My Wine Adventures in New Zealand


By Drew

A little over a month ago, I journeyed to New Zealand with my Sonoma State University Wine EMBA cohort to look at the country’s local wine industry. The program is a wine industry specific Executive MBA that is comprised of members of the North Coast wine industry.


We started off our journey in Central Otago, just a few hours outside of Queensland on the south island. This area is known for its wind-blown glacier soils, continental climate, and is mainly planted to Pinot Noir. Central Otago was mainly farmed biodynamically and unlike the US which is fortunate to have a very hard-working and fast labor force, retired arborists and backpacking nomads do the lion’s share of the vineyard work in NZ.  One of the biggest highlights from Central Otago was being shown around Felton Road, one of the gold standard producers in the area by wild-haired owner Nigel. Another major highlight was meeting a Californian winemaker whose wines I love: Ted Lemon of Littorai, the winemaker and VP of Burn Cottage. Among others, my favorite wines from the area were the 2011 Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir and the 2011 Burn Cottage Pinot Noir.

Next, we were off to Marlborough. Marlborough is the most widely planted area in New Zealand and predominantly planted to Sauvignon Blanc, followed by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Cloudy Bay has made this area synonymous with premium Sauvignon Blanc that exudes tropical fruit tones, high minerality, grassy notes and tons of acid. The producers in Marlborough were quite significantly larger then the producers in Central Otago, but the families there pride themselves on innovating. For example, they do many small lots and are always looking for new areas of Marlborough to produce from. All in all, my two favorite wines of Marlborough were the 2012 Saint Clair Pioneer Block 21 Bell Block Sauvignon Blanc and the 2012 Nobilo Icon Sauvignon Blanc.

While in Marlborough, we also visited one of Constellation’s production facilities and I saw one of the greatest innovations in the wine industry that I have ever seen… A hydraulically lifted tank!!! Awesome! With innovations like this, the facility is able to crush 1,000 tons per day (I believe that is metric). Although I must admit that I do enjoy Sauvignon Blanc, I was more than ready to head up north to Hawkes Bay where I would find the Rhone and Bordeaux red varietals that I tend to gravitate towards.

My MBA team - Picante Drew Damskey on the left, Dalia Ceja, Avis Kalfsbeek & Nate Weis
My MBA team - Picante Drew Damskey on the left, Dalia Ceja, Avis Kalfsbeek & Nate Weis

Hawkes Bay was wonderful and I loved visiting Craggy Range, which is the collective brainchild of Terry Peabody and Steve Smith MW. Most of their estate fruit comes from Gimblett Gravels, which is totally defined by soil type and not the political boundaries that we find in the US AVA system. The production site close to the vineyards is a winemakers dream and the visitors center itself has to be one of the most spectacular I have ever seen. It is every bit as impressive as Opus One and their goal is to be just as iconic. It’s a lofty goal, but you might as well go for it if you can. I enjoyed the 2010 Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels vineyard Syrah.

In general, New Zealand exports between 75 to 90 percent of their wine. Their number one market tends to be Australia due to favorable trade agreements and the profitability of their industry greatly flexes with currency. The lack of skilled labor is a huge uphill battle. Unlike the US, small and large producers can’t depend on DTC programs, thus the sales forces must span the globe.

New Zealand is an amazing country, with great wine and without shortage of natural beauty.  I can’t wait to go back someday!