John Hancock grew up on a farm in Australia, that although in the Coonawara wine region, had nothing to do with wine. His parents gained interest in wine only once John entered the industry. One day, John was on his daily commute into the town school, when he began browsing some books on the bus, and as fate would have it, he came across a book about how to make wine at home. Intrigued, he decided to give making fruit wine a go. John finished his high school years at a boarding school, where he happened upon a chemistry teacher who shared about his hobby of making mead. Still fascinated by the process of fermenting, John began making cider from apples he took from the school dinner tables. He joked that he had a “semi commercial operation of slightly sparkling cider!” His business of slightly sparkling cider lead to a fully sparkling passion to make wine; after graduating, he enrolled at Roseworthy College, Australia’s first agricultural college, founded in the late 1880s. Although agriculturally based, Roseworthy offered a winemaking component, and their website still boasts that many of the best-known names in winemaking have passed through their doors. John went straight to work upon graduation, and as of 2020, he has done an amazing fifty vintages, with seven in Australia, two in France, and forty-one in New Zealand.
In 1972, John did his first harvest in the Barossa. He described how different it was to today’s industry. “There were lots of people there forever, forking grapes off a truck for ten hours a day. There was no way of tipping. You would smoke and drink as much as you wanted to. It wouldn’t happen these days! We would spend three or four hours plunging Barossa Cab and Shiraz. You could bloody walk across the top of it.” John went on to describe the astronomical gap in quality he’s witnessed in his fifty years. “You don’t want to know how wine was made back then. They would add almost anything: sugar or water to skins and ferment and add more, etc. to make different wines or fortified wine. They would turn over a ton of grapes four times. The fruit was terrible. We were processing more than the whole of New Zealand at that time, seven thousand ton a day of grapes. Brandy and spirits and fortified wines were big. The guy who was head winemaker had a philosophy that above ten degrees, it all went to distillation.” John just laughed as he told this story and said, “now we know different.”
In 1979, Jim Delegat had posted a winemaker job for advertisement in Australia, and John applied. Jim drove to Berri to interview him and ended up offering him an eighteen-month contract that brought John over to New Zealand. John has fond memories of Jim, who “paid for a ten-week trip around Europe with my partner to learn the wine industries. Just fantastic. Delegat was making less than one thousand ton a year at that time.” He commented that he “loved working there because I had free creative reign to try new things,” and as we know, it’s experiences that foster some of the best learning. John did four harvests for Delegat, before helping to start Morton Estate. There, he implemented the practice of commercial barrel fermentation of Chardonnay, as one of the first places to do it in Australasia. He had been to Burgundy during the harvest of 1981 and witnessed it there. He remembers thinking it was “really bizarre” but saw it work; he came back to New Zealand and slowly edged his way into it, becoming slightly known for it. For example, Delegat won their first gold medal for Chardonnay in 1981, with their 1982 Chard winning Wine of the Show at the precursor to the Air NZ Wine Awards in 1983. It was at Morton where John made his first barrel fermented Chardonnay, their Black Label Chardonnay. He had wanted to be a winemaker since that childhood bus ride and was finally living that dream. “I have never done any other job and don’t want to. It’s too late now,” he joked.
He is also the founder of the well-known winery and wine brand in New Zealand, Trinity Hill. He was in London in 1987 at Bleeding Heart Restaurant, and ran into some friends, who believed in him as a winemaker and said to him, “look, if you’d like to start something on your own, we’d like to invest.” He spent years searching for the ideal vineyard sites and had some great experiences with the Gimblett Gravels. In 1993, he said, “let’s do it,” and bought the land. In 1994, he planted Trinity Hill’s first vineyards, leaning largely on Bordeaux varietals for blends, and the ever popular Hawke’s Bay Syrah. John is no longer involved with the brand today, but it was a large part of his career to which he owes much experience.
Hancock & Sons was founded in November of 2017. John’s got two sons; he points out that only Willy is involved with the business right now, but it’s called Hancock & Sons because he’s got them both, and the door is always open to either of them to be involved. The fruit for this label specifically comes from the Bridge Pa Triangle, and not the Gravels, as in John’s opinion, that’s where you need to be in Hawke’s Bay to produce great Chardonnay. He’s formed a lot of relationships in fifty years, so going into this label, he already knew who he wanted to source fruit from. He keeps a small number of growers, and commented, “I’ve known them for a long time and I know good growers.” He wanted to produce Hancock & Sons in Hawke’s Bay, because he’s had “quite interesting experience with fruit from Hawke’s Bay and I think it’s quite good!”
