Winemaker's island of paradise

By Daniel Simmons Ritchie

Every month the wine lottery rattles on. Press releases are emailed, gold stickers printed, and a hundred different bottles of rotten grapes are branded with awards dreamed up by a hundred different marketing hacks.
Kai Schubert, 41, a hearty German who loves to talk and match food with pinot noir, agrees he could strip his entire vineyard feeding the endless stream of competitions.
"There are those ones in Kazakhstan where no matter who you bribe you will get a trophy," he laughs. "Nothing against Kazakhstan of course."
If there are any awards to win then, it might be two of London's oldest and most traditional. And that's why this Wairarapa viticulturist is beaming.
Mr Schubert's 2008 pinot noirs recently won over the judges of Decanter and the International Wine Challenge.
Like most local growers, Schubert Wines focuses on low-yield vines to produce high-quality wines. In parts of Germany, he says, they grow three times as many grapes per acre.
Some commercial operations go further: "If you have such a high yield, I call it a funny way of producing water."
His goal has been pinots with a bit of spice and an earthy forest floor aroma, and he's achieved this by oxidating his wine with open-top fermenters and allowing the wine to mature for 14 to 16 months, rather than the usual six.
He also credits the friendly Martinborough locals, who gave him a helping hand when planting his vines more than 10 years ago.
Although his new home doesn't share the old vines of his homeland, he's thankful it doesn't share the traditional rivalries.
"The people in Burgundy throw stones. You have somebody in the village who stole somebody's girlfriend 100 years ago and they don't even know why they hate each other any more.

In New Zealand you don't have that."
Mr Schubert settled on New Zealand after years of searching for the perfect place to open his own vineyard. It's a dream he can trace back to his school days in Stuttgart.
"For some reason I was always interested in cuisine and food, while all the other kids went outside and played soccer.
"We did this class trip to Alsase, which is right on the border near Stuttgart, we went to a restaurant. I don't remember the dish we ordered but we had a Tokay d'Alsace pinot gris, that was for me this wake-up experience.
"The wine and the food together made something greater and that's where I started getting interested in wine, but I had no idea I was going to be a winemaker. My initial love was photography. My plan was to become Germany's most famous director of photography."
When he turned 19, facing tough competition to get into film school, Mr Schubert enrolled in a viticulture university in Geisenheim.
During the 1990s he made frequent trips to Oregon, a US state that parallels New Zealand's temperate climate and fertile wine-growing regions.
"I would try to find some money and fly there and look at the countryside and find a good spot for a vineyard. I also looked at California to see if any place would be good, too."
A trip deep into Martinborough's fertile terroir ended his quest. His parents sold shares in a German manufacturing company they owned to help him plant his first vines in Martinborough and Gladstone in 1998. But a new worldwide hunt began, this time for the perfect wine distributor.
"My idea from the start was if we were producing only 100 cases, we would send out cases to 100 different countries."
He says it was a tough road learning how to peddle his wares. In the early days he would visit a country, make an appointment, and everything would fall through.
"You just have to try again and again, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose," he says.
"It's like trying to find the right girlfriend or wife, you know you are looking for a partner that you can work together [with]."
He's now made enough good partners - across 25 countries - to survive the wine glut and the global recession.
"There have been easier times to sell a bottle of wine. That's why I'm so glad we are doing so well overseas.
"You just have to open the papers to see the discounts. That's not sustainable."
During the interview, Mr Schubert notes he's leaving for Auckland and then Singapore the next day.
Although he enjoys the travel, he admits what he enjoys more than anything is coming home.
"I always look forward to coming back to Martinborough and this little island of relaxation. Basically, it's paradise."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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