Friday, September 15, 2023

Peter Hubscher's warts-and-all perspective on the New Zealand wine industry

At Wardini Books in Napier last night my wife and I attended the launch of “A Vintner’s Tale”, a memoir by Peter Hubscher, former managing director of Montana Wines. The son of Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia, Peter (pictured) spent his life in the wine industry and has a unique perspective on New Zealand’s emergence as a small but significant player on the global wine scene. The following is the foreword I wrote for his book.

Peter Hubscher was a dominant figure – arguably the dominant figure – through the crucial formative years of the modern New Zealand wine industry. His long career at Montana Wines, then New Zealand’s biggest wine brand, spanned an era during which the industry made a remarkable transition from ugly duckling to swan.  He had the distinction of leading Montana when it was still wholly New Zealand-owned, and as a genuinely patriotic Kiwi would later lament the corporate manoeuvrings that resulted in it being acquired by overseas interests with no emotional commitment to the brand.

A visionary and an innovator, Hubscher was a key player in many of the developments that helped New Zealand wine achieve international respect and credibility. Marlborough sauvignon blanc? Tick. (Montana was the first large-scale producer of the wine that made New Zealand famous among wine lovers around the globe.) Chardonnay? Tick. (Montana’s Gisborne winery was the source of New Zealand’s first commercially successful wine made from the classic white grape of Burgundy.) Sparkling wine? Tick. (Montana’s Lindauer proved that New Zealand could make quality sparkling wine using the same technique as France’s champagne houses, and sell it at a price that made it accessible to New Zealand consumers.)

All this happened on Hubscher’s watch. He joined Montana as a winemaker in 1973, initially working under the mercurial Frank Yukich, and led the company from 1991 till 2004.  Under his leadership, Montana – a label whose subsequent downgrading he believes was unnecessary and retrograde – achieved unquestioned pre-eminence in the industry, with 57 percent of the domestic market and a 49 percent share of the country’s wine exports.

In this characteristically frank memoir, Hubscher presents an insider’s view of an industry more often written about by observers on the sidelines. He lays bare the fraudulent winemaking practices of the past and is blunt about the industry’s mistakes: the historic reliance on poor-quality hybrid grapes whose deficiencies were disguised by the addition of water and copious quantities of sugar; the brazen misuse of European names on bottles whose contents bore no resemblance to the wines they purported to emulate; the greed and ignorance of independent grape growers who were paid by the tonne and therefore interested only in quantity; the vast sums of money expended on hit-and-miss experiments with the wrong grape varieties and in the wrong places. That the industry overcame these self-inflicted handicaps is a minor miracle and a tribute to the resilience of influential figures such as Hubscher who were determined to learn, adapt and move on.

He reveals that Montana made catastrophic mistakes – perhaps never more so than in the early days of the expansion into Marlborough, which were a fiasco. It came as a surprise to this reader to learn that Hubscher considers it was not so much Marlborough sauvignon blanc as the humble müller-thurgau grape, now almost forgotten, that propelled the New Zealand wine industry into the modern era. Remember those big-selling cask wines such as Montana Blenheimer and Bernkaisler? Made predominantly from müller-thurgau grapes, they provided the vital evolutionary bridge between the old New Zealand wine industry and the new one.  And while Marlborough is generally lauded as the place where the industry was reborn, for Hubscher it was Gisborne – a region overlooked by the wine commentariat, but one for which he retains a particular affection.

Hubscher never conformed to corporate stereotypes. The corporate sector frequently gives the impression of valuing conformity above all else, but Hubscher was a somewhat idiosyncratic industry leader; a man who, although quietly spoken, never lacked conviction and was always prepared to say what people might not wish to hear. (He’s not entirely complimentary, for instance, about wine writers.) In retirement, he has been critical of some industry decisions and sceptical about wine companies’ susceptibility to the whims of fashion – opinions not always appreciated by PR-conscious industry spokesmen eager to present a rosy picture. In this respect, Hubscher lives up to a wine industry tradition of strong-willed individuals – renegades, almost – who don’t always conveniently fall into line with mainstream thinking.

