Say cheese: Bob Berry at Wet Jacket's cheese room

Pioneer New Zealand cheesemaker Bob Berry has had a lifetime attachment to Queenstown. He discusses his early days visiting the resort, and latter days living here, with Mountain Scene’s Philip Chandler

Scratch many older Queenstowners, and you’ll often find they holidayed here for ages before planting down permanent roots.

Typical is Bob Berry, who founded award-winning Whitestone Cheese, in Oamaru, just over 30 years ago.

He and his wife Sue semi-retired to Queenstown after building a home at Lake Hayes’ Bendemeer, only four years ago, but Bob’s been coming here for about 60 years.

He recalls first visiting for a ski holiday in 1957 while boarding at Oamaru’s Waitaki Boys’ High School – and has hardly missed a local ski season since.

In 1964, his family bought a section at Queenstown’s Arthurs Point – “I think we paid 250 pounds” – and built an A-frame which was only the subdivision’s second house.

Bob says when he skied Coronet Peak in those days, “you knew everybody on the mountain”.

In about ’65, his family was in a rush to go skiing – “someone cleaned out the fire and put the embers in a cardboard box, someone else threw the box out the front”.

“Someone skied up to me on the mountain and said, ‘did you know your house is on fire?’

“We looked down, saw smoke coming from it and tore down the road.

“Sure enough, the house was on fire – fortunately, someone had rung the fire brigade and they put it out and saved it.”

After first working as a stock agent just north of Dunedin, where he hails from, Bob graduated from a weekend farmer into a full-time sheep farmer in 1972.

Ten years later he bought a farm at Maheno, near Oamaru, and says he “walked right into Rogernomics” – a reference to Labour Finance Minister Roger Douglas removing farm subsidies.

Combined with some crippling droughts, “I wanted something off-farm so I could be a price-maker, instead of a price-taker”.

Inspired by a fellow county councillor, who had a house cow and made cheese in her kitchen, he and Sue started making cheese in a converted garage in Oamaru.

The couple had also been inspired by tasting European cheeses on their travels.

“Hardly anyone in New Zealand then was making specialty cheese.”

To cut a long story short, Whitestone Cheese has become a major boutique cheesery that’s enjoyed export as well as domestic success, and picked up silver in an international competition.

Though his son Simon took over as big cheese about five years ago, Bob still sits on Whitestone’s board and is in daily contact with the business.

He also co-founded and formerly chaired the NZ Specialist Cheesemakers Association,

A highlight came two years ago when he was made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit.

“It came out of the blue – I got a letter in the mail and I thought it was a fundraiser for the National Party.”

Throughout his working life, Bob and Sue always holidayed in Queenstown.

During the 80s droughts, “it was a wonderful release valve to get out of that environment and mix with other people”.

In the mid-90s, they sold Arthurs Point and bought an apartment in Marina Village, above Frankton Road, which they still own.

When they shifted here, however, Bob says they looked for something more rural and found the upmarket Bendemeer subdivision which developer Alistair Jeffery was then resurrecting.

They got a house designed by local architect David Stringer, and couldn’t be happier living there.

Besides enjoying skiing, golf, boating and fishing, 72-year-old Bob also chairs the owners’ body, Bendemeer Management Ltd.

He’s a huge fan of Queenstown – “it’s got huge growth at the moment but what comes with that is the vitality of a young community”.

The only thing cheesing him off is the development of Ladies Mile.

“We had a superb entrance into Queenstown, enhanced by the vision of the late Bill Walker, and we have lost it with the stroke of a pen under the guise of special housing legislation.”

He’s delighted, also, that Whitestone cheese is so popular in local restaurants and supermarkets, while his daughter Ness also sells it at the local Remarkables Market.

And now his product’s even on sale at the entrance to Bendemeer, after Wet Jacket Wines owner Greg Hay invited him to put a cheese ageing room into his historic woolshed.