Think big - New Zealand's first interactive wine restaurant has the makings of a star

July 2004, essentially food, June / July food service

When Phil Parker went down south he'd enough. Enough of making the world's first light red in Gisborne, enough of what was probably one of the world's craziest bars and enough of the hectic city life in Gisborne. So "Smash Palace Wine Bar" was sold, the 15 tonne-vineyard Parker MC closed. MC stands for 'Methode Champenoise', the wine variety Parker is most passionate about, his favourite grape being Pinot Noir - Parker MC's first light red.
The new home had to be sought away from it all. And was found it in the Cromwell Basin, where the river used to flow, that carried the gold which attracted the first settlers after 1860 when the precious metal was first found in near Lawrence. Today, 145 years after the gold rush, the once fruitful Cromwell Gorge holds the artificial Lake Dunstan created by the Clyde Dam - apart from the wineries and buzzing Queenstown probably the only modern attraction in the area. Four 'k' out of the old gold-mining dwellings of Cromwell, the 49-year old winemaker found what he was looking for: a place that makes great Pinot Noir and offers the beauties of a beautiful landscape. The times when Parker's kiwi-version of Beaujolais Nouveau stirred the wine-lover's world are long done. Yet again he's created the perfect escape for those in search of a good wine and with no time to waste.

The Big Picture, named after the 1989 movie starring Kevin Bacon und Jennifer Jason Leigh, offers a modern stop-over wine experience for the Generation.com, i.e. those accustomed to easily digestible bites. An 18 minute movie takes the spectator on an interactive road-show that offers a bird's-eye view of Central Otago's five wine districts accompanied by a tasting. Wine experts like the former Villa Maria winemaker Michelle Richardson, who is now employed at Peregrine and Rudi Bauer (General Manager and viticulturist at Quartz Reef) from the regions Bannockburn, Gibbston Valley, Cromwell, Alexandra and Wanaka, offer professional tasting instructions while the audience takes a whiff, a sniff and a sip. And just in case anybody gets lost, little icons at the top of the screen indicate when it's time to view, snuffle or chew the wine.
The interactive tasting does the job for the amateur as well as the experienced wine-buff. The video explains terroir, soils and climate before "landing" in a vineyard where the audience takes a closer look at the vines. "I wanted to push the boundaries for wine presentation onto the next level", explains Phil who runs the place together with his wife Cath. "At the same time we are aiming to make its understanding an enjoyable experience." And indeed he has.
Before or after the movie, the "Wine Adventure" offers a tasting room with 52 wine-related aromas. The room, illuminated in blue, brings back childhood memories: wild berries, almond oil (for some better known as marzipan) and horse stable. For the more intense "aha!"-experience Phil recommends a blind tasting with Eyes Wide Shut. But beware: "the portfolio offers some pretty gruesome odours", warns Phil, "especially when substances like peach pips are broken down into their individual parts."
A visit in the aroma room is included in the tasting price of 15 Dollars, but is also available to the guests of the restaurant that is part of the concept.
The lofty room under the light corrugated iron roof construction seats 150, the terrace beyond the spacious window-front opening on to a young vineyard another fifty. Again, creativity is the measure of all things: anything goes as long as it fits in with the big picture. "Many wineries use this kind of roofing to protect the area outside the main buildings where grapes are unloaded and crushed before they go into fermentation" Phil explains, disclosing why he chose this simple and above all cheap construction in favour of tiles. Director's chairs at the plain tables focus on the movie theme: positions like 'best boy', 'set designer', 'camera man', 'gaffer', 'key grip' and 'actor' are easily attained and the friendly staff performs a service as if your Oscars were already in the bag.
The menu features Mediterranean style lunch, coffee companions and breakfast in the form of a film script. "Scene One" starts like an action packed box office hit: "Waitress brings iced water with a hint of lemon to table. Having seated guests, she then returns with menu & wine list. She eloquently describes the specials of the day. Actor thoughtfully peruses the tantalizing selection of Mediterranean-inspired cuisine.
Head chef Graeme Budge uses fresh local and South Island products like Akaroa salmon or "Monk's Gold", a medium-soft, slightly spicy, washed rind cheese made by Gibbston Valley Wines nearby with at low fat content of just 23 percent. Contrasting the location's motto, the food selection adheres to the saying "small is beautiful". One choice of soup, salad and a selection of freshly baked breads are offered as starters; the main meal selection consists of nine dishes, while four choices of sweet temptations or a hearty cheese and salami platter provide the finale. "We are not a restaurant in the common sense", Phil explains, "rather a café serving fine bistro cuisine to accompany our local wines." Prices are therefore moderate, with main dishes ranging from 18 to 25 Dollars, "The Big Picture", a platter for two with smoked salmon, cheeses, game torte, pickles, chutney, dips and breads is even available for 15 Dollars per head.
The wine list offers a choice of almost 60 New Zealand wines for seven to 10 Dollars per glass, bottle prices in the shop accommodated at the entrance start at 22 Dollars (Margaret & John Gewurztraminer 2002) and peak at 114 Dollars for a Gibbston Valley Reserve Pinot Noir 2002. All the wines are available in the shop vis-á-vis the service bar. Phil wants to "make the wine more accessible to both the average local person and the interactive traveller coming through Central Otago." Some of the latter may recognize the style of the colourful copper design above the bar as that of the German born Designer Roland Schieder who has lived in Cromwell since spring 2003.
"New ideas and their development - and that also includes Roland's eccentric metal work - are spiritual things and good 'adrenalin fun' because of the risk involved", laughs Phil. "They're spooky".
However, the connoisseur has nothing to fear. Except maybe the rise of another magic potent to look out for. Adjacent to the terrace, between the restaurant and State Highway 5 towards Queenstown, Phil has planted his favourite grape variety. It will take some four years before the first bunches will be crushed. So in 2010 the world may see not another first light red, but probably a big Pinot Noir.

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Copyright © 2008 Anneli Dierks - Freelance writer - food, wine and crime | All Rights Reserved