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Controversy in New Zealand

Wither Hills winery accused of cheating in wine competition

Eric Arnold
Posted: December 7, 2006

A whirlwind of controversy has engulfed the New Zealand wine industry in the past week, leaving one highly respected winemaker's reputation in tatters and the industry collectively scratching its head as to how best to protect its reputation and integrity in the future.

The controversy erupted when Auckland-based wine writer Michael Cooper accused Wither Hills chief winemaker Brent Marris of producing separate bottlings of the company's 2006 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that were labeled identically, with one blend going to wine critics and the other more widely available to the public. It all started after New Zealand magazine Cuisine held its annual wine competition in October, in which the Wither Hills wine earned five stars out of five from the tasting panel, headed by Cooper, then the magazine's wine editor.

Rumors that some wineries enter lower-volume, higher-quality bottlings to wine competitions have circulated in New Zealand for years (in the past decade or so, two wineries--Lintz Estate and Coopers Creek--were caught doing just that, and later stripped of their awards), so on a hunch Cooper arranged a tasting of the submitted wine against a Wither Hills wine purchased from a supermarket.

"One had terrific intensity--a real surge of flavor, whereas the other was a very pleasant wine," said Cooper. He still praised the purchased wine, saying it would earn four stars out of five, and one of the panelists even preferred the supermarket wine in a blind, head-to-head tasting. Nevertheless, lab tests confirmed Cooper's suspicion that the wine submitted and the wine purchased were different. One wine had higher alcohol and lower sugar, while the other had lower alcohol and higher sugar. Yet they had the same label.

Cuisine disqualified the Wither Hills wine, and Marris publicly accepted the decision as a breach of Cuisine's rules for participation in the competition. "The Wither Hills wine in the market is from at least two bottling runs, which results in the wine not complying with the more stringent definition [of the rules]," he said. But things got worse for Wither Hills when an audit discovered that the same, smaller-volume blend submitted to Cuisine went to four other major wine competitions in New Zealand, including the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, which Marris has presided over as chief judge for the past three vintages. Over the next few days, several prominent New Zealand winemakers openly called for Marris to resign from the post.

"Wither Hills has never and will never create small-batch blends for the express purpose of entering wine shows," wrote Marris in an open letter that appeared in several New Zealand newspapers. "There was absolutely no intention by me to deliberately present a wine to the Cuisine judges of a different quality to the wine you can buy off the shelf yourself."

Instead Marris claimed that the wine submitted to the competitions was an early bottling run of about 2,200 cases of the roughly 120,000 Wither Hills produces each year. "What we're doing is blending to a style of quality of flavor for consistency, and that's all we do--not to a chemical analysis," said Marris. Any variation results from it being impossible for a bottling run in July to be identical to one in, say, December, he contended.

Marris and Wither Hills were cleared of intentionally making small batches for wine competitions by New Zealand Winegrowers, the industry's governing body, after an audit of the winery's books from the past four vintages and subsequent board meeting on Thursday.

"[An independent auditor] looked at the records from the winery, right back to the vineyard--where the grapes are picked, what tanks they end up in, and what proportions of each tank go into the bottling run," explained Stuart Smith, chairman of New Zealand Winegrowers. If Wither Hills were intentionally making small batches for competitions, "they weren't doing a very good job, because they had wines from two other batches submitted to shows as well," said Smith. "We in fact found that they have not been making small batches in those other vintages at all. The only small batch that had come out in any of those years was the '06 wine in question."

But during the board meeting Marris offered his resignation as chief judge of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards (as the competition is run by New Zealand Winegrowers), which was accepted. Until he did, between the break of the scandal on Monday and his resignation Thursday, the Wither Hills wine in question had been stripped of all but two of its domestic accolades. The final two, along with awards from international competitions, Marris said would be voluntarily forfeited.

Coming Friday, Dec. 8: Analysis: How wineries produce and bottle large blends, and how wine competitions could change in the future

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