United States: California calling

By Leena Tailor

He's made sauvignon blanc fit for President Obama and escorted Ryan Seacrest and U2's The Edge on private winetasting tours. Leena Tailor meets Bill Nancarrow, the unofficial Kiwi wine ambassador in the famous Napa Valley.

Bill Nancarrow grew up in Hawkes Bay but discovered his love of winemaking in South Africa before eventually landing in Napa Valley. Photo / Supplied
Bill Nancarrow grew up in Hawkes Bay but discovered his love of winemaking in South Africa before eventually landing in Napa Valley. Photo / Supplied

If you're a Kiwi in Napa Valley and don't know Bill Nancarrow, chances are you're new in town.

At bubbly haven Mumm, managing director Simon Towns played hockey with Bill "many moons ago".

Up the road at Ladera, Waiheke native Jade Barrett performed in a group haka at Nancarrow's recent wedding.

Meanwhile, over at Petroni, former Stonyridge winemaker and manager Martin Mackenzie has cricket on his mind.

"Tell him I'm surprised he had time to see you since he didn't make it to the cricket on Sunday."

"It was 100 degrees," says Nancarrow, "there was no way I was going to play in that."

After 13 years in Napa, the 45-year-old New Zealander laughs off the idea of having become somewhat of a Kiwi ambassador, while carving out a career that has seen him leading construction of major wineries, making sauvignon blanc fit for President Obama and escorting American Idol's Ryan Seacrest and U2's The Edge on private winetasting tours.

Nancarrow hails from Hawkes Bay, where although his mother Jill indulged him with his first sip of a Vidal white when he was eight, she otherwise stuck to her 5pm gin and tonic, and he felt very little of the region's wine culture growing up.

Studying hotel management in Wellington, he enjoyed the wine classes, but swapped blancs for beer in his downtime.

"I was a poor student so I was drinking too much Lion Brown. That was back when you couldn't get Speights outside of Otago."

For many Kiwis, the next step would be heading off on their OE in London, but Nancarrow took a different route, heading to South Africa, where he began forging his path to Napa.

Landing a restaurant job in Cape Town at 23, he accompanied the owner on winetasting trips through Stellenbosch and became so enamoured he enrolled in a local vintner course.

"As they started the technical side about vineyards, grape-growing and winemaking, I suddenly went, 'This is fascinating. This is what I want to do.'"

Although Africa ignited Nancarrow's passion for wine, it also landed him in hospital with malaria, so for his next trip he explored the safer French wine meccas of Champagne and Burgundy.

Out of cash and receiving news that his mother had cancer, Nancarrow stowed away on a channel ferry to get back to England - "I probably shouldn't tell too many people that" - and landed his first official winemaking gig at Thorncroft, south of London, then bought a ticket home.

Returning to Hawkes Bay, Nancarrow discovered the beauty of his hometown as a wine hub, first becoming a jack-of-all-trades at small operation Huthlee Estate then working under Kate Radburnd at CJ Pask Winery for five years.

"She taught me everything I know and she's still my mentor today. The technical side you can learn anywhere, but Kate taught me the need for dedication and to not ever be satisfied - always look to make a better wine.

"In New Zealand you need to be flexible and resourceful because the condition of the fruit's influenced more by changing weather patterns, so there's a willingness to try different things. Having that ingrained in me has definitely helped here [in Napa]."

Wanting to experience an overseas harvest, he arrived in Napa Valley in 2001 expecting to be cleaning out tanks at Duckhorn Vineyards, but, in a stroke of luck, the assistant winemaker quit, providing an opening for Nancarrow that would lead to a decade of opportunities.

He recalls volunteering - "in a slightly drunken stupor" - to become winemaker at Napa's Paraduxx vineyard, then ending up also overseeing its design and construction.

At Duckhorn, famous footballers or musicians like The Edge would make the trek from Los Angeles to stock up their cellars.

"The Edge did a private tour with his wife and they were lovely - very into wine," says Nancarrow.

Then there was the honour of being made executive winemaker for the entire Duckhorn stable of seven vineyards throughout Napa.

"The resources were fantastic," says Nancarrow, whose Duckhorn sauvignon blanc and Golden Eye pinot noir were served to President Obama during his inauguration luncheon.

"We were well-funded, so if we wanted to buy equipment that we thought would make a better wine, the resources were there to do it.

