Hancock, John Stewart Interview

Interview by Jim Newbigin conducted on 19th November 2020 with John Hancock, Winemaker ; formerly of Trinity Hill Winery and recently, Hancock & Sons.

My great-[great]-grandparents came out to Australia in 1861 from Cornwall; sailed on a ship called ‘Lillies’. I was born in southeast South Australia; my father was a farmer. I had nothing to do with wine in those days and I lived out of a little town called Kingston which is actually a crayfishing port in South Australia.

So in 1979 I replied to an advert for a winemaker’s job at Delegat’s Wines in Henderson – it was just a small little winery in those days – I got the job. Came in time for the 1979 harvest; I worked four harvests at Delegat’s, so I was there for three and a half-odd years, and then got poached to help start up Morton Estate which was a start-up winery in the Bay of Plenty.

And we started taking grapes out of Hawke’s Bay, so that’s really how I got to understand about Hawke’s Bay, and you know, grew to really love it. And we had massive success with Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay particularly, at Morton Estate. I was based in Katikati actually, for nearly sixteen years. We built Morton Estate from a small privately owned winery into a … floated on the Stock Exchange in that wonderful 1987 year. So Morton Estate, after it became a public company, was bought by Mildara Blass, a big public company in Australia; so I became part of that organisation which was interesting.

I met a couple of people overseas when I was on a promotional trip in 1987 I think it was, who owned a couple of restaurants in London. And they expressed interest in being involved if I wanted to go start a winery up myself. So that’s what we did; and in 1993 we bought our first land in Hawke’s Bay, in what’s now become known as the Gimblett Gravels. So we started that; then … as I say, bought it in ’93, planted the vineyards in ’94, and built a winery in 1996 in time to start taking the fruit from that vineyard. And that was Trinity Hill. We had another partner in Auckland; so there were three partners in the company, which is where the name ‘Trinity’ came from of course. And we built the winery in ’96 in time for the ’97 harvest, and it became very successful in terms of quality producing brilliant red wine from the Gimblett Gravels.

And I guess, you know, just to get to that stage … now, this year 2020 is my fiftieth harvest, including a couple overseas and seven, I think it was, in Australia; and the balance really in New Zealand. So that’s really how it came about.

As I said earlier on, I’m Australian, but New Zealand’s my home, and I would have absolutely no intention of ever going back to New Zealand [Australia].

So I shifted to Hawke’s Bay from the Bay of Plenty in 1996 and my family came with me. I had one small boy who was three years old at the time, and a step-daughter who was a whisker older; and now my then three-year-old son is making wine with me in a new little brand called Hancock & Sons.

And your life in the winery with Delegat’s?

Yep.

I was in the wine & spirit business.

I probably met you way back then.

Very nice fellow, Jim – still alive, isn’t he?

Yeah, he is. He’s only a couple of years older than I am. When I started at Delegat’s I was twenty-seven; Jim, I think was thirty, so you know, we were just young guys.

So now with your vineyard, how many acres have you got?

Well, with the Trinity Hill vineyards we owned fifty hectares in the Gravels. And we had another couple of vineyards; [we had] another vineyard at Rays Road which is out Maraekakaho way, up in the hills – quite an innovative vineyard which we did as a joint venture with a producer from Sancerre in France. The idea was to produce a high end Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon, but of course the Sauvignon market in New Zealand’s so dominated by Marlborough – that didn’t really work out that well, so eventually we ended up selling that vineyard to the guys from Kumeu River in Auckland. Yeah.

And so that was a thirty hectare vineyard, so we had at one stage eighty-odd hectares of vineyard. But since … what, three years now … I haven’t really been involved with Trinity Hill. My issue … of course what happened with me is I tended to get shifted more and more into an ambassadorial and a promotional role rather than wine making. And my true love is wine making, so I left at the end of 2017 … left Trinity Hill, and I’ve gotten back to hands-on winemaking now, which I really love doing. And interestingly enough, in another couple of weeks my son’s going to join me to work with me on a project within Moana Park Winery on some super premium red wines. So that’ll be a bit of fun … it’ll be good to work with him.

Now the vineyard is near Sacred Hill?

It’s sort of out that way, yeah – it’s on the Taradale side of Puketapu … yeah. So you know, as I said, I have just a small shareholding in Trinity Hill these days so no real involvement there at all; gone off doing my own thing. I thought I’d better do it then – if I didn’t do it then it’d be too late.

Tell me, in your spare time what do you do?

Jim, you know the wine industry [chuckle] – there is no spare time basically, which is probably why I’ve actually been divorced twice. [Chuckles] That’s one thing which you just might see, hanging off there is a guitar. So I am a bit of collector of guitars and stuff. I’ve got about thirty, or more than thirty guitars, [chuckle] amplifiers and things around the place, so … interestingly enough too, my eldest son’s quite a useful musician; he plays drums, plays bass and plays guitar as well.

Something I’ve always wished that I had learnt. And I’m sorry about your beard, but I’d like to be Kenny Rogers too.

[Chuckle] Well I’ve actually had … walking down the street in Singapore one time … somebody from the other side of the road say, “Oh, Kenny Rogers!” [Chuckle] Yeah, so you’re not the first one to say that. [Chuckle] We’re alive though, and he’s dead.

Yes, I know. I’m a bit of a fan for him and Johnny Cash.

Okay … yes, I’m a bit. Yeah., I’m … oh, you can see – quite a few CDs and things up there. I’m a bit of an all-round fan I suppose, but I do like country music; the classics, you know – Hank Williams, Patsy Cline – probably my two favourites. Yeah.

