Plains Folk

Vineyards in Grassy Places

 

To begin with a really bad pun: when you labor in the vineyard long enough, the work eventually has its rewards.

Since 2002 my Suzzanne and I have been pursuing a line of historical research in a particular grassland region of New Zealand—a district known as the Lindis, in Central Otago. This is in the tawny, semiarid part of New Zealand, not the green, lush part. We are historians from the Great Plains of North America, pursuing this work in the New Zealand grasslands for comparative purposes. But also for its own sake, because we love it.

Our work goes back to earliest history, to the Maori, early explorers and surveyors, the arrival of sheep culture and gold mining, irrigation and agricultural settlement. It takes up more recent developments in environmental and social history, such as hydroelectric dam building and tourism. Now we have arrived with our study in the late twentieth century, which means that in the Lindis, we have to—I mean really, we have to—investigate the rise of grape-growing and wine-making.

This is of particular interest because up and down our own Great Plains, viticulturalists have endeavored to establish a wine industry. They have achieved considerable success—there are excellent wineries and excellent products—but not industrial take-off. There is no Burgundy, no Barossa of the plains.

Whereas in the Lindis, within my own memory, there has developed a world-renowned center for production of Pinot Noir, the queen of red wines (known to Europeans as Burgundy). There is much to learn here.

We begin, nerdy historians that we are, with archival research, tracing the early, largely unsuccessful efforts at viticulture in the Lindis district. This part of the research may seem a little dry, but it’s our thing.

Then we head upcountry, into the Lindis, to the vineyards, where things get both more intense and more relaxing. We have data and interviews to collect, but we also have to, you know, sample the product. People in the wine industry love to talk about terroir, the relationship of a wine to the soil, to the natural environment of a place, how the taste of the particular place comes through into the vintage.

Well, we are historians of this grassy place, and so we have to taste for ourselves how the place is expressed in its viticultural product. As I explain to our friends, on our recent expedition to New Zealand, we were drinking way above our pay grade.

Because the Pinot Noirs of the Lindis are not only expensive, they are sublime. This year we made the acquaintance of the proprietors of Tarras Wines, Misha’s Vineyard, and Carrick Wines, where we got the full cook’s tour, from the vineyard through production and into the cellars. We will return to this line of research, of course.

And eventually we will bring back some observations about how a wine industry achieves take-off in a new land. We are keeping a clear head about this.

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