Expert Tips On How To Start A Winery
Despite the odds of financial ruin, some people just can’t be talked out of buying a vineyard. Our resident wine expert explores what it takes to succeed
Even among the most contented residents of the urban jungle, who has not fantasised about owning a picturesque little patch of land somewhere and dipping a toe in a more pastoral existence? Imagine hand-nurturing a wine from vineyard to bottle, or uncorking a fine vintage from your own winery while surveying friends’ expressions of delight and envy.
Well, dear reader, the hard truth is that many formerly successful professionals who have taken such a plunge now find themselves wondering how they went from making seven-figure salaries to emptying spit buckets for sullen 20-something sommeliers. Enter winemaking at your own risk—you might end up sitting on more than you can drink in 20 lifetimes after a year or two of disappointing sales, or just broke.
Still daydreaming? Fortunately, for those truly committed empire builders, there are several models for how to get your feet wet without necessarily drowning. For first-hand advice from someone with over a decade of experience, I turned to fund manager, painter and art collector Michael Nock, owner of Nockie’s Palette, a vineyard known for its beautiful art labels and diverse styles and origins of wines from Australia and New Zealand.
Nock’s reasons for joining the wine business will sound familiar. Having spent 45 years in finance, he grew frustrated with “not actually making something”, he says. So he decided to get involved in cultivating the land in some form, inspired by his father and grandfather, both of whom were devoted to their rural properties despite being consummate Sydney boys.
However, his experience in finance made him cautious of jumping in boots and all. Having stepped back from hedge fund management after the 2008 financial crisis, he focused on wine. He was lucky enough to have friends in the industry, including in his native Australia. He was told to spend ample time meeting people before even contemplating a first vintage, which he did. Recounting his own experiences, Nock might just have some good advice for you.
Why buy the cow?
Nock’s first creative matchup was John Duval, a veteran of Penfold’s and an independent negociant (a merchant who buys wine or grapes rather than cultivating a vineyard directly). At Duval’s suggestion, Nock opted for an asset-light model: he would purchase fruit from 60-100-year-old vines and leverage Duval’s immense winemaking experience and access to spare tank capacity at local wineries.
Nock found he was able to put his name on about 100 cases of Barossa Valley shiraz without spending a cent on acreage or facilities. In 2010, the shiraz won a platinum ranking at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Using a similar model, he now offers a grenache- shiraz-mourvèdre (GSM) blend from Duval and two chardonnays from Tim Turvey, owner of the prestigious New Zealand winery Clearview.
Nock recommends this path to anyone smitten with the idea of sharing “their wine” with friends. “Most wineries are thrilled to sell 100-200 cases, even if it’s white label. Then you can sit there with 100 cases and show off all you like,” he says. Because he didn’t own vineyards, he could choose to make a vintage only in years that merited it to keep everything premium, which is essential when operating at such a small scale. He admits you do need to pressure your winemaker to ensure the product is differentiated from others they make, but says it’s eminently achievable if you have a clear brand vision.
Ok, so buy the cow
Though still a believer in the asset-light model, Nock says his faith was shaken when his good friend Michael Hill Smith MW of Shaw and Smith wines went out and bought Tasmania’s Tolpuddle in 2011 on the basis of its incredible vineyard. Nock recalls Hill Smith telling him that when you spot something with the quality to produce an iconic wine, you must secure that fruit source.
Nock had developed a taste for pinot noir and also bought a home in Otago on New Zealand’s south island, a region where he saw great pinot potential. He began talking with viticultural consultants Timbo Deaker and Jason Thomson, saying he wanted a little vineyard for which his brand could ultimately be known. “Owning some dirt positions you differently and gives you some street cred,” he says.
In 2017, Nock ended up buying a vineyard called Georgetown with roughly 20-year-old pinot vines densely planted in a Burgundian style. Given that Georgetown’s reputation was based on pinot rosé, he might eventually allocate more of its fruit to rosé, which is easier to make and more economically sound, but still, there are pitfalls, like an unexpected frost every ten years or so that could be devastating. The cost of a helicopter rental for frost mitigation, for even one night, virtually wiped out any potential profit on a crop.
Raise your own cow
Having tasted vineyard ownership, Nock began discussions with Deaker and Thomson about buying land in Otago with the potential to produce truly great wines. Land near Lake Wanaka was generating buzz and so the three decided to drive around the area scouting for empty blocks.
Nock ultimately purchased just under five hectares of farmland, a small enough plot to avoid the need for Overseas Investment Office approval, which he planted in 2020 with roughly equal portions of pinot noir and chardonnay. He chose chardonnay based on a prediction from Jancis Robinson MW that New Zealand would one day produce some of the world’s best whites. The vines should come on stream in about two years and, based on successful nearby vineyards like Archangel, Nock’s hopes are high. But the small scale means he’s not overstretched. As he says, “Don’t go all in.”
