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Kiwi Lifestyle Lures Fledgling British Winegrowers

August 24, 2009

Kiwis famously pride themselves on their “can-do” attitude.  For British ex-pats who take on winegrowing in New Zealand, learning to make the best of any situation can be critical to their survival and success.  Roland Norman and Kate de Lautour-Norman embrace this so-called “No 8 fencing wire” approach with their fledgling venture, Tukipo River Estate.
A New Zealander, Kate had lived away from home for 15 years but with British-born husband Roland – keen to give winemaking a go and little chance of acquiring land in Europe – saw an opportunity to lease some land on a family-owned sheep and deer block in Central Hawke’s Bay, on the eastern side of the lower North Island.

The vineyard is away from the main grape growing region and at higher altitude is cooler than the mainstream Hawke’s Bay vineyards.  

Roland and Kate knew they were taking a risk with the climate, and when they arrived in New Zealand from London in October 2003 they found their vineyard being hammered by the worst frosts the region had experienced in decades.

Although the vines had been in the ground for just two years, the plants were strong and a decision was made to see what fruit could be produced at that early stage.

The following six weeks brought sleepless nights as frost alarms rang out at regular intervals.  There was no frost protection in place (data loggers in the vineyard prior to planting hadn’t shown a need for protection), so a Cessna 172 was placed at one end of the two hectare block.  With the propeller turning and the wheels on chocks, the air circulated through the 200 metres vineyard rows to stop the frost from settling.

Flying the plane in wasn’t an option when an early morning frost followed a stormy night.  The innovative solution was to drive motorbikes and a bulldozer through the vines at top speed to keep the air moving.

The first vintage was small but enough to show exquisite fruit flavours in the Chardonnay grapes.  Pinot Noir followed in 2004.

Life on the vineyard is very different from the lives Kate and Roland led in the UK.  Originally from the Isle of Wight, Roland was in the retail wine industry as a manager at Jeroboams in the City, while Kate was a broadcast journalist for the BBC World Service.  Not expecting driving a bulldozer to be part of his new job description, Roland was forced to pick it up quickly.

“Luckily I grew up learning how engines worked (Roland’s father, Desmond Norman was a well known aircraft designer and test pilot), and a family home in the Limousin in France had given me some experience with the local farmer’s tractor but that’s as far as it went.”

A bulldozer is needed to manage “The Bank”, a steep North facing stony slope planted in Pinot Noir.  Roland has had his fair share of hairy moments – the  bulldozer careered into a post and took out a row of vines as one of the early setbacks. 

Last year, as frosts continued to threaten the vineyard, a second hand gas burner was purchased.  Six large butane gas tanks are hooked up to what is basically a large blow heater connected to the bulldozer.

That system provided its own unexpected hazards.  A small bird’s nest in the chimney ignited the gas when the ‘dozer was at work at 4am one frosty morning. The hour-long gap needed to sort out the frightening situation proved too long for young leaves to cope with the minus 3 degree Celsius frost – a glorious sunrise brought the devastating view of damaged brown shoots.

A windmill to protect the lower vineyard (now increasing in size) was purchased in 2004.  The Frost Boss machine came with a V8 engine.  Fortunately, the remoteness of the vineyard means no neighbours to complain about the late night noise.  Once again,  Roland and Kate had to learn the intricacies of a second hand machine, with  petrol tanks needing to be changed over in the middle of the night and faults dealt with quickly. 

Make or break decisions are often made in split seconds and experimentation is frequently needed to solve problems.

An expensive drip irrigation system continues to pose challenges on The Bank as the water runs straight down the pipes rather than stopping at the drippers.  Taps have been installed at intervals to deliver a better water supply to the bone dry site.

Equinoctial winds – which the couple weren’t warned about before planting – are another challenge.  In the absence of shelter belts and with the jury still out on the benefits of artificial wind breaks, the winds remain an issue, especially for young vines.

One of the biggest frustrations is the prolific birdlife which feast on the sweetening grapes despite netting used to encompass the entire vineyard.  This year, clips were attached every millimetre in an expensive labour operation.  As a result, 2009 produced a wonderful crop.

“If only the nets came with Velcro fasteners,” Kate muses, having spent hours clipping with baby Oskar in the buggy.

Roland studied for his Bachelor of Wine Science at EIT, and made use of his degree in transforming the first decent yield of fruit in 2006 into the first hundred cases of Tukipo River Estate wine.

With a superb trout fishing stream bordering the vineyard, the Fat Trout Chardonnay was born. The Fat Duck Pinot Noir followed as a tribute to the wild ducks on the irrigation dam.  These game birds fill up the freezer at duck shooting season and are an ideal match for the “lusciously savoury and elegant” Pinot Noir.

The couple appreciate that life would have been even more of a challenge if they hadn’t had the support of New Zealand family.

