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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."


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The future of wine tourism ... reductio ad absurdum

Twelve years ago I launched my one-man wine tour company into a fairly benevolent and vibrant tourism market.  

From a first year net loss, to a second year break-even, I carried on to a healthy profit in year three.  At that time the inbound tourist numbers were dominated by USA, UK and Japan.  My target market was the FIT (free independent traveller) – well informed, intelligent, upper income bracket wine lovers. 

I had only one competitor and there was plenty of work for both of us.  After wasting $12,000 on useless marketing (largely print ads) in my first year, I fine-tuned my advertising to website, brochure displays and one small print ad in a giveaway tourist info booklet, Auckland A-Z.  As well as those sources, I established a good rapport with local high-end hotel concierges who provided a steady stream of referrals.   And things pretty well hummed along, then in 2001 the New York terror attacks forever changed the face of tourism.  Overnight the Japanese market vapourised.  USA and UK bookings fell away and many folk cancelled travel to NZ.
Slowly over the months the bookings came back (though the Japanese stayed away) and by 2005 I had my best year with 927 customers and a turnover in excess of $100,000.

But since then, it has been a steady decline - with numerous factors affecting tourism : the SARS epidemic, bird flu, terror attacks  around the globe, and finally the meltdown of the USA, UK and European economies in 2007.  Australian tourist numbers into NZ have been holding my business up for the last three years, but now eastern Australia is feeling the pinch despite the mining boom on the other coast – and now inbound AUS numbers from Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales are dropping.   
Today, my business is very much web based.  I rely on Google searches and referrals from TripAdvisor for about 80% of my business.  New Zealanders are starting to support my business with special event booking and corporate staff days out.   I do still get some pre-booked tours through overseas travel agencies, mainly Australian based – but this has dropped off dramatically in the last 6 months.  Plus , there are now around seven tour guides offering wine tours in Auckland.

So – is wine tourism dead?  Do I give up and look for another job?  Do I go back to physiotherapy?
In fact I have taken up some part time work in a wine retailer, I have started treating back and neck patients from home and I have a slow trickle of tour bookings coming through. 
But, I’m not in any hurry to give up the best job I ever had.  I’ll hang in there see where the roller coaster ride of  wine tourism takes me. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Take me way ... je t'aime, Vouvray.

Last week I was (ahem) researching an article that I’m writing on good places to sample wine in Auckland.  This is the jolly fun bit about being in the wine journalism business.  I can go out and sample wine, write about the experience, get paid for it and then write off the cost of the whole exercise against tax.  It still means that I have to spend real money at the time of course.

Anyway, we dropped into the charming Wine Loft is Auckland City’s Shortland Street, just off Queen Street.  It was a cold night but the large gas fire, bubble of conversation, and candle lit atmos was very welcoming.  We plonked down on a big comfy leather sofa by the fire and perused the wine list.

Being in the mood for something a bit different, I fast forwarded through the Savs, P Gris, Chards etc. and spotted a Vouvray. Hoorah.
Vouvray is a wonderful Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley in France – and unlike a lot of French white wines it is fruit led and full of flavour.   At eleven bucks a glass I was only going to have more than one, but it lived up to my expectations.

Then yesterday as we were having friends over for dinner, I thought I’d track down a bottle as a nice pre-dinner drink.  Being a part timer at Glengarry Wines, I naturally gravitated to my local Westmere shop and found - in short order a bottle of Bourillon Vouvray Sec 2009 at $NZ24.99 on special.  

This is a lovely wine - rich and unctuous with flavours of pear, honey, pineapple, and lime - and drinking beautifully right now.  Vouvray is often quite crisp with natural acidity, and that can allow it to age gracefully for up to ten years. 

In France they pump out 13 million bottles of the stuff each year.  It can be anything from bone dry to a dessert wine or even a sparkling wine - all called Vouvray - so it pays to do your homework.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

So much wine, so little time.

Being in the wine writing business, I do irregularly get sent trade samples to sample and evaluate.
People do this in the hope that I’ll write about their wine and say something nice about it.  Just last week I received 22 bottles of wine from diverse producers, to that end.  Which all sounds very fab to the layman.

But the (ahem) ‘downside’ is that I have to open and sample these in short order, and make some sort of subjective judgement on them.
This means I can’t realistically say – ‘thanks a lot for the wine. I’ll just pop it in the cellar and let you know what I think of it in a few years.’  I open them and share and discuss with friends and family and reach some sort of opinion eventually.

So essentially, I get sent a lot of very new wine that is pretty edgy and youthful.  Some find this a charming attribute in, e.g. a Sauvignon Blanc where the flavour and intensity of a wine that was a bunch of green grapes less than a year ago.  But when you’re tasting a Cabernet/Merlot which needs about 5 years to mellow out, you have to try to forecast what it will be like in the future.

I do have a very good friend who makes Sangiovese.  His opinion is that if the wine is not ripe, soft and drinkable on bottling, then it’s not going to get any better.
In essence, he believes that if the grapes have not reached optimal physiological ripeness at harvest, then the wine will never be good. 

I tend to agree. I was recently at a tasting of allegedly high end French Burgundies – that is, Pinot Noir.  I found them all to be wildly tannic, dry and stingy.  I really couldn’t see these wines getting any better - other than some age-related softening of the tannins over 5-10 years.  Today I tried Syrah from one of Hawkes Bay’s Gimblett Gravels top end labels.  Again, this was a tight, astringent and thin-to-medium bodied red which I think was below average.

I personally think that a wine that will be a keeper, generally has full ripeness and a hint of sweetness (not from residual sugar but from intense fruit flavours derived from optimal ripeness).  It needs to be full bodied and intensely flavoured. And it needs a higher level of alcohol to preserve the wine over time (say, 14.5% plus).  I’m immediately thinking of an inky purple and ripe AUS Shiraz, with a sweet ripe velvety tannic softness and a good 15% alcohol.  Now that’s one to put away.