NZIFF 2019 Film Review – The Empire’s New Clone – “A Seat at the Table”

I have received so many questions about this film that it may pay to get a few out of the way asap:

Was this the best movie (slash) documentary you saw at this year’s Film Festival?

NZIFF this year was perhaps lacking some of the big names of last year, so overall the quality of the films was not as good as it as been. But I saw a couple of amazing features (I could not get to Vivarium, nor the feature about the Stalinist purges, which sounds dire but I suspect may have been THE best film this year…) Notable among these was The Art of Self Defence, which is not for the faint hearted, but if you get black humour a small masterpiece. Best doco was Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, which was a straight up (and fascinating) look at an overlooked part of production, though Mads Brugger’s wacky conspiracy theory doco Cold Case Hammarskjöld was also lots of fun. A Seat at the Table was certainly in my top four or five (I went to twelve Festival movies, most of them documentaries), pretty good, especially given the fact that the producers had to self fund the project. Hopefully it gets a general release!

The story about the Abel clone is amazing, isn’t it??

Yes, but perhaps not as amazing as it was painted on the screen. So, a definite “Yeah nah.” Abel remains one of my favourite Pinot Noir clones in Enzed, and great to see it has a cameo here. Should this have been a movie on its own? Probably, because the message about Kumeu River Chardonnay standing up to the great Chardonnays of Burgundy got a little lost in translation…

Is New Zealand Chardonnay that good?

Oh yeah.

Is this “the definitive New Zealand wine story benchmarked against some of the greatest producers in the world”?

Well the minds behind would themselves have to be honest and admit that this was an ambitious undertaking and while I think the storytelling was fine, the benchmarking itself got cut short. We did not get the whole story – but at least the ending was sound!

Sounds like you are less than impressed, should I go see the film?

Most definitely, hopefully this will help get another one off the ground, but if you want your modern history of the New Zealand wine industry please read Michael Cooper or Warren Moran.

The story begins in 2015, when Stephen Browett, principal at UK wine importer Farr Vintners organises a blind tasting, in London, pitting Kumeu River Chardonnays against some of the finest Chardonnays from Burgundy. The tasting panel includes two MWs, Jancis Robinson and Derek Smedley, plus other wine writers, notable among them Neil Martin from The Wine Advocate.

You can read the results here:

Short story first, Kumeu River Chardonnays “won” this taste off.

This is where our movie begins, with the question: Does New Zealand wine deserve a seat at the table?

First problem is, the filmmakers were not around when this all happened, so the film picks up the trail at a vertical tasting of Kumeu River Chardonnays at Farr Vintners, with Kumeu River marketing director Paul Brajkovich, Stephen Browett and thank, thank, thank Bacchus, Jancis Robinson MW, who really saves the day (I believe.)

One of the things that they do mention here is that Kumeu River seals all its wine under screwcap, which provides a significant advantage, especially with a variety such as Chardonnay. I have spent so much money buying white Burgundy, only to find that it is oxidised and oxidation can vary from totally dead to almost undetectable. But screwcaps remain a huge advantage for certain styles of New Zealand especially whites. The movie later on discusses this, but this is not mentioned when this tasting is described.

I love white Burgundy, I drink a lot of it (in fact, as I write this I am enjoying a glass of 2006 Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru “Les Chaumees” and it is lovely wine, so nice, but it could be that much grander, more precise, just fresher if it had boasted a screwcap.)

Now for my overseas friends, we need to take a diversion here and discuss “cultural cringe”. Is that a thing in the Northern Hemisphere? Does the Empire of wine ever suffer self doubt?

Well, Kiwis are very insecure birds, with good reason. I know a spot on Motutapu where a good number have perished because although they are very good at seeing at night, they really do not understand coastal geomorphology and what cliffs are, and so they have literally gone off the edge.

New Zealanders really are obsessed with how the outside world sees us. I guess that makes us the Anti-America? I am not kidding. For those of you who have never been here, you will be asked within a short time of arriving here, “So, how are you finding us?” This happened to friends of mine who were still in the Arrivals Hall at Auckland International Carpark and Airport.

This is the premise for A Seat at the Table – how do we compare to the rest of the world, or, more specifically, French wine.

