JOHN SAKER finds a group of winer­ies work­ing to­gether to spread the mes­sage that there’s more to New Zealand wine than sau­vi­gnon blanc.

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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.

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