Wines by Jenny Dobson; The Story of a Legendary Wine Producer

Jenny Dobson: winemaker, boutique wine producer, icon in the New Zealand wine industry. When I had the chance to sit down with her to hear and write her story, I was honoured, to say the least.

Jenny, a born and raised Kiwi, grew up in a time where licensed restaurants were rare in New Zealand. The wine industry was basically non-existent. Her father was English, and for her parents, wine was a regular part of any meal; they drank it, and shared it with the children as per their cultural norms. Although they chose wine mostly from South Africa and France, Jenny’s father had a special love for Chateauneuf du Pape. Jenny remembers adding McDonald wines to their table when they began gaining popularity in the 70’s.

Even as a child, Jenny had a fascination with aromas, and most of her memories are linked through scent. She can vividly remember the smell of the Rosemary bush and the Lily of the Valley at her childhood homes, along with a fascination with the diversity of smells and flavours in wines; she wanted to discover the underlying reasoning for this. She is scientific by nature, so she entered a Science programme in University, but couldn’t envision herself inside a lab full time and wanted to be part of nature. She discovered that working in wine could provide that.

Vineyard at Harvest time in 1989 – Chateau Sénéjac

With the Wine Science degree not yet established, she transferred to Food Science, where she took a course on sensory observation; she realizes now how “invaluable” that course was to her “understanding of taste and the importance” of it. With a professor passionate about wine, Jenny was able to focus her schoolwork in that direction. As an independent learner, she spent her personal time reading every book, article and study she could get her hands on about tasting or making wine. There is a book shelf in every room of her house, full of wine books, that she graciously offered to lend to me! It was at the end of her 3rd year in University, after all of her school-driven and personal research, that she knew wine was her passion, and she says “if you don’t have passion you could not work in the industry.” 

Jenny in the old cellar at Chateau Sénéjac in 1986, 6 months pregnant

She’s always excelled at science and maths, and used to think she “had no artistic bones,” but her opinion has changed.

“Fine winemaking is art. So many of the decisions are felt. They’re a sense of what is going to be right. [Winemaking] so deftly combines science and art…You need scientific rigour but artistic license and openness of thinking to push boundaries. I love the fact that wine can not be made to a chemical formula.”

As soon as she graduated, she travelled to France, motivated to learn from some of the “best and oldest” winemakers in the world. She says she was “very naive” in her move there, but was “lucky enough to get a job at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy.”

Her job at Domaine Dujac involved her living with the family, and doing everything from “babysitting, cleaning, vineyard work, cellar work,” to eating and drinking with the family. She realizes how fortunate she was to be able to “drink so widely with Jacques and Roz,” and she explains the rarity of his wine collection.

“I had a glorious introduction to wine. In most wine producing areas in France in those days you only drank the area you were in. You wouldn’t find anything else in the Supermarket. Because Jacques’s Dad was Parisian, he had started a cellar for Jacques when he was young including wines from around Europe; Jacques added to it with wines from the new world, so I had the pleasure of drinking and getting to know fine Burgundy, but also wines from around the world.”

Bottling Blanc de Sénéjac in 1988

Jenny attributes much of her wine making philosophy back to the time she worked at Domaine Dujac. From Jacques she learned the value of “reflecting vineyard vintage variety,” and that “wine is made for people to enjoy.” She also learned that she values “integrity and authenticity” in her winemaking. “It’s working hard at every stage, especially in the vineyard, not tweaking at the end,” and if you drink Jenny’s wine, you can be sure she’s taken pride in it’s authenticity at every stage.

After working at Domaine Dujac, Jenny moved to Paris to work with the famed Steven Spurrier, who started a very controversial wine school. If you’re a wine enthusiast, you’ll know his name. Steven Spurrier organized the iconic and history-making Paris Tasting in 1976, in which the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from Napa Valley won the blind tasting, to everyone’s shock, putting California on the wine map. He was instrumental in beginning to bring Californian wines into France in the 70’s. Jenny comments about Steven that he had a similar philosophy to Jacques, in that the “diversity of wine is the beauty of wine. Every bottle, every property is different.”

Jenny began working with him in 1981, and her role was enough to make any wine lover jealous! She explained that after the historical 1976 Paris Tasting, winemakers from all over the world wanted to be featured in Steven’s shop. She was part of the selection process; she tasted applicant’s wines, and helped chose those lucky few that would be fortunate enough to grace Steven’s shelves. She also worked in his wine school, and gave 2 hour courses on French wine, appropriate cheese pairings, and French regions and helped organize and participated in many tutored tastings run by L’Académie du Vin.

