Hard workand a deep appreciation for the land have underpinned Claire Mulholland’s career and life. Raised on a 1,000-hectare farm in Maniototo, Central Otago, Claire recognised the importance of those traits at an early age.
Sophie was 19 years old and in her second year of an Otago University law degree when she told her mother she was feeding her love of wine by writing wine reviews and studying the Level 2 Wine & Spirit Education Trust course. Her mum simply asked, “why don’t you become an MW like Jancis Robinson?”
Last month, Sophie turned that idea into a reality, becoming a member of the Institute of Masters of Wine, having already obtained her law degree and admission to the bar, completed the Level 4 WSET Diploma in Wines, established a wine label, and become a mother.
Across 32 countries, there are now 418 MWs –149 of them women – who are recognised as having “exceptional expertise” in the wine world, with theoretical knowledge and tasting skills in the art, science and business of wine. Gaining membership requires a series of tasting and theory papers, plus an in-depth research project, through which Sophie considered the relationship between the use of sulphur dioxide and biogenic amine levels in wine.
Born in Gisborne, Sophie’s life revolved around the wine and hospitality industries from an early age. Her father was a winemaker with Corbans, and their home welcomed many of today’s great New Zealand wine mentors, including James Millton, James Healy and Simon Waghorn - many of whom remain in Sophie’s life today. Her parents set up the renowned Smash Palace in Gisborne, before they moved south to the blossoming wine region of Central Otago, where Sophie’s father continues to work in the wine industry.
In 2011, Sophie secured a Marlborough vintage position with Matt Thomson’s winemaking consultancy business Kiwi-Oeno, working alongside her future husband and greatest ambassador. “Matt urged me to tackle the Master of Wine and I was incredibly lucky to have him by my side. Aside from sharing his knowledge and experience of the industry, he organised countless blind tasting practice exams for me and has been hugely supportive throughout my studies.”
Today, Sophie and Matt co-manage their boutique wine brand Blank Canvas, which they established in 2013, as well as their recently refreshed consultancy business Lock, Stock & Barrel. Sophie’s vast skillset sees her operational from vine to glass and beyond, actively participating in harvest, winemaking, intellectual property, contract law, as well as marketing and sales. She says her law degree has contributed to her success as both a business owner and wine student. “It was a great foundational degree, teaching me research and writing, logical thinking, and analytical skills. But it wasn’t ticking all the boxes I wanted in my life.”
It is clear that Sophie loves the diversity of her work and her enthusiasm is contagious when she speaks about Blank Canvas wines. “It all stemmed from our desire to produce single vineyard wines,” she says. “Marlborough has so many great vineyards, but most are blended away into a regional product. We wanted to talk about these special sites. We didn’t want to see their unique expressions lost.”
The backbone of Blank Canvas is in the genuine relationships with six vineyard owner/operators, says Sophie. “They are committed to growing great wine, not just great fruit. And we respect their efforts by approaching each vineyard and vintage with a blank canvas.”
Sophie’s aspirations for Blank Canvas are humble: to retain their small parcel approach to winemaking and to one day operate from their own purpose-built winemaking facility.
In the winery, science and art entwine, she says. “It is important to know the rules before you can break them. Science defines the edge of the canvas. If you don’t have that science, you don’t know where the canvas ends so you can only paint a tiny picture in the middle. Whereas if you do know the canvas and the science, you can paint right to the edge in confidence.”