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'New Zealand’s magic is in its future.'
Gems in this
A bounty of highly innovative, terroir-driven, skin-contact wines is coming out of New Zealand’s mountainous region of Central Otago. One of the people behind some of these award-winning New World wines is US-raised winemaker Jen Parr, who says New Zealand is a place that unlocks her creativity like nowhere else.
After leaving a career in the tech industry and apprenticing with some of the world’s leading artisan winemakers in the US, France, South Africa and Australia, it was in New Zealand that Jen chose to plant her roots and pursue her passion. Since 2007, she has been honing her craft on the South Island, drawing upon the island’s creative community to help inspire her experimentation and push her innovation.
The result has been nothing short of phenomenal, with Jen having completed more than 30 harvests in 20 years, and collecting accolades like the 2020 Gourmet Traveller New Zealand Winemaker of the Year. Now a true master of pinot noir, Jen is making wines for top Kiwi winery Valli Vineyards. We speak to Jen about her natural connection with the land around Wānaka, her love of the local community and culture, and her inside playbook of favorite places to visit in Central Otago.
On where you grew up
I grew up in Portland, Oregon, in the northwest of the States, which is very close to an internationally renowned wine region. A lot of people think that it was this causal career path that led me to wine, but it was actually a coincidence. I didn't grow up in a wine-drinking family. If there was wine in the house, it probably came in a cardboard box. We lived in suburbia, about a 15-minute drive from the city. There were lots of fields, strawberry patches and forests nearby. We'd go out riding our bikes, and as it started to get dark we'd head home for dinner. My family weren’t gentrified or citified. That 'Keep Portland Weird’ slogan might have existed in my teenage years, but my life was nothing like that.
On sparking your love of travel
I went to a high school in suburbia and those that went on to university tended to go to one that was close to home. But I ended up at Stanford — that was the beginning of my gateway to the rest of the world. I then worked in marketing for a software company that was founded by Stanford students. The founders wanted to open an office in New York to help sell their financial software and I said, ‘I’ll go’. I was about 22 and I'd never been to New York before. It was quite confronting and like nothing I'd ever experienced — I was thrown into this whole other world. Here I was, in the middle of Central Park, on my rollerblades, not knowing which way was up. That was quite a defining time in my life.
On discovering good wine through travel
While I was at Stanford, I spent a little bit of time in the Napa Valley on annual wine tasting trips. In hindsight, it probably wasn't particularly special wine. But there was a gentleman who was in his 60s, talking about gewürztraminer (an aromatic grape used in white wines and often grown in cooler climates). I can still smell the rose petals and the Turkish delight. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool’, so I’d go annually. When I got to New York, I was exposed to fine-dining restaurants and good wine. But it was while working in London that I discovered Europe. You have access to all the wines in the world there, with all different price points, plus great wine education. I signed up for wine classes and dragged my friends along.
‘I measure happiness quite simply, happiness in your work or your craft. And that is if you wake up before your alarm, you're doing what you should be doing. And I was constantly hitting snooze.’
On finding the courage to pursue your passion
An important part of my formative years was being invited to attend what's called the Banquet of the Golden Plate (American Academy of Achievement). It's a celebration of great Americans from all walks of life. The organizers invite high school students from around the country to interact with and listen to these great people. In my year, we had Michael Jordan, George Lucas and Maya Angelou. It changed my life hearing Maya Angelou speak. I remember she said she had found the key to success: it was to define something that you love doing. Do it earnestly and with everything you have to give. This sat with me for a very long time.
On making the transition into winemaking
I measure happiness in your work or your craft quite simply: if you wake up before your alarm, you're doing what you should be doing. I was constantly hitting snooze, and that's not my personality. I asked myself, ‘What can I do that might inspire me to wake up before my alarm?’ I looked at what I enjoyed, and it was food, wine and travel.
I’d been lucky enough to spend some time in a rustic wine region in the south of France, near Toulouse. A friend had a 200-year-old farmhouse, and we'd go there on the weekends. I decided I wanted to learn how wine was made and learn how to sell it. I quit my job and wrote to a winery in France that I’d frequented on my holidays, and said, ‘Can I come pick grapes for you?’ They said yes. The winemaker I ended up working with, Patrice, is one of the most eccentric, talented people. He’s an actor, an artist, and he made wine that changed my life. That was the beginning.
