Saturday, 12 September 2015 11:27

Baptism of fire

Written by 
Kathryn Ryan. Kathryn Ryan.

Nine years ago Kathryn Ryan knew nothing about the New Zealand wine industry.

Now along with husband Kees Zeestraten she is a staunch advocate of Waipara wines and owner of one of the region’s well-known boutique wineries – Mountford Estate.

What began on a whim has turned into a passion, with plenty of trials and tribulations along the way. 

In some ways it was her and Kees’ children that led them to Mountford.

“We weren’t looking for a vineyard and winery, we were looking instead for something within an hours drive of Christchurch because we had four children at boarding school at the time.”

Kees was already working on a project in the Hurinui, when the couple saw Mountford Estate being advertised. 

“It worked in well with the project Kees was managing, it was an existing brand, a brilliant site and was known internationally for high end quality wine,” Ryan says. 

So the couple decided to go for it, although as she admits, she knew nothing what-so-ever about the wine industry.

“No I didn’t. It was like a baptism of fire, as far as hitting the ground running.”

Bought in 2006, the couple moved onto the property just after vintage 2007. And along with learning everything there was to know about growing grapes, making wine and then marketing it, Ryan had to be the person on the spot directing further development. The vineyard at the time was tiny – and the winery was producing between 500 and 800 cases a year.

“The largest vintage was 2004, where 2000 cases were produced. But mostly it was far less than that. So it wasn’t really sustainable as a business unit.”

It became apparent that the vineyard had to grow and the winery be extended to cope with extra production. The role of overseer went to Ryan, who was also trying to get her head around what grape growing entailed.

“I had a viticulturist who would come in every week and give me a session on one-o-one grape growing. And our previous winemaker CP Lin was very good at sharing knowledge about what was happening in the winery. So I quickly grew my knowledge. But I was terrified at times, because I was so out of my depth.”

Then along came 2008 and the global financial crisis. After months of development work on the property, it all went to hell in a basket she says.

“We had bought the property and invested pretty heavily in it too. We doubled the size of the winery and replanted a 4ha block with close plantings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. As we hadn’t drawn down on the last part of our mortgage,  the bank manager had called us saying we needed to do so. We talked about it and decided we wanted to take a breather, and do the next stage in spring. This was February 2009.

“Well five days after we had been called by the bank manager, he rang back and said ‘I hate to do this, but the funding has finished.’ It was devastating. We had no wine in stock and because we cook things slow here, it takes time for us to get wine out of the winery and into the market. We didn’t know how we were going to pay anything back. It was a nightmare.”

The hard work could have all been lost in a matter of months, Ryan says,  if Kees hadn’t been so tenacious and they hadn’t had other interests to help them out.

“We kept looking for solutions. We had just replanted in the spring of 08, so we just had to keep going. We were also very careful for years after. It is only this financial year that we are at the point of looking good. We are almost through and we are meeting, even exceeding our targets.”

The departure of winemaker CP Lin could also have been a major hurdle, but Ryan says no one person is the face of Mountford’s wines.

“We have always talked about Mountford as being its own identity and we are just the guiding hands looking after the property as best we can. It really is about the place, not necessarily the people. They may have an influence, but it’s the place that goes on through time.”

These days Theo Coles is the consulting winemaker, one of a number of young people who have returned to the district in recent years. He agrees that it is one of the younger regions in New Zealand in terms of winery ownership.

“In the early days the recognition didn’t come easily,” he says. “The original pioneers struggled a bit. Then a lot of young people were coming out of Lincoln and heading to Europe to do vintages. They tasted the wines over there and many of them thought the only region in this part of the world that could produce wines like that was North Canterbury. Those that have done a lot of European vintages have ended up working for people who produce European structured wines – which the wines in Waipara are. They did their apprenticeship and then began looking for new sites. So what you are seeing is this new wave of people who all love the same thing – and are all the same generation.”

It has created unity among the companies as well, Ryan says, with a number banding together to tell the regional story rather than all trying to reinvent the wheel separately. 

Nine years on, Ryan says the company has almost made it through the tough times, the portfolio has been extended, new tiers have been added and export markets are opening up. As for her – while she never had any intention of being so heavily involved with the company, she wouldn’t change a thing.

“I can’t get out now – I love it too much.”

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