Bob Campbell MW is an authority on the wines of New Zealand and was the second wine writer in the world to become a Master of Wine (following fellow member Jancis Robinson MW). Far from being a wine snob, Bob is known for his inclusive and jovial writing style and is committed to enthusing a new generation of wine drinkers through his highly-respected wine courses and seminars. He writes extensively about New Zealand’s wines for several esteemed wine publications including his own guide which includes ratings and reviews. Bob Campbell MW is also the Vice President of the Circle of Wine Writers and CWW Editor Amanda Barnes met him over coffee in Hawke’s Bay to learn more about his pathway into the world of wine.
What’s your first memory in wine?
I’m one of six children and my parents used to drink the odd glass of sherry. It was a major expedition to get it at Nobilo’s, so we’d all bundle into the old Vauxhall and off we’d go for an hour’s drive and Mrs. Nobilo – I must have been about five or six – would give me and my brothers and sisters a small glass of sherry each, much to my mother’s horror. We didn’t like it at all but it was so exciting.
Did you become a sherry drinker?
In a small way, in fact, I wrote recently that one of the great tragedy’s is the decline in the consumption of sherry, so I’m going to do my bit to drag it back from the edge of extinction. I pledged to have a glass of sherry every Sunday night, which I have done since I wrote that column.
What inspired you to begin a career in wine? You started down the accounting path. What inspired the leap?
I joined a winery, Montana, as an accountant back in the 70s, and all my friends said you must know about wine. They all wanted cheap wine, of course, and I knew nothing about wine and I felt guilty about that, so I made a bit of an effort to try to learn something about it and I got the bug. It just sort of went from there really.
You’re not only a prolific wine writer and judge, but you’re very involved in wine education in New Zealand and have been for a long time, setting up the first wine school, I believe…
I don’t know whether it’s the first wine school, but it’s certainly an early wine school, we’ve had just about 23,000 people go through it since 1986.
How much interest is there in wine and wine education in New Zealand?
[There’s] lots of interest in wine and I think that several suppliers do the WSET programmes, and that’s great. There’s my course and some other night school courses that keep things going. Then there’s the Master of Wine programme, which a lot of people are aiming at.
You have several MWs now in New Zealand…
I’ve lost count exactly but it must be 11 or 12. Someone said to me that we’ve got the highest number per capita after Britain. That’s something, I suppose.
What are the trends that are exciting you in New Zealand wine today?
There are many trends. We’ve got Chardonnay on the comeback trail, and [it’s] getting better and better. That’s really exciting because I do put Chardonnay on a very high pedestal. We’ve got a number of new to New Zealand varieties like Albariño, which I really think has got some legs. We’re doing some good Albariños here now. Tempranillo is [also] successful, small at this point but going strong. I got a statistic that New Zealand wine exports have increased every year for the last 23 years. That’s amazing and the wines just seem to get better and better. I think the biggest trend is the increase in the quality of the wine. I’m a judge at the Six Nations Wine Challenge in Sydney and have been for the last 16 years. We’ve just had the latest competition and Australia won overall for the first 11 years with New Zealand behind, and for the last five years New Zealand’s won, by a good margin too. I feel so proud of my country’s wines at the conclusion of that competition each year.
We’re here in Hawkes Bay, where we’ve been tasting through some iconic New Zealand wines. What for you is an icon wine?
My definition is a wine that’s internationally respected, a really top example of its type, [a wine] that’s been around for a while and proven itself. It [also] has the ability to develop well with age. As far as I’m concerned, Te Mata Coleraine is the most iconic wine that we have, for all sorts of reasons.
Do you see New Zealand with many more icons in the making?
Yes, I do. After having defined an iconic wine, I identified 15 of them and that was a couple of years ago now, and that’s probably expanded to closer to 20. But it’s a long process as they need a decade or more to prove themselves.
Have you seen the New Zealand wine industry change in terms of its perspective of the world or its place within it in the last 30 years?
There’s been a hugely growing confidence. New Zealanders are a fairly self-effacing sort of people, not like Australians [laughs]. There’s a realisation that yes, we can do it, and we can stand proudly in the world of serious fine wines. When I first joined the wine industry in 1973, 75% of New Zealand’s wine production was of fortified ports and sherries, and we don’t make any now. There’s been a major transition in that period.
What kind of wines are you cracking open during the week?
What I drink is leftovers [laughs]. Right now I’m happily tasting my Desert Island grape variety, which is Pinot Noir, so I’ve got a great selection of really good Pinot Noirs that have been opened with just a soupçon taken out of them, and I’m ploughing my way through. Having tested them over the tasting bench, I‘m now putting them to the real test with food and family [laughs].