JOHN SAKER finds a group of wineries working together to spread the message that there’s more to New Zealand wine than sauvignon blanc.
Twelve Kiwi wineries work together to market New Zealand wine to the world, says John Saker
I WAS PRESENT AT THE birth of the Family of Twelve; I was there again when the group of family-owned wineries recently celebrated its 12th birthday. One of the things that stood out on the first occasion was just as noticeable a dozen years on – these guys really enjoy each other’s company.
You can put that down to a number of things, one being the co-operative spirit that has been a feature of the New Zealand wine industry from the start. Overseas observers often express amazement at the mateship they see among Kiwis who work for competing wineries.
It might also have something to do with the original Family of Twelve selection process. The story goes that after the idea to create the group had been hatched, Richard Riddiford (Palliser), Steve Smith (Craggy Range), Clive Weston (Nautilus) and Judy Finn (Neudorf ) got together over a glass or two and began to toss names around. “God no, I couldn’t work with him,” was a refrain that helped shape the final line-up. It was wine’s own version of the All Blacks’ ‘no dickheads’ policy. “But we were there well before Shag (All Blacks’ coach Steve Hansen),” says Judy Finn, current Family of Twelve chairperson.
The Family of Twelve is certainly an exclusive hapū, consisting of the following premium wineries: Ata Rangi, Craggy Range, Felton Road, Fromm Winery, Kumeu River, Lawson’s Dry Hills, Millton Vineyard, Nautilus Estate, Neudorf Vineyards, Palliser Estate, Pegasus Bay and Villa Maria.
Twelve years on, the original cast members remain steadfast (despite the deaths of Ross Lawson (Lawson’s Dry Hills) and Richard Riddiford), as devoted and committed to the collective as ever. Over that time, more than a few other New Zealand wineries have asked if they could join the party, without success. The Twelve has no expansionist ambitions.
“Twelve is a box of wine, the ideal number,” says Finn. “Winemakers tend to have strong views. If we had 25 members nothing would get done.”
Also reflective of the group’s strength and relevance is its current busy programme of events. This includes themed tastings for media and sommeliers in Europe, Asia and the US, along with an inaugural twoday wine tutorial to be held in July, aimed at nurturing New Zealand’s up-and-coming wine professionals.
Behind all this is the fact that the Family of Twelve’s central raison d’être – marketing – is a challenge that never goes away. At the upper end of the market, where pretty much all the Family of Twelve brands operate, the marketing challenge is as tough as it ever was.
New Zealand sauvignon blanc has rocketed to global fame as a reliable, fairly ubiquitous and affordable wine style, one that is blushingly easy to produce in quantity. What’s unfortunate is that this success has become the central theme of our international wine narrative. For many people around the world, Marlborough sauvignon blanc is New Zealand wine. Producers of our most accomplished wines – mostly smaller, quality-driven companies such as most of the members of the Family of Twelve – have found themselves away from the spotlight, struggling to be seen and heard.
“What the Family of Twelve has been trying to say from the beginning is that New Zealand is a fine-wine producing country,” declares Finn. “That underlines everything we do.”
ABOVE LEFT TO RIGHT Timothy Evill of Lawson’s Dry Hills, Paul Donaldson of Pegasus Bay, Annie Millton of Millton Vineyards, Stephan Walliser of Fromm Winery, Karen Fistonich of Villa Maria, Judy Finn of Neudorf Vineyards, Clive Weston of Nautilus Estate, Aaron Drummond of Craggy Range, Pip Goodwin of Palliser Estate, Blair Walter of Felton Road, Helen Masters of Ata Rangi and Paul Brajkovich of Kumeu River.