Philip Barber and his wife, Sarah, are the faces behind Petane; however, it’s really a family affair. Philip is the second oldest of 4 boys in a tight knit family who was brought up making wine, and who still choose to work closely together. Philip’s father bought 17 acres of established vineyards in 1979 in the Auckland area of Kumeu, and Philip remembers growing up on the vineyard until 2000. Despite a brief dabbling in flipping houses, having grown up in the industry, Philip never really wanted to do anything else with his life. After high school he got a hospitality job at a bar called Sails, and it was there that he got to see more of the customer facing side of wine; people were buying and enjoying wine and that motivated him. He chose to do his Bob Campbell Wine Diploma, which lead him to learn of a little place called “Hawke’s Bay.”
After completing the diploma, Philip began doing vintages to learn as much as he could in the vineyard and winery. He’s got a variety of experience under his belt, like the three vintages he did in Australia. He worked in the Hunter Valley, and the Barossa Valley, at several wineries, all while living in a van and living his other passion, surfing! He returned to New Zealand to go to Tairawhiti Tech in Gisborne to learn more of the basics about wine. Once done obtaining that diploma, he accepted a vintage job in Carneros, California, making Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cab Sauv under the three year reigning American Winemaker of the year, Paul Hobbs. Philip comments that one of the great things about working there was that “it was a brand new winery; the winery was pristine.” Being a small, boutique winery, it was there that he also learned the importance of focusing on the details. While he was flying back to New Zealand, he accepted a vintage job at Nobilos (now Constellation) close to his family home, which allowed him the contrasting experience of large scale production.
One of my favourite stories about Philip’s vintages is the one when he worked in Germany. He had decided he “didn’t want to work in another factory,” and had come across a job posting at a winery in the Mosel. This place, Selbach-Oster, sounded fabulous to him; it had been running since 1663, and was still in the same family. The only problem was that he needed to be able to speak German to work in the winery. He assured the owner, Johannes Selbach, that he could speak the language by having a German acquaintance write his application letter in German, and figured if he got the job he’d learn the language before going. Sure enough, he got the job and set to trying to learn German! In realizing that the plane ride over wasn’t going to be sufficient time to gain fluency, he had put himself in a bit of a bind. Johannes’ wife picked him up from the airport and spoke only German to him the whole car ride, which Philip describes as very awkward, because she knew he didn’t understand anything she was saying! Luckily, when they showed up at the winery, Johannes turned out to be an understanding guy, who thankfully also spoke English; although he couldn’t employ Philip in the winery as planned, he allowed him to stay on in the vineyard, and later ended up allowing him two weeks in the winery, lack of German fluency aside.
Philip’s brother, Chris, also joined him in Germany to help over vintage, and the two of them used to go across the road to the brew house after work for beers; Johannes made the comment that he wished he could come too, and why didn’t the guys open some of his wine in the cellar and stay at the winery instead? So they did. He would let them pick whatever they wanted to drink. Philip remembers pulling out 1968 Riesling’s and other old vintages and Johannes saying “good choice, let’s open that,” and they did. Philip comments that “you don’t forget stuff like that.”
His experience in Germany turned out to be both educational and fun, but he headed back to New Zealand, this time to Hawke’s Bay, so he could attend EIT in the Wine Science program. He arrived in the Bay in 2006, and keen to continue his serious hobby of surfing, found a great surf spot that happened to be very near to the Esk Valley. Through his travels through the valley, he thought it would be a “cool place to grow grapes.” It so happened that some land became available in the Esk Valley the very next year. As his Dad had sold the Kumeu land in 2000, he was free to invest in the Hawke’s Bay.
Philip found what is now Petane in 2007 at 20 acres, with his Dad, during his second year at EIT. Philip describes his Dad as a visionary. The land was full of bramble, blackberries, wild bush, and some old Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay vines, but his Dad saw the potential in the place. It was also him who recognized the potential to expand when the neighbour’s land went up for sale, and in 2009, Philip and his Dad bought that as well, upping their acreage to 31 altogether. They’ve got almost 5 hectares under vine, with plans to expand to 8. Every original vine is gone; Philip has replanted it all with his Dad, exactly as they wanted it. It was 2011 when they did their first vintage.
Some may find working with family challenging, but Philip explains that the Barber boys are all close, and they all admire and respect their father. They are happy to work together and have learned how to overcome their differences because family is very important. It’s still a family operation with Philip’s dad sharing in ownership of the vineyard, and if you head out to Petane, you’ll also notice that the Zeelandt Brewery is on site. Zeelandt belongs to Chris, Philip’s youngest brother.
Even though Petane had officially started being built up, Philip continued through to complete his Wine Science and Viticulture degree. He also worked at Sacred Hill and Askerne, all while in school. He was among the few EIT students to already own his own vineyard while taking his degree!
