27 Jun Toby Talks Te Mata Estate
An Interview with Toby Buck
Toby Buck, BA(Hons), DipArt, DipPub, MSc, is the Marketing & Communications Manager at Havelock North winery, Te Mata Estate. He grew up on the Te Mata Coleraine vineyard in Hawke’s Bay and was raised planting cabernet vines on the property, as well as working in the winery and the barrel halls of Te Mata Estate. He has travelled extensively and worked in many of the world’s wine regions. These days, when in Hawke’s Bay, Toby lives on the Estate’s Awatea vineyard. He maintains a strong interest in writing and in the arts. In 2014, Toby was the recipient of the New Zealand Post Katherine Mansfield Prize for his short story, Islands in the Stream.
An overseas visitor to Hawke’s Bay who is keen to try some local wines, is obviously not short of options. In your experience, what factors draw visitors to Te Mata Estate?
With my marketing hat on, I would say it’s the reputation of Te Mata Estate for Coleraine, Bullnose and Elston; Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay. If they want to see a small, family-producer with a great history, we’ve been here for over 125 years and have the oldest operating winery in New Zealand, so it’s an historic thing to see.
From a slightly more practical point of view, I would think there are plenty of wineries where I can have an incredible meal and there are plenty of places I can stay. I can go to a market, do a tasting, but if I want to see wine being made from vine to glass (nose to tail) in the same buildings, then that’s what Te Mata would give me. I think a lot of people nowadays want to see full transparency on the product. They want to see how it’s made and where it’s made, and that’s what we offer.
What is the ‘Toby-Factor’ that you like to bring to your tours and tastings?
That’s a tricky one (chuckle)! I have been told, that the ‘Toby-Factor’ is basically that I talk quite a lot and that I’m clearly deeply involved in, and care about, the product. Because it’s our whole family’s lives, I very much have skin in the game. I’ve worked in the vineyard. I’ve worked in the winery for years, and production. I’ve got a strong interest in the commercial health of the business. I have been told that this is what people connect to. It’s like talking to a chef in the kitchen – that kind of feeling.
If there is a factor that I try to bring to it, I try to be polite and interested and aware of their reasons for being here, and make sure that they get those catered to in their tour rather than me just trying to tell them why I think Te Mata is so fantastic.
The fact that every step of the winemaking process, vine to glass, takes place on this Estate, is obviously of great importance to the Buck family. When selling your wine overseas, what weight does this hold? Is it an important part of the Te Mata Estate story?
It is one hundred percent an important part of the Te Mata Estate story. It is in fact the story itself. The DNA of Te Mata as a business, is that in the 1870s, the Chambers family lived here, and decided to turn part of what was a farm into a winery. By the 1890s they were producing wine, with their first official vintage in 1896. So, it was always a kind of romantic dream of a winery, existing within a pioneering farm station. It’s a pretty interesting story and it was always a story of wine being made on these hillsides and in these buildings.
As a boutique winery, people are effectively buying this hillside from us in this year. We suffer vintage variation, our volumes go up and down, our flavours change slightly so any aspect of our story that we can communicate that shows we are very much about Hawke’s Bay, in this specific location, underpins how our product exists in the market. That is what a customer buys from us. They buy the difference between a 2017 and a 16 and a 15. The whole winery is set up just like a lens, basically, to shine on this hillside and that’s the product that we’re selling. That’s what I mean when I say we’re selling Hawke’s Bay; we’re selling Te Mata – and they’re built into one another.
Years ago, when I was a kid, I got to go to France with Dad. There’s a building in Paris called the Pompidou Centre which has all its plumbing and electrical wiring on the outside. I often think Te Mata is a bit like that. We’re wearing the fact that it’s made here, on the outside of the product – and that’s what we’re selling. That scale is the key to what Te Mata was 125 years ago and very much the key to what we are now.
Will the current rise & rise of craft beer in New Zealand ever pose a threat to the local wine industry?
I really hope that craft beer does present a threat because it’s good to have threats. It keeps us on our toes! I don’t feel it does threaten wine and I think the reason is that it’s part of the same curiosity that people have about what they’re drinking and where it’s made and what its quality is. If you’re interested in food, it’s no big step to be interested in wine. You don’t have to be an expert, but you can be interested. That’s why you have to make sure that wine is always accessible. Craft beer is part of that same conversation. People want to know why something they’re putting in their mouth tastes the way it does. They’re more critically engaged with it than in the days of just smashing beer to get drunk. Then, if they’ve made that step, they’re already in the realm of wine.
