Friday, 11 August 2023 16:25

The Profile: Tony Bish

Written by  Joelle Thomson
Tony Bish in the challenging 2023 vintage. Photo Credit: Richard Briner. Tony Bish in the challenging 2023 vintage. Photo Credit: Richard Briner.

Tony Bish is about to leave for a busman's holiday in Portugal, Spain, and the sundrenched Azores when we talk about his rise to Chardonnista, Hawke's Bay's tough 2023 vintage, and an accidental career in wine.

"There were only about five choices of what to do when I left school and I chose law and immediately regretted it. The sroty follows that I was in Gisborne on a beach, out of money and needed a job, when a couple of guys suggested I work vintage, to which I replied, 'what's vintage?'"

The rest is history. He worked at Corban's in Gisborne in 1981, then Vidal in Hawke's Bay for three years, and continued making wine in both the North and South Islands while he studied winemaking by correspondence via Charles Sturt University in Australia. "I wanted to keep working in the industry and at that stage I was 24 years old and didn't really want to be a fulltime student. Six years of correspondence was a long journey but I liked wine by then," he says. "It was either that or the freezing works and I thought 'horrors' and didn't want to go there."

Tony was pretty green when he co-founded Sacred Hill in Hawke's Bay in 1986, but more than made up for lost time, working vintages in the South Island, and also at Brown Brothers in Australia. In 2014 he established his independent label Tony Bish Wines, with the introduction of Fat & Sassy Chardonnay, dedicated to the variety that was "always top in my heart". Three years later, he left Sacred Hill and focussed on the eponymous label and its growing stable of Chardonnays. "There are certain things that happen in your life that stay in the back of your mind and then they come out at some time. For me, one of those things was a trip to Domaine Laroche in Chablis, which is a region that's been making Chardonnay since the 12th century. It blew my mind that they could be so passionate and so fired up about one variety after multi generations. That focus really stood out to me and inspired me. Europe is all about that. Burgundy is all about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It's all about being focussed and not being fruit salad. And Hawke's Bay is a great place for Chardonnay, so it was a natural fit."

Tony and his late wife Karryn converted the disused National Tobacco Building, which had been empty for 12 years. The decision to be monovarietal in winemaking also offered the benefit of innovation. "We could easily get into concrete eggs and oak eggs because we were only making Chardonnay and we didn't have to fund red fermenters. That enabled us to go down some interesting pathways, which has been a great benefit to us in getting recognised."

The most difficult and most rewarding aspect of starting Tony Bish Wines was leaving a comfortable salary to create his own brand. "Having the courage of your own convictions is scary but it also brings the biggest rewards," Tony says. "It is the best thing I ever did."

In a typical year he makes five Chardonnays: Fat & Sassy, Heartwood, Golden Egg, Skeetfield and Zen. And there are plans to add more.

"I love the fact that there are so many different stylistic expressions you can make from Chardonnay, from Chablis styles to quite rich full-bodied wines and a lot in between, so that's the joy of the variety for me. Its complexity in the mouth and its balance add to that. I just love Chardonnay and we have new Chardonnays going forward."

When he looks back at the past four decades in the New Zealand wine industry, Tony sees the premiumisation of the industry as its biggest achievement. "We have gone from Müller-Thurgau and Baco 22a, to the world stage with premium varietals; it has been phenomenal and quite the journey." The dominance of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has played a really important part in that "most amazing ascendance", Tony says. "For a while, I half lived in Marlborough and half in Hawke's Bay, and although it's not part of my story now, it is really pivotal for all of us and as an industry."

One of the keys to the premiumisation was phylloxera in the 1980s and the Government initiative to subsidise a vine pull, which reset the entire industry. "We got rid of all those shit varieties and hybrids and put in Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Merlot, and we have never looked back. Although it was very difficult for the industry at the time, it was a blessing in disguise."

When it comes to the 2023 vintage in Hawke's Bay, beset by wet weather and the destructive Cyclone Gabrielle, Tony had a gut feeling it was coming. "The 2011 and 2012 growing season was very difficult. I lost all my Chardonnay in 2012 and I had this horrible feeling that we were in that cycle of never-ending easterlies so it was no great surprise to me. But it was very violent when it came."

While his winery and home were unscathed, the cyclone saw a significant reduction in his expected harvest, with plans for a 200-tonne vintage cut down to 32 tonnes, a lot of which was mercy picking. "We tried to help growers by getting something, so we handpicked our way through some pretty messy looking blocks and got some great fruit through extreme effort," Tony says. "But any other year we would have just walked away." He had plenty of volunteers, which helped cap costs, along with help from two of his four children - Oscar and Genevieve - who work in the business.

The next step is to broaden the Chardonnay range. Tony has identified top quality vineyards which he wants to respect by creating single vineyard Chardonnays, as in Burgundy. "You can only do it when you've got the right parcels of fruit, so that's what we're going to do."

Are these sites all in Hawke's Bay? "At this stage. Talk to me in a few years and that might be different."

Desert Island Wishlist

Wine: Agrapart 2013 Blanc de Blanc Champagne

Meal: Five course banquet starting with oysters then pork terrine on fresh ciabatta...

Album or Podcast: Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here

Book or Magazine: Captain Corelli's Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières

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