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Student Focus

From Cornell to New Zealand: Living and Working in the New Zealand Wine Industry

By Brynn Wilkins

“Where do Viticulture & Enology students go after they graduate?” This question one asked by prospective students, current undergraduates, and inquisitive parents alike comes up frequently for our students, faculty, and staff. Visitors often think of the traditional world-renowned wine-producing regions such as France, Italy, or the US. It is always a joy to see the surprised expression on a visitor’s face when we respond with “New Zealand!”

With a relatively recent growth in wine exports, New Zealand has become quite the destination for Viticulture & Enology graduates and current students. While studying at Cornell, students Eleni Rigas ’18, Elif Korkmaz ’18, and Meghan Pierson ’17 had the incomparable opportunity to intern at Babich Wines in New Zealand. Instead of pursuing a temporary internship, three of our alums found their way living and working in New Zealand full time. Raquel Kallas ’16 (MPS), Justin France ’17 (MS), and Matt Murray ‘13, each reflect on their experiences living and working in the New Zealand wine industry.

Raquel Kallas sitting with a dog in a New Zealand vineyardRaquel Kallas, MPS '16

I moved to Hawke's Bay, NZ in August 2018. Previously, I was the Extension Support Specialist for Cornell's NY Statewide Viticulture Extension Program, where responsibilities included editing and writing articles for this very same newsletter!

My current role is Research Viticulturist for Villa Maria Estate in Hawke's Bay. It is an incredibly dynamic and exciting position. Primarily, I manage research projects – this includes applying for funding, project planning, coordination, and data collection, analysis, and presentation. The projects are always geared towards pragmatically improving the sustainability and efficiency of current management practices, or addressing specific quality control concerns. Most recently, I obtained funding for a trial we named the Sustainable Vineyard Floor Project. The project is testing the viability of various native NZ plant species as perennial ground covers for the under vine area (funded in part by the Ministry for Primary Industries' Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund.

Additionally, I conduct routine monitoring of vine water status throughout the growing season using a pressure chamber to help inform irrigation decisions. The pressure chamber is a simple instrument developed in the 1960s and is still one of the best ways to measure plant water status – I became very familiar with using one during my Master's program in Justine Vanden Heuvel's lab. Villa Maria has been able to reduce irrigation applied by at least half in some vineyard blocks due to data from the pressure chamber.

Lastly, I also spend time doing routine vineyard operations, including but not limited to: pruning, planting, spraying, mowing, chain-sawing, supervising contract labor, and repairing irrigation (a truly endless task). I find this work especially rewarding and important because a hands-on understanding of the fundamental problems in the vineyard is key to conducting meaningful research. There's only so much I can sit at a desk and think about – it all comes to fruition when you're out in the field.

Justin France headshotJustin France, MS ‘17

Since moving back to New Zealand in 2017 after completing my Masters in Viticulture & Enology, I’ve had the opportunity to work with New Zealand’s wine industry from two very different perspectives.

When I first moved back to New Zealand, I managed the vineyard at The Hunting Lodge, a small but prestigious winery in northwest Auckland (rumored to have the first planted Sauvignon Blanc vines in New Zealand!). My role as a vineyard manager was varied and always exciting. I managed a small team of workers and I actively worked alongside them in the field performing all vineyard tasks: pruning, shoot thinning, leaf plucking, tucking, palissage, hedging, spraying and harvesting! After harvest I had a chance to help in the winery for a couple months too.

vineyard rainbows at the hunting lodge in new zealand
Figure1. Vineyard rainbows at The Hunting Lodge 
New Zealand apple orchard
Figure 2. Experimental apple trellising system (FOPS) in New Zealand

Currently, I work as a horticultural consultant in Hawke’s Bay and it’s a big change from living the life of a vineyard manager. In my role as a consultant I wear a lot of different hats and work with a lot of different crops, but I focus mainly on wine grapes and apples. In any given day I could be walking an orchard to assess fruit quality for fresh market export apples in the morning and attending a hail recovery meeting with local vineyard managers in the afternoon. It’s a challenging role, however, it’s also very rewarding.

What makes working in New Zealand great are the Kiwis (the name New Zealander’s give themselves). From my experience, New Zealand fruit growers are very passionate, open-minded, and progressive in their growing practices. New Zealander’s are dedicated to preserving and protecting their clean air and water and it shows in their horticultural production practices. I’m fortunate to be part of such a keen, diverse, and progressive industry, and I look forward to continuing to help Kiwis grow the best quality wine grapes and apples possible.

Matt Murray headshotMatthew Murray ‘13

I originally traveled to New Zealand in November 2016 with the intention to travel, work on a vineyard for the summer- November to March here, and then work through harvest in the cellar- March and April, and head back to the States. Like many in New Zealand, I have found myself here much longer than I had originally planned!

The industry here in Marlborough is dominated by our typical Sauvignon Blanc, yet underneath this lies a stunning diversity in vineyard practices, wine styles, grape varieties, geographies and climates throughout New Zealand. New Zealand prides itself on its land and the nature that exists on it. This shows through the wine industry with a heavy focus on environmentally friendly practices and long-term sustainability. The industry here, in general, is a pioneer of mechanization and wine quality improvement. There is constant innovation and experimentation in every aspect from planting vines through bottling.

It has been a pleasure to stay in contact with Cornell, and I have helped host a few internships in the last few years, and it is awesome to see students interested in traveling to the other side of the world to gain some more experience. I have recently started a new job with Pernod Ricard Winemakers, the second largest wine and spirits company globally, making Brancott Estate and Stoneleigh here in Marlborough but also the likes of Kenwood and Mumm Napa in the States. We are always looking for good people!

My time here has been an amazing experience both personally and professionally, and I would recommend it highly. If you are interested in coming to work or visit the New Zealand wine industry, please do not hesitate to send me a message!

Cheers, Matt (matthew.murray@pernod-ricard.com)

Brynn Wilkins is undergraduate coordinator for the Viticulture and Enology (VIEN) major, housed in the department of food science on the Cornell campus.