What did you do before you made wine? "I studied neuromuscular paralysis in San Diego [in the United States]. I enjoyed what I was doing but, in 1988, the New Zealand government stopped funding the research. I went home to Marlborough [in New Zealand] and became a grape grower then a winemaker. It's all worked out."
Did you know much about winemaking at the time? "I knew nothing except that I loved it. I later found out I have a photographic memory when it comes to flavours, and find more complexity in wine than beer."
How did you go about making wine? "I used my scientific training to make selections within my vineyard, thinking about plant physiology. In 1989 no one did what I did: I took shoots that were crowding the fruit zone and plucked the leaves around the fruit to allow more wind and sun, and reduce rot and intensify colour. The grapes that didn't turn red, I removed. I knew how to grow grapes but, when it came to winemaking, I lived by the seat of my pants, and failed a few times. However, the first wine I made was a cabernet-merlot that was fermented and made into a cabernet rosé that won two awards. It was due to very little input from me - I didn't know what the hell I was doing. All I knew was that I had to add yeast!"
You have pioneered low-alcohol wine in New Zealand. Why shake up the status quo? "There's a huge market for products [that let] you still enjoy the fat, sugar and alcohol, but with less negative health implications. We have dropped the alcohol content in our wines from 14 per cent to 9 per cent, which means 40 per cent less alcohol and 40 per cent fewer calories. People think more alcohol is better, but that's not true. Men aged over 50 don't believe in [low levels], because they are used to spirits and highly alcoholic wines. But women are interested. In every country where I have shown my riesling with 8 per cent alcohol, I get the same [positive] comments from women, who like a fruitier, lighter wine.
"This is also why I think Chinese wine lovers have a natural affinity for New World wines, because they are fruity, balanced and value for money. [The Chinese like] wines that have simple labels and are not snobby and male-focused, like French ones. I think Old World wines are going to get a kick in the ass from New World wines."
Do your children work with you? "My daughter has a double degree in geography and microbiology and went to wine school in Adelaide. She recently worked for a competitor in Marlborough. I have appointed her wine-growing manager, giving her control of the vineyard and winemaking. My younger son is now working for a non-alcoholic beverage company, and he'll join us in about five years, in marketing management. The oldest son is a non-alcohol-drinking marine biologist. I take the Chinese view on things and have told my son and daughter to be guardians for lifetimes, to look after and nurture our vineyards to make them better for the next generation."
What do you do when you're not working? "I like being on the water. Marlborough has 3,000km of waterways. There are few places better suited to aquatic activities. We can fish for king salmon, green-lipped mussels and shellfish." Is your wife in the wine business, too? "She is a geriatrician and a senior doctor in palliative care. She is also involved in the company, overseeing financial control of our ever-growing empire. And she tries to control me, which is not always possible."