Cameron Douglas, in a yellow t-shirt screen printed with wild black horses running full gallop, slip-on shoes, tortoise-shell sport fishing glasses and a salt-and-pepper 5 o’clock shadow moving into full beard, does not look like a Master Sommelier. Somms tend to be button-up, iron-your-tie types — the title of Master Sommelier is the most prestigious title an expert on wine can attain. They don’t tend to be the type that drives a red sedan with sheepskin seat covers. But whether or not he fits the stereotype, Douglas is the man who knows NZ wine better than anyone else. If you want to talk New Zealand grapes, there’s no more authoritative opinion.
Douglas described his adolescent self as a “disgruntled high schooler” — and when he dropped out of high school, he went straight to work in the hospitality business. He did some cooking, learned about food, then figured out that to make it in hospitality you needed to specialize. This was the early ’80s. Through a connection of a connection, he met Evan Goldstein, a Master Somm, who encouraged Douglas to pursue the accreditation. He did, and after seven years of failing the examination — which, in his defense, has a 97 percent fail rate — he became the first and only New Zealand-born Master Somm.
“You hear people talking about New Zealand today — they know sauvignon blanc, bungie jumping, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit. What else do we do? The sailing, you know? Rugby and probably cricket?”
He also went back and got a degree in education. He now lectures at Auckland University of Technology, consults on six wine lists in New Zealand and creates the wine list for Matt Lambert’s Michelin Star restaurant, The Musket Room, in New York. He also writes for FMCG, Hospitality Business and is a monthly columnist for NZ Wine Growers.
Right now he’s steering his Audi A4 up to One Tree Hill, a vista point outside the city center of Auckland, while discussing the history of New Zealand wine. “New Zealand’s wine history is as old as 1819,” he starts. “And it really choked along for a while, and that’s probably an appropriate word because there was a lot of trial and error that went on, and what stalled a lot of it was the gold rush.”
“There was a gold rush in New Zealand?” I ask.
“Absolutely.” Douglas laughs — American histo-centrism — then picks back up. “So while there was a little bit of, you know, wine going on, like Australia, we actually built our alcohol history on fortified wine. So while we grew grapes, we actually distilled spirit and fortified it. It was the yearly sort of sherry, port kind of things that people were drinking. Then, post-World War II, with the displacement of Italians — mainly into Australia — their love of food and their love of wine started to change a little bit of the culture away from fortified into table wines.”
Douglas continues on with the history while getting a bit sidetracked. He dabbles into the presence of the missionaries, who soil mapped the islands and planted vineyards in the Hawke’s Bay region well before the Italians ever arrived. And then there’s a story of Dalmatian immigrants coming to New Zealand to harvest the native kauri tree for its gum, which they used to make paint. While cutting down trees (the kauri’s now protected), the “Dalis,” as they were called, also made wine. The history’s a hodgepodge. Douglas gets impatient with his own explanation.
“Fast forward from all of that general information to what happened in the very late 1960s, early 1970s, where wine was taken seriously to the point where quality suddenly came into the picture, and around that time the experiment with grape varieties like sauvignon blanc in Marlborough.
“Sauvignon blanc was the grape variety that put us on the world map. And I think, you know, you hear people talking about New Zealand today — they know sauvignon blanc, bungie jumping, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit. What else do we do? The sailing, you know? Rugby and probably cricket? Sauvignon blanc is the heart and soul of the wine industry here because we grow so much of it. We do so well with it. We export it. But it means that a lot of other varieties that are also very good almost sit in the shadow of that.”
“We’ve learned our lessons. We’ve made our mistakes, and now we’re focusing on the vineyard.”
We reach the peak of the volcanic mountain and walk a circle around its top. The hill’s named after a single tree that used to stand on it. The tree, though, got sick and died, and since then there’s been a Byzantine debate on what tree to replace it with. “Very kiwi,” Douglas says. Then he points out landmarks — Waikeke Island, downtown, the direction of his house. Everywhere there’s water. The landscape, though riddled with urban and suburban sprawl, is gorgeous in the way of other coastal, temperate cities — San Diego, Cape Town. Douglas was born and raised here in Auckland. He takes a native’s pride in this land.
“We have 11 wine regions in the country — 11 in total, and some of them are just larger and more famous than others,” he says. But being a long, narrow nation, he explains, the prevailing weather that comes in from the west dumps most of the rain on the western side, and from the middle of the North Island south, the southern Alps come out of the ground and allow that prevailing weather to be stopped in some ways, keeping the eastern side drier. “It’s a little bit flatter and better for viticulture at the end of the day. We’re lucky in that we have a cool climate — semi-continental the further south you go — and that gives us a longer, dryer growing season. So we can achieve physiological ripeness more often because we don’t suffer from too much heat. You wouldn’t know that today.”
Today is hot. We’re both sweating, even with a small breeze. When we get back to the Audi, Douglas turns the air conditioning to full blast, then steers the car downhill, headed back toward Ponsonby Road, an enclave of boutique shops and posh restaurants near the city center. Conversation turns to California wines, a region that’s shifting focus from the Napa and Sonoma valley, to the central coast — Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. It’s easy to make a comparison between the two landscapes.
“In Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, all that central coast area where it’s cooler — it’s a little bit more exciting. If anything, there’s less intervention in the winery and more impact through viticulture, and I think that that’s what we are achieving here. We’ve learned our lessons. We’ve made our mistakes, and now we’re focusing on the vineyard. Therefore, there’s slightly less winemaking intervention needed.”
I ask him to clarify that term — “winemaking intervention.” “We haven’t got a book of tricks to bring balance to the wine,” he says. “We’re not having to add or remove acid from our wine. Whereas in Napa, I think you find they’ll regularly add acid. We have quite a bit more focus on what I call original winemaking, where there’s more organic wine practice not necessarily certified, but more practice. There are growing incidents of biodynamic farming. New Zealand is 96 percent certified sustainable. So we’re the only country in the world where we have so much sustainability practice that it has positive impact.”
He punctuates the point by stopping the car. We’re sitting in front of a small building that looks like a converted body shop. It’s painted a clean white. Douglas hops out of the car, buoyant.
“This is Foxes Island. They’re a Marlborough producer, but they have a tasting room here and we’ve got two minutes that we can stop here and say hi. Meet a winemaker.” Douglas opens the glass door and a petit brunette greets us. Cameron gives her a giant hug. He holds a sort of casual celebrity status here. She’s all smiles as she turns to a row of bottles and asks, hopeful, “Are you here to taste some wine?”