Interview: Michael Cooper talks about his Buyer's Guide for New Zealand wine
Michael Cooper has 40 books and several major literary awards to his credit, including the Montana Medal for the supreme work of non-fiction at the 2003 Montana New Zealand Book Awards for his magnum opus, Wine Atlas of New Zealand. In the 2004 New Year Honours, Michael was appointed an ONZM for services to wine writing. He is the weekly wine columnist for the New Zealand Listener. Michael talks to NZ Booklovers.
You are New Zealand’s most acclaimed wine writer. How did you come to be doing this as your profession?
My friends and I drank lots of wine while studying history and politics in the early-mid 1970s. I got a part-time job at the Babich winery in Henderson, Auckland, and soon after embarked on an MA thesis, The Wine Lobby: Pressure Group Politics and the New Zealand Wine Industry. Paul Bradwell, at Reed Publishing, encouraged me to write a comprehensive book on New Zealand wine, but the manuscript went from Reed to McIndoe to Alister Taylor before it finally found a home at Hodder & Stoughton. My first book, The Wines and Vineyards of New Zealand, was published in 1984 – a hardcover, lengthy book on all aspects of New Zealand wines, with detailed maps and colour photographs by Robin Morrison. It sold extremely well and attracted the attention of Robyn Langwell, editor of a new magazine, North & South, who in 1986 invited me to be the wine columnist. By 1990, I was marketing manager at Babich Wines, author of several wine books, a wine columnist, and being approached by other magazines to write columns – so I took the plunge into full-time wine writing.
How did the first edition of your wine guide come about?
It was partly by accident. In 1990, I wrote Michael Cooper’s Pocket Guide to New Zealand Wines and Vintages, a winery-by-winery guide to New Zealand wines. Tucked in the rear was a list of the country’s best known wines, star-rated for quality. We noticed that reviewers seemed almost mesmerised by the stars. Until this point, New Zealand wine books had invariably been based on winery profiles, but we thought – why not just focus on the wines? Not everybody wants to know about the history of their favourite winery, or the people behind the labels. If there is one thing they do want to know, it’s which wine should I buy?
The Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide is now into its 26th edition, and is firmly established. Why do you think it has been so successful?
It’s essential that the author is known to be independent. When I left Babich Wines in 1990, I asked myself a simple question. Who are you working for? To me, it was clear that I was now working on behalf of the wine-drinking public, rather than the industry. That sounds pretty obvious, but today, some wine “critics” openly state that they view their role as “supporting” the industry. Some wine writers only review wines they think are good, but I’m certainly prepared to publish negative reviews. Also, there is no shortage of good wines, so I’ve always believed that it’s important to highlight the wines that also offer great value.
How long does the book take to write each year and how many wines do you taste – can you tell us about the process of how you work?
Tasting for the book is a year-round task – or should I say pleasure? I typically write between 9AM and midday, before tasting about six wines before lunch. The afternoons are also spent writing, followed by another tasting at about 5PM. In July, we invite wineries to send samples for the forthcoming edition of the Buyer’s Guide. During August and September, most of my time is devoted to writing and tasting for the book, which features up to 3000 wines. I put the finishing touches on the manuscript in early October, when I select the Best White Wine Buy of the Year and the Best Red Wine Buy of the Year.
The Best Buy is an exciting feature of the book, in general terms, what do you look for when awarding the Best Buy wines each year?
While writing the book, I compile a list of wines I’m reviewing that offer terrific value. In making the final selection, I look for wines that will be readily available, at least until the end of the year, and that offer the most irresistible value. This year, the Best White Wine Buy of the Year can be bought for $14.99, but a wine of its variety and quality (4 stars) would normally sell in the $20-$25 category. The Best Red Wine Buy of the Year can be purchased for $19.99, but a wine of its variety and quality (4 ½ stars) would normally sell in the $30-$39 category.
What do you like to drink off duty?
I’m completely spoiled. Most nights I still have several bottles open from that day’s tastings, so can choose the one that goes best with dinner. Don’t tell anyone, but when we go out, I really enjoy having a beer…
We will look forward to the 27th edition next year, but do you have plans to write other books in the future? If so, can you tell us a little?
I do have plans for a different title, wine-related but not specifically about New Zealand. It’s about an important aspect of wine that has never been the subject of a book, and would be aimed at a worldwide market.