Established by David Holmes in the early 1990’s Richmond Plains was among New Zealand’s first BioGro certified organic vineyards and winemaking operations and in recent years has been a leader in bio-dynamic wine production.
Holmes had worked closely with Jon Harrey from Te Mania Wines for a number of years, sharing not only a tasting room at the Grape Escape complex but also knowledge about organic wine production before he sold his business to Lars Jensen and his wife.
When Jensen bought Richmond Plains he saw an opportunity for the two businesses to work even more closely together leading to the formation of a company to build a winery and tasting room facility for both labels, to manage the production and sales of wine for both labels and allow even more sharing of knowledge; Harrey was a viticulturist and Jensen came to the wine sector from an international marketing background so they used their individual skills for the benefit of both labels.
About a year ago Harrey sold his Te Mania Wines share of the business to Greg Mills who is also a viticulturist and brings similar complimentary skills to the wine production partnership.
All of this may seem a bit confusing but if you think of it as two businesses working together to make great wine and share skills and resources then it all makes sense.
Last week I went out to the Te Mania and Richmond Plains tasting room on McShane’s Road to talk with Mills about why he bought a winery and the 2015 Te Mania Reserve Chardonnay being awarded the Colin Harrison Memorial Trophy for Nelson’s top Chardonnay in 2016.
Mills, who comes from California, worked in the hospitality industry in America, as well as leading bicycle tours in the Napa Valley and it was during these tours he found a friend in wine, the wine industry that is.
“I discovered an industry which nicely brought together a number of my interests so I went back to school at the University of California at Davis where I studied viticulture then decided to do some travel that resulted in my introduction to New Zealand.
“In the late 90’s when I travelled here I was woofing (Workers On Organic Farms) at Moutere Hills Wines for Simon Thomas who took me along to of his regular darts nights and that is where I got to know Jon and David.”
As often happens when people travel and live overseas for a while the ties to his homeland saw him return to America where he worked vintages in Sonoma County and the Santa Cruz Mountains in California, and the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
But like many who visit this wonderful region Mills knew he had found the place he wanted to live so returned to Nelson where he worked in a number of wineries in the region including for Te Mania where he ended up as their viticulturist for a few months after Johnny Hiscox moved on to Aronui Wines.
Mills then moved to Napier for three years and taught in the viticulture programme at EIT where the focus was on more traditional viticulture, “whenever any of my former students hear I am involved in an organic winery they just don’t believe it, organics just wasn’t on my radar at all in those days.”
But the desire to return to Nelson was just too strong to resist so he bought a piece of land in Upper Moutere with the intention of building a house and planting a vineyard but not long after building the house the opportunity to buy Te Mania came up and he but bought an existing business instead of creating a new one.
“It was just a matter of being the right opportunity, at the perfect time, I was able to join a business I was familiar with and ended up with a business partner who has skills I don’t have so that made it an easy decision.
“Having said that two people who don’t know one another very well and are forced into a full time relationship had the potential to be challenging but we quickly sorted out areas of responsibility and because we have respect for one-another the partnership works very well, just as it did with Lars and Jon before I came along.”
Buying Te Mania wines was the final step in a life time of being involved in the wine industry, “the dream had always been to have my own vineyard but it is incredible to see the entire sector rather than just the vineyard side, having an holistic view of the industry and how challenging it can be was made much easier by having a business partner with skills I just don’t have.”
Another challenge for Mills was adapting to the organic and bio-dynamic management of the vineyards and winery, “when I trained at Davis it was definitely old school, I distinctly recall one of my professors referring to it as the organic jihad, it wasn’t taught at all in the late 90’s but I decided that if I am going to go to work every day and put my head in vines I want to be as safe as possible and organic viticulture also gives me great piece of mind in knowing I am reducing the harm many chemicals do to the environment.”
The third part to this business arrangement is having Steve Gill as their winemaker, Gill has been working for the joint venture company, Appleby Vintners, since it was established and has been responsible for crafting some exceptional wines for the two brands.
Having two distinct wine brands gives Gill the ability to experiment a little more, he doesn’t set out to create different wine styles, just to make the best wine he can from fruit that comes from different vineyards, the different expressions delivered by each vineyard means the wines from the two brands can be quite different in flavour and structure.
Greg also says he is really enjoyed seeing what is happening with the popularity of the Richmond Plains Blanc de Noir, “it is a unique wine that has a real buzz starting around it, each year production increases, some years has a pink diamond hue, this years is quite pale.”
One wine that I think is another star from the Te Mania/Richmond Plains stable is the Te Mania 2015 Syrah, when I tasted it last week I was astounded at the fruit intensity of the wine, something we don’t often see in cool climate wines and is testament to the work in the vineyards and the skill of Gill in the winery, this is worthy of a place in any cellar.
When I asked Jensen and Gill if there was anything else they wanted to say Jensen said he thought that when family and visitors come to town over the summer rather than sending them to the beach we should send them foraging for local produce, food, wine, cheese, beers and they can take something home that reminds them of their holiday and is useful rather than another dose of sunburn.
And he says to tell you all to get out and enjoy what is on our doorstep, everything is so accessible we are spoiled for choice and of course you should drop in to Te Mania Wines and Richmond Plains to try the award winning Te Mania Reserve Chardonnay.