I see it as part of what is a current fashion amongst a younger generation; to look for alternative styles, to look for things that are novel, curious, interesting, diverse, and to explore those options. It’s really important to us as a business that younger generations continue to be interested in wine. We’ve had people visiting who are coffee fiends, who work representing coffee places. I learn things from their tasting of wine. They’re at least as sophisticated as great wine drinkers. Good craft beer producers are the same. They’ve got great palates. They might affect a casual approach but they’re skilled. Some of the marketing might seem at odds but, in reality, we’re working in very similar territory and there’s a lot of common ground.
I used to work in publishing and in books as well: Random House, Penguin Books and Unity Books. Ten to fifteen years ago, people in the publishing industry started to get nervous. There was a fear that the internet was going to destroy the book. Every expert was talking about the death of the book and of the bookshop. At that time, me and a couple of other people became very interested in the fate of independent bookshops around the world. I’d spent time working at a really good one, Unity Books in Wellington. This bookshop is doing better now than it’s ever done. The reality is that the picture was never what people said. It was never one thing versus the other. In the modern world, there is room for both – but both have to be good to survive. My feeling is not that craft beer threatens wine, it actually does quite a bit to improve wine, but craft beer has to be good to stand as an option and wine has to be good to stand as an option too.
New Zealand is a trailblazer in regard to the practice of sustainability in the wine industry. Why is this ethos important? How does Te Mata Estate currently practise this?
Te Mata was the first winery in New Zealand to have both its vineyards and its winery accredited for sustainable winemaking. There are a number of different aspects to it. One is low-energy use; a low carbon footprint. We address that in a number of ways. We have a very high water reusage rate with water filtration systems on site. We get measured down to the litre for water usage. Although our vineyards will drip irrigate if it’s very dry, we have pretty minimal water use in the vineyards. The winery itself uses more water so we have an obligation to reuse a very high percentage of that.
Three of our vineyards are run organically. We use companion planting: poppies, alyssum – a bunch of different plants! We’re using under-vine composting as well. We are lucky here because we can use very low amounts of zinc and copper spray in the vineyards. We have some natural advantages: the cool breezes coming in from the sea, quite low humidity and a lot of ultraviolet light. If we take the leaves off the fruit, we can allow those breezes and that sunshine to get in. That will protect us, fingers-crossed, from Powdery Mildew and Downy Mildew.
We also have hand-picking here, and we do quite a lot of busing people to our vineyards which lowers the carbon footprint. Also, because of where the winery is situated and all our vineyards being within 25 minutes of here, we have very low transport times. We’re not putting fruit in the back of a truck and moving it off to another company to bottle or bringing it in from another region. It’s not Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc made in Hawke’s Bay. Our overall carbon footprint is quite low.
We are very much behind lobbying for sustainable wine making in New Zealand and have been for a long time. It’s on our labelling, our website, and out the front of our cellar door. We have a sign for it on every vineyard. The rate of people taking on that programme in Hawke’s Bay is very high. I think it’s over 90 percent of Hawke’s Bay wineries so we’re leading in that area. We would love to see it taken on everywhere in New Zealand as a basic standard. It is a little bit tricky that it matters a lot to us but it’s hard to tell how much it matters to other people around the world. If I was selling wine in the UK or the US and I was to say it had SWNZ (Sustainable Winegrowing NZ) accreditation that would mean very little, so we normally have to spell out a bit more about that process.
We describe our winemaking as New Zealand traditional style, environmentally aware, up to date and thought through – but it is traditional and we have to see the proof in the glass in terms of the flavour and the product, for us to lead our decisions on that.
Te Mata Estate claims the oldest winery building in New Zealand; a still functioning space in which wine is cellared. What, if anything, does its 125 (plus) year presence on the Estate serve to remind you of?
One of the things that I am very thankful for, and often wonder about, is living in the shadow of (or on the shoulders of) Bernard Chambers and his family. The Chambers family was a really big family in Hawke’s Bay; huge landowners. The ones who lived here were Quakers from Northern England. They’d made a lot of money in the Australian goldfields but were very interested in education and so their three sons were massively educated. For a tough pioneering outpost in a very remote part of New Zealand with at that time nothing around it, the ambition to produce world class Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from these hillsides was a very romantic idea and very entrepreneurial considering the times they were living in, and the challenges they would have faced in doing it.
By 1905 Te Mata was the biggest winery in New Zealand, exporting wine all over the world, and winning gold medals for their Cabernets and Chardonnays so it has this very early commercial history. The Mission had plantings at Meeanee, before it moved to its current premises, and there was a relationship with the Marist brotherhood to obtain vines. There was also the Beacham family in Central Hawke’s Bay and Henry Tiffen in Greenmeadows, where the Mission eventually moved. So there were these entrepreneurial outposts; the Mission doing primarily sacramental wine, Beachams doing family estate production for their own consumption, Henry Tiffen doing much the same as Bernard Chambers. And so, at that time, there was this little community of people; exploring. When I think about it, it reminds me of craft beer. These guys must have been quite commercial and tough-headed but also like Victorian hipsters in a way. They were trying something new, convincing people to come on board and taking these huge risks themselves.
