Sunday, 24 December 2017 08:54

Decades of service

Written by 
Bala (left) and Nick Sage. Bala (left) and Nick Sage.

The 2017 NZ Winegrower Personality of the Year goes to the NZSVO and its departing Executive Officer, Nick Sage and the recently announced life member, Rengasamy Balasubramaniam – better known as Bala.

There seems to be a common thread when you look at the retiring committee members of the NZSVO. All seem to have landed the job after being lured to an AGM by the offer of free wine.

Bala says he was attending one of the Society’s conferences in Auckland back in 1996 when the call went out that the AGM was about to take place and there would be wine available after the event.

“I went for the drinks,” Bala admits. “Then they said, oh we don’t have a Treasurer. I didn’t put my hand up but someone beside me, I can’t remember who, said ‘Oh Bala can do that.’”

So began 21-years as a committee member, during which he held positions of treasurer, secretary and President, on two separate occasions.

This year Bala decided it was time to step down and let some new blood in. In recognition of his services, he was awarded a life membership, only the second member of the Society to ever be acknowledged in such a way – the first being Dr Richard Smart who established the NZSVO in 1986.

Smart’s initial aim for the Society (other than to provide technical information to the industry) was to bid to get the second ever International Cool Climate Symposium to New Zealand. His efforts were rewarded when the NZSVO won the bid and hosted the Symposium in Auckland in 1988. It was a big success and a pat on the back for New Zealand’s role in the world of cool climate wine.

Following the success of that the NZSVO ran annual technical conferences and numerous travelling roadshows. But Bala says the conferences, while they were aimed at both viticulture and winemaking, were not attracting many members of the grape growing community. By the time he was roped in in 1996, Smart had left and the Society was looking at how to reinvent itself. When Bala became President in 1999, the membership was “very, very lean.”

The Romeo Bragato Conference had by this stage been established by Kevyn Moore and Bala and the committee saw the opportunity to help give something back to viticulturists by helping to organise the annual conference and provide more relevant technical information for the growers. Between 2000 and 2003, the NZSVO was part of the Bragato organising committee, arranging and running a lot of the technical sessions.

“But we realised that we were becoming absorbed into something that is more suited to the practitioners instead of the technical side which has always been our goal,” Bala says.

While Bala had been President of the Society for two years, he stepped down in 2001, but when no one wanted the job in 2004, he took up the mantle again. (No comment on whether he was offered free wine). “At that time I said we really need to mean something to the people in the industry, so let’s try and get back the Cool Climate Symposium.”

Eighteen years after hosting the second ever symposium, New Zealand were once again at the forefront, hosting more than 500 people from all over the world at the 6th International Symposium for Cool Climate Viticulture and Oenology in 2006.

The success of the event still has those who attended, talking about it. It was described at the time as the best ever, and one that would be hard to replicate. Bala rates that event as his “proudest moment of being a member. I felt it was a good feather in my cap.”

He stayed on as President until 2009, when he stepped down for a second time, back to a role on the committee.

Since then he has helped with the organisation of regular workshops, focusing on varying varieties from Sauvignon Blanc, to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris to Chardonnay.

For the past two years he also has also played an integral part in the NZSVO’s bid for the 2020 Cool Climate Symposium, and despite having an impressive application, they missed out to Canada.

As mentioned earlier, Bala was not the only person who ended up being on the NZSVO’s committee, after being lured to the AGM by the offer of free wine. In 1999 Nick Sage was attending a conference in Auckland, and when the call went out that Champagne would be available after the meeting, he had no qualms about attending. And just like Bala, he was co-opted onto the committee.

Sage who studied microbiology at Massey University, went on to work for Penfolds in Australia, prior to returning to New Zealand as quality control manager for Montana. Later he was in charge of sparkling wine production, even undertaking a vintage with Champagne Deutz in France, to learn how to use the wine press.

In 1988 he left Montana and set up his own consultancy business the following year, moving to Hawke’s Bay. During the past few decades, as well as his consultancy business and being involved in the NZSVO, Sage was instrumental in establishing the wine programme at Eastern Institute of Technology, firstly with the Certificate programme and later the degree programme.

In 2002 it was decided that the Society needed someone to take over the secretarial aspects and help with the organisation of future workshops. Sage was offered the job of Executive Officer, one he readily accepted.

“Basically the Society needed someone to do the bits that no one wanted to do, and I ran it through my consultancy business.”

He has been instrumental in the bid for the 2006 Cool Climate Symposium, the technical workshops that have become a part of the wine industry landscape over the years as well as the bid for the 2020 Symposium.

For him, the NZSVO has played an integral part in the development of the wine industry, a part he has been proud to be associated with.

“The NZSVO is not aligned to any organisation. We basically run workshops, and our forté seems to be for about 100 people. They are sufficiently small that they become interactive. A lot of it is focused on tastings of wine for particular purposes. They may be experimental wines, or wines made from new clones that are being released. This is where our strengths lie.’’

Bala and Sage are not the only members to retire this year. President Glen Creasy has stepped down as he is heading overseas, Evan Ward (another very long-serving member) has also stepped down, along with Tricia Jane. The new committee is comprised of; David Jordan (who has been a committee member since its inauguration), Jenny Dobson, Andy Petrie, Jeff Sinnott, Simon Hooker, Helen Morrison, Roland Harrison and Mark Krasnow.  Helen, Roland and Mark are new committee members.

So thanks Bala and Nick, and also Evan Ward, for all you have done to keep the NZSVO relevant and for what you have helped deliver to the New Zealand wine industry.


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