Growing up surrounded by vineyards was Villa Maria winemaker Nick Picone’s entrée to the world of wine.
Nick’s father, Vince Picone, owns a vineyard touring business in Hawke’s Bay so Nick learned early about grape varieties, wineries and the potential for New Zealand to make world-class premium wines.
Wanting a hands-on and challenging career, Nick saw the wine industry as an obvious choice. It was great to have first-class training opportunities, he says, with EIT offering a range of grape growing and winemaking programmes in the heart of Hawke’s Bay Wine Country.
Nick launched into tertiary study in 1996, and a month into EIT’s grape and wine certificate he knew he wanted to be a winemaker rather than a viticulturist – which had been his original thinking.
“The EIT course was very influential as it cemented in the idea that this was the career I was after. In one year I went from knowing very little to having a good grasp of the basic theory involved.”
As a “fresh-faced newbie straight out of the classroom,” Nick worked the 1997 vintage at Esk Valley Estate and then had a vintage in California. He repeated the sequence the following year.
Realising he would need “some more paper” to get ahead with his career, he then enrolled for EIT’s Bachelor of Wine Science. Degree studies were challenging, he says, and doing well in wine appreciation and winemaking papers kept him motivated.
It also helped having worked in the industry for several years before committing to the three-year degree.
“That way, there were no hidden surprises for me when I graduated. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.”
Nick returned to Esk Valley Estate for the 2002 vintage and later that year the winery’s owner, Viila Maria, appointed him assistant winemaker in Marlborough. In 2004, after returning from a week-long Len Evans tutorial tasting scholarship in Australia, Nick realised his dream to become a company winemaker.
“That was another steep learning curve and it gave me the chance to pay homage to New Zealand’s great wine hero, Sauvignon Blanc. This is also where I started developing my passion for the Burgundy varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”
In 2008 he was promoted to senior Auckland winemaker.
“When you are really driven to achieve a goal there is immense satisfaction when you get there. It was the same satisfaction I had in finishing my degree – I came to realise that would be pivotal in setting up my career.”
Nick enjoys the challenges and variety that are part of his job. He has judged at major New Zealand wine shows, worked in Barolo in northern Italy and this year he and Villa Maria’s group winemaker Alastair Maling were named co-winners of the Winemaker of the Year title at the Royal Easter Show.
I’m just lucky that I really do love my job,” Nick says, “and that I work for the best wine company in New Zealand – but then I’m probably biased!”