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It’s not that she speaks in well-rehearsed self-aggrandising statements. Nope, it’s the sheer amount of work that Cruickshank manages to cram into each and every day that is pretty darn impressive and beggars the question…how does she do it?
After just being crowned winner of the NZI Supreme Enterprising Rural Women award, Cruickshank’s business story, described by the Rural Women New Zealand judges as being “truly inspiring”, took the unassuming wine maker a little by surprise.
“I’m stoked, beyond stoked really. I just do what I do and thankfully some people think it’s pretty incredible what I get up to on my own. This is an amazing opportunity, and a great feeling that people think that what I am doing in Central Otago is special.”
After growing up on Tannacrieff, the family farm in The Catlins, Cruickshank moved to Central Otago for a “year off”, which is code for throwing herself headfirst into learning everything that she could at Akarua Winery over an eight-year period.
Not content to work for others and with a passion to make wine, Cruickshank recognised that there were potential customers in the district with only small amounts of grapes that needed contract winemaking. So she opened her own small wine making facility in a storage shed with some old-world equipment.
“I pretty much fell into this business really, there were a couple of little producers out there, but I found a niche. I do anywhere from 100 litres to 5000 litre batches, the small, small stuff. I started off doing nine tonne and that has now increased to 30-40 tonne. I haven’t kind of figured out how it has happened, but every year it has got bigger and bigger.”
Established in 2012, DC Wines is actively supported by bigger winemaking companies in the area who send customers better suited to a smaller production model Cruickshank’s way. Growing her customer base to make 30 different wines for small producers, she pretty much operates completely autonomously.
Everything here has been done by hand, which means digging out 30 tonne tanks twice in six weeks.
“My father comes at harvest time to lend a hand, but otherwise 95 percent of it is me. I use an old fashion basket press, but I am pretty excited as I have just purchased a new press to hopefully save my body.”
With a work ethic schooled in a seven-day rural community week, she quickly realised not long after opening the winery that she might as well start her own label - she had the facilities after all. After finding a small vineyard on the Wanaka road to lease, the Tannacrieff label was born but that wasn’t the end of it. Curious to find a grape related product not currently catered for in Central Otago, five years ago Cruickshank started experimenting with Pinot Noir Port.
“I didn’t even know how to make port so I Googled it. The results were so successful that I couldn’t turn my back on it. I just fluked it really.”
What started as a curiosity has now blossomed into the major focus for DC wines. Having grown up with an appreciation of duck hunting and the ubiquitous bottle of Port in the mai mai, she called in a favour from an artist friend and a hunting theme adorning each bottle was born.
“Duck shooting is an annual pastime and every mai mai has a Port in it, hence the whole Duck-Shooter’s port, but in the last couple of weeks I have changed the name to Hunter’s Collection which works out better. I can have more wild animals on the labels.”
From an initial run of 150 bottles, this season saw 2000 bottles roll off the line, all of which needed to be hand-labelled and waxed.
“I have gone from 180 litres, to 1500 litres and with the popularity still growing, I need to find ways to meet that demand. All sales so far have been through social media and word of mouth. The duck-shooters one was shared on a hunters’ page and it went berserk, and I have now made my own website and learned to run an on-line store. It has been really cool learning all about that stuff.”
Since first venturing into Port back in 2012, Cruickshank has blended a small portion of each subsequent year’s Ruby Port to create Central Otago’s very first Tawny Port. Yet to be bottled in some very special vessels sourced from Italy, the idea is to produce just 150 bottles of this every year.
“I’m extremely excited about this Tawny Port. It’s a distinctly Central thing and no-one else around here has got anything quite like it. I am aiming at having 200 bottles for sale every year at Christmas starting in 2018. It is just divine.”
With just her loyal assistant Jade the black Labrador at her side (if she isn’t periodically disappearing to grab an errant rabbit), one might think that it’s time for Cruickshank to put a halt on her product development until she can recruit some staff. But then, that would go against the very same ethos that caught the eye of Rural Women NZ. So, next up is fruit Port. Cruickshank works with Suncrest Orchard in a collaborative project that makes use of what might otherwise be wasted fruit.
“It was a real trial, especially figuring out how to press the fruit. We trialed their pulping machine and it worked incredibly. The thing with fermentation is that the C02 creates a cap by pushing the pulp material to the top, so the day after I have started the ferment, I am able to start draining the beautiful clear liquid out of it.”
Growing from an initial five barrels to 24 in 2017, Debra makes apricot, plum, nectarine, peach and cherry Port.
“I actually have a lot of crazy ideas, the most recent one is apricots and plums growing directly inside a bottle. Then, when I produce a fruit Port it will have actual fruit in it. There are heaps of cool things you can do, you just need to go out and trial it.”
Constantly grinning about the rollicking journey that she is on, Debra Cruickshank has just leased a new property in Bannockburn where she is building a new winery. Though, it wouldn’t be part of the DC Wines story if she simply employed tradies to complete it. If the creases in Cruickshank’s well-worn hands could talk, they might say… “give us a break would ya”.
“I do take a holiday in the winter for sure, but for the rest of the year I work seven days a week in the business as a viticulturist, winemaker, mechanic and accountant. Right now, the most frustrating thing about building a bloody winery, is not knowing how to build. Even though my brother is helping me, I haven’t got the patience to sit around and wait for other people which is why I am doing as much as I can by myself.”