Years ago, when I was just starting out in this business, I attended a snazzy wine tasting event in Auckland. I was desperately trying to look professional while struggling to hold my laughably large handbag, my pen, my notebook, my dictaphone and my wine glass. I was concentrating so hard on saying the right thing, nodding and looking clever that I missed the special spit bucket on the ground and expectorated on to the sandals of a man standing next to me. He was tall, bespectacled, had boofy hair and wore cargo shorts and a shirt so loud it was squinting at itself.
I was mortified; he didn't bat an eyelid. He disappeared before I could apologise. "Who was that?" I asked the winemaker across the table.
"That's the hardest working man in the New Zealand wine industry," he said. "It's a wonder he's got any rubber left on the soles of those sandals."
The man was Kim Crawford, who, with his business dynamo wife Erica, revolutionised wine production in this country back in 1996. When they couldn't afford to buy land and vineyards, they bought fruit from contract growers. They set up a "virtual winery" at outside facilities and didn't worry about a cellar door.
Kim must have clocked up millions of air miles over the following decade, selling his namesake wines around the globe and raising awareness of not just his own brand, but New Zealand wine in general. The result of years of hard work and shoe leather eventually led to the Kim Crawford brand being sold to colossal US wine company Constellation Brands.
It became very quiet on the Crawford front. However it turns out Erica and Kim were busy hunting for the perfect piece of land on which to make a new start, and they found it; 73ha high on the hills overlooking Marlborough's Awatere Valley. The grapes would be grown and the wines would be made with organics and biodynamics in mind. They called the property Loveblock, and it now produces sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, gewurztraminer, riesling, pinot gris and pinot noir, plus some tempranillo, saint laurent and muscato for the fun of it.
They've also snapped up 8ha of pinot noir in Central Otago's Bendigo region; the vineyard was named Someone's Darling.
A far cry from the slick, large-scale production of the Kim Crawford brand, the look of the Loveblock wines is decidedly earthier, featuring whimsical dandelions on the label.
The brand may be low-key, but the impression it's making is anything but. Loveblock's five varietals have already been picked up by US distributor Terlato Wines International, which is owned by Anthony (Tony) Terlato, one of the most influential wine distributors in the world.
"I met Erica and Kim about two years ago in the US," says Tony. "We had dinner together, talked, and we found there was a synergy and understanding about the feelings they have about creating premium wines. Kim never talked about 'cases' or 'volumes', it was rather about doing something important, wines which mean something, and pretty much that's what our business stands for, so we thought it was a great fit."
Tony has been in the wine business for nearly 60 years. Was New Zealand on his radar when he first started out?
"Not at all," he says. "Back then, even the Rhone Valley in France or North Piedmont in Italy weren't on the radar, let alone New Zealand. In the 1950s and 1960s we were still developing the wines of Italy and Argentina, Portugal and Spain, and of course the California scene was about to launch so we were very occupied with that."
He remembers Cloudy Bay and Nobilo getting some press around 30 years ago, but that was it.
"Yet those pioneers did an amazing job putting New Zealand on the map in such a short space of time. Nowadays New Zealand is respected, it's treated and spoken about in a very positive way in the US, and there's real excitement for your sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and pinot gris - and, of course, with the Crawfords, we now have some really exciting interest in rieslings from New Zealand, too."
Four sips to try this week
Loveblock Central Otago Pinot Noir 2011, $39
This is a whopper of a pinot with wild pork and smoked cherry aromas, and a succulent, warming, spicy complexity on the finish. It's very young and I'd really like to taste this again in another year because I think it has real potential. www.love blockwine.com
Loveblock Bone Dry Marlborough Riesling 2011, $23
At just 1.4g/L of sugar, this wine is so dry it's practically skeletal, and yet there's a lovely green apple richness and a soft, key lime pie-flavour on the finish. Crisp, slippery and cleansing. www.love blockwine.com
Loveblock Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012, $23
White peach, moist hay and soft green herb notes on the nose gracefully lead the way to a gentle, almost creamy-clean mouthfeel. Tomato leaf, lime and pea-pod flavours linger on the finish. www.love blockwine.com
Doctor's Flat Central Otago Pinot Noir 2011, $44
Pinot lovers, no, scratch that, wine lovers will fall in love with the opulent, plump and spicy-sweet red fruit that practically bounces from the glass with every sniff. Winemaker Steve Davies has made a magically flavoursome pinot bursting with wild strawberry, baked rhubarb, cranberry, cherry compote and cassia bark. Every sip delivers something different and delicious, and I'm absolutely enthralled by this wine. More please! www.doctor sflat.co.nz