He’s also notable for taking a sensibly holistic view of wine and its place in society, seeing it as something to be enjoyed as a natural adjunct to other sensual pleasures such as food and music. His pragmatic approach is an antidote to the swooning of wine snobs who see wine as an end in itself, and who describe it in esoteric, almost mystical, terms more likely to amuse rather than impress the uninitiated.  

In retirement, Hubscher has revealed another side to his character. He and his wife Pam, a former teacher, have devoted themselves to the funding and nurturing of the Tironui Music Trust, which they created in 2006. Using tutors and instruments paid for by the Hubschers, hundreds of primary and intermediate school pupils from low-income areas of South Auckland have been introduced to the joy and satisfaction of playing music. It’s a project that reflects not only Hubscher’s evangelistic enthusiasm for music (his violinist father was a music teacher), but also his commitment to social wellbeing and the responsibilities of citizenship – to say nothing of his determination to do something with his life post-Montana.    

As the owner of a small library of wine books and the author of one myself, I thought there wasn’t much I didn’t already know about the history of New Zealand wine, but A Vintner’s Tale fills spaces in the canvas that I didn’t realise were blank. It’s a unique, revealing and highly personal insight into the internal dynamics of the industry at a time when it was undergoing profound and far-reaching change. 

“A Vintner’s Tale” is available here. All proceeds go to the Tironui Music Trust.



Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Spiro Zavos: Sun Tzu and the art of winning the Rugby World Cup

Spiro (pictured) is a New Zealander who for decades wrote a popular rugby column in the Sydney Morning Herald. He has kindly agreed to have his thoughts on the RWC published on this site.

A coach of the fabled Notre Dame gridiron team was once asked about the secret of his team's success. "Prayers work best when players are big," he replied. 

After observing the exciting opening round of the 2023 Rugby World Cup tournament, I would add a clarification to this comment: "Big players need to play big while small players can play big by leading their team with ultra smart rugby."  

We saw a splendid example of a big player (finally) playing big with Will Skelton, a 120 kg, 203cm giant, turning in a massive performance for the Wallabies in their commanding 35-15 victory over Georgia. 

The fearsome Georgia pack, with their pirate beards, swelling bellies and tree trunk legs, lost their usual swagger and were reduced to a bewildered gang arguing with each other by Skelton's frequent power plays.

The captain of the Wallabies was helped in this demolition job on the Georgia pack by powerful and athletic play from Taniela Tupou, the 140kg prop, and coach Eddie Jones' golden discovery, Tom Hooper, a 122kg, 199cm flanker who plays like Owen Finegan of blessed RWC 1999 memory.

The Australian's Jamie Pandaram headed his article on Skelton's sensational performance: "Giant leap for Wallabies skipper who's proving his weight in gold".

The article pointed out that when Skelton was playing at 145kg as a younger player he could not make the starting lineup of the Waratahs. It is not enough, in other words, to be big. A big rugby player has to actually play big.

This playing-big attitude started for Skelton when he was released to Saracens, the English rugby club closest to the Crusaders in their preparation of their players. Skelton reduced his weight under extensive training to 130kg, still presenting as a massive presence. He was taught how to manipulate his size by mastering the technical aspects of tight forward play. 

Against Georgia, Skelton was a force of nature. He smashed Georgia's rolling maul. He made powerful runs that dented Georgia's defensive line. He won turnover ball. And in one of the last lineouts of the match, he jumped easily to win a lineout, a skill that many pundits believed he did not have in his arsenal.

Pandaram also made the interesting point that World Cups have been defined by forwards who rise to a level that seems unbelievable,' 

He cited Pieter-Steph du Toit in 2019, Kieran Read in 2015, Jerome Kaino and Thierry Dusautoir in 2011 and Victor Matfield in 2011 as RWC dominators. "Skelton can sit among these kings," Pandaram wrote.

The small man playing big syndrome was illustrated by George Ford who drove England to an unlikely and very comfortable 27-10 victory over the Pumas. The victory and its margin was unlikely because for 70 minutes or so England played with a 14-man side. 

RWC tournaments have seen many brilliant performances by number 10s, the likes of Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh, Joel Stransky, Stephen Larkham, Jonny Wilkinson and Dan Carter. 

