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Monday, 20 June 2022 16:25

The secret to success at Spy

Written by  Maike van der Heide
From left, Max, Amanda, Bryan, Amy and Henry From left, Max, Amanda, Bryan, Amy and Henry

When the youngest generation of the Spy Valley Wines' founding family were little, a tractor ride was a popular before-school thrill, and vineyard-fresh grapes a delicious snack.

They were idyllic days, and not without purpose, says their mum Amanda Johnson, Spy's Managing Director. Working in Spy's Marlborough vineyards, and chatting to visiting international distributors at home, was the starting point of learning the business from vine to glass. "It made them appreciate the global nature of wine and potential."

Now youngest son Max, 21, can be found in the driver's seat of machines he once considered toys, while sister Amy, 19, helps on the bottling line and brother Henry, 23, hones his marketing skills in Auckland, with sights set firmly on a wine industry future.

All but two of their eight cousins have worked summer holidays in the business, which began in 1992 when Amanda's parents Bryan and Jan Johnson bought the former Timara Lodge - "dad was an avid gardener" - surrounded by 100 acres of scrub, river gravel and grass that could only be lightly grazed.

Bryan, a life-long risk taker, investor and businessman, but not a farmer, had seen Marlborough's wine industry gaining momentum and, against all advice, planted grapes, selling to Corbans until 1999. More land was gradually added and planted, the iconic Spy Valley winery built, and family and friends encouraged to try the wines.

The hard graft of those early days are highlighted in Amanda's memory by "amazing parties with my dad, with help from our then Timara Lodge manager, held to celebrate harvests". They were community affairs, with the local fire brigade serving drinks, oompapa bands and "dad on the piano at the Cork & Keg late into the evening". The winery opening was a "doozy" with almost 600 guests and bands, she adds. "From the beginning, when we first planted out vineyards, people were always important. Marlborough felt small then and everyone seemed to know everyone - relationships were important and enduring."

Once her children were older, Amanda became more involved in the family business, hosting distributors, planning and working at events, travelling and human resources. She also came up with the iconic name Spy Valley - a quirky nod to the Waihopai Valley spy base - when the business moved to producing wine.

She loves that her children grew up entrenched in the business, know the staff well, interact with trade and customers with knowledge and authenticity, and are "ambassadors" for the family business. "Working together as a family has bought us closer and we enjoy robust conversations around the dinner table about what is happening in the industry, our achievements celebrated and our concerns shared."

Henry, who did his post graduate thesis on canned wine, has childhood memories imprinted with the smell of barrels while walking around the winery, cold mornings checking on harvest, muddy utes and tractors. Summer holidays were spent tending to vines, planting, pruning and driving. From 18, he hosted tastings in the cellar door, developing "a real passion and admiration for the wines".

Amanda and Bryan Johnson FBTW

Amanda and Bryan Johnson

He says the siblings' involvement naturally led to promoting Spy's family values in the winery and beyond. That included one day giving a tour to a cruise ship group, which saw him introduce Amy, in the kitchen washing glasses, Amanda and Bryan walking through the door and his brother and two cousins emerging from a day of work on the vineyard. "It was pretty comical, to say the least, some might have thought it was staged."

Throughout its growth, Spy's values have always extended to their staff and their families, says Amanda. "We have built a great team here and I feel really well supported by our senior leadership team. We have a great bunch of staff that feels like an exteded family. I think that is what helps our team here stay connected - I was raised in a household that really cares about family. We have a lot of cross functional staff who are so willing to put their hand to whatever tasks are required to get the job done."

Today, three generations continue to be involved, with Bryan, 82, consulting and advising on most matters, and knowing all staff, their children and their hobbies by name, says Amanda. "We are focused on sustainability here at Spy and this includes creating a sustainable business for the next generations."

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