Arbiters of good taste: Our stylish women of wine

Hobnobbing with the likes of Mick Jagger, organising dinners for Krug and Pol Roger and rooftop parties at members-only clubs in New York are just part of the job for three doyennes of the New Zealand wine industry.

(From left) Bronwen Skuse, Rachael Carter and Belinda Jackson (Location: Barolo restaurant, The Langham, Auckland). Photo / Babiche Martens
(From left) Bronwen Skuse, Rachael Carter and Belinda Jackson (Location: Barolo restaurant, The Langham, Auckland). Photo / Babiche Martens

Sipping wine in Miami next to Enrique Iglesias, partying at one of the oldest vineyards in Bordeaux or hosting dinners for a Champagne legend like Henri Krug, it's all in a day's work for some of the glamorous ladies behind the scenes in our wine industry. But look beneath the glitz, and they can be found working flat out, developing cutting-edge international wine labels, making sure their bottles are seen in all the right places around the globe or helping wineries put themselves on the world's wine map.

Blundstone work boots, jeans and a polar fleece may be the attire most readily seen sashaying along the winery catwalks, but for the founder of the SOHO wine company, Rachael Carter, it's more likely to be something along the lines of Tom Ford. Not only does the super-chic Carter take her personal styling cues from high fashion, it's the inspiration behind her wine label as well.

"Tom Ford has been the inspiration behind its packaging and marketing, creating a brand that is contemporary, stylish and a little risque," explains Carter.

"Tom Ford put the glamour back into fashion and I'd like to think SOHO has put the glamour into the wine industry.

"For me fashion is everything," admits Carter, "clothes, furniture, music, movies... It's an exciting and creative industry. I love taking an idea and a vision, and the fun is in the creating."

However, Carter's background is actually in wine. Her father owned a winery supply company, and Carter herself was at the helm of one of wine's most revolutionary trends of recent years, as the owner of one of the country's leading screwcap companies.

She sold that business in 2008 to start SOHO, which taps into the talents of seasoned winemakers across the country, while sourcing some of its grapes from her family vineyards.

"I had a great desire to get on the other side of the wine industry and start my own brand," says Carter. "With my background I had access to the best winemakers in NZ as well as a great insight into wine branding. My dream was to create a wine company that was sexy, fun, quality focused and reflected the social network associated with wine, hence the name SOHO."

Carter is no stranger to socialising. "In my heyday I was a bit of a party animal, she confesses.

"For 20-odd years I have frequented many of my customer's bars and restaurants - relationships are key in this game. I guess the fact I've always been pretty social and outgoing is reflected in my work."

Her love of rock 'n' roll has also been transmitted through Carter's work, with SOHO's latest release the Jagger Pinot Gris: "named after the soul man of rock, and someone who I have met and had a great night partying with back in the 90s," Carter recalls.

Past work has seen her visit some of the world's most revered wine regions.

"I've had some incredible experiences," she acknowledges.

"Things like attending the most amazing wedding in one of the oldest vineyards in Bordeaux, running with the bulls in Pamplona and a convertible mustang wine tour of Napa.

It seems to me that people in the wine industry all over the world have this inner party animal and desire to live life to the full," she observes.

"I've sat around a table where we were tasting bottles of wine that could have bought me a large Miu Miu handbag. As much as I love wine I'd definitely take the bag."

Following the birth of her first child, Maren, last October, motherhood has put the brakes on the partying and travel.

"I'm a bit of a workaholic but I'm loving time with my gorgeous baby girl," she says.

"Fortunately I can do a fair bit of work from home and our office is two minutes away from my house."

"I'm always working on my phone which my baby hates, but every time I have a SOHO in my hand she attempts to grab it and tries to drink it: at eight months of age she's definitely her Mum's gal."

Another stylish lady with strong ties to fashion and wine is Bronwyn Skuse. Now sales and export manager for Man O' War Vineyards, before venturing into the professional world of wine, Skuse ran her own clothing label in Australia and can see how these two worlds can intersect.

"There is definitely an overlap between fashion and the wine industry," thinks Skuse, "as fashion is ever evolving, so are people's tastes in food and wine."

It was a first date with a sommelier that set self-confessed foodie Skuse on her current career path. When asked what kind of chardonnay she wanted to drink, she realised that she had no idea of examples beyond those of her New Zealand homeland, which prompted her to enrol on a sommeliers course the very next week.

"I loved it so much that on its completion I went on to study for Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications," Skuse recalls.

"A friend then asked me if I would look at bringing his boutique wine label in from New Zealand and I thought, 'what the heck!' Never would I have expected a few years later that I would be back in New Zealand working full time for a winery on Waiheke Island."

Responsible for selling Man O' War's wines into Australia, the US and Canada, much of Skuse's time is spent jetting across the continents.