But Ford's performance was, in my opinion, the biggest big game any number 10 has played in a RWC tournament. 

England were a team that had won only four out of their previous 13 Tests and among the losses was a defeat handed out to them by the Pumas at Twickenham only a few weeks ago. But Ford, in a remarkable sequence of skill, intuition and execution, played the Pumas out of the game and possibly out of the RWC tournament. 

He booted over three dropped goals and six penalties to boost a pack of Dad's Army veterans to master a tough Pumas pack into errors and then submission.  

It was Ford's big-man thinking that he was determined to win the game as the playmaker and points-scorer, rather than try not to lose it, that thrilled me. As he told reporters after the match: "We were a man down early and we had take points when we gained field position."

The clarity of the drop-kicking option lay in the fact it didn't matter that England were a man down. He needed the ball somewhere within kicking distance and enough forwards to form a sort of block on charging Pumas. His technique was deadly under pressure and distance from the goal posts for all his kicks.

England's coaching staff have a real dilemma on their hands now. The England backline with Ford and Manu Tuilagi at number 10 and inside centre worked so well on attack and defence that the position of the suspended England captain Owen Farrell becomes an issue for England when he can return from suspension after the next match.

There is no way that Ford could have performed his rescue act for England with Farrell at inside centre and sharing the playmaker role.

If there needs to be further proof that the two-playmaker system does not work, we need to look no further than the All Blacks and their loss to France in the opening match of the 2023 RWC tournament. 

The media have pointed out that this is the first time the All Blacks have lost a match in the pool stages of the tournament. As the Springboks proved in winning the RWC 2019 tournament, teams - or one team at least since the tournament started in 1987 - can win after losing in the pool round. 

But what has not really been acknowledged is that 27-13 scoreline was the worst ever inflicted on the All Blacks in the history of the RWC.

It is obvious now, or should be, that the All Blacks selector-coaches have made a massive mistake in not entrusting the team four years ago to the playmaking leadership of Richie Mo'unga, the way previous RWC-winning All Black sides were entrusted to one playmaker, mainly Grant Fox in 1987 and Dan Carter in 2011 and 2015.

In the match against France, Barrett seemed to play in the line more than Mo'unga, who was camped at fullback for long periods of play. The effect of this meant that there was no consistent method in the way the All Blacks tried to counter the France's arrow-like rush defence

Mo'unga's skill is running the game, in the line, with the occasional searing break of his own. All the time.  He needs to have his hands on the ball in most of the plays, calling them from virtually every set piece, ruck and maul. 

This is elementary 101 playmaking theory. All Blacks coach Ian Foster, a former number 10 himself, should know this. 

He should also know that Beauden Barrett, one of the great players of his era, is a shadow of his former self as a player. In my opinion, the terrible concussion he suffered in the 2022 Test against Ireland at Aviva Stadium has had a dulling effect on his former brilliant running game.

This infatuation with the two-playmakers game and poor selection has also impacted on the positions key players have been placed in. 

Barrett at this time in his career could be used as a reserve who could play cameos at fullback or number 10. Will Jordan should be the starting fullback for the All Blacks.

Jordan as a fullback, as he does for the Crusaders, would be mainly running, where he is a match-winner, and occasionally putting in kicks. He would not be subjected to the ordeal, as he was against France, of having to chase Barrett's high kicks, most of them too long and not high enough, with the risk of getting his timing wrong. 

As it was, he failed to snatch any of the high balls the French backs were challenged with. But he was yellow-carded once and could easily have been charged again, which would have been red-card territory and dangerous ground for him as far as staying in the tournament. 

The official excuse for the high-ball tactic by the All Blacks apparently was that it would conserve the energy of the players in the torrid heat. 

But chasing 30m or so time and again in the heat cannot be described as a conservation policy. It was madness. It failed to achieve anything other than tiring a brilliant runner and exposing him to injury or a card or two. 

When I watched Jordan, a natural and gifted try-scorer, being required to chase high balls, I thought it was a disgrace - rather like requiring Phar Lap to compete in a steeplechase.

The original sin with this All Black side, though, was the selection of Sam Cane as captain before the 2020 season had actually started. 

