Key Points:

It took guts to be a winemaker in New Zealand in the 1980s.

International audiences were ignoring our product, and we did not think much of it ourselves unless it was fortified or came in a two-litre box with sugar added.

But Ernie and Jane Hunter clearly saw the potential, starting up a fledging winery in Marlborough's Wairau Valley using borrowed equipment from an old Christchurch cider factory.

At the time, only half a dozen wineries called Marlborough home - the most notable of which was Montana, itself a relative newcomer to the area.

Twenty-five years on and Marlborough is the powerhouse of the New Zealand winemaking industry, its reputation for sauvignon blanc far exceeding its geographical size.

Much of this international repute is down to Jane Hunter, who took up Ernie's vision after he was killed in a car accident in 1987.

It is a fitting tribute, then, that exactly 25 years after starting up Hunter's Wines in that picturesque corner of the South Island, Jane Hunter should be appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to viticulture.

The appointment adds to an already lengthy list of accolades for Hunter, who in 1993 was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

The phone call, however, still came as an absolute surprise.

"Anything that singles you out is quite an honour. [It's] quite humbling in a way because, really, you just get on and do what you have to do, not really thinking that you're going to be singled out and rated as a bit of a role model."

Hunter, who hails from a winemaking family in South Australia, had no idea New Zealand wine would be taken so seriously when she embarked on her first overseas marketing trip to England in 1987 shortly after her husband's death.

"We were really not known as a winemaking nation at that time, and no one - I don't think anyone - would have foreseen that we would be where we are today." It's been quite an incredible journey in a short time."

Today, Hunter's Wines is one of the country's most established wineries, with more than 100 gold medals at national and international wine competitions. The original vineyard has also increased by two-and-a-half times its original size and its annual output has grown to around 60,000 cases of wine, nearly half of which is exported.

The New Zealand wine industry, meanwhile, remains one of our fastest growing. It exported more in September this year than it did for the whole of 1998, and is on track to achieve an export target of $1 billion by 2010.

Global economic turbulence poses some challenges for the industry's bumper 2008 vintage, but Hunter is hopeful New Zealand's strong international reputation will see it through what promises to be a bumpy next few years.

She is excited by the prospects for New Zealand pinot gris and pinot noir in the overseas market, which continues to be dominated by New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

"There's a big market for both."

And how will she celebrate the gong? With a nice glass of Hunter's MiruMiru sparkling wine, naturally.