On following winemaking to New Zealand
While working in France, I thought about where I wanted to travel next. It was between New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. New Zealand was my first choice because everything I had read made me think about what I was missing in my life, which was space, fresh air, outdoor pursuits, and people who really value the time to enjoy those things. I wrote to the vineyards of the wines from New Zealand that I'd been enjoying and said, ‘I have no experience, but I love wine. Is there something I could do?’ Those that had the courtesy to respond wrote, ‘Thank you but we already have our team’. Most didn't respond. Then, finally I received an email from this guy who said, ‘We do hire one or two people without experience, happy to offer you a job’. And that was with Villa Maria in Marlborough.
‘The key to wine is allowing it to be an expression of the place.’
On the importance of place in winemaking
There are a lot of labels around wine. I'm not talking about producer or brand labels, but rather the labels of organic, biodynamic, natural or lo-fi. There are all of these tags you can put on wine. I prefer a tag-free wine, and to think of the wine as authentic or not. Authentic wine tells a story. And that story is largely cultural because you're making wine that's from a specific place. You could start by saying I'm making wine from New Zealand, but then I'm making wine from the South Island, from Central Otago, from Gibbston, or from this specific plot on this one vineyard. It can go as micro as you want. But the key to wine is it's an expression of the place.
On what makes New Zealand wines unique
New Zealand is a small country. But it's long and made up of a handful of principal wine regions with a coastal influence. They all have their own climate, nuances, and specialties. Central Otago is the only semi-continental climate in New Zealand because of the Southern Alps. We're surrounded by mountains, hills, rivers and lakes, which makes this region unique. The area where you can grow grapes is small, making it harder to grow grapes for large-volume commercial production. We’re quite patriotic about our own little region. I love the people and the dynamic nature of our landscape, which then translates into edgy wine with good clarity. We feel it because we're such a tight community down here and we build on each other's energy. But I think that's also a New Zealand energy.
On your tips for a friend visiting the Otago region for a day
First, I'd say they’re crazy for only coming for one day. Then, with bias noted, I'd head to Wānaka. Make an appointment at Rippon Vineyard. It’s one of the most photographed vineyards in the world. Even if wine isn't your thing, look at the magical vineyard rolling down into the lake and mountains. Next, go for a walk around Lake Wānaka, followed by a beer in one of Wānaka’s microbreweries. I'm not here just to push booze, but we've also got award-winning distillers: the Cardrona Distillery is on your way heading back to Queenstown. Taste their fine gin and do the whiskey tour. Then hop over to the Cardrona Hotel for the best fried chicken and these things called Frickles (breaded fried pickles), plus a cleansing ale. Then head back to Queenstown via Arrowtown, an old mining village. Once you're back in Queenstown, take a walk through the Queenstown Gardens before sunset. Go to dinner at Botswana Butchery. They have an extensive list of Valli wines, so be sure to ask your server what wines they have in stock to go with a delicious steak. They’re called a butchery for a reason.
On New World innovation versus Old World tradition
Even the older cultures who say, ‘We've been making pinot noir since before your country was established,’ and who have ancient soils and traditions, can see that we're making delightful expressive wines in New Zealand. So, they also want to learn from us. One of the things that makes New Zealand and the New World wine-growing areas so special is that we don't have that tradition. Normally, tradition is a positive thing. Except that in a lot of wine-growing European tradition, they're confined by regulation. Whereas here in New Zealand, there aren’t those rules. There are certainly guidelines or best practices, but the rules that we're forming are more about our footprint on the planet. We can be free to discover our best selves as a wine country. We don’t have the history of Cistercian monks in Burgundy forming pinot noir — that's their magic. Our magic is in the future.
‘I love the people and the dynamic nature of our landscape, which then translates into edgy wine with good clarity. We feel it because we're such a tight community down here and we build on each other's energy.’