"And Duckhorn was buying from 80 different growers so I really got to know Napa Valley and how grapes grow in different regions."

Over the years, Nancarrow's role became more focused on promoting wine and travelling.

Feeling increasingly disconnected from the winemaking process, he joined Goosecross Cellars earlier this year, a role that has meant less time away from wife Stacie (who he met at Duckhorn and wed earlier this year), their four-year-old son Liam and Fergus, his 15-year-old son from a previous marriage.

Stacie, he says, is busy studying dental hygiene.

"It's a good thing to have in the family," he laughs.

"Winemakers have bad teeth!"

It has taken him time to get used to a different way of doing things in his new role.

"We have a team of eight at Goosecross, compared to 160 at Duckhorn. So there were a couple of times where I went, 'Okay, we need to do this ... ' then sat there before going, 'Oh, I need to do it!'

"But it's great to be back in a more hands-on role because that's what I enjoy most. Some of the wines we're making are different, like viognier and tempranillo, so I'm learning about a wider range of grapes."

After 13 years in Napa, Nancarrow is a mainstay on the local vintner scene, but admits the transition from New Zealand to Napa hasn't been without its challenges.

"The first harvest was the trickiest because I was so nervous since the grapes grow differently here.

Duckhorn was such an iconic brand and I was only the third winemaker to join the company, so I was terribly stressed about screwing up. Thankfully, it was a great growing season.

"And I've had to learn more about public speaking because there's more onus on the winemakers to be presenting the wines here. The language barrier's also hard. I'm constantly reminding people they speak American and I speak English!"

His accent may still have a Kiwi twang, but Napa's cute town of St Helena is firmly home and he doesn't rule out starting his own wine label one day. He says he misses New Zealand beaches, but has helped bring Kiwi sport to the region as a regular at touch rugby and cricket games.

"When I first came over I thought I was the only New Zealander in Northern California, but you quickly realise there are a few of us and more young Kiwis are coming over to work a harvest. I help them out with being here and the do's and don'ts. People hear about our touch rugby and cricket and come to play - that's been great to give us that little connection to home and the things we grew up with."

There are aspects he didn't grow up with, like having to be wary of mountain lions and snakes, or needing to plan outings.

"In New Zealand, if you wanted to go barefoot to the beach or play golf, you'd just turn up. Here, you have to plan in advance, book a tee time. And there's not a whole lot to do with kids - we can't exactly take them winetasting, so it's mainly organised sports and some hiking. San Fran is nearby and we head to Lake Tahoe."

The boys do help with production, though, particularly during harvest season when Nancarrow works up to 16-hour days and will have them help pick grapes.

"They've grown up with it. Fergus has been making wine since he was eight. He's showing an interest in winemaking as a career. We've made some home wines and they have a winemaking class at the high school. Because it's such a wine-centric community, the school has good agricultural programmes, so if the kids want to, they can learn about grape-growing, then winemaking.

"It's early days but we'll see where he takes it."

Bill Nancarrow's top picks

Nancarrow's favourite New Zealand wines are Nelson's Neudorf Chardonnay, Martinborough's Ata Rangi wines and "everything coming out of CJ Pask". His Napa picks come from the vineyards of Shafer, Hyde and Ladera.

EXPLORING NAPA

Packed shoulder-to-shoulder along a narrow 56km valley, American winemaking's most famous names are all found in the Napa Valley. Three hundred-plus wineries lie along Highway 29 and the more scenic Silverado Trail.

For a multisensory experience (eliminating concerns about designated drivers) the Napa Valley Wine Train runs from Napa to St Helena, past 27 vineyards. Enjoy the scenery and dine handsomely during the three-hour journey aboard restored 1915-era Pullman cars.

For lunch and dinner, there's a long list including Terra, known for chef Hiro Sone's innovative cuisine, and The French Laundry's more relaxed sister restaurant, Bouchon, in Yountville, featuring classic bistro fare. Tra Vigne in St Helena, a Tuscan-style trattoria in an ivy-laced farmhouse offers wood-fired pizza, decadent short ribs and the best alfresco dining in the valley.

There's more to the valley than food and wine - joggers and cyclists love its undulating country roads, spa junkies its mud baths and just about everyone loves its warm, sunny days and laid-back country air.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Napa Valley.

- NZ Herald

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