The movie then jumps to Sancerre, in the Loire Valley and discusses why French wine is considered the pinnacle of the wine world. It visits Henri Bourgeois, which also has an Estate in Marlborough. And we get an explanation of why Bourgeois invested in New Zealand. Later a caption talks about French investment of around a billion dollars in Marlborough (or New Zealand?) but no mention that the bulk of this hails from conglomerate drinks giant Pernod Ricard, who are happy to churn out mass market wines at sharp prices, but not necessarily trying to “beat” French wine. An interesting oversight…

This is the strongest part of the movie, Bob Campbell MW gives some very clear analysis around the success of New Zealand, and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. But then, there is no taste comparison of Marlborough Sauv and Sancerre. And, well, supposedly we make the best Sauvignon in the world, so why do these fools in Sancerre bother with vines, when they could be building luxury condos for bored English gentry on that land…

This is where the film starts to come apart at the seams. There are too many stories. Good stories, yes! But the cast of characters is vast and it is difficult keeping up with play.

The filmmakers tell us that they take some NZ wines of the same ilk (same varieties, or similar wine style) back to France to show French winemakers, in an attempt to show that our wines are deserving of a seat at the table.

This is a movie with a lot of talking heads. I have seen plenty of wine movies. Vineyards make stunning photos. For me, the best way to understand a high quality, or single estate wine is to go to where the grapes are grown. You do not really get a sense of what the wine means until you can stand in those vines. But a lot of wine movies have endless drone shots and slow mo this and filter that, and you do not really get a sense of the site.

The local vineyard in this movie which gets special attention is Pyramid Valley. Unfortunately for the producers, Country Calendar did a whole episode on Pyramid Valley a year or two ago and you posdibly get a better sense of the whole site from that half hour tv show (perhaps they ought to have filmed next door at Bell Hill, which is also mind blowing as far as site and viticulture.)

The “tastings” with the French winemakers are by and large fairly standard, standing in front, or behind barrels

So, thankfully, the drone shots are kept to a minimum. There are a couple in France, but brief. Instead, this is a movie with a lot of talking.

But wait, where this movie excels and what we have to admire as pure genius, is in the interviews with the Kiwi winemakers. These are all shot, framed, staged slightly differently. Each of them is set in a setting totally appropriate to that person. The settings reveal a lot about each vigneron / vineyard. You can even see the personalities, large as life as the massive screen at the Civic Theatre. Brilliant.

Problem is, there are too many Kiwi wineries featured and there are too many stories that detract from the main theme.

So, we have the story of the Abel clone. In the movie, the caption reads “Able” which is a terribly unfortunate error that I hope is corrected immediately.

I never met Malcolm Abel, who tragically died early, but I did become friends with a family member (and sometime vineyard volunteer) at Uni. The local bottle shop near our student hostel sold Abel Pinot Noir and Abel Pinotage. I preferred the Pinotage, sorry, and meanwhile my new found friend taught me about Jimi Hendrix and The Who Live at Leeds (his favourite album, still one of mine…) and surf music, and well, he didn’t know much about wine, but he did know Malcolm’s Waitakere Road vineyard… Who knew it would become so important?

The story about the “gumboot clone” is for the large part true. Malcolm was a customs office at Mangere Airport (in the days when landing fees were more profitable than carparks and shops.) Malcolm did confiscate Pinot Noir cuttings. He did basically skirt the quarantine rules and back then most of the Pinot Noir clones had been sourced via the government run viticultural research station in Te Kauwhata and many were of Swiss origin. There were other clones that had entered via California.

And then there was Bill Irwin, who sounds like the Johnny Appleseed of NZ viticulture but seems to have largely been ignored, except by us geeks who revere the guy as one of the giants of the modern NZ wine industry.

I will return to Irwin at a later time, and in another blog post, but back to the Clone to Rule Them All.

We do not know whether the cuttings Abel confiscated were from the famous walled Romanee-Conti vineyard, or the equally famous walled vineyard (or “clos”) La Tache. In fact, there is very little evidence that supports this view. The cuttings WERE from Burgundy, for sure. But whereabouts is still uncertain.

But eventually Abel cuttings ended up with Clive Paton and his three partners in Martinborough, as one of the clones planted in the first block of Ata Rangi vines in the early 80s.

