Pioneering winery’s personal touch pays off

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A pioneering Wakatipu winery is getting personal in its fight against a new low in export prices. Paul Taylor reports 

Connisseurs are toasting the success of a Queenstown vineyard wine club – with 22,000 bottles of its wine. 

As the industry reels from a new low in export prices, Gibbston Valley Winery is moving towards a more personal approach. 

Its wine club, established just two years ago, now has 1000 members. 

And they’ve purchased about 1900 cases of its vintages this year – at 12 bottles a case. 

The club is expected to account for more than a quarter of all sales within 18 months. 

More than 450 cases – the latest quarterly shipment to fill club members’ orders – were picked up from the winery yesterday for distribution in New Zealand and abroad. 

Club director Ian Mill says: “It is what I call relationship retailing. 

“Members can pick up the phone and ask for my advice about wines. It’s personal. 

“This autumn we invited members to help harvest grapes from the home block, the vineyard surrounding the winery. 

“It was so popular people are asking to come again and be part of it.” 

About 90 per cent of club members sign up at the cellar door, with 30 per cent from Auckland and 11 per cent from Australia. Deliveries consist of just pinot noir, a wine makers’ selection or customised selection. 

Members receive a 20 per cent discount on cellar door prices, paying $300-$400 for a full case, and other privileges such as exclusive tastings, dinners and hotel deals. 

Mill says: “Direct to consumer marketing makes sense because it’s high yield in the current economic climate in the industry. 

“But it’s also a labour of love for me. I was happily retired but returned to manage the club.” 

To celebrate, customers who ordered four or more cases in a year will get a surprise in this latest delivery –a $120 bottle of its award-winning 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir.

Recent figures show wine exports nationally have more than doubled in the past four years, now worth about $1 billion. 

But the value per litre has plummeted, driven by an excess of Marlborough sauvignon blanc. 

Retailers are even bulk-buying grapes from that region, processing it in contract wineries and bottling it abroad. 

Mill says: “It’s just factory farming of wine. 

“They are looking at the cheapest way of using that excess fruit. It’s a different side of the industry and absolutely affects quality. 

“Central Otago is less than five per cent of the industry but the focus has always been on quality.” 

Gibbston Valley Winery has had its own share of financial troubles. 

Last year, shareholders were reportedly urged to invest fresh capital at a shareholders’ meeting after it was rocked by $2.65m losses over two years. 

Chief executive Greg Hunt said the meeting had a positive outcome but did not release details. 

Pioneering founder Alan Brady told Mountain Scene at the time he backed the new initiatives and was reassured by a move to bring production into line with sales. Now a minority shareholder, he was one of the first people to plant grapes here in the 1980s.

Central Otago is now regarded as one of the top five pinot noir-producing regions outside Burgundy, France. 

“It’s a combination of the soil and climate,” says Mill. 

“These are all old glacial valleys and the vines are grown in what was left behind as they retreated, so low fertility but high in minerals. 

“It’s the hot sunny days and long cool nights, combined with quite low rainfall.”