Sunday, 13 August 2023 16:25

True Believer: Philip Gregan's 40 years of wine

Written by  Sophie Preece
Philip Gregan Philip Gregan

In July 1983 New Zealand's wine industry could be characterised by "Müller Thurgau and more Müller Thurgau", and an oversupply plaguing the domestic market.

But it was also full of potential, says New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW) Chief Executive Philip Gregan, 40 years after he became Research Officer at the Wine Institute of New Zealand. "There were a whole lot of challenges, but you could see there were fantastic people... who fundamentally believed that New Zealand wine could be something really significant to New Zealand. And they worked very hard to make that happen."

He'd grown up in West Auckland, where his father would visit local wineries, including Collard's Windy Hill, Corban's, and Babich. "Lincoln Road was a place of wineries. Now it's a place of fast-food joints." Philip went on to gain a master's degree in geography at University of Auckland, where he was working on a research project when a job advert intrigued him, and he joined Terry Dunleavy ("a one-man tour de force") at the Wine Institute.

Back then New Zealand had 92 wineries and 6,000 planted hectares - 25% of which were lost to the government-funded vine pull in 1986. Fast forward 40 years and New Zealand has 41,860ha of producing vineyard, $2.4 billion in exports for the year ending May 2023, and "increasingly strong global demand for our wines".

Those stellar statistics are down to a simple combination, Philip says. "New Zealand is a remarkable place for growing grapes and making wine. Then there are some truly remarkable people. You join the two things and 'voila' some pretty exciting things can happen. That's why I do it."

His work included analysing the aspirations and plans of individual producers and building a picture of the industry and where it could go. And by the 1990s - with Philip now Chief Executive - it was "beyond doubt" that the future of the industry was "to be a significant force in the international wine business", he says. "A whole lot of fundamentals were put in place and learned during that time; it was to some extent trying to work out how big the potential was." One survey indicated a fivefold lift in export value - from $20million to $100m - between 1992 and 2000 "and it actually occurred".

NZW was formed in 2002, merging the Wine Institute and New Zealand Grape Growers Council. Philip recalls Montana head Peter Hubscher saying, "if we cannot get together when times are good in the industry, it will be too late when times are bad". The tough times certainly came later that decade, care of the global financial crisis and a wine glut, and validated the change, with growers and wineries "all in this together", Philip says.

It also stood the industry in good stead through Covid-19, when NZW went in to bat for members, working tirelessly with government to ensure the 2020 harvest could go ahead as an essential service in a national lockdown. The pandemic challenges were myriad, including a labour force stifled by border closures, and the role of NZW in working with government agencies was vital. They also worked hard to ensure industry members kept well in line with Covid restrictions, to protect the industry at large. "It was a reminder of the role we play in the industry and that we need to perform really, really well," Philip says. "If you don't do it well there can be some profoundly poor implications."

Steve Green, who was Deputy Chair then Chair of the NZW board from 2007 to 2017, says Philip was key to the success of a strategic review of the organisation in 2011, which changed its board, structure, and operations. "He was also very instrumental in the development of Geographical Indications in New Zealand, which was a huge change... it gave us a structure the regional organisations could build on and develop." Both of those "fundamental" moments in the industry's development required a change in legislationm and Philip was key in lobbying Government to achieve that, Steve says, noting the Chief Executive's ability to build relationships with ministers and their teams, to the advantage of the wine industry. "We are talking everywhere from Customs to Primary Industries to Justice."

Philip spends much of his time singing the praises of others in the industry but when pressed says he hopes he's brought belief and commitment to his role, while working to understand the aspirations of the industry. "And listen to people and try to relate to them about their individual hopes and dreams and problems."

While history is key, where we are going to is more important, Philip says. "We must always have our eye on what the next 10, 20, 30 years bring. And I fundamentally believe that's a really exciting future for New Zealand wine. You have to believe in your heart and your mind that we can do something special. And I believe."

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