Keeping it simple

An interview with Brent Marris by Robert Joseph 

Brent Marris
Photos: Helen Wrightson

Now in his mid-50s, Brent Marris has not only witnessed the evolution of the modern New Zealand wine industry, but has also been closely involved with the launch of three of the world’s most successful wine brands. He was the original winemaker for Delegat’s Oyster Bay and progenitor of both Wither Hills and Marisco, the company behind The Ned. Unlike many New World producers, he has focused on making wine from his own vineyards in a single region, with a relatively limited range of styles.

MEININGER’S: How did your family get involved with wine?

MARRIS: My father was a stock agent and in 1973 he was approached by Montana Wines, now Pernod Ricard, to source a large stretch of land in a very short time — nine farms in 10 days — without letting the community know it was for wine. He didn’t even know he was working for Montana. The company was called Cloudy Bay Properties, and after all the land was purchased that name was dissolved. He bought several thousand hectares of flat land and higher rolling country for about NZ$1,000 ($693) a hectare at a time when the going rate in Hawke’s Bay was $2,500. 

He set up the vineyards and farmed huge tracts of onions and garlic and hay on the land that was not turned into vineyard. And sheep. As a young child, I went to the sale yards and watched him buy almost every sheep because he needed to stock the farms. It was incredible. I thought my dad was super-famous. Eventually, after turning a good profit by selling off the farming land, he stayed on to manage the vineyards and viticulture. 

There were a few mistakes. Initially vines were planted upside down because no one was sure which direction they should go. In 1973, there was also one of the biggest droughts in New Zealand’s history. That’s when they realised that irrigation was important. So that was all the start of the New Zealand wine industry and I was there to see it all happening.

MEININGER’S: What was so pioneering about the Montana venture?

MARRIS: These were the first commercial vineyards in Marlborough. There was almost no Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand; Montana planted everything you can imagine, to see what would work.  

MEININGER’S: And what happened after Montana?

MARRIS: I’m the eldest of six children and our first jobs were helping to set up that Montana vineyard. When I was 11 or 12 years old, I learned to drive a tractor and work with gangs of people. But at home we had a 40-acre farm, so we were among the first to start a contract vineyard, with Müller-Thurgau, in 1978. 

You couldn’t do a viticulture degree in New Zealand, so I ended up going to Roseworthy College in Australia when I was 18. I came back in 1985 and had 14 years as chief winemaker at Delegat, making the Oyster Bay wines that we started from scratch. I had the opportunity to meet buyers from America, Canada, England, Australia. Then after 10 or 11 years boredom started to kick in. Jim Delegat didn’t want me to leave, so he was happy about my producing a small amount under my own brand. It just went from there. When I left Delegat we were doing about 200,000 cases of Oyster Bay.

MEININGER’S: When you started Wither Hills in 1994, where did you get the grapes?

MARRIS: My wife and I had vineyards and my father was selling grapes, but I wanted to control our own destiny so we also bought 700 acres of land, with 300 under vine. We were also the largest apple growers in Marlborough so we converted a large apple pack house into a winery.  

MEININGER’S: And what about distribution?

MARRIS: It’s about timing. Buyers for UK retailers like Majestic and Waitrose changed and I was a young, enthusiastic winemaker with product that they seemed to like. That was also happening in Canada and in Australia and in New Zealand.   

MEININGER’S: Then, in 2002, you sold the business to the New Zealand brewery giant Lion Nathan.

MARRIS: They had tried to purchase Montana and failed, so they had a lot of cash and were in the buying mode. Not many people had as much land nor their own winery. We’d been approached several times and we weren’t wanting to sell. But then they started talking to us about realistic numbers and at the same time my father was diagnosed with cancer. I was 39 and I thought, I’ve got a chance to start again.  

MEININGER’S: The NZ$52m ($37m) Lion Nathan paid was a high price.

