Thursday, 23 July 2020 10:48

Kinship & solidarity

Written by  Sophie Preece
Kate Barnett with her husband Matt and children Ben (14) Annie (11) and Charlie (12) Kate Barnett with her husband Matt and children Ben (14) Annie (11) and Charlie (12)

Harvest is a family affair at Domaine Thomson.

Kate Barnett clearly recalls her father pulling up in Wanaka on New Years’ Day, to load his four begrudging daughters into the Chrysler Valiant station wagon. The first days of January were always dedicated to picking blackcurrants on their farm, north of Dunedin, and Kate was there for every harvest, from age five through to 20.

The planting of Felton Road vineyard was also a family affair, after her dad – Stewart Elms – found the Bannockburn site, kick-starting a wine life that eventually led Kate to Domaine Thomson in Central Otago, where she’s Operations, Marketing and Cellar Door Manager. This year she was also chief recruiter of locals for harvest, including her 11, 12 and 14-year-old children, in a step back in time she’s cherished. 

The Covid-19 lockdown saw the boutique company caught short of harvest crew until a team of 18 friends and family filled the breach. Being in a small town “at the end of the world”, and asking people to come out of their isolation to help pick, was initially daunting. “With Level 4 lockdown just starting, it was a big ask - one which I felt quite strongly,” she says, describing a sense of solemnity as the team familiarised themselves with the necessary layers of safety protocol. But it rapidly became a precious time for the crew, with separate bubbles bonding emotionally, if not physically. “They were so grateful to be there and we were so grateful to have them. It was a really lovely, lovely time.” 

Now, with fruit in, the company is preparing for a pared down period ahead. A beautiful new cellar door – 10 years in the planning and open for just six weeks before lockdown – has missed its grand opening. The vineyard’s owners, David and PM Hall-Jones, were to be back for the harvest and for the launch, but were unable to leave Hong Kong, where they are based, due to the pandemic. 

Closing the doors on the cellar door was heartbreaking, Kate says, describing the “elegantly rustic” and intimate interior, and a corrugated tin exterior that evokes the days of David’s great-great-grandfather, John Turnbull Thomson, a pioneering surveyor in New Zealand and Asia. But she hopes it will now be an appealing destination for locals and domestic tourists looking for a wine experience in “a lovely safe intimate space”. 

In the meantime, Domaine Thomson are cutting costs where they can, and looking at the business in a different light. It will be all hands on deck in the vines and winery, and when visitors come to the cellar door, one of the team will “drop tools” and come in from the field to host them, just like the “old days”, she says.

The impact on Queenstown restaurants – home to much of their business – is having major ramifications. “Even before Level 4, and with the onset of the two week quarantine, we started to feel the pinch of fewer tourists,” Kate says. “But I am quite optimistic about it. I think they are experienced operators and they know what they are doing.”

Online sales boomed through the lockdown, and Kate also put an advert in the Otago Daily Times, drawing plenty of attention from non-digital Pinot lovers. It’s another old-school approach that appeals, she says, calling the lockdown an opportunity to reset. “That’s kind of why I am loving it, on a personal level.” It’s certainly a vintage to remember, she wrote in a heartfelt post on social media. “If a wine could speak of solidarity, gratitude and kinship, 2020 will be the wine to sit back and listen to.”

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Going international

It is one brand with one owner and one varietal wine but from this year onwards, the winery formerly known as Surveyor Thomson has rebranded to Domaine-Thomson (no relation to this writer) and acquired land in Burgundy. 

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