Sam Pillsbury Turns on New Zealand Wine -- Sort of

Sam Pillsbury Turns on New Zealand Wine -- Sort of
courtesy of Sam Pillsbury

I watched the chef swirl and sniff as I opened the rest of the bottles. I had learned not to expect too much from resorts, and this was one of them. We have really nice relationships with some, but they tend to be too big, run by out-of-state corporations, and not know or care about local wines.... That's surprising because tourists want to try local wines, but it's easier for the food and beverage department to pick up the phone and order everything from one distributor. So the local pickin's can be slim.

This guy seemed different. He was young, wasn't jaded, seemed like he had a brain and a point of view...and a palate....

He sipped. He lit up. "Wow. I know just what to pair this with! What's next?"

See also: - Sam Pillsbury Spills on the Reason He Landed in Arizona, and Launches a Wine Column for Chow Bella

He churned through them. Each wine generated a dish. This is what I love the most, someone genuinely creative who just loves food and wine, and excited about possibilities. I make the wine to go with food, so this was music.

Enter The Dark Cloud: the Woman from the Beverage Department.

She was unmoved as Chef described the Winemaker Dinner he had already created in his mind. There was a bleak pause, then she turned balefully to me: "We expect to get the wines donated for our winemaker dinners here," she announced.

I learned long ago there are two kinds of people in the world. One kind is passionate about what they do, is devoted to excellence; the other is about power, prestige and position. Politics. Here was one of the latter.

"Sorry," I said. "But we don't do that."

Nix the Winemaker Dinner. No excited Chef. No great meal. No happy imbibers. A bit of territory secured and safe until the next misfit comes along. Position is everything after all.

This is a kind of disease, although thankfully it's gradually killing off the hosts. But it does persist. My Arizona wine colleagues and I do big events all the time. We can spend all weekend pouring wine for free, paid staff and winemaker on hand, donating $800 worth of wine. Most people are great, but there are always a few who get angry because we don't fill their glass to the top. Or heaven forbid, have something sweet. Or they toss it down like a cheap tequila. Wince! But there are plenty of excited enthusiasts. That's what makes it really great. Watching their faces light up makes my day.

And then there's the PR. We look at the publicity and there are glowing write-ups of the chefs, great pictures and no mention of the collection of AZ Wineries who turned up. Quite commonly, tons of pictures and reviews of the food, not one of the wine. Great for the chefs, and no hard feelings there. There's passion, skill and commitment there. But do they plant their own gardens 10 years earlier, then prepare the food and age it for 1 to 4 years before serving?

There are some restaurants who, when asked why they don't have local wines, reply that they are too expensive. Do they source their produce from the local supermarket? No. Some will from the local produce delivery company that brings in generic veges, many from out of state. The good places pay more to get fresh organic produce from a local grower like Maya, McClendon, Carl Seacat or Duncan Farms.

We all know you can get great wines cheap if you know what you're doing. And good thing too. I drink 'em. And what's more, the local wine had better be as good, or better than any alternative. But then at least have SOME!!

Then there's the French/Italian restaurant conundrum. "But', they say, 'It's a French restaurant. We serve French food. Our customers want French wine!'

Not true. They don't acquire and make the food in France. It's a French restaurant that serves French-style food grown and prepared in Arizona. So we make French-style wine made with French clone grapes and made in Arizona with this AZ grown fruit. Same thing, right? You just have to explain it.

Then, we get asked every day to donate multiple cases of wine to charities we've never heard from. Can't blame them, but it does reveal an attitude...and here's what's behind all these examples:

For years wine came from SOMEWHERE ELSE. You picked up the phone and it all arrived in a big truck. Massive production wineries and multi-million dollar distributors joined in and the wine flowed like wine. A lot of it wasn't remarkable, and who knew who made it or where it came from. That's why it was free. But who was wine.   And for years some AZ wines weren't so hot. Not all though. That's just not a valid excuse. I know...I take wine to restaurants all the time where no-one has even tasted an Arizona wine. Gee, I'm from New Zealand and I had tasted all of them over a decade ago. How, I ask myself, can you be in the food and wine business, and not even try the stuff made down the road? It's incomprehensible to me. Worse, it's a disgrace. If you don't give a shit about what wine you have, what about the food?

I recently saw a wine list from a prominent Scottsdale restaurant. Wines from Australia and New Zealand and no AZ wines? What?? What are they thinking?? What kind of world do these guys live in??? Are these the same people who wouldn't give women the vote?? Yikes!

Thank whomever, we have the brave likes of Pavle and FnB, the folks at Beckett's Table, Chris Bianco, Aric Mei of the Parlor Pizzeria, Josh from Posh and many others who have the insight and commitment to pour the best AZ wines.

This isn't personal. We sell out of everything. It doesn't have to be OUR wine, but hey, SOMETHING from your own place, where you stand with two feet on the ground, breather the air, look up at the stars??

Our local supermarket, arguably the best in Phoenix. It has an amazing range of food and drink. Good prices too. I asked one of the wine guys if they had any Arizona wine. He just looked confused. But a whole section on wines from New Zealand. Holy smokes!!!

It's a moral thing. Do you cherish where you are, celebrate the passion of people who have committed themselves to producing locally? Or does a generic world give you everything you need? Do you want to enjoy stuff made by a person you can talk to, who cares about what they produce, or is a Pink Slime burger just fine as long as it's 99 cents. Phew, thank heavens you can get a Big Mac in Paris.

When I was a kid my parents moved to NZ from the USA. It was another age. NZ was a colony of Great Britain. I had a childhood exploring woods of Massachusetts, scavenging for flint arrowheads in the local streams, skating on Walden Pond, skipping over the Concord Bridge (no, Michelle, it's not in New Hampshire), so I had some sense of belonging to a place with it's own history. I remember asking the parent of a friend in Auckland what they were doing for the Holidays. 'Oh', she replied brightly, 'We're going Home!'

'Yeah. Where's that?'

'London' she replied, smiling.

'Oh. Are you from London?' I asked.

'No', she replied sincerely.

This floored me. She's never been there. This was a true colonial.

Arizona is still going through this. It's changed a lot in the last five years but the above wine list is an almost perfect example of this.

It's not just a PC thing either. I was at an event a couple of years ago where a panel of local growers trotted out the reasons to buy local:

Less greenhouse gases moving it to market. Keep the money in State. More local jobs.

'Wait a minute' I asked, 'What about the main reason? I'm a sensualist. It's fresher. It tastes better!' And what's more, I can talk to the person who made it. It's connected. It wasn't extruded from some machine in a factory. It came from a place and was produced by a human being.

I just want people to open the door of their Tuscan Villa and see the cacti. Smell the desert. Try the wine grown by the nutcase scratching for a living up in the hills. It just might make you smile like the Chef.

Until The Dark Cloud turns up.

This will be a regular thing on Spillsbury: the 'Everyone Gets a Turn' wine recommendation:

Sara, Levi and Rob Hammelman want you to try their Sand Reckoner 2012 Rosé. It's 73% Nebbiolo and 13.7% alc.

Sam Pillsbury has made dozens of documentaries, TV series and feature films in New Zealand and Hollywood as writer, director and producer, and now grows grapes and makes 100 percent Arizona wines in Arizona. He lives in Phoenix. You can get more information about his wines and tasting room at

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