Sunday, January 31, 2010


Sometimes unscrupulous winemakers resort to using illegal additives to enhance, stretch or otherwise modify their products (kind of like the milk powder scandal in China not long ago).
Fortunately there haven't been any major ones in New Zealand that have resulted in death or injury but in other countries this has happened.
One of the illegal additives is diethylene glycol which is a principal ingredient in the manufacture of anti-freeze. It has been used to increase the apparent sweetness in wines which in countries like Germany and Austria often determine quality gradings and therefore price. DEG has also been linked to scandals where it has been used in toothpaste and pharmaceuticals in various countries around the world. Excessive amounts can cause blindness, kidney failure and death so it is taken very seriously when abuses are discovered.
In 1985 I had firsthand experience of the Austrian wine scandal where DEG was found to have been deliberately used in some wines to give them a higher grading. I was brand manager for a famous Austrian brand and on learning of the problems in Austria I contacted the brand owner to seek assurances that the product we had imported was safe. These were duly given. As a back-up I sent samples of the wine to a testing laboratory and DEG was discovered at unacceptable levels. When told the brand owner expressed surprise and after lengthy telephone negotiations (pre-internet days) I extracted compensation for the thousands of cases of wine that we had imported and had these destroyed under customs supervision. We ceased to import the brand. It took many years for the Austrian wine industry to recover from this scandal.
Not long ago I opened a half bottle of a German trockenbeerenauslese wine. It was a 1992 vintage that I had bought many years earlier on special in a wine shop. The wine was thick and very sweet as a TBA should be but it gave us a tremendous headache. I can only assume that DEG or some other additive had been used to enhance the sweetness ranking of this wine (trockenbeerenauslese being the highest ranking of sweetness in German wines and commanding the highest prices).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

ALCOHOL -Permissum imbibo caveo

I drink alcohol and have done so for many years. My current preference is for wine consumed as both an aperitif and with food.
Previously I have consumed beer and some spirits and am familiar with most forms of alcohol.
My first experience with alcohol was in my first year of University at age 18 going on 19. Beer was the drink of both choice and necessity - choice because the taste was easier to get used to and necessity because wines and spirits were much more expensive (the old import quota and duty structure made it so). Friday night was usually the only drinking night with many Victoria University students meeting up at the Grand Hotel in Willis Street.
When I entered the liquor industry it was as a part-time employee of Murray Roberts LTD in the summer of 1972/73. I was seduced by the cornucopia of choice in the very wide range of beers, spirits, wines and liqueurs that was on offer. I had a very obliging boss who encouraged all employees to try most of the offerings, which we did (and the more expensive ones after hours) in order to become more knowledgeable. This really worked to the point where the others and I became expert salespeople and helped boost the company's profits (necessary due to the aforementioned after hours sampling). I tried and learned about all of the products on offer. This wasn't just about alcohol it was an insight into centuries of tradition. Every bottle had provenance and to me was exotic from the Israeli liqueur Sabra to the Yugoslavian Kruskovac and Slivovitz, the Greek Metaxa 5 and 7 star brandies and the rare and expensive cognacs and armagnacs. The aged Malt whiskies weren’t just a spirit they were a place, a time and a country that I wanted to visit. The wines were my particular favourite. I learnt as much as I could about the German and French wines especially. The source names were a fascination and at the time much more meaningful than today (except for the rarest and most expensive ones) where branding and marketing have diluted the individual characteristics. My learning was useful as I collected wine for my personal cellar and bought and sold rarer ones. I was lucky in that the First-growth Bordeaux wines could be bought for less than $20 a bottle and sold just a few years later at over $100 a bottle – a good investment. My education was also useful in my future chosen career in the liquor industry. Over the years I have marketed and sold many of the world’s premium brands. Today when I visit a fancy bar I look at the top shelf and see many brands that I have brand-managed for example Drambuie, Cointreau, Frangelico, Dubonnet, Martini & Rossi, Chartreuse, Grand Marnier, Pernod, Remy Martin, The Macallan, Johnny Walker, Mount Gay, Coruba, Teachers, Cragganmore, Glenmorangie, Highland Park, Bacardi, Appletons, Cutty Sark, Famous Grouse, Carolans, Tanqueray, Beefeater, Canadian Club, Marie Brizzard, Effen, Ursus – just to name a few. In beers I have managed Carlsberg, Tuborg and Swan and in wines Pol Roger, Krug, Charles Heidsieck, Lanson, Penfolds, Wolf Blass, Rosemount, Hardys, Banrock Station, Ruffino, Nederburg, Torres, Mondavi, Ravenswood, Nobilo, Selaks, Langenbach, Sichel, Bichot, Rothschild, Langenbach, Drappier, and many others. These to me were not just brand names but exciting products each with their own histories and unique locations. Over the years I visited the vineyards, wineries and production points of these brands on a V.I.P. basis as part of my job to see the production, experience the place and to discuss marketing matters. I consider myself privileged. I also have visited other winemaking locations, wine companies, distilleries and breweries over the years and have made the industry my life. Needless to say over the years I have consumed a lot of alcohol. Sometimes I have consumed too much and even today I sometimes regret that last glass of wine the night before. I am lucky though in that I have not become a slave to alcohol. I enjoy the evening glass or two but never feel that I need it. I rarely mix drinks and if I have a cold beer in summer I don’t follow that with wine. Similarly if in winter we have a glass of good Cognac or Malt whisky we don’t have wine before that.
This brings me to what I want to say. Unfortunately alcohol is not kind to some people. A couple of people very close to me had their lives ruined by alcohol that directly led to their deaths. Some friends and people I know have over the years had to seriously review the amount of alcohol they were drinking as it was having a detrimental effect on their lives. This Christmas someone I know has sworn off drinking alcohol because of memory gaps after drinking. Alcohol can be both a friend and an enemy.
We read daily about binge drinking by young people and alcohol-fuelled violence. There is a direct link between the more liberal drinking hours, the more prevalent liquor advertising and the irresponsible marketing of RTD’s, alcopops and cheap alcoholic sodas which are deliberately targeting young people. Unfortunately the ‘fantasies’ inherent in these brands and labels don’t have the sense of place, history and culture that I experienced when I was young.

Monday, January 4, 2010


I might have been a bit premature there by swearing off of chardonnay in favour of Riesling for the Summer. The fact is aromatic varietals don't cut it when there are some nice pre-dinner starters or BBQ meats and salads to be had. Chardonnay is still unbeatable and in New Zealand terms, a good Hawkes Bay (wooded) Chardonnay is the thing. There are lots of good ones to choose from (and unfortunately still a lot of ordinary ones) but my current choices are, in no ranking order of price or quality:

Te Mata Elston
Sacred Hill (orange label)
Selaks Founders
Selaks Winemakers Favourite (previously known as The Favourite)
Villa Maria Cellar Selection (there are some disturbing rumours that the newer variants of this are all Marlborough fruit).
Sacred Hill Riflemans
Clearview Reserve
Craggy Range Les Beaux Cailloux
Villa Maria Keltern
Church Road Reserve

Mea Culpa