Thursday, 21 March 2019

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Whitianga resident one of the pioneers of the New Zealand wine industry

A shopping trolley doesn’t look quite complete these days without a couple of bottles of wine added to it. Enjoying a glass or two of one’s favourite wine before, during, or after a meal has become a firmly accepted part of daily life in New Zealand.

It wasn’t always the case, however. Countries such as Italy, France and Spain dominated the global wine industry for many years. For many Kiwis, wine was something the Europeans drank, while they stuck mainly to their beer and sherries.

Roll forward and we now have a huge award-winning wine industry of our own in New Zealand, with consumers having strong opinions on and a preferred preference for a particular type of wine and where it originated from. Whitianga resident, Kerry Hitchcock, is one of the pioneers of the New Zealand wine industry and played a significant part in bringing this about.

Over time, the buying public and the New Zealand wine industry itself have matured significantly. Many people will no doubt remember the name Cooks Chasseur - wine in a labelled cardboard box that was poured from a tap attached to the bottom of a plastic bag. It was at the time one of the few affordable wines available and was produced specifically to appeal to the Kiwi sweet tooth. It was in hindsight a very basic attempt at producing and introducing a local wine for the masses.

Kerry knows the Cooks product better than anyone as he was responsible for bringing it to the market initially. “While there was a small local wine industry already established, the bag and box concept really did bring an alternative drink to the table for many New Zealanders and help prepared their taste buds for what lay ahead,” says Kerry.

Kerry started life in the wine industry in 1966, when he worked for the government’s Viticultural Winemaking Research Station based in Te Kauwhata. At the time, a number of studies were carried out on different varietal types of grape vines, soils and climates from all around New Zealand.

“We quickly learned different regions could produce the same wine, but end up with a very different flavour,” says Kerry. “Above all else, the research told us New Zealand had huge potential for producing its own, very unique wine. the key was knowing just where and when to plant the varietal grapevines.”

In 1969, Kerry headed to Australia to carry out the same research work, returning two

years later and landing a job with Cooks in Te Kauwhata as their chief winemaker. “Cooks was a public company and in my opinion well ahead of its time,” says Kerry. “They had a long-term vision of the wine industry in a period where many Kiwis were returning home from overseas travel with a new appreciation of wine in general, but in particular, the varietal wines.”

The company was quick to grab a large share of what was an untapped market - the bag and box. Cooks Chasseur was just the start. That was followed in 1972 by a range of varietal wines. The Cooks Cabernet Sauvignon took out the THC (Tourist Hotel Corporation) trophy for the top wine at the​ 1972 NZ Wine Awards.

Cooks was also the first New Zealand company to export commercial wine to the UK market. By today’s standards, the amount was laughable with just one pallet, or 56 cases (12 bottles per case), of wine being delivered to Sainsbury’s in London. “It was a promotional, non-profit making exercise, but really the beginning of what lay ahead for the wine industry in New Zealand,” says Kerry.

Exporting overseas turned out to be a smart move, as at the International Wine and Spirit show in London in 1986, Kerry was on hand to receive an award for producing the best Chardonnay (in its class) in the world - the Cooks Chardonnay 1982. The award ceremony took place at the House of Commons.

Spurred on by their success, Cooks sent Kerry to California for two months to study their wine

industry and to network with industry leaders. Sometime later and after several different takeovers and name changes, he was put in charge of the total viticulture winemaking production for Corbans Wines, part of what was then called the DB Group.

Kerry’s obvious talents were recognized when he was head hunted by local competitor, Nobilo, in 1996 and made CEO of the company. 

In 2001, Kerry decided he had done his bit in the corporate world and became a wine consultant. He

ended up travelling to many of the burgeoning wine producing countries of the world, providing

advice on viticulture and winemaking in general and also setting up agencies to sell wine making equipment.

In recognition of his long and distinguished service to the New Zealand wine industry, Kerry was

awarded a Medal of Fellowship by the Wine Institute of New Zealand at their awards evening in November 2003. “It was a real honour to be recognized by the wider wine industry,” says Kerry. “The Medal of Fellowship is not presented often, which made it extra special.”

Coming from such a senior position within the wine industry, we couldn’t resist asking Kerry if it was hard not to comment on what type of wine people drink. “People drink what they like and that’s the way it should be, although the reason they say they like a particular drop can at times be amusing to hear,” he says.

Now firmly settled in Whitianga, Kerry first came to the town as a 12-year-old with his parents on a camping holiday. That was 60 years ago. Many more holidays were to follow and this convinced him Whitianga was the place to retire six years ago. 

Kerry enjoys a bit of cycling, golf and outdoor bowls. His big love is rugby and the All Blacks in particular. He has been on several overseas All Black tours and will attend the Rugby World Cup in Japan later this year - his fifth world cup.

Along with his wife, Margaret, Kerry is contributing significantly to the local community. They were some of the first people to make a sizable donation to the Mercury Bay x-ray machine in 2014. They are also ongoing supporters of the Auckland and Coromandel Westpac Rescue Helicopters, the Whitianga Coastguard and St John in Mercury Bay. Margaret is involved in a lot of local charity work as well.

It’s good to have Kerry and Margaret as part of the Whitianga community. They are definitely a couple worth raising a glass to.

Pictured: Kerry Hitchcock with the Medal of Fellowship the Wine Institute of New Zealand awarded to him in 2003.

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.