Best of 2011: Watch this space

By Rebecca Gibb

There's fresh blood oozing with talent in New Zealand's wine industry. Rebecca Gibb picks the ones to watch this year.

Caine Thompson. Photo / Supplied
Caine Thompson. Photo / Supplied

You're interviewing me?" said the ageing Australian winemaker, "but you don't even look old enough to drink."

Perhaps it was meant as a compliment but the reality is the wine industry is ruled by a more mature demographic, making anyone under 35 seem like newborns.

Yet there are some talented go-getters who are making a name for themselves both at home and abroad. It's exciting to see them coming through the ranks and this quartet have a bright future ahead of them. It's time to talk about my generation.

THE VITICULTURIST

Caine Thompson, Mission Estate, Hawke's Bay
Born: 1982

Mission Estate is the oldest winery in New Zealand but the vines are tended by 28-year-old Caine Thompson. He was born in 1982 - one of the greatest vintages in bordeaux in the 20th century - which may explain why he loves growing bordeaux varieties.

Caine shares his birth year with Prince William but he's beaten him down the aisle, marrying Elephant Hill's American-born viticulturist last year.

He's had a fairly impressive run of success, winning New Zealand's Horticulturist of the Year in November 2009 after taking the Young Viticulturist of the Year award.

"I always like to push myself to do new things. I want to produce the greatest syrah and bordeaux blends in New Zealand."

So why does he love running a vineyard so much? "Every season is different. Every year you have an opportunity to craft something special. You can better what you had done in the previous year."

However, he's not so keen on autumn downpours: "Harvest rains drive me crazy because you see a whole year's hard work go down the drain."

There are plenty of winemaking students coming through the ranks but fewer young and talented viticulturists. Perhaps it's the thought of pruning in the winter that puts them off?

"I don't know why," says Caine. "We're certainly not sipping wine at the end of the rows every day; it's hard graft. You have to be prepared to start at the entry-level position but you can go a long way." At 28, he already has.

THE WINEMAKER

Dominic Maxwell, Greystone Wines, Waipara
Born: 1976

It's 1976: Rocky is the year's box office hit, George "Dubya" Bush is arrested for drink driving, the Muppet Show premiers - and Dominic Maxwell is born.

Today, Waipara winery Greystone entrusts its winemaking to the 34 year-old. He's already spent four years in the role and he seems to be working wonders.

Decanter magazine rated the winery as one of the top 20 in the country and at last year's Air New Zealand Awards its 2009 riesling took home a gold medal.

However, Maxwell reckons his greatest achievement so far was an Elite Gold (it's a bit like an A-plus) for the 2008 pinot noir. "I guess the thing that put the silliest grin on my face was the 2008 pinot noir."

There aren't many people who can say they love their job but he is one of them. "It doesn't feel like work," he says. It's a far cry from his time as a credit controller in a high-rise London office block.

So, what's the biggest challenge for a young winemaker when he's surrounded by other winemakers 20 years his senior?

"Trusting in your own ability," he admits. "There's a tendency not to believe what you are thinking is right. You are also wondering if you should trust your palate.

"My job is to convey the vineyard in the glass on behalf of all the people at Greystone, so I definitely feel the pressure." He seems to be dealing with it well. Watch out for him this year and the next 34.

THE ALL-ROUNDER

Oliver Scutts, Rochfort Rees
Born: 1987

Oliver Scutts is wise beyond his years. At just 23, he runs his own wine company, Rochfort Rees, and has his wine in all the "in" places in Auckland including 1885, The Food Store and Coco's Cantina.

With his father's backing, Scutts is, in his own words, "the proprietor, the distributor, the sales assistant, delivery man, you name it".

Business is so buoyant, this one-man band may have to find a backing singer to share the workload in 2011.

Being so fresh-faced has had its challenges. "People take the piss all the time but I don't care. Everyone thought my wine was going to be a flop but then I won all these medals.

"Once they try your wine they take you a lot more seriously and being in good bars and restaurants gives you a lot of credibility," he says.

Scutts has an unusual business model. Buy grapes on the open market, hire a winemaker and then hand-sell it or use the online retailer blackmarket.co.nz

"I will never ever own a single hectare of vines. Growers are getting only $1250 per tonne for working all year in the vineyard. I think it's better to focus on what people want to drink, not what you can produce, so you can change with the market."

So what's next for Scutts? "Another great Central Otago pinot noir, a super-premium sauvignon blanc and a pinot noir rosé."

I ask him if he has any advice for other young people wanting to get into the wine business. "I'll probably be in a position to give advice in 10 years' time but I would say you should not be afraid to give it a go."

THE SOMMELIER

Mike Bancks, Cape Kidnappers
Born: 1977

Mike Bancks has achieved more in his 33 years than most people do in a lifetime - and he's still not satiated. Armed with a science degree, he embarked on a glittering career in hospitality. The former New Zealand Sommelier of the Year is now group sommelier for the luxury hotel group, which owns Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers.

As well as having two young children, he has just returned from London where he was sitting the prestigious Master Sommelier exams.

There is just one other MS in New Zealand, and only 174 in the world. He narrowly missed out but will be going back next year determined to tick it off his list. "It takes many people three or four attempts to get it. I feel like I'm very close now I know what's required."

He's certainly wise beyond his years but getting people to take him seriously at 33 isn't easy. "I think quite often people perceive young people to be naive. A lot of people don't think you know what you are talking about."

Sommeliers are perceived as snobby and haughty, but Bancks hopes that will change. "Sommeliers should interact with their guests, provide a little knowledge without being arrogant or condescending. I hope the younger breed of sommeliers will erode that awful, stuffy, self-important image," he says.

Bancks' mother is French and he spent five years of his childhood in Brittany before returning to Auckland.

Now, with children of his own, Bancks and his wife hope to move to France one day so the children can learn the language.

Let's hope one of New Zealand's bright young things doesn't stay away too long.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 26 Oct 2014 12:06:39 Processing Time: 377ms