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

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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!

Saorsa Wines; A story of Freedom, Liberty, Salvation

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“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.

#nzv19

New Zealand Vintage 2019… is done.

The end of vintage brings mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s sad to say goodbye to the time of year when everything the industry people have been working towards for the rest of the year is finally realized. It’s also time for all the vintage staff to be on their way back to their home countries, or on to the Northern Hemisphere for the next vintage. Saying goodbye to a team of people who have spent more time with each other than anyone else for the last 6 to 8 weeks can be difficult, especially if it was a great team that got along well and bonded over late nights and long days.

On the other hand, for all the Cellar Hands out there, vintage is exhausting, stressful, and can be all consuming, so it’s a relief to get back to a normal schedule, start sleeping again, and get the occasional day off. The “wine widows” are happy to have their partners back too.

As promised, I’ll outline briefly what our experiences of our first vintage were, and better explain some of the photos you saw on our social media profiles in the last 2 months.


Vintage for my winery started on the 26th of February. I’ll remind you here that I work in the Cellar Door, not the winery, (which my boss had to remind me of a couple times – sorry Mitch) so any time I got to spend in the winery was really special to me. I didn’t personally have the long days, no time off, and night shifts that all the Cellar Hands did (and wow, do I admire them for their work). I certainly did clock some hours out there when the Cellar Door was slow, on my days off, and after work, to hang out with the crew and get my hands on everything I was allowed to touch.

I was fortunate to be able to participate in the annual First Crush Ceremony, which was an unexpected honour for me. The grapes were loaded into the hopper, and before it was turned on, we had a speech with some high-ups in the company, and some of our Blanc de Noir (Champagne-style wine). Traditionally, everyone has a sip or two, and then throws the remainder of their wine into the hopper over the grapes. It’s a way of “blessing,” if you will, the next harvest with some wine from previous harvests. Ceremonies like this are practiced all over the world, and have been for years. Traditionally, the ceremony shows thanksgiving for the vineyards, the grapes, the workers, and begins the new vintage with a united team, hopeful for the vintage ahead.

My face when one of the Cellar Hands told me not to throw the entire wine glass in! 😂 Obviously.

I stuck around to watch the first crush, and tried some of the juice straight out of the press. It was a great day! I had no idea then just how many things I was actually going to experience this vintage.

The team began by bringing in Chardonnay for our bubbles, as well as some aromatic whites, like Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, and then moved onto Chardonnay. Whites lasted for weeks, and I made sure to try each type of grape as they came in, and each grape juice as it was pressed out of the tanks.

During this time, I learned how the hopper, auger, crusher and presses work in a lot more detail, how to rack a tank, how the barrels are filled, and got to try my hand at some Battonage (yeast lees stirring). I also got to learn about the process of several loads of grapes arriving in both trucks and in bins, and how the winery coordinates with the vineyards, pickers and truck drivers to manage it all.

Hand harvested Sauvignon Blanc being loaded up into the press

Meanwhile, Greg was doing his own vintage at his workplace. After seeing our first crush ceremony, Greg suggested his team do one as well; they took his suggestion and involved everyone there, including the Cellar Door team, to launch the vintage with Champagne. Greg’s First Crush Ceremony was on the 14th of March, when they brought in some Merlot for Rose. For his very first crush, he mostly cleaned equipment and learned how to do a thorough job of that. He helped run pumps, move hoses, de-stem and get the juice off of the skins.

Two weeks later, Greg’s winery brought in some whites. Greg had lots of different roles; sometimes he drove the tractor from the vineyard into the winery with loads of grapes, other times he helped operate the press. As his place is an Estate winery, everything is grown on site. With their small team, they often enlisted the help of picking gangs to come harvest the grapes on the days they were ready. Greg began doing more involved jobs, like loading the press, and continuing with that all important cleaning and sanitizing. He enjoyed harvesting the Chardonnay the most, but loved the taste of the Gewertztraminer grapes the best.

I got to experience my first harvest, and Greg’s second, when Greg and I helped our friends at Saorsa wines with their Viognier. I was so slow at first, but eventually got the hang of it!

As exciting as the whites were, I was thrilled when the reds began coming in. Merlot for Rose was the first red that came into our winery on the 24th of March, and the reds continued until the end of April.

Greg’s Winery brought in their first official red, Pinotage, on the 25th of March. He enjoyed harvesting the reds more than the whites, because although the reds require a lot more work in the winery over the next several months, the harvest day process is simpler. With the reds, Greg learned to do everything from pour overs, punch downs and rummages (to continually mix the juice and skins all together while they’re fermenting) to taking and recording data of temperature and Brix (sugar) levels in the active ferments every day.

His small team lead to some extra long days, as they had to finish processing the grapes that came in before they could go home. That same small team had some benefits for me though, as I was welcomed to come participate in some of the cellar work. I loved doing punch-downs, and helping with anything they’d set me up working on.

Couples who make wine together… 🍷

Meanwhile, at my own workplace, I was still taking every chance to be out in the winery. I witnessed a few dig outs (emptying skins from the tanks after fermentation is done) and got to try everything from taking the temperature of the cap of grape skins at the top of the tanks, to testing Brix (sugar) levels in wine, rummages (blowing compressed air into the tanks to mix up the skins through the juice and regulate the temperature of the ferment), and even running the hopper (with much needed and excessive supervision)!

Rummaging the Cuves
Testing the Brix
Taking the temperature of the cap of grape skins
Learning to run the hopper with a load of red grapes

Greg and I helped our friends at Element Wines harvest their Merlot, and got another little harvest under our belts.

Greg did his first dig out on his birthday!

A big highlight for me was when Alex of Saorsa allowed me to help him foot stomp his Syrah! This had been a dream of mine for years, and it was so amazing to actually get to do it.

Greg has also had the incredible and special opportunity to make his own wines. He’s got the mentorship of his Assistant Winemaker every step of the way, to help him create the style of wine he wants, and the benefit of the winery’s fruit and equipment. He is making a “field blend,” which is a mix of any and all grape types that come from the same block; his has 8 varietals in it, and will be a red wine. He’s also making a Chardonnay, and a Rose. He is learning to be a Winemaker on his own wines, which is an amazing way to learn. We’re so excited to try the finished products.

Greg’s Chardonnay
Greg tasting his field blend in the early stages
Greg’s field blend during the first week of fermenting

All of the grapes have been brought in now, but there is still much to do to tend to the wines, as they will be in the winery for months to years before they’re ready to be bottled. Greg continues to work on those tasks, and is doing some big jobs independently now. He continues to learn new things every day, and will soon be getting into pruning the vines with his Assistant Winemaker.

I’m spending more time back in the Cellar Door, and less in the winery now, but I’m reminded that it’s where I wanted to be, and still want to be – talking to people about wine, touring them around, and educating them about this passion of mine. There’s so much Greg and I have learned, and even more we want to learn. At the end of this first vintage we’ve gotten to be part of, the whole process of growing grapes and making wine is even more alive and exciting for us than ever before.