Rent a cow
The other area that caught Nock’s eye was limestone-dominant Waitaki in North Otago, where brands like Valli were already building reputations for ethereally resplendent pinot. However, Nock quickly did the maths and realised that high farming costs meant that even just selling fruit would incur an annual loss. It was no wonder that you could buy a 20-year-old vineyard for the same price per hectare as bare farmland.
Meanwhile John Forrest of Marlborough’s Forrest Wines had decided to focus on his low-alcohol The Doctors’ range and was open to leasing his Waitaki property. Nock leapt at the opportunity. He says he would recommend leasing to any would-be owner for the access to potential greatness without all the risk.
Heck, buy the whole farm
Late last year, Nock connected with successful Kiwi businessman Mitch Plaw, who had similar experience starting a wine label with a negociant. The two were keen to take the next step and invest in an asset that would give them international market access. Nock says he had always been advised that in Hawke’s Bay the only area worth looking was Gimblett Gravels, a unique zone defined by its deep, well-drained gravel beds.
The pair formed a consortium with two other Kiwis and acquired the vaunted, mid-size Hawke’s Bay winery Trinity Hill. Nock sees this as a vital step towards building a robust New Zealand-wide wine company with economies of scale, a loyal following and truly iconic wines. He plans to build out the business’s cellar door and direct-to-customer capabilities.
As mentioned, the labels for Nockie’s Palette feature paintings either by Nock or an artist who has participated in his residency programme. Having long been active in the Hong Kong art scene (he owns Art Lease, a company that leases artworks to corporate offices, and the Nock Art Foundation in Hong Kong), his dream is to build a New Zealand cellar door with a permanent collection of regional art.
Nock already has an enviable collection featuring Antipodean luminaries like Colin McCahon, John Peter Russell and Ian Fairweather (as well as Matisse, Picasso and Kandinsky). However, the more universally applicable point is that when building a brand in the wine industry, it is critical to have a specific viewpoint that drives each decision and makes the whole endeavour personally worthwhile. Until you are confident you know what that is, it may be best to keep this fantasy on hold.
Our top picks for the best Nockie’s Palette wines to try:
Nockie’s Palette Super Premium Shiraz 2010
This platinum medal winner, Duval’s second vintage for Nock, delivers generous helpings of black fruit, hickory and cardamom spice on the nose that make it seem virtually ageless. In the mouth it remains chewy but extremely amiable.
Nockie’s Palette GSM 2018
Like the yin to the shiraz’s yang, this blend of grenache, shiraz and mourvèdre has a translucency to its raspberry fruit while still remaining plush and rich.
Nockie’s Palette Chardonnay 2018
Nock says that when he first explored chardonnay, he wanted someone to make him a big, oaky, buttery one. Turvey’s fit the bill: with a rich, golden colour and banoffee-pie nose, the wine’s sparkles of freshness overlay a buxom, toasty body.
Nockie’s Palette “Georgetown” Pinot Rosé 2019
This wine upholds Georgetown’s reputation for rosé, with a zephyr of pink strawberries and grapefruit, dazzlingly bright and vivid. It’s matched with a clean, fluid texture that melts into a creamy back palate. The new bottle, with a fish scale-like surface complemented by a vibrant label by late Aussie painter John Peart, was designed by Nock’s partner Carina.
Nockie’s Palette “Georgetown” Pinot Rosé 2018
A little perplexing at first, with an almost animalistic quality that blows off to leave a subtle, cologne-like fragrance of dried peach and grasses and a subtle lanolin note, this wine has a texture that is compact and oily with a refreshing touch of bitterness and bright acidity. A few years in, this has evolved cerebral qualities.
Nockie’s Palette “Georgetown” Pinot Noir 2017
This is quite unlike the 2018: considerably darker, with black cherry cordial, clove and dark, toasty tobacco. Its confident, well-formed tannins are enlivened by bracing acidity. Ample concentration and length give it a very Central Otago feel.
Trinity Hill Single Vineyard 125 Gimblett Chardonnay 2018
New Zealand’s reputation for great whites will most likely be built on great chardonnay, and this one helps demonstrate why. The nose is an opening volley of gunf lint, resin and Meyer lemons; the palate carries the fresh citrus motif, adding grace notes of citronella and base notes of wet stone with the tautness and rigour of a baroque concerto.
Trinity Hill Homage 2018
The winery’s flagship syrah with an ambitious price point of NZ$160, Homage trades on subtlety rather than power. With steely purple berry fruit and a fine overlay of black pepper and rosemary, it has a wonderfully glossy midpalate and frosted-glass tannins. The acidity renders the palate seamless, fresh and pure.
Trinity Hill The Gimblett 2017
Blending predominantly cabernets sauvignon and franc with about 15 per cent merlot and a seasoning of malbec, The Gimblett has always been a claret-like example of New Zealand’s “Bordeaux” blends. The 2017 is entering maturity with meaty cedar but still very lively black and red currants and subtle hazelnut oak. It flows evenly over the palate with a delightful silky slip.
See also: The Best Dishes To Pair With Champagne