Saturday, May 2, 2009

Where's Weginald?

Perhaps the more immediate question is, Who is Weginald?

You may remember Weginald from a year and a half ago when "he" hit the big time and made all the major news outlets (and my blog), but I can't expect you to be as Cheddar obsessed as I am and recall this story.

To refresh your memory, Weginald is a wheel of traditional English Cheddar, dressed in muslin cloth and weighing in at approximately 50 pounds. Its place of birth was Westcombe Dairy in Somerset. That's England's West Country and Cheddar's true home. What made Weginald stand out from the other 100 wheels or so of Cheddar made by hand at Westcombe in the same week was a video camera. Weginald's maker had the novel idea of showing him mature in real time on his own Internet site and then posting a time-lapse video of Weginald's maturation on youtube. It takes at least a year for a traditionally made Cheddar to come of age. The video takes less than a minute.

Weginald generated so much publicity that Westcombe decided to make good of the situation and auction the celebrity Cheddar for charity. From youtube, Weginald rolled to eBay. The money raised from the on-line auction went to Children First, and Weginald traveled by first class, as a celebrity should, to the winners of the auction, Mud House Winery in New Zealand. And he wasn't heard from again.

I frequently wondered what had happened to Weginald after the publicity died down. He was like an Oscar winner who made the headlines for days and then slipped out of public consciousness. I made it my mission to hunt down Weginald.

It wasn't easy to track down New Zealand's most famous wheel of Cheddar. The obvious place to start looking was Mud House Winery's Where's WeginaldWeb site, but it wasn't any help at all. When I first checked it, the site was under construction. A few months later it reported that Weginald had gone on walkabout. Just where was Weginald? Was he in dairy rehab?

And just where was Mud House Winery? Its Web site lists two locations, one in Marlborough, world renown for Sauvignon Blanc, and the other in Waipara, just an hour north of Christchurch, the South Island's biggest city. I emailed Mud House in the summer (Northern Hemisphere) via its confusing Web site to see whether I could meet Weginald's current owners. No response. I tried again in the autumn. Again, no response. Finally I found actual e-mail addresses, and I received an immediate response from Mud House's PR person. We set up a meeting at the winery during my second week in New Zealand.

The meeting was in Waipara, not Marlborough. It turns out that Mud House grows the majority of its grapes in Marlborough, but doesn't have a cellar door there. The group directors chose the lesser known wine region of Waipara Hills for the cellar door because of its location on Route 1, the major road that goes up and down the east coast of the South Island. They hope that a cellar door on a highly used road will attract tour busses and travelers and their New Zealand dollars.

The bus I traveled from Nelson down to Waipara dropped me off right at the cellar door. The building was grand and struck me as more slick and corporate than the wineries I had biked around the week before in Marlborough. Waipara itself, however, was a lot less inspiring. Perhaps it was the rain that dampened my view. The region also seemed economically depressed. Later that day, after my meeting at Mud House, I rode a rickety bike to an olive farm only to discover that it was up for a quick and desperate sale. No doubt it wasn't doing well. Not helping my opinion of the area was my backpacker accommodation. It consisted of disused railway cars, a concept that might seem romantic on paper, but in actuality, in the rain, the site felt like a ghost station on the U-Bahn in Berlin.

I arrived at Mud House's cellar door in a disheveled state, wet and shabbily dressed and with my backpack. I hadn't brought many nice clothes with me to New Zealand, and even if I had, I wouldn't have been able to fit into them after months of heavy cheese eating. Despite my unprofessional appearance, the manager of Mud House's dining and tasting room, a tall thin young woman of Irish extraction, treated me well, bringing me a bottle of fizzy water while I waited for my meeting with Mud House's director, Neil Charles-Jones. Still having time to kill after I drank the water, I left my backpack by a table in the cafe and went over to the tasting room, located in a lofty dining room with a grand fire place. As I went up to the bar I looked around for Weginald in the spacious room. Was he here? I had expected him to be prominently on display. Had he already been eaten?

As the young guy at the bar poured my first glass of wine to sample, a Sauvignon Blanc, of course, I asked him about the absent wheel of cheese.

"Oh, you're here for the cheese. We heard something about it a while ago. There was all this fuss and then it was gone. What was it for?"

I explained about the auction and how Mud House was the one to win the bid.

"Do you know how much they paid for it?" I should have, but didn't.

Before we got much farther talking about Weginald or making our way through the range of Mud House wines, Charles-Jones came to get me for our meeting. He apologized for being a bit late. He had flown in from Auckland that morning and had driven up from Christchurch. Transportation wasn't going his way and it had made him fall behind schedule. I told him that it wasn't a problem (where did I need to be?), and I noted to myself that his accent was English. He also struck me as a decadent man, as someone who liked his job for all the wine drinking that went with it. He led me outside through French doors, in spite of the rain, and we sat at a table on a covered terrace, so he could smoke. I looked out to the brown hills beyond the vineyard, now obscured by rain clouds, and then turned my attention back to Charles-Jones, who had already lit a cigarette. I asked him to tell me about Weginald.

"Such a bloody good story. I heard about it and thought that it was bloody good publicity. So I decided we should try it ourselves, set up cameras and show wine grow in real time. Then the auction happened and I bid and I bloody won." He let out a gravely laugh as he stubbed out his cigarette.

He lit and put out many cigarettes during our meeting and drank several cups of double or triple espresso. There wasn't anyone else around, but the staff, when not bringing Neil-Jones coffee, was getting ready for a large tour group of Germans who were coming for a tasting.

Neil-Jones still has Weginald, but he's stored in a partially opened box in Mud House's pantry (see photo above). The arrival of the famous wheel of cheese was intended to spark publicity for Mud House and its new Web cam. But the plan went, as the English say, pear shaped. The initial publicity was good. Weginald flew first class from England courtesy of Air New Zealand, and there was a photo shoot on the plane of this wheel of cheese living the high life. Weginald ran into problems with the law shortly after arriving in New Zealand. He didn't have the right papers. It wasn't that Weginald was made with unpasteurized milk (he already got clearance for that) but that he was in an unmarked box. To get the right papers, Weginald had to be flown all the way back to England and then returned, months later, in a properly marked box. He didn't even make it to economy class for these trips.

This all took time, too much time, so Weginald has to lie low until the PR machine can resurrect him like a forgotten actor. Let's hope he's not too much beyond his prime by then.

Stay tuned.

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