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Auckland, North Island, New Zealand
Wine tour operator, wine writer and lapsed physiotherapist. "Nature abhors a vacuum. I personally hate dusting."


Monday, January 28, 2013

The Rise and Rise of TripAdvisor - Ignore It At Your Peril

Eleven years ago when I started my wine tourism company, it was a wide open field.  There was only one other wine tour company in Auckland. And that one had been operating for just 12 months.

Now it’s as crowded as all hell, with 13 tour companies offering wine tours around greater Auckland.  Some of these offer wine tours a side-line to their other tour options and are less of a threat, but there remain about 6 serious operators with small one man band companies like mine.

Back in the old days, clients would find me via a brochure (displayed free in major hotel lobbies, or a paid brochure pocket at an tourist  info centre), via one of the many search engines (Google was just one of a crowd then), via word of mouth from a concierge, or by searching a travel guide such as Lonely Planet, Frommers or Rough Guides.  The travel guides based their ratings on a ‘mystery shopper’ concept where a staff writer would anonymously take a tour and then post feedback in the Auckland section of their book.

Today, rightly or wrongly, TripAdvisor has risen exponentially to be the Bible for most internet savvy international travellers.  Accommodation providers, attractions and tour companies stand or fall, depending on the sheer volume and quality of their TripAdvisor reviews.  By and large, it does work and a canny researcher is able to sort the good from the bad by searching TripAdvisor reviews.  However, there are false negatives and false positives.  A recent BBC documentary exposed the phenomenon of serial nit picking complainers who had an obsession with scrutinizing everything they could find and then posting their damning opinions online.  One of these was a man who had been bullied as a child and now relished the chance to take control and wield power over others.  On the other hand, some businesses have been known to offer incentives and discounts in return for a favourable review.
And on the erm, third hand … there are those who blackmail a business with a bad review - unless they get a discount.

To be fair, TripAdvisor has a very rigorous fraud policy and seems to have excellent analytics to detect self-reviewing, or negative reviews posted by competitors. Having said all that – it’s not fool proof.  If I had a number of overseas friends I could theoretically get them to post glowing reviews on tours which never occurred.  Or a  competitor could get a friend to take a tour  with me and then post bad feedback. 

My feeling is that unless Lonely Planet, Frommers and Rough Guides start an interactive website with a customer feedback section, they will get steam rollered by the TripAdvisor juggernaut and be an obsolete paper based guide.  Which is a shame, as I believe the value of the anonymous review carries more weight than a punter with an agenda.

Meanwhile, I honestly feel slightly embarrassed to constantly have to ask my client s to post a TripAdvisor review.  I mean – they paid the money, I delivered the tour.  They’re happy.  I’m happy.  Should be end of story - and everyone lived happily ever after.
But now it’s all about  hounding your clients for feedback after the tour.  I’d rather not – but my competitors are getting business by being frequently rated on TripAdvisor.  Maybe one day TripAdvisor will be supplanted by The Next Big Thing in tourism guides, but meantime – tour operators are at the mercy of their clients' reviews.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

NZ Summer of Chardonnay

About fifteen years ago, there was a trend spread by fashion-driven wine drinkers, to the effect that ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) was  the smart rule for ordering white wine.  Even today, a lot of folk will not let a Chardonnay touch their lips, based on the old prejudice and/or bad experiences in the past.  And, to be honest, many of the first incarnations of Chardonnay in NZ were wildly over-oaked, bright yellow with extracted oak resin, pretty well undrinkable and tasted like a school desk.

However, in the last few years there has been a return to Chardonnay, as winemakers and drinkers realise that a good Chard is a balance of excellent fruit, subtle oak, yeast and suitable ageing.

Chardonnay, has long been regarded as the king of white wines and one which New Zealand winemakers do particularly well. 

New oak barrels sourced from France or the USA cost wineries around $1,400 each.  As a final part of the cooperage process, to bend the staves, a fire is lit under the upturned barrel and this is what gives toasty flavours to Chardonnay.   Furthermore, the origin of the oak lends special characters to the wine: closely grained French oak, typically imparts spicy characters to the wine; American oak tends to be wider grained and give flavours of vanilla and coconut.

New oak will give more flavour to the wine than an aged barrel and winemakers have the option of aging part of a vintage in new oak for a certain period and then in aged oak.  Apart from oak, Chardonnay has many other influences on its complexity of flavours.  The winemaker may use commercial yeast or may just take advantage of ‘wild’ yeasts from the air of the vineyard (as does Kumeu River).  A secondary malo-lactic bacterial fermentation is also widely used which transforms tart malic acid to less harsh lactic acid, adding softness and creaminess to young wines.

Even once your NZ Chardonnay is in the bottle, up to 5 years’ in a cool dark place will add mellowness and further shades of complexity – figs, melon, butterscotch and honey to name a few.

Here’s a selection, in order of strength from light to humungous:

Peacock Sky Waiheke 2012 $NZ32.00
A buttery style Chardonnay - but not overpoweringly so.  Some time spent in new French oak barrels has given some lovely hazel nut flavours, with a hint of stone fruit and honey.

West Brook Barrique Fermented Waimauku/Marlborough 2011 $NZ23.00
Parcels of Chardonnay were sourced from the stony soils of Marlborough and the clay soils of Waimauku. Flavours of stone fruit, almond, pear and fig, with mineral hints.

Ransom Cosmos Matakana 2008 $NZ27.00
An hour’s drive from Auckland, Ransom vineyards are just on the northern edge of the Matakana region.  Another medium to full bodied example.  All stone fruit on the palate – peach, apricot and nectarine, with subtle hazelnut creamy oak and a lengthy finish.

Man O’ War Valhalla Waiheke 2010 $NZ42.00
Okay - if you love big Chardonnays, this is a stunning example: a take no prisoners, gorgeously complex and full-bodied wine, which will tempt you to just another glass. Maybe another.  Gosh the bottle’s almost empty.  Shame to waste it.  Hits all the buttons – toasty oak, buttery mouth feel, stone fruit, honey, cape gooseberry, canned peaches, crisp lime, and massive lengthy palate.
Phil Parker is a wine writer and operates Fine Wine Tours in Auckland.