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Book Review – The Wild Bunch, By Joelle Thomson

By January 16, 2013No Comments
There isn’t a lot of reading material on the development of New Zealand’s modern wine industry readily available, and it’s a little worrying that many of the stories of how we got to where we are today will be lost in the mists of time. An earlier generation of writers such as Frank Thorpy, Jock Graham and Dick Scott have recorded the beginnings of the contemporary period, and those who have followed Peter Saunders’ work over the past three decades plus will have good detail. Michael Cooper has an authoritative perspective in his writings, especially in his ‘Wine Atlas of New Zealand’. I personally connect to, though not necessarily fully agree with Keith Stewart’s perspectives in his ‘Chancers and Visionaries’ published in 2010, but find this to be the best recount of how the New Zealand wine scene came about. What makes Keith’s book particularly appealing is his focus on people and their personalities that make their actions come alive.

Joelle Thomson’s book ‘The Wild Bunch’ is an excellent book revealing more about the earlier days of New Zealand wine, and takes the approach of a selection of ‘movers, shakers and groundbreakers of the New Zealand wine industry’ telling their story. Joelle has asked ‘a case and a half’ or 18 key people to tell their side of their involvement in their own words. We are beginning to see a number of publications appear from such people now, such as Alan Brady’s ‘Pinot Central’, and these tell their stories from a more personal and in-depth or focussed view. But in Joelle’s book, there is a collection of some of the most influential people with their history all put succinctly in one, very manageable and easy book.

I understand that Joelle sent questionnaires to her selected portrait people, and folowed up with personal interviews with all of them in person, as well as talking to a wide variety of people in the industry for further information. The book is based on the replies to the questionnaire, with Joelle’s input throughout, adding a wider perspective, filling in the gaps, and telling the reader extra snippets that are relevant to the appreciation and understanding of what these people are saying. The basis and methodology in collecting the information and reporting it could make or break the book. It’s a bit formulaic, with each featured person answering the same or very similar questions: ‘The Story’, ‘Greatest and Key Achievements’ and ‘Take to a Desert Island’ are asked of all the people, as are their ‘Go-To Wines’ and ‘Top Wines’. This uniformity provides a style of structure for sure, but is repetitive.

However, in each portrait, the featured person tells their story in their own words, and indeed, each story is unique and different. It’s fascinating stuff to hear how Peter Babich became embroiled in the politics and lobbying at governmental level, how Ross Spence trialled the new Sauvignon Blanc variety, and why Larry McKenna came from South Australia to become the ‘New Zealand King of Pinot Noir’ as well as the incredible story of how a ‘hit and run’ accident led to Rudi Bauer marrying his wife Suellen, leading to his championing of Central Otago as a vignoble. These are the tales that make the fabric of our modern wines, and they’re all interwoven. Unravelling them with the help of this book is a delight, and in doing so, they become the readers’ history and jogs their memories and connections, whether recent or reaching back to the past.

For the record, ‘The Wild Bunch’ are: Mat Donldson and Lynnette Hudson, Nick Nobilo, Gordon Russell, Peter Babich, Ross Spence, Kim and Jeanette Goldwater, Michael Brajkovich, George Fistonich, Clive Paton, Larry McKenna, James Millton, Rudi Bauer, Kevin Judd, Tim and Judy Finn, Blair Walter, Patrick Materman, Alan Brady and Terry Dunleavy. The scope of the tales and the book is large in time scale, as it picks up from where the earlier generation of writers – Thorpy, Graham and Scott left off, and carries through to the end of 2012.

Joelle’s style of writing in the book is consistent with her other publications and columns. It’s easy and as if you’re in a dialogue with her. Joelle has a trait of including considerable tangential detail in her sentences. It shows the breadth of detail and knowledge, and insights she has of the New Zealand wine industry. If you follow these sideline threads, you can learn more and see a wider picture, but I find it distracting and can take one away from the main focus. It’s a personal thing, and I’m sure many readers enjoy Joelle’s way.

There are many other people, significant and very influential in the shaping of New Zealand’s wine industry, who did not make it into ‘The Wild Bunch’ and Joelle expresses her regret at not being able to include them. I think there is scope for a follow-up volume, where these people can tell their story and have it recorded for the enjoyment of those who have seen them grow, and for new New Zealand wine lovers to appreciate how personal commitment and vision can result in the making of great wines in a wonderful industry. I recommend this book and hopefully, ‘The Wild Bunch 2′ that Joelle could write to accompany it.
The Wild Bunch, By Joelle Thomson
New Holland Publishers, Auckland 2012, ISBN 978-1-86966-300-1
RRP $39.99

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