Napier winemaker James Wilkie was taken aback when he was invited to be a valedictorian at EIT Hawke’s Bay’s upcoming graduation ceremony.
Not seeing himself as particularly academic, the 26-year-old hadn’t expected the honour of representing graduates at the annual capping ceremony. One of two valedictorians, he will write and deliver a farewell speech on behalf of fellow graduates.
Identified as dyslexic at William Colenso College, James says a lack of motivation rather than the learning disorder was the reason he didn’t do better in his senior high school years. He’s grateful his parents didn’t pressure him into going on to tertiary study, instead letting him find his own way.
After doing a certificate in outdoor education, James worked in Canada as an outdoor instructor. Returning home, he went into the hospitality industry, managing a bar and restaurant in Napier.
He then moved into the wine industry with a job at Moana Park. Based at Puketapu, near Taradale, the boutique winery produces small volumes of a wide range of wine styles but has plans to grow six-fold over the next six to ten years.
Committed to being part of that success story, James says he’s done his degree “backwards to most”, gaining work experience and doing EIT’s Certificate in Grapegrowing and Winemaking to gauge his interest in further study.
Finding that to his liking, he staircased to EIT’s Bachelor of Wine Science, dovetailing studies with working at the winery a minimum 25 hours a week and up to 70 during the busy vintage season.
James says he didn’t score the highest grades in his class but he’s proud that he maintained his focus while continuing to hold down a challenging job.
“It was a juggling act,” he concedes.
Fellow students were a mixed age group, and he found those who were older were generally more motivated to get their qualification.
EIT, he says, was a supportive learning environment. Lecturers were upfront about what they expected of students and facilities were great.
“The labs and winery are well-equipped, the small class sizes are awesome, the library facilities for referencing material are fantastic – I can’t really fault too much.”
James is now aiming to establish his reputation in the industry. “I want to earn the respect of my peers by making quality wine.”
He is looking forward to a stint in Canada next year to work the northern vintage as a “flying winemaker” in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Accompanying him will be partner Pauline Stewart, who has supported him through these past years of study.
With the benefit of hindsight, James feels his life has played out well. His advice to anyone considering winemaking studies is to do as he has by gaining some work experience first.
“See whether you actually enjoy the industry,” he urges. “It’s not romantic like some people think. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done.”