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On a high selling Wairarapa wine

For a man who spends six months on the road selling wine, Martinborough’s Kai Schubert is remarkably full of energy. Seamus Boyer reports.

 

Kai Schubert can tell a great story, and the exuberant German winemaker has plenty of them to tell.

For starters, there’s the one about the time he sold a container of his wine to a hotel in Myanmar.

Then there’s a goodie about his friend who rents out his house in Turkey for half a million euros per week.

He gets a little more animated telling the one about his visit to the insanely exclusive Laucala Island resort in Fiji.

Tasting room. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
Tasting room. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

If you’ve never heard of it, Google the name, but long story short, the guy who owns Redbull bought the island off the Forbes family in 2003.

From there he turned it into a 25-villa resort and playground for the world’s super rich, with rates starting from $6700 a night, up to $62,400 per night for the hilltop “owner’s residence”.

You can’t even book a stay, you have to “apply” to visit Laucala.

Why was Kai staying there?

Well, he happens to make one of the resort’s “house” wines, which says a lot about how good his product is.

Schubert Wines is set on two blocks – a 2-hectare block on the corner of Cambridge and Huangarua Rds, Martinborough, and a much larger 12ha section in East Taratahi.

Along with partner Marion Deimling, Kai bought both blocks in 1999, after arriving in New Zealand the year before.

Across the two they produce between 60,000 to 80,000 bottles of wine per year, 75 per cent of which is pinot noir.

In Martinborough they produce three wines: a Syrah; a white wine called Tribianco (made of chardonnay, pinot gris and Muller-Thurgau grapes); and a red called Con Brio (merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon).

But the real magic happens on Dakins Rd, where the vineyard’s two “flagship” pinot noirs are made – the “more feminine” Marion’s Vineyard, and the “more masculine” Block B.

Kai and Marion also produce a sauvignon blanc, a late harvest Dolce, and a rose, which they’ve done well before it was accepted as a drink “not just for housewives”.

Kai says that he and Marion deliberately chose a Martinborough address to help those outside the country place his product.

But he’s also quick to point out that they simply have “Wairarapa” on their labels, a nod to both growing areas.

“For a lot of people in the world they don’t know where New Zealand is, let alone Wairarapa,” he says.

“But some people know of Martinborough.

“And it makes sense to have a tasting room here.”

That said, Kai points out it doesn’t necessarily guarantee the preferred kind of client.

“What we want is the middle-aged couple who come in a car, tastes some wine, and then maybe buys a case.

“You don’t really need 12 people on bicycles coming, drinking up everything in the tasting room then saying they can’t buy any wine because they can’t carry it on the bicycle.”

 

In the beginning

 

“It was the hunt for the holy grail of pinot noir,” says Kai matter of factly, when asked why he and Marion chose New Zealand.

Hailing from Waiblingen, close to Stuttgart, Germany, the pair met at the famous Geisenheim wine university, in the Rheingau wine region.

Pouring wine. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
Pouring wine. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Pinot noir being their favourite variety, they often blind-tasted Martinborough Vineyard’s offering, which was available to buy near the university.

Before graduating the pair completed a vintners’ apprenticeship with famous winemaker Erni Loosen of Dr Loosen Estate, and took off to work in different parts of the world — Kai in Oregon in the United States and in South America, Marion in Victoria, Australia.

Their quest eventually led them to New Zealand, and to Wairarapa, where they found what they were after.

“We couldn’t really find any bad wine here,” says Kai.

“Having such a concentration of high-quality pinots in one village – we knew there must be something working right here.

“Plus it’s the only real wine village in New Zealand, everything is within walking distance.”

Not criticising the pinot made in Central Otago, Kai much prefers the Wairarapa variety (“barnyard aromas rather than being fruit-driven”), and to achieve that flavour, the climate is very important.

Too hot and the wine loses its complexity, too cold and the grapes will not properly ripen, becoming acidic.

“It’s not like syrah, where it just has to be hot,” Kai says.

“You can make syrah in the middle of a desert in China.

“In Wairarapa, we get those cold nights, and that’s very important for pinot noir.”

The business has come a long way since those early days, with Schubert now employing seven permanent staff and a raft of casual workers across its two vineyards.

Their wines are in 40 markets across the globe, from Brazil to Canada to Europe to Cambodia (basically everywhere except Africa, Kai says).