You’ll find three wines in the Handcock & Sons portfolio, a Rosé, Chardonnay and a Cabernet Franc. The Rosé is made from Cab Franc, not Merlot, and they have done nothing to change its natural colour. The label and name of the Rosé, the inaugural Hancock & Sons wine, represent the legacy from which the family came. John’s great great grandparents migrated to South Australia from Cornwall on a ship called “Lillies.” Willy explained that “coincidentally at the time of harvest, there were lilies in the vineyard where we got our fruit.” The Hancock’s wanted their first wine to be one that many could appreciate and enjoy, not something for a niche market, hence their debut with Lillies Rosé. You’ll find their family crest on all their wines, representing John’s history in the industry and the family legacy. After all, John started Hancock & Sons to be about family and legacy, with the intention of leaving it to the boys. Trinity Hill wasn’t suitable for that, as he was in partnership with other investors; Hancock & Sons is a small label that’s just for them.
As for the winemaking philosophies they hold, they’ve blended new world with a bit of old-world knowledge. John speaks of working with a viticulturist from Burgundy, who used to “taste the fruit from top to bottom… and taste through all the barrels. He would open bottles from all over the world. Fantastic guy.” John learned from him to try everything, and to be open minded. John also notes that “we’ve both done harvests in France. That’s had an influence on the way I’ve approached wines. Rhone. Paul Jaboulet. I admired La Chapelle’s top Syrah. Trinity Hill Homage was made with that in mind. He gave us cuttings of Syrah and Viognier to bring back to New Zealand.”
Willy was born in 1993, the year Trinity Hill was being built up, giving him mainly childhood memories of family life at the vineyard and winery. He says fondly, “I grew up at Trinity Hill.” His first memories are when the winery was being built in 1996 for the 1997 harvest. He remembers Tip, the dog, and getting to help with “little jobs here and there.” It wasn’t until the end of high school though, that Willy decided to make his own way in the industry. “You’ll never make any money in the wine industry. Be a lawyer,” John says he had advised Willy. Willy just responded with, “You always seem to have a lot of fun though!” Willy continued, “Dad always said ‘don’t get into wine. You won’t have money.’ I guess what I saw is that you can have a lot of fun. The places you end up travelling to are invariably beautiful and you meet amazing people.”
Willy worked in the Trinity Hill Cellar Door, and at a restaurant, The Don, that his godparents owned in London as an Assistant Sommelier. He recalls them having four to five hundred bottles from all around the world on their wine list. “You get to taste everything. Huge amount of wines you can’t try in New Zealand.” He’d been on a two-year Working Holiday Visa for the U.K. and when it ran out, he wasn’t ready to leave. “There was a college for winemaking in the U.K., and I thought, ‘should I give it a go? Should I not?’ I studied for three years over there.” He then went through California and worked for Bob Linquist at a place in the Central Coast Valley growing Rhone varieties. He was provided with a car and house, as well as wine in exchange for getting no pay. After, he got in touch with Craig Thomas at Church Road in Hawke’s Bay, and landed a harvest job there, working on the front end as a Harvest Supervisor in 2019. Willy said about Church Road, “I loved working there. They have a great crew.” He’s chosen to continue his career in the industry, and notes “there was never any pressure [from his Dad]. If anything, there was the opposite! Do what you want to do. But this is what I want to do.” One of the rewards Willy has already experienced is the many relationships built in this industry, as well as “building bridges. Getting invited back to a place is pretty cool.”
One of the challenges they’ve have had to overcome relates to sales. “To have the time with a full-time day job to do the bits and pieces that need to be done,” has been hard work. John currently works at Moana Park, where he also produces Hancock & Sons, and Willy is a Cellarhand at Hawke’s Bay Wine Company. Their full time jobs require them to be creative to meet their goal to sell directly to the consumer as much as possible. There are some retailers outside of the Bay that sell their wines, but it’s important to John to keep this label small. “I don’t want to get too big,” he said, as he knows where that leads. “I’ve done the big business thing. If you own vineyards and a winery you never make any money.” Size is less important than the success of the business that’s to be the legacy he leaves to his sons.
An additional challenge is the way consumers buy, as John explained. “It’s so trend driven, the wine industry. People want to drink something else. So you dig it out and plant new, but it’s three years before you can make the wines and try to sell them. If you want to plant something that doesn’t exist in New Zealand at the moment, you have to bring it in from Europe, do the quarantine, etc. From the time you have the brainwave to do it, it’s ten years.” By then, the trend has shifted, and people want something else; or do they? Willy’s learned that “people are fickle. We don’t know what we want and if we do, we can’t articulate it. We’re not prepared to pay what we need to pay for what we want. You go to Cellar Doors and talk to people. They don’t know what they want. They think they like something but don’t actually know.” John added that he “underestimated how little wines at $35 actually sell. At least 80% of wines that are sold have been under $20.”
He’s learned that there is a sizable gap between making wine that is an art form to the winemaker, and making wine that consumers actually want to drink. “Wines with minerality; the average person who drinks a wine doesn’t care. “There’s a generation that hasn’t gotten into wine yet. They’ll get into it. We have to incorporate the millennials and make wine that people are going to drink.” Over the course of John’s career he’s learned an invaluable lesson. “I used to think if we’ve made wines that I like, then people are going to like them too. But now I’ve changed that. We’ve learned that we have to think about what other people like too.”
