“Freedom from the bullshit of the wine industry.”
“Liberty to make honest wines without manipulation.”
“Salvation from the industry binds.”
THAT is Saorsa, and is everything Alex Hendry and Hana Montaperto-Hendry stand for.
Never have I seen one word on a wine bottle describe not only a company mandate, but a deeply rooted personal philosophy in such a beautifully succinct way.
Hana and Alex are some of the most bad-ass people I know, yet are down to earth, humble people of integrity, and great friends. Their style is so cool; when you walk up to their place you’re greeted by Sailor and Bam Bam, their Thai Ridgeback and Rhodesian Ridgeback Cross dogs. When you enter, you find Hana’s motorcycle sitting in the kitchen, and family photos and artistic, statement posters on every wall. There are beautiful antiques and vintage pieces galore, but everything is well organized. Hana’s usually got something amazing cooking for dinner, which is followed by a new dessert she’s baked from scratch. Isla and Taj, their kids, are there to welcome you into the family, and you’re served some amazing wine in a funky antique wine glass.
Alex had what many would consider to be a regular childhood. He’s from a “quiet” family of four, and grew up in Auckland with his sister and parents, attending a prestigious boarding school. He ended up in Hawke’s Bay when he decided to enrol at the Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) to study Wine Science and Viticulture.
Hana is one of four children, from Italian roots, born in Hawke’s Bay, who grew up “old school,” as she describes it, with a mechanic, hunting-enthusiast father, who taught her that everything can be fixed, and a nurse mother, who raised her “non-gender specific;” she show jumped horses across the country, but also raced motocross (which lead her to breaking her back not once, but twice).
Hana is tough as nails. She was a teen Mum, having had her son, Taj, at the age of 18. “Everyone said having him was going to stop me from things; Taj hasn’t stopped me from anything.” She already had her diploma in Video and Electronic Media and a great job when she gave birth, and purchased her first house shortly after, by the age of 19. Although it wasn’t easy, Hana is no stranger to hard work and perseverance.
Alex and Hana do things differently than most, which is a huge part of their charm. How they got together was different as well, and I wouldn’t have expected anything less. They met at a Rock and Roll show, held at an old youth church that had been converted into a concert venue, ironically named, “The Vineyard.” Hana was used to most guys hitting on her; Alex, however, rocking Mohawk hair, piercings and tattoos, walked past, looked at her over the fence, screamed like a punk in her face, and kept going. She thought he was “so cool.” He had her at “blaaahhhh!” Hana says “he met his match,” but agrees that she met hers as well. Alex jokes that Hana had told him “she was a well-mannered Catholic girl.”
They began meeting up as friends at rock shows around the Bay, and Hana found she was hanging out with Alex’s group at their house frequently. Even though Hana’s house was nicer, she had “nothing good to eat in the fridge!” Hana remembers a pivotal moment when she realized how amazing Alex is. She had gone through a difficult time, and he completely supported her through it. It was then that she fell in love with Alex.
It was in 2008 when they met, and when Alex graduated from EIT. They had their beautiful and spunky daughter, Isla, in 2014, and were married in January of 2015. They got engaged and found out they were expecting Isla in the same week! Alex had been having the ring designed for 3 months already, and they had been hoping for Isla, but when the timing all collided, Alex wondered if he should still go ahead with his elaborate proposal plan. He decided he didn’t care how it looked; he knew he wanted to marry Hana.
He sent her on a treasure hunt for clues around Hawke’s Bay on her Cruiser. Hana thought he had planned it as a special last ride and was preparing to tell her she couldn’t ride pregnant! Alex figured it would take her 3 hours tops, but after what became a 7 hour, 700km ride, an exhausted and newly pregnant Hana rolled up at home to find Taj beside Alex, waiting on one knee. Isla was born 8 months later, and they were married when she was 10 months old.
Wine was not a huge part of either Alex or Hana’s upbringings, so I was curious to find out how their lives revolve so much around it now.