And we do know that Abel is very distinctive, has a definitive tone or note. But as to being superior to Clone 10/5 or Clone 5 (aka “Pommard”) which were also good quality clones used in Martinborough in the 1980s when Ata Rangi was established, well my jury still wants more evidence before convicting…

But what we did was we eliminated some of the “lesser” Pinot Noir clones like Mariafeld and, um, Mariafeld… Well people used to diss 10/5, and praise Pommard, but over the last umpteen years, I have changed my mind on that and now I do not trust 5 at all. A tricky plant.

This is important to the film’s story, because there are  a couple of memorable shots of Clive Paton hugging his old-ish Abel vines. Good for him.

Abel is now planted around New Zealand and it certainly was a major influence on the style of Pinot produced at Ata Rangi. But its significance is perhaps overrated – because it is a good shaggy dog story (and, yes, I am not a fan of Disney movies.)

But the Abel story, it loses air, sorry.

So, now (if you are still with me) you may think that I have digressed from the message, and where am I am going with this, and what is my point, and you would be right, this is what happens in the film, also. Yes, occasionally they cut away to French winemakers standing around a barrel or a table with some random Kiwi wines displayed in front of them (one of them being NZ’s most prestigious blend of Bordeaux varieties, Coleraine, wow, is that a slap in the face to Te Mata, or what?)

But the problem is, there are far too many bit players in this film. Steve Smith MW makes one amusing analogy, but he is outplayed, dare I say it trumped, by my dear friend Claudia Elze, who was one of the founders of Pyramid Valley, with her former partner Mike Weersing.

Mike provides the very, very best quote in the movie. “People say that Chardonnay is a blank canvas – but I do not agree with that. No, I see Chardonnay as a window, which shows where it comes from, the terroir. Me? All I am doing is cleaning the glass.”

With that brilliant explanation of something that I have always known, but never quite been able to express, combined with Jancis near the end of the film stating: “I have always maintained that New Zealand Chardonnays are amongst the best in the world”, well, hell, this could have been an amazing sixty minute film about New Zealand Chardonnay. But no.

In fact the whole film could do with some savage pruning, more precision, less waffle, please.

So we meander around for a while and eventually end back at the beginning, and Michael Brajkovich MW, who is the genius behind Kumeu River’s winemaking (ably assisted by the amazing Nigel Tebbitt who has been working for the Brajkovich family most of his life) who is asked: have we earned a seat a table?

Humbly, as always, and diplomatically, Michael admits, “No.” I love Kumeu River wines – to the extent that my friends are getting sick and tired of hearing from me. But, like their custodian (or guardian) Michael, I too defer to white Burgundy as the definitive Chardonnay, and I love how far we have come, and I am excited by the journey to come.

Some quick takeouts:

Alan Brady’s story about the early struggle in Central Otago, at Gibbston Valley, was very touching, but would have been nice to have had one long section devoted to this, and the even earlier Pioneers (Ann Pinckney, the Mills family at Rippon, and the amazing Verdun Burgess)

Stars of this movie were Michael Brajkovich MW and Mike Weersing (ex Pyramid Valley), Claudia Elze (ex Pyramid Valley), Sherwyn and Marcel from Bell Hill (why, oh why, did you not show us any outside shots of this vineyard?!?), Paul Pujol (Prophet’s Rock) the humility of all of these people was very moving, as was John Hancock’s (another Chardonnay maestro) ability to be provocative and challenging – more Hancock in the sequel, please

Why do so many local winemakers use sexist language? In particular the guy that supposedly has a background in marketing and advertising? – there were more female vignerons from France in this film than New Zealanders, that is what it is – but the blokes should still think about changing their mindset

The OTT “Turangawaewae” references, sorry blokes (again it was just guys) but that is BS, yes, calling up our kaupapa and our sense of place is cool – but so many people are appropriating this Maori word to connote “terroir”, yet how many of you are genuinely of Maori heritage??? looks like tokenism? sounds like tokenism? Well that don’t impress me much… May have been more appropriate to consult the Maori winemaker’s collective? Did nobody contact Steve Bird?

On that note, it seems a bit naff that our industry’s preeminent historian, as well as one of our leading wine writers, Michael Cooper, was not in the film

Not sure if this was deliberate, but… Australian wine writer Mike Bennie was made to look like a yobbo…

Terry Dunleavy’s rant about methoxypyrazines being sucked up out of our gravel soils and how fantastic this was for our Sauvignons Blanc well… this was something straight out of the chemtrails, anti-vax, “windfarms cause cancer” playbook

okay, I get it now, THAT clip may have been deliberate!

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