Wine: The American's dream

By Yvonne Lorkin

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Yvonne Lorkin looks at the latest wine choices for the week.
Yvonne Lorkin looks at the latest wine choices for the week.

It's never too late to follow your heart; to change your career direction, says Jen Parr, winemaker for Terra Sancta in Central Otago, and freshly-minted New Zealand citizen. "So now I'm a qualified New Zealand citizen, but I'm not actually a qualified winemaker - I trained by apprenticeship instead".

Born and raised in a small town in Oregon, Parr was educated in the liberal arts at Stanford University before working in New York and then travelling to London to sell financial software.

"My interest in wine grew while I was in London, I loved the New Zealand wines that were available to drink over there, they really drew me in, and the whole idea of one day living in New Zealand really appealed to me."

Now one naturally assumes that working in the scintillating world of financial software sales would be stimulating enough, however, Parr decided to use her spare time to take a wine education course.

"I was very nerdy about it, I was always the first one to class, we were exposed to such amazing wines from all over the world at every tasting and the more I learned, the more I thought 'I just want to do this!'

"My background was sales, I was good at sales, but I was selling things which didn't interest me, I didn't like the industry or the product - so I asked myself the question, what do I love? And I loved wine."

A friend of Parr's had an old country house in the southwest of France, and whenever she needed a break from London, she'd head over there to holiday and to spend time visiting the vineyards in the Gaillac region.

She became friendly with a local family that had offered her a job with them, helping pick grapes at harvest time.

"But a week before I was due to start, they rang and said 'sorry, we've just sold our vineyard, we don't have a job for you, but we called Patrice Lescarret at Causse Marines and he's happy to employ you'.

"Patrice is considered a bit of a crazy, rebel 'natural' winemaker and I really liked that anti-establishment, risk-taking attitude. The day I arrived I was really nervous, my French wasn't very good and this super-skinny guy with a big nose came out and I said 'I'm looking for Patrice', he looked at me silently so I repeated 'I'm looking for Patrice Lescarret' and he said 'So am I', and it was him. So I picked grapes, I washed buckets, I hung out with him, he took me to trade shows, he took me to Michelin-starred restaurants, he taught me about vin jaune and all sorts of groovy things."

Working at Patrice's didn't dilute Jen's enthusiasm for New Zealand, and she eventually set about writing letters to Kiwi wineries asking for a job.

"I sent about 70 letters to wineries saying, 'I've got education, I've got passion, I've got no experience but can you give me a chance?"'

It was George Geris at Villa Maria who decided to take a punt on Jen not being a flaky, no-hoper and thus her entry into the New Zealand wine world was made.

To get as much vintage experience under her belt as possible, Jen travelled regularly to work the harvest at Northern Hemisphere vineyards.

It was when she was working in Oregon "and trying desperately to get back to New Zealand" that Matt Connell advertised for an assistant winemaker for Olssens winery in Central Otago. "He was actively looking for someone from outside of the region and that's rare in Central - but that's how I ended up in this incredible part of New Zealand making wine."

These days, as head winemaker for Terra Sancta, Jen doesn't have the time to swan around doing vintages in other parts of the world.

I asked her if in her role as a winemaker does she consider herself a chemist, an artist or a builder? "I would actually say I'm an architect - which is between a builder and an artist to me."

What advice would she give someone who was thinking about changing vocations to leap into a world of wine? "What I say to people is that they've got to have passion, persistence and dedication. But encompassing that is generosity," she says. "I think that what makes the real wine world work."

What sets off alarm bells for Parr is hearing young graduates spout on about being more academically qualified in wine science than their employers or frustrated that they're not being listened to - when in the reality of winemaking, humility and patience will get you further up the ladder than exam results and ambition ever will.

"I was approached by one particularly ambitious young thing, upset because she felt her boss was fobbing her off when she had questions and that her career wheels weren't moving fast enough despite being highly qualified.

"I said 'clearly you're bright and you're obviously very driven, but you might be lacking some humility. You also need to learn when to ask questions - don't expect patience and answers to all of your questions in the crazy-hectic heat of vintage. I'm sure you'll get a more welcoming response if you pulled your boss aside when things had calmed down and said, hey, I've been noting all these things and have some questions; it would be wonderful if we could discuss them when you have some time because I'd love to learn more ... 'Humility and respect is everything'."

Using your initiative and being generous with your time and your team also speaks volumes about you as a person according to Parr.

"Walk into the winery and say okay, my work might be done but is there other stuff I could do? Could I clean buckets, tidy hoses or sweep floors? And you'll find once you're in this business that generosity of spirit, the sharing of knowledge and opportunity - that's the thing that makes good wine people great."

Visit Terra Sancta at 306 Felton Rd, Bannockburn, Cromwell.

Terra Sancta Central Otago Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2011, $35

Lush, powerful dark cherry, dried thyme and fruitwood smoke aromas are followed by a rich, succulent and fruity burst of black plum and berry-driven, spice-soaked flavour in the mouth. This wine has freshness and vibrancy and is built to enjoy for at least another seven to eight years. www.regionalwines.co.nz

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