In Paris, Jenny expanded her world palate, had one of the best jobs any wine lover could ask for, and on top of that, met Charles, the English grandson of a wine merchant with offices in London and Bordeaux, and the love of her life. Before you think it was all sunshine and roses though, imagine her living in a flat on the 6th floor in the building’s roof, with no toilet, in which she could literally touch both walls at once with arms stretched. The toilet was on the 4th floor and was a squat toilet. There was no lift. She jokes about a huge upgrade from that place when she moved to her second flat with a toilet and a bedroom! Despite the quirky places she called home, Jenny says with fondness, “I loved living in Paris.”

Vineyard, Autumn 1988

She did miss winemaking though, so she moved to Bordeaux and got a vintage job in Graves at Chateau Rahoul, which was part owned by an Australian man and wine industry icon, Len Evens. This also happened to be in 1982, one of the most iconic vintages in Bordeaux’s history.

One evening, she went along to a magazine wine tasting, and as Charlie was in the merchant business, he was there. They met casually; she went back to Chateau Rahoul to finish her vintage job, but then moved back to Paris. She was at a wine bar one evening, when she met the owner of Chateau Sénéjac, who offered her a cellar hand job in Bordeaux. She moved again, back to Bordeaux, in Steven Spurrier’s delivery van of all things! The day she arrived in Bordeaux, she was out for lunch, and there was Charlie, at the same restaurant. Eventually they found themselves in the same social circles, and “the rest is history,” as Jenny says. They were married in 1984.

Jenny, Charles and their children in 2000 – New Zealand.

Charlie being a wine merchant has contributed to Jenny’s diverse palate. She explained how the businesses operated at that time. Bordeaux Negociants, wine merchants, would buy wine “en primeur” from the properties (Chateaux) around 6 to 8 months after harvest. The wine was then sold at a later date, sometimes before and sometimes after bottling to other merchants in and outside of Bordeaux and to private clients. This pre-purchase of wine by the Bordeaux merchants helped shoulder the cost of production for the Chateaux. The Chateaux would present barrel samples to the merchants for tasting and Charlie would bring them home at the end of the day for Jenny to evaluate as well. Jenny commented that “in retrospect, that was a huge advantage” for her, because she “got to taste the finest Bordeaux wines when young and also drink them when mature. It gave [her] a benchmark for the young wines she had in barrel at Chateau Sénéjac.”

Vineyard in Winter, 1984/85

She has also made 13 vintages of Bordeaux, and because she stayed all year long, she gained knowledge of the vineyards, what to do in the cellar, and onwards; she saw the entire process. She learned “the effects of ferments on the wine in bottle, 2 years later, 3 years later, and how the vineyard choices translated into the wine.” She realizes that is something else that has helped develop her skill in winemaking; she “had a vision of where the wine was going in years and years of time.”

We discussed not only making wine, but what it’s made for. Jenny believes that wine is made to be consumed and enjoyed, and that the industry today is pushing towards simply selling an alcoholic beverage, rather than appreciating an art form, as it was meant to be. “It’s made to sell product for people to drink and get drunk rather than educating them about wine so that it’s looked more so as an art form than a beverage.”

She shares how they had “wine every day” in France. There was “no such thing as a non-wine day. Sometimes we finished the bottle, sometimes we didn’t. It depends on your attitude. We always looked on wine with pleasure and enjoyment, not as a guilty sin… If it’s always there, there’s no compulsion.”

Jenny explains what the enjoyment of wine brings to her. “I drink wine for it’s diversity. For it’s intellectual stimulation. For it’s flavour and taste.” She explained it so beautifully, and I couldn’t help but completely agree.

Jenny and a friend, Norma, tasting Pinotage at Te Awa in 2000 – Hawke’s Bay

“It’s like music or painting, or any form of art. If you just have background music, anything can be there. If you’re actually listening and understanding then you have a greater appreciation.

Jenny believes “the more people know about wine and get excited about it, there will be less mass consumption.” These are the kinds of palates she is mindful of in her work.

