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.