On the future of winemaking
We're very cognizant of our impact on the environment and how our craft leaves a footprint. The next generation and the new wave of thought won’t be so much about what's authentic, what's good. It will be about what's enduring. How can we carry on doing this and look after the land? These questions are in their infancy. And I don't think it's a school of thought in New Zealand alone, but because we don't have red tape that tells us what we have to do, we can be guided by our conscience.
On the most challenging aspect of being a winemaker
The aspect of seasonality. You can never quite predict what's going to happen. We have a set of questions that we ask every year of every wine on every part of the vineyard. And every year, the answers differ based on seasonality. The season answers the questions. It’s what nature gives you and it means respecting that and working with that. It's very humbling. It takes a lot of humility.
On describing New Zealand as a fine glass of wine
If you drink a well-made New Zealand pinot noir and you've never been here, I think you can feel the energy, the freshness, the vibrance of the country in the glass. It makes you think of fresh air and the sea. It’s not simple — there's some edginess in the wine, so you can see the contours of the mountains and the dynamic landscape. When people taste something and it stops them in their tracks, then they want to discover where it came from.
‘Make an appointment at Rippon Vineyard. It’s one of the most photographed vineyards in the world. Even if wine isn't your thing, look at the magical vineyard rolling down into the lake and mountains.’
On now calling New Zealand home
It's the only place I've ever lived where I'm happy to be home after a holiday. It's not even about being in your own bed — it's this place, it’s just magic. I can't imagine another place where I could be a better version of me.
On where you find inspiration
For me, it's all about the natural diversity and surroundings. To really understand Central Otago, you have to get out into nature, even if it's on a bus through the region, through the gorges or down to Glenorchy. The best way is to put on some walking shoes or get on a bike and travel by the river or walk up the mountains. Between Wānaka and Lake Hāwea there are lakes, rivers and mountains for hiking or bike riding, and there's a short but fantastic ski season. Most of the people I know come here to get outdoors.
On some of your favorite activities
Go and enjoy the wine from this region. We have a partnership with a little place in Gibbston called Kinross. It’s the cellar door for Valli Wines and they have very seasoned, usually international sommeliers who really know a lot about wine from the area. If you come here in winter, you need to head up to Treble Cone, especially if you're skiing. The view from the café at Treble Cone looking back over Wānaka is magical. Even if you're not into the snow, it's still worth driving up to the ski field. And the last one, Pembroke Pâtisserie, is a little place with the best pastries I've had outside of France. It’s in my village, Albert Town, which is a little village on the Clutha River [Mata-Au]. This place has put Albert Town on the map because people are going out of their way to visit for a coffee, croissant or a pie. That's a little insider's tip.
On your must-do experience in all of New Zealand
Just one? Well, that is tricky but here goes: everyone who visits New Zealand should take a day (or night) cruise on the Milford or Doubtful Sound in Fiordland. It’s a highlight and is great anytime but especially after heavy rain when the waterfalls are flowing at full force. Sipping a glass of (Valli) pinot noir whilst being entertained by dolphins and sprayed by the fine mist of a raging waterfall is a type of magic that should be experienced by everyone in their lifetime.
On what 'manaakitanga' mean to you
For me, manaakitanga is the Māori version for a code of humanity. Every flourishing society in the world embraces it in their own way. It is about spreading aroha, or love and compassion, to others. It is also a strong sense of family and community values. It is about respect for the land and those who inhabit it.
On what makes New Zealand so special
Whenever I experience a mihi, or Māori welcome, it is inspiring, thrilling and makes me feel like I’m home. The original draw for me was certainly New Zealand wine but now that also encapsulates the people and the landscape. The fact that I can have a cultural day in an international city like Auckland or Wellington — visiting galleries, museums and gardens interspersed with drinking great coffee, wine and cocktails paired with innovative and fresh cuisine — and then be revelling in solitude in pristine nature the very next day is what captured my soul. The powerful Māori concept of tūrangawaewae, a place to stand, really resonates with me as Aotearoa. It is a place where I feel I belong, am accepted and am motivated to be my best self.
On a window or an aisle seat
90% of the time I choose an aisle seat because I'm quite fidgety. I like to get up a lot, and I don't like waking others. So, for long-haul flights, it’s always an aisle.
On Wānaka in one word