Pinot Noir was bigger than Texas in the minds of Martinborough Vineyard's founders when Larry McKenna arrived in 1985 to be the winemaker and 20% shareholder.
"This award was a real surprise for me. It was so incredible to be acknowledged for doing what you love," says the Assistant Winemaker at Dry River Wines in Martinborough.
Sam grew up in Waikanae and became set on joining the wine industry when his high school career advisor suggested viticulture. "From then I couldn't get the idea out of my head."
Determined to have a degree first, he studied biochemistry at Otago University, before enrolling in a postgraduate viticulture and oenology programme at the University of Auckland. As soon as he started the course, based on Waiheke Island he was "hooked".
Sam kickstarted his winemaking career at Villa Maria in Auckland, then worked his first vintage overseas at Domaine Bott-Geyl in Alsace. He had applied for a job at Dry River Wines early on in his career, but missed out on the role, "so I kept learning and travelling". That led him to a number of overseas vintages - Domaine Francois Villard in Saint-Michel-sur-Rhône and Domaine Stephane Ogier in Ampuis. In 2017 he took up a once-in-a-lifetime offer to do a vintage at Napa's Screaming Eagle, which he describes as an "unforgettable and formative learning experience".
When the assistant winemaker role came up at Dry River Wines in 2018, Sam applied agin. "I've always been inspired by Dry River Wines and its prestige," he says, noting it was one of few wineries he would have moved home for. Chief Winemaker Wilco Lam remembered him and hired him right away, and he joined a tight-knit team of six, just a short drive from friends and family on the Kāpiti Coast.
Dry River is organically farmed and practices low-intervention winemaking to produce wines that capture each vintage, says Sam. "We are stewards of our land at Dry River, and we do our absolute best to treat it right. We are trying to make the best wine we possibly can and a huge part of that comes from being great farmers."
In 2021, Sam launched his own label, Samuel Mark Wines. His first release, 2020 Bloom, an aromatic blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, has sold out. The wine is a collaborative brand designed to inspire other winemakers in the region, and the first one was a collaboration with Wilco. The brand reflects Sam's love of making and talking about wine with others. "We are here for the love of fermented grape juice and it's exciting."
The next vintage of Bloom "is looking good" and will be available early next year. He has more plans in store: "I want to take this brand down a different path, but people will have to wait and see what that will be."
Gourmet Traveller Awards Panel Chair Jane Skilton MW wrote about Sam: "with great overseas experience to draw on and an ongoing thirst for learning and evolving his craft Rouse is showing an intent to create quality wines that respect their Martinborough origin. He has thoroughly deserved this award and I will be following Rouse's future career with interest."