In the past, All Black captains were selected from certain starters in the run-on side. This is the way the Australian cricket captain, a similar sort of position, is chosen. History shows that for both teams, selecting someone assured of his position in the side as captain works well.

The problem that Foster created for himself and any team he selected with this first decision as the All Blacks' new coach was that there was a much better player available for the number 7 jersey, Ardie Savea. 

His solution of playing Savea at number 8 merely enhances the coach-created problem. Savea at 103 kg and 190 cm is big for a number 7, but far too small for a number 8.

Savea is the best loose forward in the All Blacks pack, but he is not the best number 8 available. Even though he invariably plays well, as he did against France, the loose forward trio is unbalanced with him at number 8. 

This is a position where size is important. Kieran Read, on the small side as number 8, was 111 kg and 193 cm. The current Springbok number 8, Duane Vermeullen, plays at 120 kg and 193 cm.

There is a rugby adage that goes to the crux of the problem the All Blacks could not solve against France: the team that controls the advantage line wins the game. 

The All Blacks could not control the advantage line against France because they lacked the power and muscle to dominate the French pack. 

The All Blacks pack - unlike the Wallabies, say, in their match against Georgia - played small, not big. They were pressurised by a big French pack, playing big, into conceding 13 penalties to the five penalties conceded by France. 

Six of the All Blacks' penalties were conceded on attack and seven were conceded on defence. This suggests that the All Blacks were under pressure both when they had the ball and when France had the ball.

The French also were able to off-load 15 times to the seven achieved by the All Blacks.

The all-important battle of the collisions, as these statistics and the scoreline indicate, was won around the field by France.

Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher on war, postulated that "the battle is won before it is fought".

Rugby is not warfare. But it is a war game. If the All Blacks keep the same tactics, the same backline and forward strategies and selections they played against France, I fear that their battle to win the 2023 RWC tournament has already been lost.


Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Matthew Hooton on Christopher Luxon

Matthew Hooton has written a devastating critique of Christopher Luxon, and the frightening thing is that his assessment is spot-on.

Regardless of what else you might think of Hooton, he’s astute and politically well informed. Here’s what he wrote on Sunday after watching Luxon’s “train wreck” interview on Q+A, in which the National leader was unable to answer Jack Tame’s questions on tax cuts:

“Today's interview shows that [Luxon] is clearly as stupid and empty as Ardern (without, to be fair to him, the irritating frowny-concerned face, or, to be fair to her, the charisma she was sometimes capable of)," Hooton wrote.

“But there is no evidence of Luxon even having her mental agility to get himself out of talking about things he obviously doesn't understand in the slightest, beyond further regurgitating slogans; or the humility to have prepared properly for the interview to make up for his low IQ, as Ardern would try to do, sometimes successfully.

“As I mused here a little while ago, I think Luxon's record as a hardworking model student at an elite high school who only got a B Bursary is instructive.

“He seems to be someone just clever enough to read and regurgitate a text-book or one of the self-help books he reads and recommends, but not to reflect on it, evaluate it, challenge it, or see how it might link or conflict with other ideas.

“He comes across as just one of those very-average, very-hard-working, and very boring nerds with the discipline to move up through the ranks of big multinationals, without ever getting close to the top, by following the brand manual.”

Hooton’s assessment of Luxon exactly echoes my own, except that he puts it more mercilessly.

Luxon strikes me as a man who has quite possibly never had a single original thought. He clearly thrived in the corporate environment, which prizes conformity, groupthink and buzzwords. Unfortunately that makes Luxon arguably the perfect leader for a party that is bereft of vision or imagination and seems pathologically risk-averse.

Hooton suggests Luxon is incapable of doing more than parroting slogans (the “squeezed middle” is his latest) and bluntly accuses him of being too dumb to understand National’s own tax policy and its implications. Ouch.

If that’s not scary enough, Hooton claimed – and repeats today – that National is actively plotting to exclude ACT from a National-led government and would rather govern with New Zealand First or even the Greens. His explanation, and it’s entirely plausible, is that ACT would make things too uncomfortable for National by demanding radical action to reverse Labour’s six years of disastrous mismanagement. 

