Michelle Richardson has travelled something of a full circle since Sir George Fistonich offered her a job at Villa Maria more than 30 years ago.
Fifteen years on, the 22-year-old flew across another finish line on 1 November, becoming the youngest ever Tonnellerie de Mercurey Young Winemaker of the Year.
There are links between Alena’s decade of competitive swimming and the successes in her fledgling winemaking career at Sacred Hill winery in Hawke’s Bay. Firstly, because she was well used to hard work, with four morning and five afternoon training sessions a week while at Sacred Heart College Napier. “I have so much gratitude towards swimming, because it definitely taught me that hard work makes a huge difference to everything you do,” she says.
It also taught her to control her nerves and avoid getting “sucked in” to what other competitors are doing. “It’s about staying positive in your own space and not letting the pressure get to you.”
That came in handy when up against competitors at the North Island Young Winemaker Competition in September, then again at the Nationals, held at The Bone Line in Waipara and at the New Zealand Wine Altogether Unique celebration in Christchurch, where the three regional finalists gave a speech. They each used their time on stage to sell their region to the audience, which Alena took quite literally by taking the role of auctioneer, showcasing Hawke’s Bay’s attributes to all prospective bidders. She did it with a smile, which is reflective of the attitude she carried throughout the competition. “Sometime when you feel a bit nervous it can knock it out of you a bit, so I kept a smile on my face.”
And she had nothing to lose, having “reluctantly” entered the regional competition in her first year in a winery job, using it to discover what she should focus on at work. Winning was “quite crazy” and, while she went on to study hard for the nationals – knowing it would be a big step up – she considered it simply a privilege to be there. Winning still feels “surreal” she says two weeks after taking the title, and very excited about a visit to the Tonnellerie de Mercurey cooperage in Burgundy, which is part of her prize package. She also won the opportunity to be an associate judge in the 2024 New World Wine Awards, and to review some of her favourite wines in DrinksBiz magazine.
It’s not what an 18-year-old Alena envisioned when a former science teacher – who was then heading up the wine and viticulture school at Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) – suggested she take a look at the course. The idea of a career that merged science and art appealed, and was sweetened by a swimming scholarship. “I went into it a little bit blind,” Alena says. “I wasn’t 100% sure, but thought I’d give it a try. And it was the best decision I have ever made.”
Her first year of study was a “subtle transition” from high school, with chemistry, physics, and biology. But the second year stepped up to a wine focus, “and that perked my interest up more,” she says. In the third year they did vintage and she worked at Villa Maria, where she was completely won over. “The people I met made a huge difference. The industry is about the people you work with and it’s a real team effort. I don’t think you get it in other industries,” she adds. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else but wine. It’s a really well-rounded industry. I love it.”
Sacred Hill is a small team with specific roles, but its size also means Elena can “pester” her way into the lab, for example, and grow her knowledge. Next vintage she’ll be in a nightshift winemaking position, able to “step up and be a little bit more hands on in the decision making”, she says, noting that Sacred Hill is very supportive in giving her opportunities and experience.
As she’s learned about winemaking she’s also fallen for wine. “If you asked me that question when I first started my studies, I probably wouldn’t be as in love with it,” she says. “I had only really drunk Sauvignon Blanc and some rosé. Now I am getting into it, and I have so many great opportunities to try some amazing wines. I feel very lucky in that regard.”
At the top of her winemaking list is the Sacred Hill Chardonnay programme. “Especially our Riflemans. Working with barrels and Chardonnay is a dream, and we have awesome vineyards we source our Chardonnay from. We have some cool other things coming on, but Chardonnay has my heart.”
And so does Hawke’s Bay. The impact of cyclone Gabrielle and community strength in its wake has strengthened her devotion to her home province and its wine community, and she was delighted to make it to the Hawke’s Bay Wine Awards straight after her Young Winemaker win. “It was a great time to celebrate all of our hard work despite the Cyclone and its effects,” she says. “Now working in the industry here I couldn’t imagine myself full-time anywhere else. It’s such a great region.”