The first three weeks in New Zealand has been hectic. After arriving in Auckland mid-May I made my way all the way to the bottom of the South Island to the fabled wine region of Central Otago, an argument whether it’s the southern-most wine region in the world up for debate, but close enough to qualify. This is a very dry, but temperate, climate, bounded by gorgeous, snow-capped mountains on both sides to protect it from the two oceans’ frigolic influences.
I know that some of you following this blog are interested in my novel ideation process for Sideways NZ. Even though I’m bringing my now iconic characters Miles and Jack to New Zealand I still have to find the story. Like all writers we have bursts of ideas, adumbrate, discard, begin over, ad infinitum. In my case I let it build in my head until I think I have sufficiently adumbrated it – beginning; the rough outline of the big middle; and the ending. I have to have an ending. I will not begin a novel or a screenplays without an ending. I have my ending! Miles (Paul Giamatti in the movie and first-person alter ego Miles) learns a shocking, but not tragic, truth, that he must face. Jack has regrouped from his divorce – that was inevitable! – and has sold a novel of Miles’s to a film production company.
Originally, I was planning to have Miles and Jack fly to New Zealand and begin a 1,000 mile road trip in a camper van. That’s still on the table. The road trip will be a promotional book signing for Miles and his latest book, but things in NZ are not as one might imagine.
In NZ I’m being hosted here in Central Otago by wonderful people, all of them vineyard owners or winemakers. One of the first places I was a guest at was Prophet’s Rock Winery. Picture a lone guest house perched atop a hill surrounded by almost exclusively Pinot Noir vines. In fact, Pinot Noir is the only red wine variety – with rare exceptions that are mostly unsuccessful – that will ripen in this extraordinarily hardscrabble terroir.
After a three-mile drive up sinuous dirt switchbacks to the guest house, thinking like a writer, I immediately flashed on an idea by my writer friend Marco Mannone (The Haunting of Nicholas Cage) that Miles should begin in New Zealand. And when I arrived at Prophet’s Rock’s guest house and saw the deciduous vines shorn of their leafage I could glimpse it: Miles (me) has left the known world and journeyed to the farthest reaches of the planet, a planet he believes, in his inimitably fatalistic worldview, is doomed. With a modest amount of savings he has bought half a hectare of Pinot Noir vines. Look at the photos. This land is almost nonarable. It’s an understatement to say the grapevines suffer. There is less than 3% organic matter in these metamorphic schist soils. Central Otago is not only sublimely beautiful, from vineyard to vineyard to vineyard, but it is Pinot Noir, still my favorite grape, cultivated, and vinified, truly at the end of the world by people who scoff derisively at any mention of manipulation. They are true purists down here.
But all is not well in Miles’s world – we need conflict, because in conflict we have drama, in conflict we mine comedy, and then, ultimately, find resolution – and Jack has flown halfway across the world, over the equator into the southern hemisphere to rescue his friend. Let the jollity begin!