Building blocks of Mudbrick winery's success

By Rebecca Barry Hill

How a simple plan led to the success of Waiheke Island's Mudbrick vineyard.

Robyn Jones has written a book detailing the journey of Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant. Photo / Supplied
Robyn Jones has written a book detailing the journey of Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant. Photo / Supplied

There were many times when Mudbrick owners Robyn and Nick Jones wondered what they'd got themselves into. They'd started with a simple dream: to buy a block of land on Waiheke, make wine and raise babies.

"I never, in a million years, had the vision of what it is today," laughs Robyn. The venue is one of the best-known vineyards and restaurants in the country, boasting award-winning wines and exquisite food. And with its sea views, potager garden and welcoming scent of lavender, it's also a popular place to get married - my wedding was one of the 80-100 the venue hosts each year.

It's been a long, arduous journey to get to this point, however, one that Jones recounts in her new book, A Life At Mudbrick. An inspiring tale about the story behind the business - the risks taken, setbacks overcome and wisdom gained - it also features memorable recipes from the kitchen, such as the rack of venison with mushroom duxelles, bread pudding, pickled beetroot, parsnip puree and chocolate sauce, and simple favourites like dried fruit and nut bread.

Robyn is used to people telling her how they wish they had followed their dreams. It helps if you and your partner have the right personality mix, she says.

"I am a dreamer and an idealist, I was almost naive with money, I don't have that fear in me. So I was always saying, why don't we do this and this? Nick is a risk-taker who is so good with the money, and he'd do calculations in his head and say, that's a good idea, let's do it. I wouldn't have done it on my own. The idea just got talked about and laughed about and then we did it."

Plenty of people told them they were mad. The couple were in their 20s, with little work experience behind them. Nick was an accountant, and Robyn was studying commerce. They owned a nice house in Epsom. But the thought of joining the corporate slog didn't appeal as much as owning their own vineyard, an idea that took hold when Nick did a wine-tasting course.

"It felt to me like it was always a tiny step. Let's just see what happens. What have we got to lose? You have this feeling and you want to make it happen."

Robyn was pregnant with her daughter Francesca when they bought the elevated plot of land in Church Bay, Oneroa, despite warnings it was too exposed to grow grapes.

"Again it was naivety, I suppose. We looked at that land and thought it was so lovely and it had such a beautiful view. Let's just put in some shelter belts and fix that. People said oh, but that takes years. We thought, okay, we've got years."

Nevertheless, they heeded advice to supplement their income and decided to build an upmarket restaurant. At the time there was nothing else offering fine-dining on the island, and islanders warned them no one would ferry across from Auckland and then fork out for a fancy meal.

"The difference was that we made it rustic and country so you didn't feel like you had to dress up. You could wear shorts and jandals. We wanted it to be relaxed, a place where the staff were cheerful and happy and not stiff like a lot of fine dining. It took years to achieve that goal. Some of our food wasn't good over the years, it didn't happen overnight."

Despite having no trouble attracting customers, those early years were some of the hardest of their lives. While Nick worked full-time as an accountant back in Auckland, and on the business in the weekends, Robyn ran the restaurant seven days a week, while raising Francesca and second child, Oscar. In 1996, when Nick left his job to concentrate on the business, Robyn knew they'd make it; finally they had the time to really focus on turning Mudbrick into something special.

But she couldn't help but ask herself if the lifestyle they'd envisaged for themselves had turned out to be harder than if they'd stayed in the rat race. She'd never wanted to be a career mother and was finding it extremely difficult, juggling a business with raising her young children.

"It was isolating. You want to be around your friends for coffee mornings and I was alone, working so hard at Mudbrick I didn't really have the opportunity to make friends on the island."

It wasn't until the kids were older and involved in the local pony club, says Robyn, that some of the locals began to regard her as more than just a yuppie.

Meanwhile, Mudbrick's early wine-making efforts were not particularly fruitful. So in 1998 the Joneses supplemented the Bordeaux-blend varieties planted on the original site by buying another block of land at Onetangi with friends, planting it with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Three years later they bought the adjoining property, and planted syrah. Several years of learning and experimentation later, Mudbrick's winery has a good reputation for its reds, and has won gold medals from different competitions every year since 2005.

Over the years the restaurant has attracted high-profile diners including Cindy Crawford, Taylor Swift and Tommy Lee Jones. "And I really am proud that people feel it's good enough that they want to get married here," says Robyn. "That's such a big part of people's lives."

Much of their success Robyn puts down to great staff and advice from key people. Kim and Jeanette Goldwater of Waiheke's Goldwater Estate vineyard, and Sally and Derek Holland of the Glenora Estate luxury B&B were among the many people who helped them get a foothold early on.

Along the way they've learned invaluable people managing skills, and the confidence to make good decisions. They key to that, says Robyn, is to tap into "head, heart and gut all together.

"It sounds a bit religious but I really do believe in doing the right thing. Things will work if you have the right motivation."

These days Robyn still manages the venue and is considering developing another part of the original site, and potentially putting in a wedding chapel.

Ironically, given the number of weddings at Mudbrick, Robyn and Nick's marriage was not to last; the desire to capture their shared experience is what motivated Robyn to write the book in the first place. She's still not sure if the trying times at Mudbrick are to blame.

"I'm not sure, I wouldn't know. In a way, it may have kept us together longer, because we had a common goal and vision together. A lot of the time we didn't have time to think about our relationship so maybe that might've ruined it. But probably not. We still work together and both love it so much and we're so involved. That says something."

A Life At Mudbrick by Robyn Jones, photography by Aaron McLean, $55, published by Random House.

- NZ Herald

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