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Longboat Key Thursday, Jul. 1, 2010 7 years ago

Grape Expectations

by: Robin Hartill Managing Editor

Patricia “Pat” Gussin says it’s crisp and fruity with a hint of grapefruit flavor. Robert “Bob” Gussin says it almost has an earthiness to it. It’s Bob Gussin’s favorite selection from Oceanview Vineyards and also the vineyards’ best-seller. Pat Gussin appreciates the refreshing quality of the sauvignon blanc, although she admits that she is partial to the pinot noir.

On Longboat Key, the Gussins are better known as authors and owners of Oceanview Publishing Co., which recently relocated to Longboat Key from Ipswich, Mass. But, across the Pacific Ocean, in the Marlborough region of New Zealand, the Gussins are the owners of Oceanview Vineyards.

Neither Gussin claims to be a wine connoisseur. Before they both retired on the same day in 2000, she worked as a physician, while he was the chief scientific officer for Johnson & Johnson. Based on their limited research when it came to wine, they had reached one conclusion.

“What we knew was we liked drinking it,” Bob Gussin said.

And, before late 2002, neither Gussin knew much about New Zealand, beyond the fact that they wanted to visit. Bob Gussin had set up a research company in Sydney during his time with Johnson & Johnson. Two years after retiring, Bob Gussin was invited to be the keynote speaker at retirement festivities for Dr. Denis Wade, who had led the research company, so the Gussins decided to make a two-and-a-half-week side trip to Kiwi Country. In the couple’s memoir, “What’s Next … For You? The Gussin Guide to Big Changes, Big Decisions & Big Fun,” released earlier this year, Bob Gussin offers this hypothesis about their trip to New Zealand in relation to what they often call the “R-word.”

“Amazingly, exploring New Zealand would be our first step in the disappearance of our retirement,” he wrote.

Fruitful foray

The Gussins passed vineyard after vineyard as they drove through New Zealand, a country roughly the same size as California with a population of 3.5 million people and 30 million sheep. Entranced by the beauty of the land and its people, Pat Gussin suggested that it might be fun to get into New Zealand’s wine business. Her husband responded with an unenthusiastic, “Uh-huh.”

But when the couple traveled to the retirement party in Australia, Wade told them that New Zealand was overflowing with opportunities in the wine industry — akin to the California Gold Rush more than a century ago.

Wade said that the simplest way to get into the business would be to buy part of a vineyard instead of a winery. With a winery, they would have to know the entire business, including import-export technicalities. With a vineyard, they could simply sell grapes to a vineyard. He also put them in touch with his sister, an oenologist who had moved to New Zealand from Australia. And so, within three months, the Gussins owned a vineyard in the Marlborough region, New Zealand’s premier grape-growing land. A few years later, they purchased a second vineyard. Today, their wines are available for $16.99 to $22 per bottle at retailers throughout the United States, including Longboat Key Publix. The Gussins travel to New Zealand twice a year to oversee the vineyard and appreciate the land.

Their cups overfloweth

You might say that the Gussins have uncorked a wealth of knowledge about wine over the years. But, actually, they’ve unscrewed it. Oceanview Vineyards’ selections, like 80% of New Zealand wines, have screw tops, rather than corks. Both Gussins point to studies that show that screw tops are more effective in preserving the wine’s flavor.

“We’re scientists,” Bob Gussin said, “so we like to see all the data.”

They say that tradition, not practicality, is what often keeps corks going.

Among the other things they’ve learned: a respect for Mother Nature.

“Around the time of harvest, you need dry weather and a little wind and sun,” Pat Gussin said. “If you don’t get that, the quality of grapes is down. It’s a real balance.”

One season, after a late frost, the vineyards lost 80% of their crops in a single night.

And they have also gained a newfound respect for those who earn their living through agriculture. One day, the couple tried handpicking grapes for the pinot noir but lasted only 10 minutes.

One final thing they’ve learned — how to pick a good bottle of wine. Their scientific method: Pick a wine. Uncork it or unscrew its top. Taste it.

“If you like it, that’s a good bottle of wine,” Bob Gussin said.

Valued vino

New Zealand has 10 wine-growing regions, with harvesting periods ranging from early March to mid-April. The country’s wine business is rapidly expanding, in part because of its temperate climate that is similar to Sonoma, Calif. Moderate temperatures allow for a slow ripening period, which creates distinct flavors. The Gussins said that, although they love New Zealand, they had another reason why it was a good place to buy a vineyard.

“ … in California or Long Island, we’d only have been able to afford a parcel of land that could produce enough grapes each fall to fill our fruit bowl,” they said.

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