MARRIS: There was land and we were selling 80,000 cases, but the brand was attractive because it was scalable. I stayed on as managing director and chief winemaker and, when I left four years later, we were doing 250,000 cases.  

MEININGER’S: And you were free to start again with Marisco and The Ned.

MARRIS: Because we didn’t want to sell and they wanted to buy we got to write the contract, so I could start my own brand again. I tasked one of my close colleagues, Steve Lock, with finding a piece of land that had a true X factor so we could start another brand that was going to be quite different from Wither Hills and Oyster Bay. 

In 2003, we found a 260 ha single site with three terraces that went down to the Waihopai Valley. It was two or three degrees cooler at night during the growing season and three or four degrees warmer during the day. We felt the flavour profile coming through would just give it a point of difference.

MEININGER’S: What is The Ned story?

MARRIS: The Ned is about young at heart. About wines from a single site, a single value that when you taste them you end up with that whole feeling of New Zealand, blue sky, green grass, cold water, that seamlessness that says, ‘I’m comfortable with this wine. I identify with this wine. It’s something that I want to be trying every day of my life.’  

MEININGER’S: How much did land cost in 2003? 

MARRIS: Bare land was NZ$10,000 to NZ$30,000 per hectare and people felt the land we purchased was quite cold, but we knew about the heat during the day. By reducing some of the trees, we would increase the temperature by three or four degrees. It is a frost-prone area but that’s another reason why we were attracted to it. Because we can control it with machines. It meant that we’d end up with a lovely long growing season. The valley was formed by glaciers 20,000 years ago so, it’s got a lot of different minerals in the soil, versus the Wairau Valley, which is a floodplain. It ticked a lot of boxes.  

MEININGER’S: You made your first commercial vintage of 2,000 cases in 2006. How easy a time was that to launch a business?

MARRIS: I do not recommend building a wine business during a global financial crisis. It is not funny. The banks lost their sense of humour. We knew we had to control what we were doing from a quality perspective. It was tough on the staff. All the money went into marketing, winemaking and grape growing. They had to put up with about three years of Portakabin offices and things like that.   

MEININGER’S: What did the tough times teach you? 

MARRIS: Communication: telling your staff what you’re doing, where you’re going. Why the winery on the outside wasn’t finished was because we were committed to finding our way through the financial crisis. With that comes their support on how you can become more efficient and how they can be part of that whole process. Then when you pop out at the other end, that whole sense of ownership is massive. That’s exactly what we’ve got right now. Today we are doing more than 800,000 cases.  

MEININGER’S: Where do you sell it?

MARRIS: About 45 percent is England. Then Australia and New Zealand, which is massive for us because we really look after our local market.  

MEININGER’S: That’s a lot of eggs in the UK basket.

MARRIS: It wasn’t intentional; we have chosen to de-emphasise England and are increasing our volume in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, America. But we’re getting a lot more opportunities within England and we’re not reliant on one or two customers as we were eight years ago.  

MEININGER’S: Are you doing any own label?

MARRIS: Only for the partners, as long as it’s at the top end.   

MEININGER’S: Are you bottling in the UK?

MARRIS: That’s what they’d prefer but that’s not something that at this stage we’re comfortable with.  

MEININGER’S: How do you handle distribution around the world? 

MARRIS: In Australia and for England — 95 percent — we deal direct. In the US we have our own warehouse and logistics office, plus we deal with distributors. In Canada we have a national distributor. And in Europe, having our own warehouse and office near Frankfurt and gives us opportunities others don’t have. We can supply restaurants or small chains of independents in places like Bucharest, Prague and Poland by the pallet rather than a whole container.   

MEININGER’S: What’s happening in Asia? 

MARRIS: We’ve been in and out of China. We’ve just started again in Guangzhou with a small company and we’ll start making our way throughout China. But it’s not on our immediate to-do list. We have enough going on in America and Europe that’s much more exciting. We’re not in Japan or Korea. But we are in Singapore. Siobhan, our sales and marketing general manager, and I, do a huge amount of travel. You see opportunity; where others are pulling out, we can step in.  

