It’s January 28, 2012 and the venue is Queenstown’s Millennium Hotel.
Industry newcomer Mark Weldon can’t understand why delegates tasting “second-tier” French Burgundy wines at a pinot noir conference are all hushed up, obeying protocol not to speak, for 30 minutes.
“We were told there’ll be no coffee in the room because it would destroy the olfactory senses.”
Weldon says at a Central Otago tasting the day before there was plenty of noise and an espresso machine going.
“We bring a bunch of people from overseas here and the signal that we send implicitly is that even a second-tier Burgundy is worth more reverence than our own product.”
The ex-corporate high-flyer reflects that he bought Bannockburn’s Olssens a year ago because he has huge faith in the Central Otago product.
“We don’t need to be putting ourselves second.
“Yes, Burgundy’s got a longer history but in 25 years what this region’s done in wine is incredible.
“In the next 25 years, if there’s a real great collaboration between food and hospitality and wine – like Sonoma County in the US – then the rest of the world should be looking at us.”
After a stellar corporate career, Weldon is perhaps a surprising new player in the local wine industry.
A law scholar and Olympic swimmer, he worked in law and finance in New York before becoming New Zealand Stock Exchange boss, aged just 34.
During 10 high-profile years he turned NZX into a mutual listed company and heavily invested in it.
Twice he was tapped by Prime Minister John Key – to chair the Job Summit in 2009 and last year to head the global Christchurch Earthquake Appeal which raised $100 million.
Weldon encountered old world pinot noir while running the wine programme for two large New York companies.
Last October, he bought the well-established Olssens – and a neighbouring vineyard – and renamed it Terra Sancta or ‘sacred earth’.
After quitting NZX in May, Weldon and wife Sarah Eliott left Wellington to settle near Arrowtown, 30 minutes’ drive from the vineyard.
“This was the one part of NZ that we thought we really would like to put down some roots and it seemed both rational and the right thing from an emotional perspective, once everything finished in Wellington, to move holus bolus down here.
“Five years ago, everybody thought if you bought a vineyard, you were going to be a millionaire and everyone now thinks it’s the worst business in the world.
“It’s a business that is pretty capital-intensive and it’s a market that is pretty brutal but equally, people who have made good long-term decisions have done well.”
Weldon – who admits he loves a challenge – says he’s doing a few things that are “quite counter-trend”.
“We’re only making wine off grapes that we grow on our own vineyards.
“There’s none of this hocus about telling a story of ‘terroir’ but actually it’s fruit you’re buying on the market.”
Weldon’s also bucking the trend towards contract viticulture by hiring his own staff to tend the vines.
Rather than use a distribution agency, he employed his own marketing manager, Queenstowner Graeme Smith.
Weldon is also building his own winery – the concrete pour was Tuesday last week.
“The weather that day typified the climate we have – at 7am it was zero degrees and at 3pm it was 25 degrees – an amazing range but it’s one of the reasons pinot noir grows so uniquely well here.”
Weldon says his grapes escaped last week’s disastrous frosts because of his vineyards’ sloping lie, Kawarau River in front and warmer climate.
Weldon admits he didn’t know too many locals before settling here.
An exception is prominent investor and former Stock Exchange chairman Sir Eion Edgar.
“Maybe subliminally over time he had a bit of influence on me moving here because whenever he talks about Queenstown he’s just so happy.”