Jenny and Charlie had their 3 children while in Bordeaux, but eventually decided to move to Jenny’s home country, New Zealand. When I asked why she chose Hawke’s Bay, she answered that it seemed the “logical place” because “you can ripen the Bordeaux grape varieties” that she was used to working with. She had also done a vintage in Western Australia, where she gained experience with Chardonnay and Syrah, also key varietals in Hawke’s Bay. She and Charlie visited every single wine region in the country before making their final decision, just to be sure!

When she first arrived in the Bay, Jenny began working as a wine consultant, but found it to be “isolating.” She noticed she was only getting to be involved when things went wrong with wine, and customers needed her to fix it. A job came open at Te Awa Farm, and Jenny spent a “glorious” 12 years as the winemaker there. She got to really know the vineyards and the wines; when it went through a change of ownership, she decided to move on. The consultancy she does now is hands on. (Jenny had been racking barrels all day before her interview with me.)

Jenny with a press in the new winery in 1987

New winery, 1987

With Jenny’s experience and clear appreciation of the artistic side of wine, I was curious why it took her until now to start her own label. First, Jenny believes wine starts in the vineyard, so she wasn’t ready to do something for herself if she had to be buying fruit. She has her own now, that she fell upon quite interestingly. She had a client in 2009 that had some land on Ngatarawa Road, and asked her what he should plant. She had been reading studies about the Italian grape, Fiano, and thought it would be great for the Bay, as it was interesting, and had good acitity. It was a “throw-away comment,” as she describes it, but she told him to plant Fiano. She came back a year later, and he had planted it, and said to her, “well, are you going to make it?”

She made the first Fiano in 2013 for her client, and again in 2014. The plan was for her to continue making it for him, but due to personal reasons in 2015, he asked if Jenny wanted to take it over. She agreed, and made a small batch of the first Jenny Dobson Fiano. In 2016, she realized, “it was more wine than I could drink myself!” She released it to the public in 2017. Another reason she hadn’t started her label sooner was simply because she “was getting enough enjoyment out of helping other people make their own wines,” but she has realized, “if I don’t do this now I will never do it.”

Jenny’s Fiano

In 2018, she was inspired to add a red wine to her label, but wanted a unique one. She began exploring Hawke’s Bay Merlot with the aim to give it the “appeal that people like about Pinot Noir,” like “fragrance [and] texture but lightness and freshness in the mouth.”

As she works as the winemaker for William Murdoch Wines, and adores the character of their organic vineyard, she bought some fruit from them. She wild fermented it in oak, with whole bunch Malbec and Cab Franc “for texture and fragrance.” She explains that she “didn’t know what was going to happen” and that she was “being guided by the wine.” She basket pressed it and aged it in barrel, taking it out 18 months later in mid-September. Her red wine will be called “Doris” after her grandmother; Doris was “formidable, way ahead of her time, had vision, [and] didn’t follow any conventions.” Jenny’s favorite memory of her is her purple hair, so watch for that on the label. For the wine to represent its unconventional style, Jenny is also putting it in a Burgundy bottle, not a Bordeaux bottle, like other Merlots. She doesn’t want people to “taste it as a Merlot,” but rather “a red wine.” Doris is being bottled in October, and will likely be released next Autumn, “based on how she looks.” Jenny has carried on with Doris in this past 2019 vintage, and has some ideas to expand her label in 2020. She describes her current production as “tiny” at 80 cases or less of Fiano.

Because Jenny is always reading and learning, the 2019 Fiano has some new elements in the winemaking. She had read a study about Fiano that claimed that the skins have a compound in them that can contribute additional flavours, and that soaking some skins in the juice could enhance the character of the wine. Jenny did a 4 L trial tank to test out that theory. She bottled off a small amount of the trial tank for future testing to determine what she wants to do for the 2020 vintage. She says, “even with tiny amounts, you have to always be open minded and thinking of what you can do. Can I make a better wine? A different wine?”

When I asked Jenny out of all the wines she’s made, which she’s most proud of, she answered, “all of them!” She said they’re “like my children.” Some of her favorites are from the “difficult vintages, where you come out with something so good. It’s not the standout best in a line-up, but it’s best because you know the elements and Mother Nature were against you, but you’ve worked with it to produce something so good; it makes you feel really satisfied.”

Jenny’s story is amazing, but it’s not without challenges, many of which have been related to her gender. She says that being a woman is “an extra challenge that men don’t have to factor in.” When she was working in France in the 80’s, there were “signs outside cellars saying women weren’t allowed to enter the cellar.” They had “funny ideas” like the fact that “women had funny acids in their body that turned wine to vinegar, or if a woman had her period and came into the cellar the wine would re-ferment every month.”

