There is no mistaking Joe Wang’s love of wine, New Zealand wine in particular.
An employee who also just happens to be the latest Fellow of New Zealand Winegrowers. Lorraine Rudelj’s service to NZW was recognised at the recent Air New Zealand Wine awards. Not surprising, given her role in the organisation, that spans all the way back to 1980.
No one is more surprised than Rudelj that she has stayed in the one job for 37 years, especially as she didn’t think she would last a fortnight when she became PA to Wine Institute of New Zealand’s CE, Terry Dunleavy, in October 1980.
Having just arrived back in New Zealand the month before, after three and a half years in Sydney, Rudelj hadn’t even begun looking for a job, when she ended up employed by the Wine Institute. It was her good friend Rose Delegat who suggested she come along with her, when picking up her brother Jim from a board meeting.
“The board meeting had ended when we arrived and the board members were all standing around chatting. I think because I was Croatian they practically hired me on the spot,” she jokes. “It wasn’t a proper interview in any way.”
After a week of starting work at the Wine Institute, she was ruing the decision, believing she might not get on with her boss.
“I felt I couldn’t do two weeks. He was far too harsh and over-powering – but then there was this huge soft side that surfaced and I saw him for the teddy bear he was. We are now very good friends and he was MC at my wedding.”
It was literally just Rudelj and Dunleavy at the time. No one else, no marketing, no communications, no science and research. Just two people working on behalf of the fledgling wine industry.
“Then that little boy Philip (Gregan) started about 18 months after me. I used to boss him around and tell him to go and do stuff for me. Even if I said; ‘Philip go and pick up my dry cleaning’, he would have gone. Then the tides turned and Philip became CEO (in 1991) and I was the one going to pick up the dry cleaning, so to speak.”
Thirty-seven years is a long time in any one’s books, but to be in the one job for that amount of time is a unique situation. Rudelj began working for NZW before Central Otago became a wine region. Marlborough had only just produced its first Sauvignon Blanc the year before and the three power houses of the industry were Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and West Auckland. Board members tended to all come from the West Auckland region, unlike today when members come from all over the country.
Gradually the organisation began to grow, initially taking on Kate Kumarich (now Brajkovich) from 1992 until 2000. Kate was the sole Marketing staff member at that point and then in 1994 the Wine Institute took on the Wine Export Certification Service from the Health Department. Sue Church moved into the offices, and a few decades later still carries out that role. As the industry grew, so too did the staff numbers.
“We grew and grew, from two to three, to four and now we have 29 staff in the Auckland office.”
And it is not only in New Zealand that the staff numbers have grown. She says the development of PR partners around the world is something she could never have imagined back when she began in 1980.
“The New Zealand Winegrowers office in London has two permanent staff often taking on part-timers. Then we have PR partners in San Francisco, New York and Canada. I would never have imagined the spread to the South Island where we have six staff in Blenheim, let alone outside of New Zealand,” she admits.
It is not only the size of the organisation that has changed over the ensuing 37 years. Rudelj says for her, the biggest change has been in the varietal makeup of New Zealand wines themselves.
“I remember in the first years, my favourite wine was Muller Thurgau. I purchased it from wherever I could find it and my mother and I drank Muller Thurgau until it came out of our ears. We then moved to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, now I follow bubbles and Pinot Gris and the places you can find New Zealand wine is amazing.”
She cites an example of being in Lake Tahoe recently and watching shoppers at a local supermarket, actually reaching for New Zealand wines, rather than their local ones.
“That blew me away. In earlier years, you would never have found New Zealand wines in Lake Tahoe or anywhere in the US for that matter.”
So after 37 years in the same job, is there anything she will miss?
“Yes. Philip! He is like my younger brother. He walks up to me and I know what he is going to say before he even says it. And he is the same with me. That is something two people can only do if they have been together for a lengthy time. We often say; at home, he has a wife and at home I have a husband. But here we are like that married couple, because we can argue and then walk away and pat each other on the back, always with a smile on our faces - well most times!”
As for retirement, she is adamant that nothing much will change, apart from not having to be at the office every day.
“People say are you going to go hiking or travelling? Well my husband and I do that already. We don’t sit still for very long. But as my husband, Richard, is already retired we are going to be able to do more things off the cuff. Will I miss coming into the office? No. I don’t plan to because I am ready to go. Nevertheless, I have worked with a bunch of great people, NZW office has been an easy place to come to each day. Richard is the cook at the moment, so that is one of the things he wants me to take over – start cooking again! I’m not looking forward to that. More hiking and travelling I don’t mind – but not cooking,” she says with a laugh.
Happy retirement Lorraine – you will be sorely missed by many.