I'm writing this column from the comfort of a cloth-covered trestle table upstairs in the Wellington Town Hall in what has been dubbed the "Media Centre". I've worked in loads of "media centres" around the traps in the past, but this would take the cake for no-frills.
Although at least here there's one of those black apron things fastened around the table, so I can kick off my shoes out of sight. There are no distractions whatsoever. There is also no water, coffee, tea or fruit, no televisions, tiny muffins or magazines; but there's a multi-plug, WiFi and a toilet, which is all a girl really needs in this business anyway.
It's day three of the four-day, tri-annual Pinot Noir 2013 conference in Wellington, which has attracted 110 pinot producers, 300 wines and hundreds of delegates from around the world including, to use marketing department terms, international influencers and gatekeepers, all eager to immerse themselves in what has become, in a relatively short time, New Zealand's most important red wine.
When you talk to producers about why they choose to grow pinot noir, one of two things tends to happen.
Their eyes either mist over and they gaze skyward before wistfully waxing on about its beguiling charm, its beauty and its earthy, mysterious sensuality; or they shove their hands in their pockets, shuffle, shrug and squint with the pain of remembering before blurting something like, "She's a bloody nice drink when you get it right, but it's a bastard of a thing to grow". Which is apt, seeing as the keynote speaker on day one was actor Sam Neill, a pinot noir grower himself (Two Paddocks, Alexandra, decent enough), who described our collective pinot-producing community as "a bunch of good bastards". He also went on to describe sauvignon blanc as (and I'd turn away if you're fragile) "bitch diesel" - but I digress.
That producing great pinot noir is no easy thing is evident by the greying hair and worry wrinkles in the room, and yet as soon as someone mentions tasting it, there's an instant, en- masse twinkling of eyes and lift in energy. We make it because we love it, and clearly consumers do too. Look at the figures: 10.6 million litres of pinot noir were exported last year, up almost 150 per cent from 4.1 million in 2006. We produced 23,285 tonnes of pinot noir grapes last year, up from 9402 tonnes 10 years ago. The amount of pinot noir we now have planted has almost doubled in the past decade to 4828ha.
From what I've learned over the years of writing about the grape, and what's been reinforced to me these past few days, you'd still have to be a brave soldier to charge ahead into pinot noir production in this country. You have to forget about earning money, getting sleep and maintaining sanity, according to Neill, who was asked for advice recently from someone who was thinking about buying land and planting pinot noir.
SAM NEILL'S WORDS OF ADVICE FOR POTENTIAL PINOT PLANTERS:
You are clearly barking mad. Insane. Seek medical help as soon as you possibly can.
Since you are approaching middle age, there are two inevitable things in your future. First, you will acquire a ride-on mower. Second, you will have an enlarged prostate. The mower is more fun than the prostate, so make sure you buy a good one. By the way, I've done a side study on this and there's a connection between ride-on mowers and enlarged prostates. Of the people who own ride-on mowers, 72.2 per cent have enlarged prostates. Statistically there just might be a connection.
When you finally produce wine, you'll have to sell every bottle three times. You'll have to sell it to the distributor. You then have to help your distributor sell it to the retailer, and then you'll have to persuade the punter to buy it from the retailer. Having done this, you'll still not make any money.
Once you've joined the world of pinot, you'll work with some of the best people you've ever met. Bon vivants, mystics, sages, and intellects. Try not to annoy them too much.
You're already annoying me. Remember, this is not a competitive thing, it's about collaboration. You and your neighbours are in this together.
You will be required to attend far more dinners and functions than you can possibly survive. Get your liver titanium coated ahead of time. You're going to have to sit through such unbelievably boring speeches that you'd rather stick a fork in your eye than listen to another one of them. Like this one.
They don't call it the heartbreak grape for nothing. Expect to fall in love with everything pinot. You must expect to have all your dreams shattered again and again. Your worst fears realised, your nights sleepless and filled with nightmares. You will need knowledge, flair and hard work, and you should just quit now. Go check yourself into the funny farm.
Learn humility, lest you have it thrust upon you. Distrust good reviews and ignore bad reviews. All wine opinion and criticism is subjective. All critics are fallible. Know thyself and thine own wine.
Beware of science and anyone who says they're doing a scientific study.
Try to avoid using the word "passion". As in, "a passion for pinot". It is overused and should, in my opinion, be reserved for the heightened emotion between two people that usually results in the discarding of trousers. As a pinot producer you'll lose your shirt, but you are unlikely to lose your trousers.
Give thanks to those who led the way before you. The monks, the nuns, the Burgundians and the pioneers in this country. Think of the people who arrived on our shores and gazed in horror at the beer-swilling pubs and went straight through town into the countryside to plant pinot noir. Give thanks, and tread carefully knowing you are honoured to tread in their footsteps.