Alex had a lot of friends choosing corporate careers after high school; he didn’t know for sure what he wanted to do, but he knew it wasn’t that world. He had been enjoying brewing his own beer, heard about winemaking, and “thought it sounded interesting,” and he’d “give it a shot and find out.” Once he got into school, he found he actually really enjoyed making wine.
Alex has currently done 13 vintages, and has full time experience in Vineyard Manager, Cellar Hand, and Assistant Winemaker positions across 4 wineries in the Bay over the last 12 years.
He remembers working for a larger company in his early industry days, and seeing “truck loads of garbage” coming in from the vineyard, and thinking, “why am I doing this? How can we do better?”
Those key questions lead Alex to start personally researching biodynamics, and to discover that everything about great wine “comes down to the vineyard.” He left that big company, and began working for Warren at La Collina, where he had creative run of a beautiful, hillside vineyard.
His passion now is the vineyard, which is so ironic, because Alex had dropped the additional year at EIT that focused on Viticulture, in order to graduate faster. He believes it’s actually “the best thing he’s done,” because he has “taught [himself] what he needs to know based on real experience working.” Although he didn’t originally plan on focusing on Viticulture, it has slowly emerged as not only his passion, but one of his main areas of expertise.
Once Alex had learned a sufficient amount about how to care for the vines, he wanted to make a quality wine that was a true representation of the place in which the grapes grew: the terroir. He wanted to make a counter-cultural wine that showed the features of when it was picked, and what the weather and fruit were like that year; he didn’t want to showcase what so many others do: winemaking.
For a wine like that, site selection is critical. Since Alex and Hana don’t own their own vineyard, they purchase fruit from growers. Alex admits that by not owning the vineyard, he does lose some control. When I asked him if he’d like to own his own one day, he said “yes and no; yes, in a whimsical world where it’s perfect, but it takes so much work and time.” Alex loves being in the vineyard, but that’s not Hana’s passion. She prefers to fabricate the wine tanks! In addition, she loves the relational side of the industry, and is in the business to support Alex’s dream; she’s also realistic to accept that they have a young family, and both work full time. Alex is confident in his ability to find amazing fruit without having the stress of a huge mortgage on a vineyard. He knows the vineyards he uses inside and out, and has personal relationships with the owners. He specifies how Saorsa’s rows are to be managed, and even does a lot of the work himself, on top of his full time day job.
The first Saorsa wine was a 2015 Viognier; however, Alex has been making his own wine at home since his last year at EIT, when he entered a student Vintage Port-Style wine competition. Alex being Alex, and anti-wine industry bullshit, he thought, “what can I do to sabotage the whole thing?” and decided to give his wine an edgy name “to take the piss,” calling it, “The Day the Wine Industry Died.” He ended up winning a Bronze Award at the Mercedes Benz Wine Awards with that wine, and having that name publicized and printed. He started producing wine under that label for the next several years, but when he and Hana decided to start selling wine, and created the business, he chose to set that label to the side. He calls it a “watch this space moment,” because when he knows what he wants to do with it, it’ll be back.
“Saorsa” is a Scottish word, and although Hana and Alex both have Scottish blood in them, they more so chose it because of what it meant, and how it completely represents what they believe in. It is also quite unique, as they are.
As for their logo, you’ll notice that it’s, again, extremely unique. The design is a collaboration between Hana, Alex and their friend, renowned photographer, Richard Wood. The logo represents Hana’s fire as an engineer, Alex’s heart for what he does, and the grapes, as well as the “massive crossover” between science and religion, and its association with wine as the blood of Christ. As they phrase it, “you can’t have religion and wine without science. You need science to create wine, but they don’t believe in each other.”
Their label is also a statement that rebels against marketing and everything industry standards promote. Rather than have any information on the front, they’ve chosen to put it all on the back, including their name. Hana explains, “I wanted a void. Wine labels are competitive and busy. You want people to look for the good, but some look for faults. If you have nothing, it’s a void.” Hana also makes the point that “people are inquisitive and want to know more.” People that are drawn to their wine are willing to pick it up and look at the back.