Once the wine was being produced, naturally a name and a label were needed. Petane used to be called “Petane Station,” after what that area of Hawke’s Bay was originally called; there had been confusion with another region North of Wellington called Petone, and mail was being sent to the wrong places, so local officials ended up changing the area’s name to Eskdale and Bayview. There used to be a sheep station right on their land, so they had chosen the name to honour the history of the land, and have chosen to clean it up with the single word you see on their labels now, “Petane.”
As for the label, Philip went to Tank, a marketing office in Napier, to get something designed and was introduced to his new graphic designer. Philip remembers being “amazed by this beautiful woman” called Sarah, who later became his wife. Petane literally brought them together. Sarah now raises the kids, and does all of Petane’s graphic design and administration. She’s hand painted every label from day one, first as a contractor, and now as part of the family. She says she “knew nothing about wines or him” when she did that first label, but “this final one is a better representation of who we are.”
Philip is no stranger to hard work. He says about wine that unlike how many view it, it’s “not mystical, it’s just a lot of hard work. It’s cool to be in, but not mystical.” What is it that gets the job done? “It’s the grind, really.” He can identify with the mystical view though, and has experienced that draw when “reading about the growers and seeing the photos,” but being raised in the Kumeu River Valley, “where it wasn’t ideal growing … hard soil, vigorous, [with] huge canopy and weeds,” Philip was raised with the notion that you must work hard in the vineyard.
The main challenges Philip faces these days revolve around creating a balance between running the vineyard and raising his young family. With Sarah, his young son, James, and brand new baby girl, Ella, he can’t be out in the vineyard until dark every night anymore. He has to find new ways to spread his time between work and family, and the vineyard takes a lot of time. His typical day involves a balance between fathering and maintaining the vineyard with Helen, his “vineyard genius,” who helps him a few days a week. He quips that he also spends a lot of time “fixing stuff that breaks!” He admits “the work is endless,” but explains that he really enjoys it. “I wouldn’t do it otherwise,” he says. He also finds a lot of enjoyment from taking James around and seeing his son’s interest in what Daddy’s working on. He has learned to “enjoy nature and look outside.” He says not to “just rely on weather forecasts but look; be aware of other interactions with what’s happening out there, and don’t stress too much because you can’t control the weather, so don’t worry about it.” As far as making the wine, Philip is fully qualified and involved, yet likes the collaboration of ideas; he chooses to have Hayden Penny consult as well.
For Sarah, the main challenge is “selling and promoting. When you’re small you have to do most of it yourself. For small producers it’s costly, to afford it. Marketing costs are the same for small producers as for large producers per hour or month.” They also face a challenge that seems to be industry wide. “[We] just wish it wasn’t such a race to the bottom with prices, with what Supermarkets have done to the industry. As a kid, [wine was sold] only in bottle shops. Supermarkets have made it cut throat.” They also used to be able to travel more to promote their wines, but with a young family now, things are different. The Esk Valley also doesn’t get as many tourists coming through as other sub-regions in Hawke’s Bay, but the Barber brothers have a plan to make their site a spot to be.
They’re currently in plans to build a Beer Garden and Cellar Door. It will be a beautiful outdoor space where people can come with friends or the family to relax and enjoy gorgeous Hawke’s Bay weather. The Beer Garden will be appealing to a wide range of people, because both Zeelandt beer and Petane wines will be available, making it a great hang out spot for beer and wine enthusiasts alike. It is due to open summer of 2020/2021.
Among Philip’s many vintages was half a year at Millton in Gisborne; it was there, from James, that he gained an interest in organic and biodynamic vineyards. The goal is for Petane to eventually become organic. They are taking steps towards this process already. He doesn’t use herbicides as to not affect the natural ecosystems in the vineyard. He loves the wildlife in the vineyard, like the Hawks, Falcons, Pukeko, Wild Turkeys, and Hares to name a few. He also says he’ll “never go back” to herbicides because he didn’t like them from the start. “You spray it on and feel itchy after and your family is running around… I like it more wild! You get better fruit and smaller bunches and more intense flavour.” He also uses dry farming, so doesn’t irrigate.
He does under-vine mowing, but allows some grass to grow, as it helps reduce water uptake by the vines, especially during heavy rain events. He also has a strict “no-machine harvester” policy. Every harvest is done by hand in his vineyard, as Philip says “machines carry viruses” when they’re coming from other vineyards.
Another thing you’ll notice about Petane wines is that they’re all single vineyard. History and sense of place are extremely important to Philip. He says his wine “has to be single vineyard. It speaks of the specific terroir,” and he learned that from Hobbs. He “wants to make the best wine possible, and the best wine possible is coming from one vineyard.” He uses significant names to represent the plots as well, and sticks to history and the true story of the place for each. For example, their “Hau Hau Block” is named after an event that happened on that land in the 1800’s. “Hau Hau” is Maori for “war party,” and there is still a memorial that honours the fight that occurred there. Philip believes it is “quite spiritual,” and the way he communicates about the history of his land demonstrates just how passionate he is about not only honouring the terroir now, but keeping in mind the significant past that came before. The “Puriri Block” is named after the trees that line the block, which Philip loves because they bring in lots of native birds.