The blood, sweat and tears have been worth it, they say, with the wines gathering momentum around the world.  In England, the award-winning restaurant Chez Bruce in London stocks the Fat Duck Pinot Noir while the Dorset Wine Company has supplies of the Fat Trout Chardonnay – complete with stunning trout fly.

As Kate and Roland point out, you can catch your supper before you enjoy it with a glass of Tukipo River Estate wine!

Vineyard “The Office” for New World Winegrowers

Fed up with long commutes and office jobs that kept them apart for much of the time, Jon Peet , a soil scientist, and wife Emma, a chartered surveyor who worked for Countryside Agency’s national parks team, moved to New Zealand seven years ago. 

Their aim – to combine a passion for fine wine with an opportunity for using their experience and skills in running their own rural-based business.   

When they first considered growing grapes, the Peets had been deterred by the prohibitively high cost of land in England.  At the same time, they were impressed to hear friends returning from overseas “wax lyrical” about New Zealand’s natural beauty.   

“And it’s all true,” enthuses Emma, who now dubs the couple’s new world vineyard “the office”. 
After a recce to New Zealand, the Peets focused their search on Hawke’s Bay.  Dubbed the aristocrat of New Zealand’s wine regions, the bay offers a tapestry of soil types and a myriad of microclimates well-suited to growing and making a wide range of wine styles.

Jon quit his job to pinpoint the ideal spot for the big move.

 “I spent four months researching, mainly communicating with people in Hawke’s Bay by email and long phone calls with a grower and Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers, the organisation representing the regional industry.”

To locate the perfect terroir, however, they needed to be on the spot.

Arriving in 2002, the Peets busied themselves looking for the right site.  Jon also threw himself into learning as much as he could about the soil and the climatic differences within the area.

After an extensive search, the couple settled on Ash Ridge, a six hectare block west of the city of Hastings in New Zealand’s second largest wine region.  The name of the property goes to its location and the composition of the soil.  

Jon explains:  “About 1800 years ago, most of the eastern and central part of the North Island was covered in deep layers of ash from a volcanic eruption of what is today Lake Taupo.  Since that time, flooding rivers have spread the ash, along with other material, to form the plains that comprise much of Hawke’s Bay.”

Because of Jon’s scientific background, soil composition was always going to be a major consideration in the hunt for a suitable property.

“The shallow ash pumice contains very few nutrients but is free draining and provides unique mineral flavours,” he says.   “It’s ideal for premium quality reds – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.   Devigorating vine growth naturally controls yields, producing high quality wine with intense flavours.”

Only a third of the block was developed when the Peets purchased the vineyard.  They considered the remaining two hectares, on deeper alluvial sands, best suited to growing Sauvignon Blanc.

“Combining that fruit with grapes grown on the shallower ash pumice soils, we produce a Sauvignon Blanc wine which is both rich with tropical fruits, yet underpinned with a fresh and lively acidity – quite different to the traditional Marlborough style. “

Most of the vineyard’s production is grown under contract to Delegat’s Wine Estate, an Auckland-based, family-owned company associated with New Zealand’s well-known Oyster Bay label.

In 2004, the Peets decided to diversify by also making their own wine. 

“Because of the economics of the wine industry, we wanted more control over our future income.  We are interested in wine, and wanted to see the whole process through from grape growing to winemaking.

“You can only truly grow premium grapes when you understand the whole of the winegrowing process.  We wanted to fully understand how the management of the vineyard impacts on the winemaking.”

The Peets teamed up with another local family to establish a wine marketing business, Ash Ridge Wines.  Together, they produce 1,000 cases of single vineyard premium Cabernet Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. 

The first attempt at winemaking, a 2004 Cabernet Merlot, was rewarded with a bronze medal at the 2006 Bragato Awards – a national industry-based competition which recognises grower input.  

Like other growers in their region, Jon and Emma have had to learn how best to deal with Jack Frost.

“When we bought the block, we didn’t have any frost protection.  We tried burning bales of straw, but that only saved the six vines around the bales.

“After that disastrous experience, we invested in a water-based frost protection system.   It uses a special type of sprinkler, which flips back and forth, delivering fine jets of water from the tops of intermediate posts in the direction of the vine rows.”

The constant spray of water slowly builds up a protective layer of ice, protecting the young shoots, and in the process it generates minute amounts of heat to keep the temperature just above freezing.

Running out the flipper system themselves as well as planting out 5000 vines to extend the vineyard, the Peets feel they’ve got the pioneering spirit needed to keep their venture on track – “it’s been the only way to achieve the goals we set ourselves”.
They are aiming now to grow their business but are keen to retain its boutique character, nurturing a close relationship with customers through a personal sales and marketing approach.

Emma, who takes care of marketing and sales, is achieving results without retailing through traditional outlets.  Ash Ridge wines are sold through the company’s website and business networking.  Branded gift boxes are popular with corporate clients.

