in wine. Different yeast strains, vinification techniques, fermentation temperatures, clonal selection--all these things do contribute to variances of flavor and aroma.

I suppose they can bring more scientific methods to this manipulation of grape juice, but unless they have a completely new idea not mentioned in the article, we've seen (and tasted) all this before.

I'm sure creating a McSauv will be very nice for some people. Some of us, however, will wander like Diogenes, looking for an honest wine.

richardsomm wrote:
07.19.10 at 3:54 AM

You can tell by the title. designed by the Government.

1WineDude wrote:
07.19.10 at 8:04 AM

Recipe for disaster: 1) remove all private sector influence, 2) add government. :-)

07.19.10 at 8:32 AM

The French seem to have done ok for years with significant government intervention in the winemaking process, from choosing where certain grape varieties can be planted to when to start picking the grapes.

The New Zealand effort seems designed to create a paint-by-numbers approach. But unless their decisions are mandatory on all winemakers, then there still will be some honest wines made there.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
07.19.10 at 9:33 AM

Larry,

As misguided as a lot of French law is, in my opinion, at the heart of it lies an attempt to preserve the notion of terroir, or at the very least, historical "regionality." Now this may just be a lousy news article about a similar sort of effort by the New Zealanders, but as you say, it reads much more like a "let's make it taste more like apples for apple lovers" and "can we get it to taste like peach for peach lovers?" which is, to use my two-year-old's incisive criticism: yucky.

07.19.10 at 9:55 AM

Not sure that I am too worried about this at all. So they want to figure out 'the style' that is most preferred, and that speaks most highly, about NZ Sauv Blanc and 'capitalize' on this. Doesn't sound outrageous at all.

If the thought is that they will create 'frankenwine' by manipulating it, I don't see this in the article. Perhaps they will look at specific areas and determine that the sites are not the most appropriate for SB - and that they should graft over to other varieties. Or they will work on yeast research . . .

The idea of 'flavor profiling' is nothing new whatsoever - why do you think producers use specific barrel companies?!?!!??

Cheers!

07.19.10 at 10:14 AM

A careful reading of the article showed that the government isn't making decisions, but merely providing funding for research into creating different flavor profiles.

The French for years sold a sweeter version of their Champagnes to Russia because that was the preference there.

Benito wrote:
07.19.10 at 11:00 AM

For a related issue, check out Peter Jackson's criticism of the impact of the New Zealand Film Commission, which exists to fund and promote NZ movies:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=10655720

Interesting perspective as many of Jackson's movies have received the support of the Commission over the years, and he has some informed thoughts on the effects of that government support.

Josh wrote:
07.19.10 at 11:34 AM

In line with the idea that this is about funding research, it makes very good sense to do this if a small growing region--which NZ is--finds itself staring at a certain level of homogeneity produced through marketplace dynamics.

Would anyone object to a government's funding research into exploration of new commercial channels for an area seen as needing infusions of cash? Consumer demand drives what we do as winemakers (if we don't, it's hard to stay in business, especially when it's your own money), so, over time, a region (or whatever else is being valued--an AVA, a village, a vineyard, a block, etc.) is going to start to narrow what's produced because what works multiplies and what doesn't generally goes away.

Ask any winemaker, and I'm willing to bet that the vast majority would love to experiment a bit but simply cannot because of any number/levels of strictures that bind what we do. Art + Science + Commerce, remember? If someone wants to pay for me to play with grapes, please come aknockin'.

Joshua Hall wrote:
07.19.10 at 11:57 AM

My first thought was that this money would be better spent on marketing and brand building to sell the Sav Blanc that is already being produced.

There is already a slight glut of Sav Blanc in the market in the UK and NZ and prices dropped significantly in the UK post GFC pushing down margins and sqeezing vineyards. This year has seen the closing of a number of small family owned vineyards, some going into receivership, some being bought up by global investors, and some with grapes rotting on the vine even though it's now summer.

Adding brand value to the image of NZ wine to lift it from it's mid market position here in Korea (and China too), where there are so many competitors would be a better way to spend the funds. NZ SB is already valued and understood in the Korean market. Messing with the flavors will only confuse people. NZ needs to be more than a two trick horse. Otago Pinot noir and SB are not enough these days. NZ should be selling the story of NZ wine: it's people, the gorgeous landscape and terroir.