As for what Petane produces, customers will find Pinot Gris, of which the 2018 vintage won Gold at the Hawke’s Bay Wine Awards, and the 2015 took the Trophy. Petane does Chardonnay as well as Gewurtztraminer, which Philip is a fan of ever since trying a spectacular Gewurtz from Rippon in 2000. He doesn’t have reds on site but does get some grapes from the Bridge Pa to make Syrah and Merlot Franc. He does Viognier as well, and even though it’s a harder sell in Hawke’s Bay, it is a special varietal to Philip for a couple of reasons. James Millton grew it, and he is one of Philip’s heroes. Viognier was the first vines Philip planted with his Dad, and it’s also got an an underdog story. Philip regaled me with how at one time, Viognier was almost extinct, and someone took it from 12 hectares and replanted it, to save it from being lost forever. Philip has 4 barrels of it for 2019, and uses special immersion barrels made for Viognier production. He’s also insistent on not bottling until it’s ready, no matter how long he has to wait.
The most interesting wine I find Petane to do though, is the Edelzwicker. “Edelzwicker” dates back to the 1600’s in Alsace, and means “noble blend.” Philip loves it because it’s different. He had heard of the style 4 years prior to making it and wrote the name on a small scrap paper. That paper ended up getting lost in his sock drawer for 4 years, and one day he dug it up and thought, “nobody has done it. Let’s do it!” And so he did! He describes making it as “very exciting,” and wants to do another one. He’s thinking of adding a late harvest, or noble version to the Petane collection.
He works hard to promote the Edelzwicker, and says “let’s get the word out.” He is very passionate about this wine, and about making it true to the name. To be a traditional Edelzwicker, all of the grapes have to be white, picked on same day, and must be from the same vineyard. The point is that the wine represents the vineyard and that vintage specifically. They don’t need to have colour but in New Zealand, some do. Philip loves rose, so he left his on skins for a week; he describes it as “floral and beautiful.” I would encourage you to try a bottle if you’re up for something refreshing and unique. The longer I sat with Philip I could see how much he loves to be different than the other producers around him. Even his business cards are printed vertically. It’s producers like Philip, who aren’t afraid to be themselves, yet still balance out their practice to honour tradition, that add uniqueness and interest to the industry, and who are making some really special wines.
Philip comments that “wine got boring for a while. It was all same same. What we are about, is when you pick it up, I want people to know what it is. Know the variety by the smell or taste. Don’t filter or fine beyond belief. Nobody should have to tell you what it is.” He believes people should know “where it’s from,” and it should be “made by people who love what they’re doing.”
And Philip does love what he’s doing! Despite the challenges that inevitably come with any career, Philip says about running Petane, that it’s a “great industry” and “totally worth it.” He finds joy in caring for the vineyard, and “seeing it looking really good.” He also is satisfied in seeing his wine be bottled and knowing the year’s cycle has completed once again. Sarah says about Philip that “he’s super passionate about making really good wine, from our property. He’s in it for that, not the money.” Sarah mentioned when she came into the industry, she “thought it was snobby but the people that work in it are down to earth and love wine passionately. Everyone knows you don’t know everything. It’s not like that at all.” They’re grateful for the flexibility to work around their family, and to live on a beautiful property.
Philip has learned over the years to “be very humble and happy when anyone buys wine, because they don’t have to.” He has also learned what he can’t control. He tells of a time “in the early days when I was naive” and “had lots of stress.” He’s learned now that he can’t “know everything,” and is “always learning.” He has realized, “stuff happens. Try and do your best. Don’t stress, and enjoy life.”
To find Petane wines, head out to Zeelandt Brewery Monday to Friday from 9.00am to 5.00pm or Saturdays 12.00pm to 4.00pm. Additional hours are available over the summer holidays.
You can also find them at The Common Room, Liquor King Onekawa, Indigo, Three Wise Birds, Bareknuckle BBQ and a few other places in Hawke’s Bay, Invisible Wines in Wellington, or JG Wines and Drinks and in Auckland. To order, book a private group tasting or to find out more places to purchase, visit http://www.petanewines.co.nz or contact through Instagram @petanewines.
Follow on Instagram to stay in the know for the opening of the new Zeelandt Beer Garden and Petane Cellar Door, scheduled for next summer.
3 thoughts on “The Petane Story; Esk Valley Boutique Wine Producers”
Another great blog, Chelsea. Really enjoyed reading it.
NB: Tairawhiti Tech – not Terawhiti Tech 🤓
Gisborne is my hometown.
Thanks Elizabeth! I’ll fix that spelling. Appreciate it! Hi
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