There’s no punt with successor

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Stone watches Swirtz rise from casinos to winery.

The outgoing boss of Gibbston Valley Wines first hired his successor 17 years ago in the American casino business.

Mike Stone, who stepped down on February 1, was a casino company president when he first employed Ashling Swirtz, aged 22, in Colorado.

Stone, who shifted to Queenstown in 1996 to become managing director of Central Otago’s longest-established wine producer, then brought Swirtz over here when he opened the resort’s Wharf Casino 10 years ago.

Initially the assistant manager, Swirtz then managed the Queenstown casino for seven years till Stone sold out.

Stone: “Ashling asked if I knew of another job and I said, ‘you can have mine’.”

Swirtz joined Gibbston Valley Wines last April before taking over as general manager this month – she’d already been a director since 2006.

Having found his successor, Stone is happy to step down: “I’m 63 and a lot of my friends are dying.

“I want to go fishing, play more golf and probably get married in the next year.”

But he’ll also consult for the winery for the next three years on production planning and key customer relations.

Gibbston Valley’s second-largest shareholder after American Phil Griffith, Stone will also sell down half his shares. He bought out Queenstowner Jeff Turner’s ownership stake in 1993.

Stone’s highlight was winning the trophy for the world’s best pinot noir in 2000 – “the first time in 79 years France hadn’t taken it” – as well as 13 consecutive years of gold medal pinots.

Stone says the winery’s on the verge of its second good back-to-back harvest for the first time in 10 years – helped by a $48,000 spend on frost-fighting helicopters for two days in November.

Lowlights have been Queenstown Lakes District Council and the last Labour-led government “killing us with regulatory constraints”, Stone says.

Consent fees just to build a warehouse were $50,000, he says.

Other “stupid” compliance costs include staff having to renew their forklift driver’s licence every three years at a cost of $250 for a four-hour course.

Then there’s extra labour costs caused by the Holidays Act 2003, as a result of which Stone closed his restaurant on public holidays.

“We’re $5000 a day better off closed than open.”

Another concern for Stone is that for the first time this year, Central Otago – like other New Zealand grape-growing districts last year – will suffer “a huge over-supply of grapes” which will affect the price of wine.