National's aversion to a coalition with ACT would be the ultimate betrayal of conservative principles, but entirely consistent with an approach to politics in which there seems to be no bottom line.

Hooton concluded his Sunday column by advising that anyone able to move to Australia or beyond should do so as soon as possible. My thoughts exactly – but what do you do if you have family here? You can’t abandon them.

One other thought for the day:

Chris Hipkins seems fated to reprise the role of his 1970s predecessor Bill Rowling. Like Hipkins, Rowling in 1974 inherited the prime ministership from a charismatic leader – in his case, Norman Kirk – and led Labour to a crushing defeat at the next election. An obvious difference is that, unlike Hipkins, Rowling was up against a National leader, Robert Muldoon, who was a master politician and street fighter. But in other respects, the parallels with Hipkins are striking.

Like Rowling, Hipkins was thrown into the role unexpectedly; and like Rowling, he doesn’t look comfortable. Although admired as a capable and decent man, Rowling never looked prime ministerial. Neither does the boyish Hipkins, whom Garrick Tremain wickedly depicts as wearing short pants, looking overwhelmed and anxiously clutching a teddy bear.

Gravitas counts in a prime minister, and Hipkins hasn’t got it. As I’ve written in an article for the Spectator Australia, he seems doomed to become a footnote in New Zealand history, and a minor one at that.

Friday, September 8, 2023

I defended the media then; I wouldn't now

In his media column in the New Zealand Herald today, Shayne Currie reports that media organisations are having to think about security arrangements for journalists covering the election campaign. TVNZ went to the extent of hiring security staff for its news team at the National and Labour campaign launches, both of which were disrupted by protesters. Currie quotes TVNZ executive editor Phil O’Sullivan as saying: “Globally we’ve seen an increase in anti-media sentiment. We’re now seeing this in New Zealand too, with an increase in abuse directed towards our reporters while out in the field, and threatening behaviour in online spaces disproportionately impacting our female reporters.”

We have been here before. A post on this blog in November 2021 noted expressions of concern from journalists about hostility toward the media at anti-vax events. That post was headlined No one should be surprised by a backlash against the media and it still holds true.

I deplore attacks or threats against anyone lawfully doing their job, but people in the media need to ask themselves why animosity toward journalists – which has existed, to a greater or less extent, all the time I’ve been in the business – has been cranked up to an unprecedented level.

Part of the explanation can be found in an article that Currie quotes from. It was written in February last year by Mark Stevens, then head of news at Stuff. Stevens, who takes up a new job on Monday in an equivalent role at RNZ, noted that aggression toward journalists had increased and cited incidents of Stuff journalists being punched and having gear smashed.

Stevens (who I worked with when he was a very capable young reporter at the Evening Post in the 1990s) went on to say: “From time to time, news stories are published that rub a certain person, group or community up the wrong way. We often say in journalism that we can’t please everyone all the time. Nor should we. Holding the powerful to account, shining light on untruths and giving voices to the wronged isn’t always welcome or popular.”

This is the familiar narrative of the noble journalist on a heroic mission to uncover the truth, without fear or favour, and to make life uncomfortable for those in power. It’s an admirable ideal and one that appeals to journalists’ sense of self-worth, but I’m not sure the wider community has ever found it wholly convincing, and probably less so now than ever.

Then Stevens said this: “We publish a range of views, while avoiding and dismantling falsehoods, and we listen. But when you disagree, wipe the froth from your mouth first; we take criticism but cannot tolerate attacks, threats or violence.”

Let’s unpack that statement. “We publish a range of views”? That may certainly have once been true of the mainstream media, but it no longer applies. Just see how far you get with a letter to the editor in which, for argument’s sake, you challenge climate change orthodoxy, or suggest that the English language is being damaged by the increasing use of te reo (as someone I know did, and was told by the editor of the Dominion Post, when he asked why his letter was rejected, that he was a racist). Or try to get an ad published in which you assert that the word “woman” means “adult human female”, as both Family First and Speak Up for Women did, to no avail. In the case of Family First, every major paper in the country turned the ad down in a co-ordinated act – a conspiracy, effectively – of censorship. The “range of views” Stevens refers to is an increasingly narrow one, prescribed by media gatekeepers not on legal grounds, as might once have been the case, but on purely ideological ones.

