Just a few years ago, pretty much all Ben Jones knew about wine was that came in two colours - white and red.
The American, a second-year wine science and viticulture degree student at EIT, is now being feted as the Hawke's Bay A & P Bayleys Wine Awards' Young Vintner of the Year.
The prestigious title is a significant kick-start to any young winemaker's career. Ben also benefits from a prize package that will see the Hawke's Bay A & P Society, sponsor of the Young Vintner award, helping with his study fees, and he will be offered valuable work experience at Craggy Range.
Born in Ohio, Ben's hometown is Bedford, Indiana although family moves have taken him to many other parts of the USA.
He chose New Zealand as his introduction to international travel after encountering his first Kiwi while working at a YMCA camp. What kept him here was meeting his partner, Helen Waterworth from Hawke's Bay, when he was on a job exchange at a similar camp on Banks Peninsula.
After a five-month stint in Thailand, the couple returned to New Zealand to study. Helen enrolled in EIT's Diploma in Tourism in Travel while Ben, checking out degree programmes at tertiary institutions throughout New Zealand, lighted on EIT's Bachelor of Viticulture and Bachelor of Wine Science.
The attraction, he says, was his perception of the winemaker's lifestyle. He already had a strong grounding in science, having studied biology and chemistry at college level in the States, and he fancied the topics covered in the EIT degree programmes.
Quickly securing a part-time position at a Bridge Pa Triangle winery helped support his studies and he has also benefitted from the many wine-related events staged at EIT and more generally in Hawke's Bay.
Ben appreciates that the support provided by lecturers to students includes practical advice and he's enjoying the applied learning.
"Wine has become a passion," the 25-year-old says. "It's been an epiphany feeling I am in the right industry now. But if you'd told me three or four years ago that I would be studying to become a winemaker I probably would have laughed."
What he loves most is the creative side of winemaking.
"It's the perfect blend of art and science. It's amazing in that way. The end product is consumed and for the most part it's when people are happy. A bottle of wine can be more than a bottle of wine, it can be a memory, a part of human joy."
Ben's favourite wines are those Hawke's Bay does well - Chardonnay, the Bordeaux blends and Syrah.
"I really love this region," he says. "For one, the climate is amazing."
Up for adventure, he and Helen enjoy activities that include tramping in the Kawekas and trips to favourite destinations such as Taupo.
"We both love to travel so regardless of what we decide to do when we've finished studying," he says, "we'll get in a fair bit of that."