Experimenting with wine takes money and involves risks but isn't that better done by viticultists and winemakers on the land they know rather than in the lab?

From a Kiwi in Korea.

nice strategy wrote:
07.19.10 at 3:50 PM

I think the key point here is "at the upper end of the market" -- it sounds to me like NZ is preemptively trying to avoid becoming a style cliche like Aussie Shiraz, rightly or wrongly, acquired over time, by encouraging a diversity of styles. I would think that the winemakers at the true upper end of the market would figure that out for themselves and not try to engineer a safe, median wine, and thus not require government encouragement, even if it is good advice for the long term. As a drinker, the more the merrier. Kim Crawford is a very nice $13 bottle of wine; if NZ can find a way to match Sancerre at $15-25 (instead of $20-30+), I'd be happy to give them my business.

Brooke wrote:
07.20.10 at 8:31 AM

Well penned, Alder.

07.20.10 at 9:20 AM

Alder--

Spot on.

The inner story is always somewhat different from the outer, and you were right on it.

From my perspective, NZ suffers from too much sameness in a world in which grassy SB has its limits. The NZ style of SB has already begun to change, and, like most relatively new wine growing regions, its SB will continue to evolve as growers experiment with changes in all the factors you have mentioned.

I am not sure what Govt can do to make change and improvement go faster, but it probably cannot hurt--other than spending money on wine styles when it might have more pressing issues.

Marketing and expansion of world-recognized success with other varieties might be useful alternatives. Kumeu River Chardonnay,for example, shows that there is real potential that is untapped with that variety. And one would have to wonder if PN had great potential in other locales than the Central Otago. There have been some interesting cold-climate Syrahs coming out of NZ as well.

I think J. Hall is right about all the marketing issues, but I would point out that the CA industry has been greatly benefitted by the work of UC Davis--which after all is Govt, not the private sector.

Steve Raye wrote:
07.20.10 at 2:07 PM

If they can tone down the cat pee, (but in a good way)I'm all for it. Then again, I remember some guy telling me once, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" Hmmm

07.20.10 at 2:23 PM

This government bashing is really idiotic, at least in this context. The government does fund a lot of important research. Besides, this is about New Zealand. They have more sheep grazing and fewer sheep voting.

07.20.10 at 9:54 PM

Great article Alder!
We are currently in the worst recession for decades and I, personally, believe that the industry needs to be spending the money on marketing te New Zealand wine story not trying to find new and exciting flavour profiles, which surely should be derived from the 'Terroir'.
It worries me that so many scientists have an interest in wine, I guess the next step is for a pharmaceutical company to start investing in this once pure industry!

Mart S. wrote:
07.21.10 at 6:06 AM

Excellent government! Wish I could trade it with ours. ;) Cheers!

jamie goode wrote:
07.23.10 at 9:30 AM

I've interviewed the scientists involved with this work, and they are producing some very exciting results. There will be benefit to winemakers worldwide from this project. They already have some good stuff in the publication pipeline. It's sensible for the government to support a successful industry. It is so far from government intervention - I think you've all taken a knee-jerk reaction to the word 'government'.

07.23.10 at 2:07 PM

At first glance I would have to say cool! Their government is supporting the industry and it sounds like a great big experiment, one that most individual winemakers would never be able to afford. Maybe the result will be some good wine. Better than spending $12 mil on bombs right?

But, when I think about all the instances where governments have poked their noses into private industries, I can't help but feel a bit nervous. Will New Zealanders be seeing a new Department of Wine Affairs with long lines and forms to fill out for everything? I sure wouldn't want my own gov't (the US) setting up shop in Napa. I just can't see it ending well. Good luck New Zealanders!!

07.23.10 at 5:37 PM

You know, for a tiny sum of money being spent on a research project regarding the wine industry, this has certainly produced a lot of nonsense in the comments department.

Most of the funding for wine industry research in the US comes from the government, both state and federal and not the industry itself.

Some people need to drink more wine and less tea.

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