THE YEAR THAT
It was 1995 and it was the worst vintage ever. You can tell if it’s going to be a bad year because when the cyclones came down the west coast — as they have also done this year — they go through Cook Strait and devastate Marlborough. That was a horrible year.
I was consulting for three or four companies and I remember the machine harvesters going down the rows and a crowd of botrytis spores coming up, like smoke from a fire — that wasn’t good. It was the first year that Marlborough had had a reasonable volume of grapes, but the contractors couldn’t cope. You’d walk into wineries and temperature warnings would be flashing red because they couldn’t keep stuff cold and you’d have problems like three-day ferments.
And in 1995 I also had a 1-year-old son and a 2-month-old daughter with colic. I would come home after 18 or 19 hours a day of work and be met with my wife, Erica, saying “Take this baby off me now.”
So 1995 became the year we decided to make the Kim Crawford brand. We did it all from our house in Eden Terrace, at home with two small children. Kids can certainly add to your stress when you’re trying to run a business from home. And we were pretty strict that one of us was always at home. We had a rule that we didn’t travel together.
We spent that year living hand to mouth and we did all our planning for Kim Crawford Wines. We borrowed against the house to pay for grapes. I think we had paid $139,000 for the house and thought we’d been robbed.
Erica, who had run a division of a diagnostics company, said: “Well I can sell wine. It’s just another product.”
And I said, “Okay, I’ll make it and you can sell it.” And so we did. We recently found our original business plan, written on the back of an envelope. It was to sell the brand in eight years. And then we would buy some land, grow grapes and make wine ourselves. As it turned out, we sold it in seven years, which is even less believable, and we got more for it than we expected.
I had some really good relationships in the industry, so it wasn’t difficult to get grapes. We never had contracts — the shake of a hand was always good enough as far as I was concerned. And it was never a problem — until we sold the business and the buyers wanted so see our grape contracts and I had to say we didn’t have any. So we had to get a few contracts in order for the buyers to be sure they’d have grapes to make wine.
Normally you pick grapes at 22 brix [which measures the sugar content] or so. This year, with Loveblock Wines, we picked a lot at 18, but it wasn’t as bad as in 1995 when we were picking them at 13. I was on a plane this year flying over Marlborough and the kids I was with looked out and said: “Have you ever seen anything like that?” I said: “I’ve seen worse.” There’s a lot of science in winemaking, but no matter what you do, Mother Nature still rules the roost. As told to Paul Little.