MEININGER’S: How much land do you have now?

MARRIS: We’re only 200 ha off having 1,000 planted. Ninety-five percent of our wine comes from our own land.  

MEININGER’S: And it’s focused on Sauvignon Blanc?

MARRIS: About 80 percent. It’s the “eggs in one basket” situation. We only used to have Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. When we introduced the rosé everything grew by 20 percent. It’s New Zealand’s biggest-selling rosé and our Pinot Gris is number one as well. We’ve just introduced The Ned Chardonnay and all our plantings are Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. 

A lot of what we’re doing is pushing the boundaries of Sauvignon. We have a brand called the Craft Series that’s allowing us to push the flavours and profiles. We’re actually more excited about what we can do with Sauvignon than others we can we grow.
MEININGER’S: How important is owning land for you?

MARRIS: Extremely important. That’s why we bought [the historic 5,200 ha] Leefield Station and another beautiful 2,200 ha block four and a half years ago. Controlling the land and the winemaking gives us the point of difference. One of my four daughters already works in our winery. Another is heading to university to do commerce and finance. I’ve two others on the periphery and my wife, Rosemary, is chairman of the board. We are a true family company. If we need to grow the brand we won’t be buying bulk wine or dialling up growers. We will be buying more land.   

MEININGER’S: Outside Marlborough?

MARRIS: One hundred percent Marlborough. I’m Marlborough born and raised and I don’t want to dilute our story. I don’t see the point.  

MEININGER’S: How automated are your wineries and vineyards?

MARRIS: Our winery is seven or eight years old now and it’s still rated as one of the most advanced in Australasia. We do computer modelling with soils, temperature, all that sort of thing. The next thing is looking at drones because of the size of the land that we have. But there’s nothing better than going up to the back blocks and walking them.  

MEININGER’S: And organic viticulture?

MARRIS: We are massively big on sustainability with the winery and the vineyards and we’ve run a few vineyards on an organic programme, but we don’t actually promote that they are organic. If we end up having a year like we’ve just had, we want to be able to have a spray that keeps the fruit whole. We’ve had three crazy vintages and it has not been like a normal season for a long time; I’m just trying to understand what normal is now. It used to take 25 to 30 days to bring in our crop. Now we are considering 14 to 20.  

MEININGER’S: How do you promote your wines?

MARRIS: Lifestyle, sponsorships, getting out on the road a lot more. We now have brand ambassadors in England and Europe and America. Wine critics and competitions will always be important because they’re a third-party endorsement. But more and more now it’s getting not just buyers but influential consumers to understand your story and that whole sense of place. Staying in our farmhouse and meeting my family. They go back to become strong ambassadors themselves.  

MEININGER’S: And social media?

MARRIS: We have employed a Millennial who’s across all our social media. That’s something that Siobhan, our sales and marketing manager, has learned a lot about and has engaged the right companies to get the message out there. What we’re doing now is trading up — “If you like that, you’re really going to like this.” So we’ve now introduced the King Series and we’re about to roll out Leefield from the makers of The Ned. We’re still keeping the glossy magazine ads.   

MEININGER’S: When you’re selling The Ned are you selling a brand or a region or a country or a grape? 

MARRIS: People love the variety but they’ve fallen in love with the brand. It’s what you would call a household brand where people will go in and get a six-pack of Sauvignon Blanc then start shopping. It becomes your go-to, the wine that’s in the fridge every day when you come home from work or after you’ve picked up the children from school. It’s the brand they love and have confidence in. We just have to make sure that as we grow in volume we don’t change the style or the quality perameters.  

MEININGER’S: What’s next?

MARRIS: We didn’t expect the growth to be as strong as it is. Really, now we’re not looking for huge growth. We’d have to be buying more land and building another damn winery. We very much want to try and plateau out, but I’m not sure what plateauing out is.

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