"I travel a good seven months of the year. Although it's tough, I see some incredible places, get to meet some incredible people and experience many different cuisines and cultures," says Skuse, who only last month was rubbing shoulders with Iglesias.

"I suppose another plus is I get to shop in NYC and LA," quips Skuse.

"My nieces and nephews get very spoilt, and I spoil myself occasionally too."

However, she notes that it is hard work, seeking out compatible importers, distributors, restaurants or retailers across her markets.

"This job is very hands-on, there is no easy way around it other than time in market and hard work," she states.

"The industry is very, very competitive: in the US each of the 51 states is like a different country with different rules and regulations to abide by.

"The long travel trips are tough on the old body," acknowledges Skuse.

"Sometimes it's daily flights, driving in cities you are not familiar with, on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car and launching with a new team in a new region daily."

Luckily Skuse loves meeting and mixing with people and has the personality and panache to enable her to make those all important first impressions.

"You are flying a flag for New Zealand, for Waiheke, for your winery - and first impressions stick."

"I love people and meeting people from all walks of life: you need to be this way to do a job like mine," observes Skuse.

"I love the fact that in wine we all may be so different but we all have one major thing in common: our love for wine. It brings people together."

"Food, wine and travel would be the things I like to do most, so I suppose this must be my dream job."

Despite all her exciting journeys through the world of wine, Skuse's heart remains with Waiheke.

"Waiheke is truly unique, has some of the steepest vineyards in New Zealand, so many different soil profiles and microclimates that it is possible to grow many grape varieties really well there," she enthuses.

"It's pristine and picturesque, a true paradise - and there are many wineries making world class wine there."

Skuse describes her career high to date as "sitting on the rooftop of a members-only exclusive club in NYC, surrounded by tables of people with ice buckets full of Man O' War wine".

"That felt good," she says. "But actually, I get a buzz out of any new placement we get - retail or restaurants - as it means the brand is growing and I am doing my job."

Belinda Jackson is another one of our smart women of wine who has experienced a liberal splash of glamour in her jobs in the industry to date.

After being given "a set of luggage, £100 and a one-way ticket to Bordeaux" by her father for her 19th birthday, she launched her career among the chateaux of the legendary French wine region.

Returning to Britain, she worked for a wine wholesaler, where she rose in the ranks to oversee the buying and marketing of 750,000 cases of wine from around the world. This saw her flying off on regular wine-buying trips to the likes of Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Chile.

After relocating to New Zealand in 1995, she took over the buying, ranging and promotion for the Liquorland chain, followed by a stint as European wine-buyer at Glengarry.

Then, 10 years ago she relaunched herself as a as an independent freelance wine consultant, a varied role which sees her assist wineries with their local and international branding and marketing efforts, copywriting, teaching about wine, working in wine evaluation and public relations, as well as running one of the country's major wine competitions.

On top of her consultancy work, Jackson is also writing a book on wine and food and is excited by her work on the radio, hosting the One-Eyed Wine Show on Marlborough's More FM as well as guesting on other programmes.

"I get to do all the things I like and get paid for it," acknowledges Jackson.

"Well, not all of it - but then that's what being passionate is about - some things you do because you want to contribute, to make a difference."

Jackson juggles this hectic workload with being the mother of 10-year-old twin boys.

"I get great satisfaction from my role as a Mum and as a professional wino," she laughs, "and somehow manage to successfully combine the two with running a house. I'm a solo mum so while it's all very full-on, it is very rewarding."

Though Jackson plays down the glamorous side of her roles, her work has seen her hosting some decidedly swanky soirees.

"I have held very special dinners for Henri Krug, and Christian Pol Roger, who remains a good friend," she admits. "And I've worked with a number of our top chefs in creating menus to match wines for events such as these."

"I've always felt very lucky and privileged to attend some of these wonderful events," says Jackson.

"One of the highlights was attending a black-tie dinner in the caves under Champagne as a guest of Mercier, which was simply incredible with solo musicians playing on every corner as the little train took us deeper into the cellars, clutching footless, crystal glasses of vintage Champagne."

Her travels have seen her sipping in many of the world's top wine hot spots.

"I loved drinking Sancerre in a little cafe in Sancerre, at the top of the hill looking down, and loved climbing down into the dark, cold cellar at Domaine de Courcel in Pommard, Burgundy and tasting from barrel," she recalls.

"I felt incredibly awed to be tasting [Loire sauvignon supremo] Didier Dagueneau's outstanding pouilly fumé with him one-on-one and felt very honoured to arrive unannounced at Mount Pleasant in the Hunter Valley and be given an impromptu 10-year vertical tasting of their Elizabeth label," Jackson remembers. "I have been very lucky."

- NZ Herald

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