Jenny was the first female maitre de chai in the Medoc; being a history maker leaves an incredible legacy, but it’s never easy. “It was a male dominated business” and people wondered how women would be able to manage the home, a family, and a career in wine. “Women were shut out because the industry people knew it was all encompassing.” When she did eventually have her children, she took a few days off, and was then right back into the work. She breast fed in the vineyard, with her baby strapped to her chest. She was bottling (not milk – wine) 3 days after giving birth. She lived on site, and the kids grew up around the vineyard and the winery. She successfully accomplished being a wife, mother and a winemaker. She had to overcome being the only woman making wine in the Medoc, but she did it. How? “My wines spoke for themselves.” She proved herself to the French people. She truly is a legend.

Winemaking is also a very physically demanding job. Jenny admits that she’s tired at the end of the day, but also points out that “so is a man working in a cellar.” There are different challenges for women today than when she began her career, yet she is confident we are moving in the right direction and knows that “a woman starting today will not face the same challenges” that she had to. “It was all men but me,” Jenny says. It’s “a lot closer to equal now; we are growing up with women and men in it together now.”

She doesn’t want to be known as a “woman winemaker.” She just wants to be known as a “winemaker,” like anyone else. She makes it clear that she doesn’t think “women or men are better winemakers. There are people that are better winemakers” than other people. She is also clear to point out that she knows it’s not all men that discriminate. “There are people that discriminate, not just men.”

With her current label, there are the challenges of selling the wine. Jenny has thought to herself, “[consider] the amount of money I make on each bottle – am I crazy? Why am I doing this?” She is doing it because she is creating “wines of distinction and individuality.” This also makes them “a bit harder to sell,” especially in the small Hawke’s Bay.

When I asked Jenny if she thinks it’s worth all the challenges, she gave a resounding, “yes! I wouldn’t be starting my own label so late in life if I didn’t!”

2019 was her 40th vintage.

Patsy the Rose is coming soon too! Patsy is named after her Aunt, and unlike most Hawke’s Bay rosés, it will be Cabernet Franc dominant. Being let in on Jenny’s thought process as she described how she wants to make Patsy was very intriguing to me. Here I was, sitting with the Medoc’s first female winemaker, who selected wines for Steven Spurier’s shop, who has 40 years of experience, and she was debating back and forth on what she should do, or might do, still undecided, still exploring ideas. I commented on this, and she responded by saying that it’s important to always be willing to experiment and learn because no one can ever just know what’s coming for any vintage or any wine. Greg had made a Cab Franc Rose in 2019, so he and Jenny discussed some ideas for the next vintage. It was surreal to listen to that conversation.

Doris Merlot grapes

Jenny at Chateau Sénéjac
Emma in the vines at Franklin Estate, 1995
Chris at age 1 in the cellar
Richard finishing breakfast while the bottling truck sets up, 1992
Jenny with son, Chris, 1988
Family labeling in 1992

Jenny, 1991

Jenny has learned some beautiful lessons in her career as a winemaker that I feel can reach beyond the wine industry to inspire; I have left them in her words.

“It’s all learning. You continue learning. There was a stage when I was looking for perfection in wine. Perfection’s boring. If everything’s perfect, it’s boring. You’re striving for perfection but the goal posts keep moving.”

“The best tool a winemaker has is the palatte. You have to keep it diverse. Natural wines challenge your palette. Things that challenge are the extremes that move the middle.”

“Recipe wine making has its place, but is one of the worst things. There’s so much unknown about wine that when you formulate a recipe you can only make good wine. You can’t make great wine.”

“You can not make a wine that will please everyone or else you’re making Coca Cola. You have to be okay with some people not liking your wine, but for everyone that doesn’t like it, there will be someone that does.”

Are you that someone?

To find out, you can purchase Wines by Jenny Dobson via mail order, through Boutique Connection, @boutiqueconnection or her Instagram @jenny_dobson_wines. Several establishments stock her wines, like Liquor King, Urban Winery, restaurants around Hawkes Bay and Wellington, Regional Wines and Spirits in Wellington, Vino Fino in Christchurch, and soon, the Auckland market.

Cheers to Jenny for following her passions, making history, sharing her story and for making interesting and authentic wines of quality; cheers to you as you enjoy them!

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