All you’ll see on the front of the bottle is their logo, which again, is very strategically placed. Research told them it needed to be in the top left corner, because that’s where the eye is naturally drawn. So where do you think it appears on Saorsa’s label? In the bottom right corner. It may seem as though they’ve chosen simply to thwart what society says, but in fact, every decision they’ve made has been purposeful, and depicts the kind of wine that’s in the bottle. Alex has rebelled against everything he hates about the wine industry, so why should the label not follow suit?
Hana stated it so elegantly: “If you see the beauty in what is wrong, you clearly want to drink this wine.”
It should not surprise you by now to read that Saorsa’s wine making philosophy is different than those held by many who are making the typical commercial wines on the market. As Alex has based his entire winemaking mandate on going against “wine industry bullshit,” I feel I should fill you in on what that means to him.
“There’s a romanticism about the industry . . . the whole modern process of efficiency is bullshit. We’ve taken a 10,000 year old art form and ruined it to keep up with demand and revolution. When you see industrial size wineries, you might as well work in a sweat shop or any factory. You can make any wine, any year, and adjust anything to make it taste the same. The modern world has lost the yearly aspect of it. You can manipulate wine like making Coke.” – Alex
“The pretence is something that annoys me about it. It’s not romantic; it’s hard work. Wait until he jumps in bed during vintage after a 19 hour day and he’s sticky. Your sheets will be Syrah red. I don’t have white sheets anymore.” – Hana
“We also disagree with so much of how it’s done and how much you’re lied to; consumer expectation – ‘you have to do this or no one will buy it.’ Why? We want to do it the way we want to do it.” – Hana
Alex believes in “taking it back to basics, before marketing and manipulation were involved.” They hand pick, foot crush, use wild yeast for fermentation in old oak barrels where the wines mature for at least a year and undergo natural malolactic fermentation.
Saorsa has made a 2015 Viognier, and both Syrah and Viognier in 2016, 2018 and 2019. They didn’t make wine in 2017 because the vintage wasn’t good enough. Some may assume that a new, boutique winemaker would have wanted to get his wine on the market quickly, but the 2015 Saorsa Viognier wasn’t released until 2018. Alex will only release his wines when they’re ready. He keeps tasting them, and “allows what’s there to shine.”
Alex and Hana make Viognier because they enjoy drinking it as a varietal, but also because of the amazing parcel of fruit they were given the chance to lease. As for Syrah, Alex has a “love affair” with it, because of its “wild, crazy side,” its “power and structure yet delicacy and florals,” and that it’s a “flamboyant, wild variety that’s in your face.” He loves the “histories of Hermitage,” and the “crazy wild-hills, romantic side” of Syrah, but also that it’s the variety that’s “most at home in Hawke’s Bay.” He knows it’s got a “sense of place,” and is “ideal here,” and he specifically loves the “limestone shallow soil,” at the vineyard site he uses.
Saorsa makes “honest wine,” meaning Alex is happy with their name being on the back of the bottle. Honest wine, to them, is wine without manipulation. Alex asks, “how would it have been made 100 years ago before we had additives to make everyone think they’re drinking something good, but it’s full of crap?” Alex believes in making the wine right from day one, rather than having to correct it in the winery.
Honest wine, to him, means having the wine represent the truth of where it came from and when it was made, rather than “stylistically making something.” He gives the example of Gimblett Gravels Syrah in Hawke’s Bay, and how there are characters that so obviously scream “sense of place,” but he hates that so many of them are the same from one producer to the next. Alex strives for Saorsa to be unique. “For me it’s more about not using large amounts of new oak, or any new oak, or additions or adjustments, [and] no acid adjustments. What I can pick is what I want in the bottle. If I pick too late, that’s my fault, and I won’t rely on a packet of tartaric acid [to fix it].” It makes complete sense to me after learning their philosophy that entering wine shows is of no interest to them.
