Winery is a labour of love born in France
John Belsham has made wine his life’s work. Reporter Emma Whittaker caught up with the winemaker and critic to find out what keeps him in the business. DAILY GRIND
John Belsham still gets nervous about each new vintage.
‘‘I still get butterflies when I present a wine to an important critic or buyer. I’m on the edge of my seat, not only to hear what they say, but to watch their body language because body language never lies.’’
The owner of the Foxes Island winery cut his teeth in the wine business in France in the 1970s.
In 1977 he was 19 and travelling around Europe working as a waiter when he got the chance to pick grapes at a French vineyard.
‘‘I jumped on the opportunity because that’s what my buddies were doing and I thought it was going to be a bit of fun for three months.’’ It was 1981 before he left. ‘‘It very quickly became what I wanted to do.’’
Foxes Island was born in Marlborough in 1992. ‘‘ We made chardonnay because we love chardonnay. The interesting thing about it is it’s not the most well-known variety in Marlborough and not the most well-known variety in New Zealand. From the start we were swimming a little against the tide.’’
Choosing to open Foxes Island’s cellar door in Ponsonby when the vineyard is in Marlborough was another trailblazing move. It opened last year under the guidance of Mr Belsham’s partner and company director Kelly Brown. The couple lives just up the road in Ponsonby and they travel to Marlborough as needed.
‘‘It’s actually extremely logical because our marketplace is premium buyers. It is private customers, independent retailers, and restaurants. In this country, [Ponsonby] is where the greatest concentration of those people are.’’
That’s not to say that wine must be expensive to be any good.
‘‘I think the analogy is architecture. Architecture doesn’t have to be expensive to be good, it just has to be done by a great architect.
‘‘You can have very bad expensive wine and then you can have very good, good value wine.
‘‘That being said, it’s very rare that you can go out and find an absolute bargain that is outstandingly good and very good value. People that try to do that don’t stay in business very long.’’
Some of the highlights of his CV include being the wine panel chairman for Cuisine magazine and a consultant to Air New Zealand. But it’s not all been plain sailing. ‘‘Try vintage 1995 when we didn’t pick a single berry because a week before we were supposed to start harvesting the heavens opened and it rained and rained and rained and the grapes rotted in front of us.
‘‘Try 2002 on November 17 when we had a minus-4 degree frost overnight and the shoots turned brown and crispy within a few hours.
‘‘Try walking around your vineyard watching that happen before your eyes.’’
In 2008 the global financial crisis affected people’s perceptions of wines all around the world, Ms Brown says.
‘‘It was an interesting period of time because consumption didn’t actually wane but the quality of wine people were drinking changed. If you had $20 in your pocket you bought two bottles instead of one and that was the real challenge.’’
The couple’s next move will be developing export markets including the United States.
Fine wine: Kelly Brown and John Belsham of Foxes Island.