In watching the evolution of the industry in the last fifty years, John was able to comment on some new challenges for up and coming winemakers. In his day, “you had to complete two harvests and get a good report at Roseworthy before you could graduate.” With the increase of wine’s popularity and prestige, many people are entering the industry with naivety. He says, “everyone wants to be a winemaker,” but cautions, “do a harvest before you go to school. It’s not glamorous. I’ve been involved with designing three wineries now.” He’s also noticed that “very few people leave their jobs, so the succession is low.” This leads to a lack of winemaking jobs for new grads. John graduated from Roseworthy in 1973, and describes that at that time, “you had to have a degree or do another Ag degree before Winemaking. There was an average of ten people graduating each year. They were in huge demand. It was not paying well. $7000 a year was my opening salary, but we were in demand. How many now in the Southern Hemisphere are graduating?” When he graduated, he got a job right away. “Now you’ve got to spend ten years dragging hoses. I missed all that.”
To sit down with someone who has spent his entire career in this industry and has contributed so much to its development, was an honour, to say the least. John’s gained wisdom about winemaking, and about life. “Work ethic is probably the most important thing of the whole lot,” John said, and added, “even if you don’t know what you’re doing, work hard. Past a point, you can’t learn that.” Willy mentioned that he’s taken that lesson to heart and he’s really had to prove himself, coming into the industry as John Hancock’s son. “Even if you don’t know what you’re doing if you can work hard, people really respect that. You have to work harder to prove them wrong as a winemaker’s son.” John reflected on his relationships as well. “I’ve been divorced twice. It really gets under your skin and becomes the driving factor in your life. If you want to be successful in the wine industry you can have one mistress. Your family suffers. I spent so much time away from home.”
In asking John and Willy why they continue to work in this industry, their answers clearly show they both have passion that drives them. “It’s the greatest job in the world but not the highest paid,” John said. “It’s a really interesting industry. If people were in this situation in the used car industry they would be gone tomorrow. People rarely leave the industry.” Willy responded with, “that’s a good point. From the outside, you’re being wet and cold and hungry and tired. But you still want to do it.” John agreed with, “gets under your skin, doesn’t it?” Willy regaled me with the story of his longest shift yet. “Everything in Sancerre, it’s all Sauvignon. We had to get it all in in ten days. It was nuts. I did a thirty-six-hour shift. You get into this twilight zone where the fruit comes in and you press it. What other job could you do that in? You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t love it because you couldn’t. You’re going to see two sunrises on this shift and get no money for it,” Willy joked. “You couldn’t tell a car salesman that.” John agreed and added that his longest shift was fifty-four hours. “It’s a buzz. Adrenaline rush. You’re creating. That’s the thing.”
In sitting down with them both, the respect that Willy has for John was apparent, and his desire to learn from his Dad, and soak in his stories and wisdom is refreshing. John has those years of lessons to pass on, and he has lived through the largest growth of the New Zealand wine industry yet. He’s seen it all, from turning over fruit and adding sugar to make fortified wines, to now, when New Zealand is producing wines that compete with the best in the world.
John isn’t in wine for the fluff. He isn’t full of dramatic, romantic comments and goals. John has been through that already, and he has learned what works and what doesn’t. He has seen the change, and he accepts the new generation and the ideas and insights that come with that, which is why he wants to involve his sons. This label really is designed to be a legacy. John and Willy work well together and enjoy their working relationship. Willy commented, “my number one goal is to learn everything I can from my Dad. I’d be an idiot not to!”
I found their wines to be unique, flavoursome, soft, aromatic and interesting. The nose of each struck me because their intriguing aromas invited me to think about them in further depth. As we neared the end of the evening, John commented to Willy, “they open up so well these wines; that’s what I really like about them.” When you purchase Hancock & Sons wines, you’re buying a label that is made with care, attention, purpose and a sense of family pride. “You’re always proud of the next one coming along,” John said about their wines.
You can purchase Hancock & Sons wines through their website, hancockandsons.co.nz, or find them on Instagram @hancock_and_sons. They are working on getting a fortnightly blog up to share more of their story with followers, and are currently on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Some Glengarry’s and Liquor Kings stock their wines, but John and Willy are happy to courier them to you or drop them off personally on their way around the Bay, in order to sell directly to you as much as possible. Follow them on Instagram to stay in the know, and to get some of the 50th Anniversary vintages of John’s wines. Vintage 2020 is wrapping up, and previous vintages of all three wines are ready to buy and are drinking beautifully. So choose a wine, or all three from Hancock & Sons, and sip on fifty years of winemaking experience, perfectly blended with a young winemaker’s aspiration, finished off with the touch of a New Zealand legend, and the legacy of a family.