Saturday, 14 October 2023 16:25

Young Viticulturist: Title taken by Tai Nelson

Written by  Sophie Preece
Tai Nelson. Photo by Amber Soljans Tai Nelson. Photo by Amber Soljans

Tai Nelson was 17 years old when his girlfriend Amber Soljans suggested he get a part-time job at her family wine company in West Auckland.

Seven years on, he's Vineyard Manager at Soljans Estate and New Zealand's 2023 Young Viticulturist of the Year.

That's a great result for one of the country's smallest and oldest wine regions, where boutique wine companies have had plenty of challenges in recent years, from wet and wild weather to relentless urban sprawl. It's also a proud moment for the family-owned business that's helped Tai grow his skills from scratch, since the day he started packing wine in the warehouse as a teenager.

The win is also evidene of the opportunities the Young Viticulturist event gives up-and-coming players, says Tai, who tackled his first regional competition two years ago, three days after stepping into his Vineyard Manager role. He "had no idea" of what to expect, and used the competition as a guide for the knowledge and skills he had to build. "I went away and I learned those things, and then I took out the win last year, proving that they're a really, really good learning experience." He won the regional final again this year, then had a tough fight at the national title in Hawke's Bay, with that province's Nick Putt from Craggy Range coming in a very close second.

The first Soljans vineyard was founded in 1932 by Bartul Soljans, and has remained in the family ever since, with Bartul's grandson Tony the Managing Director today. Tony's granddaughter Amber, who brought Tai into the fold while they were at school together in Albany, made her own first wine at the age of 7, while her brother Tyler - now working fulltime at Soljans - had his first ferment at 5. Tai says he was essentially "adopted into the family" and went on to learn plenty about the industry on his weekends and school holidays, including through time in the vineyards, where he relished the chance to work hard outside. His stint serving in the Soljans restaurant, along with his enjoyment of a bar job, inspired him to study hospitality on leaving school, "but I figured out quite quickly that it wasn't for me".

So, he returned to Soljans and got "stuck in" to fill the void when the previous vineyard manager had to take time off during a harvest. When the manager eventually retired in 2021, "there wasn't really a plan for anybody else to take over", Tai says. "I liked working in the vineyard, so I put up my hand and said "I'll give it a go."" With no formal viticulture education, he says the three regional Young Viticulturist competitions he's done since, along with two national finals, have been a huge factor in helping him ascend a steep learning curve, as has the support of the Soljans crew. Being part of a boutique company gives him "a very inclusive view" of the wine industry, from marketing to finances, and vines to wines, with a winemaker who "likes to involve everybody", Tai says.

The broad knowledge came in handy in a competition that saw contestants tested on trellising, irrigation, machinery, pest and disease management, wine knowledge, and a challenging interview segment. Prior to the competition they all submitted their report on their recommendations for establishing and managing a sustainable vineyard which would thrive long into the future.

That's on Tai's mind in the wake of a series of challenging wet seasons in the Auckland region, and he plans to work to increase Soljans Estate's resilience. "I'm hoping that moving forward we can implement a few more strategies to deal with that - to make it worth it to grow wine out here. It's definitely something that we have to start thinking about a lot more." He's also enjoying a resurgence of traditional practices married with new technology. "We're seeing a return to stuff that's already been done but have trackable and quanitifiable results from it."

Another major challenge is urbanisation, as housing sprouts up around West Auckland's wine country, resulting in the departure of some wine operations. Soljans is well placed amid farmland, but an urban sprawl is definitely on the radar, Tai says. The Auckland wine industry is certainly worth protecting, he adds. "We've got some really good examples of great wine out here. Kumeu makes great Chardonnay and Waiheke makes really good reds. I think settling into the boutique small, family run wineries, is a good place for us to be."

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