Thinking of starting a family winery? You’ll need a few basic skills to increase your chance of success. For a start you’ll need to know something about viticulture (the art and science of growing grapevines). An understanding of the winemaking process is essential. You should have the accounting and administration skill needed to run a small business. Growing grapes and making wine is only half the story. You’ll require sales and marketing talent to sell your wine at a profit.

Heather and Meric Davies were northland farmers and foresters when they decided to become winemakers. “We got the wine bug”, admitted Meric. “At first we considered growing grapevines in Northland before studying the economics of grape growing in other New Zealand wine regions.”

Both have degrees in agriculture and with their farming experience weren’t daunted by the prospect of growing grapevines. They understood the importance of choosing a good vineyard site. After a rigorous study of climate and soil profiles in several regions they bought land in Marlborough in 1995. “Marlborough was easier to decipher than Hawke’s Bay and the land was cheaper”.

They settled on a site in the Lower Wairau Valley. A gentle north-facing aspect reduced the risk of frost and increased ripening potential. Heather admitted that the scenic beauty of the site added to its attraction. Their house looks out across the vineyard to forest covered foothills that rise to layered mountains in the distance. “How many people are privileged to spend their working day with views like this and in such a great climate as this”, she enthused.

Initially they played it safe by planting just three grape varieties with a proven record of success in Marlborough. Sauvignon Blanc made up 60% of their 24 hectare vineyard with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir accounting for the balance.

It made sense to sell their crop of grapes to wineries for the first few years although the long term goal was to make their own wine. After consulting local viticultural experts they planted several clones of each grape variety. Because each clone has a different optimum ripening period it would have been easier to stick to a single clone of each but more clones meant higher quality wine in the long run.

By 2004 they had mastered the challenges of grape growing and were making a good living selling their annual crop of grapes. It was time to step out of their comfort zone and become winemakers. “Winemaking wasn’t as challenging as we thought it was going to be”, explained Meric. “Once again we relied on the advice of experts but they didn’t let us down. 2004 was a tough vintage but the wines were very good. Our next challenge was to create a brand.”

“We wanted a label to distinguish us from the larger more commercial producers and to say something about the wine or perhaps the enjoyment of wine. “Summerhouse” (tastings) is a place where you might relax and enjoy a glass of wine. It’s also a state of mind that translates well into other cultures and languages. A talented Wellington label designer captured the exact mood we were trying to convey with our brand by depicting a small child chasing a butterfly.”

At the launch of their first wines they celebrated by releasing butterflies, a gesture intended to reinforce themes of summer and freedom. “In a sense our move to become grape growers and then winemakers gave us the freedom to pursue a new lifestyle in a new and very beautiful part of the country.”

Meric and Heather cautiously approached the challenge of marketing their wine as they stepped out of their comfort zone. They did not regard themselves as skilled marketers but as sales began to take off they learned fast. Today 90% of their wine is exported with more than half sold in Australia “because it is the easiest market for a Kiwi to understand”. The UK and Hong Kong are also important and growing markets.

Instead of selling wine from their out-of-the-way location they teamed up with four other Marlborough wine producers to open a joint cellar door 3 Km out of Blenheim on State Highway 1 christening it “The Wine Room”. I tasted their three current releases from the 2008 vintage; an impressively ripe and pungent Sauvignon Blanc ($22) (tastings), a finely-textured barrel-fermented Chardonnay ($27) and a supple, fruity hand-picked and oak-aged Pinot Noir ($30) (tastings).

Meric and Heather have an envious wine style. They work hard but at the end of each day relax on the verandah of their comfortable new home and gaze with some satisfaction over their vineyard. Meric’s spare time is devoted to the restoration of a 1930 Auburn car. He also enjoys driving his very original 1956 Chevrolet.

I asked what advice they would give to anyone considering following their example. “I guess it’s a little harder to start a family winery today than when we first planted grapevines”, said Meric after a moment of careful thought. “It’s important to start with a clear idea of where you’re going to sell your wine and a vision of exactly what styles you need to make to meet the market. It’s dangerous to simply decide you want to make good wine before rushing off to buy a vineyard. Seek out experts and ask lots of questions. Be clear and confident about what you want to do and, because you’re at the mercy of weather, the value of the dollar and market demand be prepared for occasional hard times.”

First published in KiaOra Magazine – Jun 2009.

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