 

Airports, coffee, bubbles

 

A couple of years ago, Kai started trying to work out just how many air miles he was racking up each year.

After loading the details of a couple of flights into a mobile phone app, he gave up.

It was just going to be too much work.

Since the winery’s very first vintage (2001) was bottled in 2003, Kai has been constantly touring, promoting and selling their products.

Every year he’ll do two “big tours” as he calls them (ProWein in Dusseldorf alone takes up eight weeks), and will clock up about 120 to 130 flights across each 12-month period.

That means he’s away from home for up to six months of the year.

Evening flight drinks. PHOTO/FACEBOOK
Evening flight drinks. PHOTO/FACEBOOK

If you follow Kai’s Facebook page you’ll see a lot of glasses of bubbly, cups of coffee and glasses of water.

It’s an easy way to tell what time zone he’s in at any one time – the champagne means he’s in an airport after lunch, while the cup of coffee means he’s waiting for a morning flight.

Each trip will involve either dinners, tastings, client meetings, wine fairs, or importer and distributor catch-ups, as well as keeping up to date with the emails which follow him wherever he goes.

“You meet a lot of interesting people,” he says, loathe to sound like he’s complaining about the travel.

“If I worked, say, in the toilet paper industry, I doubt I’d get to meet so many interesting people.

“But wine people are interesting, and I do get to do my work by eating and drinking, so it’s not too bad.”

Often when overseas he’ll end up by extolling the virtues of back home (Kai and Marion are both proud New Zealand citizens).

“We should be partly funded by the government, because half the time we’re working for Tourism New Zealand,” he laughs, only half joking.

 

Flying high

 

Last year German airline Lufthansa carried a Schubert pinot noir in first class, the culmination of five years of work for Kai’s team.

The airline accepted 2600 bottles of his 2011 vintage, but insisted Schubert store the bottles in Europe at their own expense, for drinking “sometime in 2016”.

Kai admits such a coup – while good for the brand and image – doesn’t mean the bucks are rolling in.

“The airlines want to pay very little, or they want you to pay for them to have your wines, and then you have to store the bottles and then it doesn’t last for very long – those wines will be gone by now.

“It was a PR stunt in the end,” he says with a smile.

Selling New Zealand wines overseas is not easy business, especially when you see what our winemakers are up against in Europe.

As Kai explains it, European importers can buy Spanish wine for as little as 0.7 euros ($NZ1.04) a bottle, thanks to a myriad of subsidies which allows Spanish winemakers to sell their products for next to nothing – but still stay profitable.

In comparison, Schubert pays 1euro per cork for their flagship reds, and when you add in the bottle and the label they’re already well past able to compete with the budget products.

Of course, that’s not the point.

Schubert wines are premium products (even the cheapest of their wines is considered “super premium” at 10euros per bottle), with the Block B and Marion’s Vineyard pinots retailing at 40 euros in Europe.

And while that price is often much cheaper than their French or Italian counterparts, there is often an impression that New World wines such as ours are all inferior, mass-produced, and machine-harvested.

“It’s completely wrong,” Kai says with passion. “We hand harvest here, we don’t use machines.”

 

The future

 

Kai and Marion were able recently to enjoy a holiday in the Cook Islands, before the New Zealand pinot conference in Wellington last week.

He’s off shortly to London for two days via Dubai, then on to Hamburg before heading back to Martinborough.

It seems a huge amount of travel and expense (Kai travels business class so he can work, sleep and “fit in the seat”) to make sure his wine is being enjoyed around the world.

But in the end, it is all worthwhile.

“It’s worth it because there’s a simple rule; after you’ve spent all the money you need to spend and afterwards there’s still a little bit left, then you must have made money.”

At 48 (Kai) and 45 (Marion), the couple “still feel young enough” to continue the business themselves for another 10-15 years – at least.

But with no children, there is no obvious successor, so the couple hope to one day find some likeminded people to take over and continue the Schubert label for generations to come.

Because that’s part of wine’s fascination for Kai – its longevity.

“Wine is a ‘food item’ that can sometimes outlive us all, so wine is also a reminder of history – maybe with our vintages it is only one or two decades for now – but there are certainly older vintages out there.

“It is a fascination not only to enjoy a food item of such an age after many years, but also to reflect about the time the wine came from, and what happened since.”

With that in in mind, along with all of Kai’s travelling, he and Marion may well ensure Schubert wines are being enjoyed across the globe for a long time to come.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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