The company also concentrates on developing niche export markets, selling wine into Japan, Australia and Korea.  Marketing opportunities are currently being explored in the UK.     

Several restaurants list the wines, and other top New Zealand eateries are being targeted.  The first vintages have been well-received, the couple say, with customers returning for more.

“We encourage people to become Friends of Ash Ridge so we can keep in regular contact with existing and potential customers.”

Jon continues to manage the vineyard while also working as lecturer in soil management at EIT Hawke’s Bay.   Emma also works at EIT as the regional tertiary institute’s liaison manager.

“Coordinating our jobs in this way has proved an ideal combination” she says.  “EIT is an outstanding educator, and it has a great reputation for its wine science and viticulture programmes.”
Couple Swap Business Careers for Outdoor Kiwi Lifestyle

High fliers in England, Terry and Philip Horn had to overcome rigorous immigration entry hurdles to pull off their move to New Zealand.

At the time of his resignation from ASDA Stores, Philip had been 16 years with the subsidiary of the American retail giant Wal-Mart and filled a very senior role as head of resources.

Terry could point to her expertise in local government and human resources management.  Having done her first degree in business with hotel and catering management, she had gone on to postgraduate studies in human resources management.

Busy working lives in the UK saw the couple “running round like headless chickens”.  They barely saw each other, and Philip felt he wasn’t spending enough time with sons Luke, now aged 11, and Oliver, 8.

For Terry, the trigger for change was losing parents within a short time of each other. 

“It brings up a mix of feelings,” she says, “and it makes you realise you have only one shot at life.  We asked ourselves, why are we doing all this?”

Philip was already contemplating working abroad.  His employers had offered him overseas postings but, this lover of red wine laughs, they were both in dry states – in Kuwait and in Wal-Mart’s home office in Arkansas.

Four years ago, the family holidayed in Australia and New Zealand, giving Philip the opportunity to look at what Down Under had to offer.

The prospect of a job in an Australian city proved unappealing – he would be back to the commuter run.   And, checking out the wine scene in the Barossa Valley, they found it didn’t favour small scale newcomers.

In any case, says Philip, “I thought New Zealand was so much better for our boys.  The schooling is good, the climate is nice and you can have an outdoor life.  I love the way kids walk around supermarkets with no shoes on.”

Keen to use his science degree and wanting a new challenge, he zeroed in on EIT Hawke’s Bay’s comprehensive range of viticulture and wine science study programmes.  

The plan to take a year out for full-time study was derailed, however, when the family was persuaded to look at a Hawke’s Bay wine venture that had only just come on the market.

Terry and Philip immediately saw potential in Unison Vineyard, a red wine specialist growing Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah on six hectares west of Hastings.  And they loved the property’s location on Gimblett Gravels, the former course of a major Hawke’s Bay river.
With a sister already settled in New Zealand, Terry was designated the principal applicant for immigration.  Once the authorities gave her the green light in October 2007, she boarded a plane and found a full-time job in Wellington. 

Philip and the children followed nine months later.  The final pieces in the picture came together very quickly.   If they were to become winegrowers, they knew Hawke’s Bay was the place they wanted to be.

“I thought EIT’s Certificate in Grapegrowing and Winemaking was the ideal course and we were going to move up here anyway so I could do it,” Philip says.

Given Terry’s study plans, the opportunity to purchase such a vineyard and winery was 12 months ahead of ideal, but the Horns considered Unison a perfect fit for their needs.

Taking over just as the grapes were being harvested, Philip says:  “I knew that first year would be really hard – to take on a business, something we’d not done before, I knew it was going to be really tough.”

It helped that previous owner Bruce Helliwell stayed on as consultant winemaker for the Horns’ first vintage and that the role is filled now by Jenny Dobson, a winemaker with 20 years in Bordeaux and 12 years in Gimblett Gravels. 

That leaves Philip to concentrate on the vineyard side of things, while Terry uses her experience to liaise with the hospitality industry in promoting Unison’s wines.  The couple also offer an accommodation and have plans to build a family-friendly café on site.
As for advising other Brits who might fancy winegrowing in New Zealand , Philip says he could write a book about the things they would do differently.

“We have learned so much by doing it.  We have fallen into a lot of traps along the way and have had to pick ourselves up and learn from it and get on with it.”

Terry agrees that first year of winegrowing was a huge learning curve.

“It took an awful lot, starting with vintage and the course.  Philip may have been better to have done the course first, but would we have got anything as good as this?” she asks, pointing to the densely-planted rows which underpin Unison’s reputation as a producer of high quality, seriously heavyweight reds.

Above all, the couple say, anyone considering such a move should do their homework.

“Get into the detail of the contract when you take a business on,” Philip urges.  “Get under the skin of it first.”