Te Mata’s buildings are unchanged from that time. We have been making wine consistently, in that same room, the whole way through. In there now, we’ve got French oak barrels full of Chardonnay, exactly the same way it was in the early 1890s. The oak has come in through Napier Port. We’re filling containers that are going out via Napier Port, the same channel that the Chambers were exporting wine from. So, it’s easy to say it’s a privilege but it’s also unusual. It’s odd to be in these places because you’re in an almost entirely unchanged nineteenth century winemaking environment – and then your phone goes off!
I do feel very lucky for what the Chambers did. Certainly, people would talk a lot about Dad’s innovation and vision to do what he did but we’re standing on the shoulders of someone pretty special in terms of New Zealand wine history. It’s very Hawke’s Bay to make the most of your natural environment and the opportunities it offers but they married that with a very technologically developed version of European technique. It’s (the building) an interesting thing. It’s old world in its connection and culture. It’s new world in terms of how DIY it all is, how tough it was to establish and how quick to embrace technology and new things in the industry it is. These aspects, along with Hawke’s Bay’s climatic advantage, have resulted in a product that is the best of those things which is why people want to come and try it. After 125 years we’re still learning so much and people are taking that journey with us.
You are regarded within your family, and no doubt by others who know you, as having outstanding communication skills. How is this strength utilised in the day to day tasks you undertake in your role as Marketing & Communications Manager at Te Mata Estate?
Well it’s very nice that people say that (chuckle). I think it comes from the Irish side of my family. Dad’s got that silver tongue too. As much as I really love talking about things, I have got a bit of an introvert nature, but I think that’s probably why I’m able to connect with people. I’m really not interested in persuading them that Te Mata is the greatest winery of all time, I’m just interested in sharing the reasons why I like Te Mata. I’ve had the opportunity to think about that quite a bit. If you tell them why you like a thing you do a better job than if you just try to persuade them why they should like a thing. People relate to people more than they relate to an object or a product.
I really love looking over the marketing material for Te Mata: from website; to product design, to labels and brochures; to events that we host. Each year, in our showcase events, I get to speak to about two and a half thousand people in March and April which I really love. I really enjoyed working in production, but I think my tendency to talk (sometimes), and to get over-enthusiastic, meant that everyone in the family said, “You should be out front a little more!”
I just really enjoy the sociability of wine. I see it as the original social product. It is about being enjoyed and shared. In sharing the story and in sharing the wine, you’re giving yourself and your own story meaning. You’re giving it validity. A wine locked away in a bottle with no one to drink it is a terrible shame.
Te Mata Estate Winery, as it stands today, is testimony to the vision of your parents, John and Wendy who were prepared to take a risk and work exceptionally hard to turn this dream into reality. Over the years, they obviously instilled the pride, the work-ethic and the expertise required to stay at the top, into their three sons. Already, members of the third generation are working in the business. How do you, Jonathan & Nick, hope to enhance this legacy for future generations of the Buck family?
The main issue for us as brothers is modernisation of the business and the professionalisation of everybody’s roles. As an independent family business, we have a slight tendency to be a little bit cowboyish so we have to make sure that we’re operating at the best of our capabilities.
Even our generation, is thinking at least two or three generations ahead. It was Mum and Dad’s role to establish and define what Te Mata is; it’s our role to polish, maintain and pass it on fairly quickly to the generations following us. It’s kind of steadying the ship after the ship has been built. We’re really seeing that aspect now. We’ve had a run of really strong vintages. There are a lot of aspects of machinery, production, vineyards that are all being modernised under the legacy of my brothers Nick, as CEO, and Jonathan, as Vineyard Manager, and there are aspects of Sales and Marketing that I can have some influence over and am modernising.I’m really proud of that.
It’s pretty unique to have all three brothers here, so every member of that generation of the family. While we all travelled and worked overseas extensively, there was never a feeling from any of us that we were going to be doing what we were doing long term anywhere else. It was an interesting underpinning of our experiences and one that echoes, very faintly, the Chambers’ story. They were three brothers too, who went off and did some pretty interesting things, but all came back here.Mum and Dad are still very much in the business and it’s great to already have a third generation working here. I hope that other generations want to be involved. I think we’re in a very healthy spot. It’s a village of Bucks here which is an interesting thing indeed!