Former NZX chief executive tells Anne Gibson about his luck as a vintner, his desire to win a gold medal in swimming and his new life on the mainland

How is the Terra Sancta venture going?

Terra Sancta is great fun, hard work and really exciting. So far we are right on plan which either means things are going well, or the plan is wildly wrong.

What does Terra Sancta mean? Your label is a bit different?

Terra Sancta means special place, which describes how we feel about our vineyard, its beauty and its soils. The label, which was in the finals of the New Zealand Design Awards, brings the idea of Terra Sancta to life.


Our label is like a map. Everything on it comes from the vineyard: the purple is the wild thyme that grows freely on and around our vineyard, the gold is gold found on Shingle Beach, one of our pinot noir blocks, in the 1800s, the river is the Kawarau which the vineyard borders, the fruits are the flavours in the wine, the dog is our vineyard dog Miro, the bird is a white hawk that hangs out on Lola's Block, a pinot gris block, and the water creatures ... ask me about those in person.

What is your strategy to make Terra Sancta successful?

I have always had a view that strategy is nothing more complex than having a single organising idea for your business and doing absolutely every single thing consistent with that.

What that means for us is that being named Terra Sancta dictates that every single thing comes back to the special land which is our vineyard. For example, every wine, regardless of price, comes only from a particular block and will always do so.

This is counter to the more common approach of buying fruit on the market. In terms of marketing, it meant that the first thing we did was not put together a brochure on being a boutique family winery but drew a cool map of our vineyard, so we can link all the wines to that when customers taste our wine and choose to buy it.

Have you won awards?

We have won quite a few awards, lots of gold medals and 5 stars. Awards are great, but even more important are reviews from top reviewers like Michael Cooper, Bob Campbell and Susan Buchanan at Cuisine.

They really know their stuff, take the time to consider your wines, and are the judges of quality. Awards are a bit more random. Best of all, however, is when customers reorder your wine, and their order gets bigger - this shows it is really hitting the mark, and is the most important thing of all.

What varieties are you producing and how many cases are you producing annually?

Terra Sancta has two brands: Terra Sancta, and Mysterious Diggings - this name comes from an old map of the area around our vineyard.

We only produce wine from fruit that we farm. We do not buy grapes on the wholesale market, like most do. This limits our production to about 10,000 cases which is definitely on the rare rather than volume side of the market.

What price is the wine?

It varies. Our Mysterious Diggings Pinot Noir, which was rated 5 stars by Cuisine and a Best Value by Michael Cooper, retails around $24 a bottle. Before we bought this vineyard, the fruit was going into a wine retailing in the mid-$40 area, so we are really looking to be a brand that offers great value at each price point. Our top pinot noir, Slapjack Block Single Block Pinot Noir, of which we only make about 75 cases, is around $80 per bottle.

Do you export and where to?

We are not big enough to support customers on the entire planet, so are focusing on places we know and like. We are in New York and about 18 other states in the US. We are also in some great places in Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Germany, and, believe it or not, Warsaw.

We also sell across Australia. While we are a relatively young brand, our vineyards are old for New Zealand, with our Bannockburn Estate on Felton Rd being the first vineyard planted in that area.

In wine, and in pinot noir in particular, vine age makes a real difference in quality, so the vine age, our place on Felton Rd, and our label - as well as wine quality - have helped us open up some good export markets quite quickly.

Did you plant the vines or buy an existing label?

We bought three vineyards in Bannockburn, which a number of experts regard as the pre-eminent sub-region in Central Otago.

Two of those vineyards are next door to each other, right at the end of Felton Rd, and the other is higher up and steeply sloping, about 2km away. We put these three vineyards - which had created great wine for a variety of labels - together, and created Terra Sancta.

Do you work in the vineyard or are you more on the business side of the venture?

If I were fulltime in the vineyard, I think it would drive our head viticulturist, Len Ibbotson, nuts. I spend a good amount of time in the vineyard, working though decisions with Len and the team and get engaged in some of the harvest and other activities. Generally though, it is more on the business side.