As you can imagine, being a boutique wine maker on the side of your full time job, having made the decision to go against the industry grain, and make wine with no manipulation, is extremely challenging. Time is one of Alex and Hana’s biggest challenges; they both work full time to support their family, and pay for their house and rental houses. Alex is sharing his time to be Winemaker for Saorsa, along with Assistant Winemaker for his day job’s label. Hana says, “for 3 months of the year I don’t see him.” She identifies with the common nickname of “vintage widow,” and says jokingly, “don’t marry a winemaker. They earn shit money and work shit hours.”
The cost of running a small business is challenging as well, as Saorsa has to legally pay the same fees and taxes on every bottle that the bigger companies are paying. They’re very small production, making only a few barrels per year. Doing things naturally is hard too; even though it’s what Saorsa stands for, “it takes longer waiting on everything to go naturally, but that’s part of the ethos and what happens.”
After all the ups and downs of life and wine, Alex and Hana still love spending time together. That’s something the couple wants readers to know; “we actually love being together. The Instagram is real. The whole thing is real.”
They also want customers to understand that Saorsa doesn’t support them financially. They’re not “doing it for a quick buck,” they’re doing it because Alex is truly passionate about it, and Hana backs him to the end, even to the point of unloading grapes in 2014 after giving birth, and getting reprimanded by her midwife. Although balancing full time jobs with everything else sucks their time, it allows them to “stay true to it,” and to wait until they have a product that Alex is completely happy with for Saorsa. “There is no rush; it can sit as long as it needs. The integrity of the wine is never compromised by a need to release.”
As for what they’ve learned, the “good things about wine are really good.” Alex loves the “culture, people, [and] whimsical” side of the industry, and comments that “when you meet people that are really invested, you see the amazing good side of it.”
The satisfaction Alex gets from knowing people have enjoyed the wine he’s made continues to motivate him. “You see people review it, and how much they love it, and you get the warm fuzzies. It makes sense in your head. Financially no, but whimsically, yes. For the people, yes.” Hana enjoys the people, and that they can do it as a family. She, Taj and Isla have all helped harvest, foot crush, and do other jobs along the way.
Alex thrives in the practical application of his work, in that he is passionate about what he does. It’s “science and magic at the same time.” He loves being out in the vines, and that wine has been made for tens of thousands of years, but that it’s only made once a year. Winemakers get “one chance” each year to make that vintage of wine, and it “can never be repeated.”
They both agree that their whole lives have been taken over to a certain degree by wine, but they are happy. “We work for what we have, we’re all in on Saorsa. We love what we have, and our life, our partnership.”
So what is Saorsa wine actually like?
It IS honest, it IS different, and it IS amazing.
Their 2016 Viognier is one of my favourite Viogniers ever. They’re sold out of it (and I’m not opening my last bottle just yet) so I’ve currently made a couple of trips to a wine bar in town for a glass, and last I heard they were on their last bottle. Tasting notes I made were “fruity and apricoty with dried mango and the perfect amount of floral; it’s aromatic, smooth, oily and rich.”
When I asked for some key features of the wines, Hana joked, “features? Our feet. Yours included this year!” (That’s right, my feet were in the 2019 Saorsa Syrah, and Greg’s were in the Viognier.) All kidding aside, Hana does describe them by saying, “they taste like Alex. I know that sounds odd, but they taste like his passion and love.” When describing the Syrah, she notes “earthy chocolate berries and a bit of attitude mixed with gentle and humble flavours.” Both varietals are “elegant, effeminate, flamboyant.”
If you’re curious to try these incredible, counter-cultural, down to earth, honest wines, get in touch with Saorsa via Instagram by following them @saorsawines and sending them a message. Their website just launched today; you can now find them at http://www.saorsawines.co.nz.
So cheers to freedom from bullshit, to the liberty to be your honest self, and to salvation from your binds.
Saorsa, my friends.