Now, “avoiding and dismantling falsehoods”. Really? Who decides what’s false, and on what grounds? To use that same obvious example, who decided that “woman” no longer means an adult human female – a proposition still regarded, other than by an infinitesimally tiny and deranged woke minority, as an incontrovertible and objectively provable fact? The conceit that editors and journalists are able to determine what’s true and what’s false is a recent phenomenon, and one that has further eroded the already frayed relationship between the media and the public.

Then there’s this: “But when you disagree, wipe the froth from your mouth first.” The striking thing about this statement is its blatantly antagonistic posture. Stevens was characterising dissent as something that only mad and probably dangerous people would indulge in. He was overtly setting Stuff up in opposition to many of its paying customers. It’s a novel business model and it’s unlikely to end well.

Here we get close to the core of the problem. The media have effectively set themselves above the communities they purport to serve. They are interested only in people who agree with them; the rest can be dismissed as deplorables, to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous term.

The widening them-and-us relationship between the media and the wider community became starkly apparent during the Covid pandemic. Few journalists seemed interested in what motivated the hundreds of protesters camped outside Parliament. They preferred to look down on them, literally and figuratively, from the balcony.

Later came the shameful hounding of anti-vaxxers, when Stuff and other media outlets embarked on an orchestrated witch hunt aimed at demonising local government candidates who were deemed to hold the “wrong” opinions, or who were merely suspected of having links to so-called conspiracy theories. Not illegal opinions, mind you; just “wrong” ones. The frenzy reached a peak with Stuff’s overwrought – no, make that hysterical – Fire and Fury documentary. (Note: I was fully vaccinated myself so can’t be dismissed as anti-vax.)

To all this can be added the baneful consequences of the $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund, aka the Pravda Project, the beneficiaries of which never seemed to consider the likely public perception that the media were being bought by the government. Even if their motives were impeccably pure, there was always going to be a suspicion that the money came with strings attached.

Meanwhile, levels of trust in the mainstream media continue to decline, newspaper circulations continue to shrink and New Zealanders continue to abandon traditional free-to-air TV – that means the 6 o’clock news, along with everything else – in favour of streaming services. It’s slow-motion suicide.

And having alienated a large part of their audience and driven them to alternative online platforms, mainstream media then clutch their pearls in horror at the thought that audiences might fall prey to “unsafe” content and “disinformation” from fringe sources. It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.

How did this happen? My own theory, and it’s unlikely to be popular among today’s journalists, is that it had a lot to do with the transferral of journalism training from the newsroom to the lecture room.

Earlier generations of journalists learned on the job from other journalists. Many of my contemporaries came from working-class backgrounds. They didn’t go to university and were proud to regard journalism as a trade rather than profession. The importance of neutrality, fairness and balance was drummed into them. They had no delusions of grandeur about being on a mission.

But from the 1970s on, journalism was subjected to academic capture. Budding journalists were inculcated with a highly politicised vision of journalism’s purpose. They were encouraged to acquire degrees that were often based on esoteric theories far removed from the simple, practical concerns of good journalism. Over time, that has had the fatal effect of creating a widening gap between journalists and the communities they claim to serve. Even more dangerously, it has led journalists to think they are wiser and smarter than the people who buy newspapers and watch the TV news, and even morally superior to them. As the Marxist American journalist Batyar Ungar-Sargon puts it, they climbed up the status ladder and became part of the elite.

So if anyone wants to understand why so many people are now reacting against the media and even viewing them as the enemy, there you are. It’s not pretty and it’s not desirable, but no one should delude themselves about how we got to this point.

I’m writing this blog post on a Friday. For many years, Friday was the day I would meet a good friend, the late John Schnellenberg, for lunch in Masterton. We would talk about politics and inevitably the performance of the media would come up. I suspect John took a mischievous pleasure in goading me with disdainful remarks about journalists and I would always rise to the bait. It was my instinct in those days vigorously to defend the media. I’m sorry to say that wouldn’t be the case now.