Are you making money?

We get asked that question all the time, usually by other vineyard owners. Our value-creation strategy is to focus on a mix of brand, land and cashflow. We are a couple of years into it and it is all on track so far.

We want to have a bit of fun as well, so we started a very cool little wine club called the Holy Terras. We just held a tasting for club members at Hopkinson Mossman Gallery in Auckland and it was cool to connect directly with customers and gettheir reactions to our new release wines.

Are you doing anything other than Terra Sancta?

I have also invested in and am chairman of The Village Press Olive Oil. Wine and olive oil go hand in hand, and The Village Press is a great business with great people. On the other end of the spectrum from wine, I love technology.

I have invested in and am chairman of GeoOp a company that recently listed on the NZX, that has enormous potential in providing software apps to trades and service sector and am also involved in BuddyBid, a potentially new form of e-commerce for all sorts of customers who want a new way of selling and engaging directly with their customers online, and Soundchip, a Swiss-based disruptive noise cancellation business.

Different ends of the spectrum energise me, and I enjoy it greatly.

How has the huge lifestyle change gone, from the NZX to a vineyard?

Some things have changed massively and some not at all. I still work as hard as before, which is always probably going to happen because it is what I love doing so that has not changed. But the big shift from Wellington to Queenstown, and from an established business to founding a business and being involved with startups, has been fantastic. Huge fun.

What are the plus and minus factors of such a huge lifestyle shift?

Not having 19 meetings a day and leaving behind the politics and power games has been great. I am also lucky in that I am at the vineyard about 50 per cent of the time and in the cities the remainder of that time. This is a perfect balance and not something I could ever have done as a CEO where you have to be in one place.

What are the best/worst parts of living in the Queenstown area and leaving Wellington?

The best part of Queenstown is the climate, space, food and wine, and just plain fun of it. The worst part of it, and the worst part about leaving Wellington, is that the coffee here is nowhere near as good as Wellington, where great brands like Revive roast locally and many others are all around you, and it is always fresh, and you have much more availability of fresh fish in Welly from stores like Moore Wilson.

What achievements would you ascribe to your life these days?

My main achievement, which is a pretty important one, is spending more time with Sarah than I did when I was CEO of NZX, when I was pretty much unavailable for much else.

What are your goals, can you talk a bit about your personal life (if you want to)?

I think about life in 10-year chunks. The first 10 were focused on competitive swimming and study - both of which I did pretty ridiculous amounts of in various places. The next 10 were living and working in New York, which was an amazing experience. The last 10 have been consumed by NZX, and laterally by a lot of public work like the Job Summit, fundraising for the Christchurch earthquake recovery, and Capital Markets Taskforce.

This 10 is about creating a great wine brand in Terra Sancta, and helping drive some technology businesses to global scale and success.

Do you still swim and if so where, and what do you do?

Yes, I still swim. I just feel healthier and higher energy when I swim a lot. Where do I swim? Well, it is the fulfilment of a lifelong dream to swim in my own pool which is now possible, having just built a lap pool at home. Talking of goals, I also want to win a gold at the World Masters Games next year in Montreal.

Do you own shares and still follow the NZX or have you left all that behind?

I will always love markets, how they work, and where they don't. In terms of personal investments, I am a little bit counter the orthodox theory of diversification in that I like to put money in the same places I am putting my own time and energy, so I tend to own shares in companies in which I am involved personally.

What do you make of the state of NZ right now?

Seems to be a bit of an economic resurgence after the GFC and the NZX just had a record day this week in terms of turnover.

Low interest rates help, of course, in boosting equities, but the major changes are positive long-term ones around savings, the tax system, the clearing house infrastructure.

That is the nuts and bolts, the playing field. On the other side, it feels like there is a higher level of general confidence in the New Zealand story and our future, and when you get a few inspirational companies and stories - like we are starting to see - we will see a new generation of risk takers, entrepreneurs and risk takers that will be the key to a truly vibrant New Zealand economy.