Have you had any travels overseas?

I would’ve been to London probably thirty-five times; so at least once a year for the last thirty-odd years, and a lot of times more than once a year.

For enjoyment or for both ..?

All for business. All for business, but you know, it’s a lot of fun doing that. And for example, at one stage I got to having fifty-two weeks holiday due to me, because you know, travelling round the world doing that stuff was like a holiday anyway. And you know, I worked a couple of harvests overseas, and I’ve been to all the wine regions in Europe. And I like doing that.

Any of them that stand out?

Oh France has to be the one, of course; you know, all the classic wines of the world really, stem from France.

And you haven’t done any active service?

No, I haven’t, but my father, who died a couple of years ago – he was ninety-three – he joined the army at eighteen when war broke out. So he worked in station country up in the north of South Australia – the Flinders Ranges, around there – where he met my mother. Her family owned station country up north. But when he joined the army, because he was like, a very good horseman and lived in the outback and all the rest of it, he was selected to be in a special secret force they called ‘Curtin’s Cowboys’. And their job was to look out for when the Japanese landed; so they got dumped right across the north … the top end of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, basically to fend for themselves. And actually it’s interesting, because my dad has said a lot of times … and he had enormous regard for the indigenous Aboriginal people in Australia … he said if it wasn’t for them they probably all would’ve died up there. The Aboriginals taught them … you know, how to fish and all the rest of it in all these water holes and things. So when it probably wasn’t very fashionable he had enormous respect for the Aboriginals.

And I suppose quite luckily, the Japanese never landed in Australia, although he was in Broome when the Japanese bombed Broome. So yeah; they went down as far as Cairns, maybe even Townsville …

Oh, did they? Down the other side too?

… yeah. Mmm, they bombed them there at various stages. Yeah – so he didn’t really have active service … at least not direct confrontation, but it could’ve been pretty interesting for them if the Japanese had landed. Yeah, so they … I don’t know what it might be … two or three thousand miles I suppose; they sort of covered that whole territory across the top.

Australia’s a mighty big country …

Yeah, it certainly is.

Yeah, so I’ve travelled pretty widely … South America, South Africa, pretty much all of Europe, and definitely the UK [United Kingdom] a lot of times; and that was you know, a pretty important part of the job. But [I] got to love it, but that travel part was – I mean, it’s hard work. I mean, for example we’d do a three week trip; be there for twenty-one days, and we would do twenty-one dinners, you know, like a winemaker dinner somewhere; like in London, or out in the country, or Scotland or Ireland or wherever; and that was a big part of how we went about selling wine.

Sounds good travelling …

[Chuckle] I always loved it when we came back and people would say, “Oh, did you have a good holiday?” Yeah – you probably averaged about five or six hours’ sleep a night. Big dinners [a] couple of times a day; it’s hard work.

And hard work the next day, too …

Yeah, you’ve got to be fresh and bright. And you’ve just been passed on from somebody who was fresh to someone else who was fresh; and you get pretty tired by the end of that.

John, what’s the future of the wine industry? Is it progressing?

You know, I think in Hawke’s Bay it’s tough; for New Zealand as a whole, doing very well. Hawke’s Bay’s making wine from grape varieties that aren’t … it’s a bit like the apple thing really … that aren’t fashionable. You know, Hawke’s Bay’s probably best known for things like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz or Syrah – red wines; although of course we make great … probably New Zealand’s best Chardonnays as well. So while, you know, Marlborough is really creaming it – ‘bout eighty-six percent of our exports are Sauvignon Blanc; you know, and then I think it’s eleven percent is Pinot Noir. So you’ve got ninety-six percent or whatever of things that Hawke’s Bay doesn’t really make, or at least not known to make. Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon Blanc is fantastic, but you can’t sell it. If it doesn’t have Marlborough on the label … I always said, you know, “Just take a Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon and put Marlborough on the label, and it’d be the best Sauvignon they’ve had.” So I guess what’s tending to happen right now is a lot of vineyards, particularly in areas of Hawke’s Bay that are not quite so desirable, are being replaced with apples; well you can make gross of $300,000 a hectare with apples. [Chuckle] You’re hardly … I’d say in Hawke’s Bay there’d be a handful of wineries that actually make money; there’d be lucky to be more than two or three.

Some of them are probably struggling pretty hard.

The big ones probably do okay, but they’re propped up by having vineyards and wineries in other areas as well, like Delegat’s or Villa Maria, or even Constellation and Accolade – those guys have got big wineries in Marlborough, so that’s probably where they make all their money really.

Yeah. So, I suppose the answer is there is a future, but the vineyard area is shrinking a little bit. We’re probably being left with the better vineyards. It’s the vineyards on fairly rich soils that don’t necessarily make the best wine that they’re replanting in apples.

We’re getting a name for reds though, aren’t we?

Yeah, we make some fantastic reds, but you know, [chuckle] the rest of the world does a pretty good job of it too, including our neighbours over the Tasman. So you know, we work hard at it, but it’s a bit like banging your head against a brick wall at times – it feels good when you stop. But the only way to win is keep doing it, and we will.

And you like doing it, and …

Oh, we love it.

that’s your life …

Yeah. I don’t think … if you didn’t love the wine industry like you do, you wouldn’t be in it ‘cause it doesn’t pay particularly well, and you work like a bugger. And I guess one of the real problems now is succession planning. Kids see how hard their folks work and they don’t necessarily want to do that … hmm.

They do not.

I guess the thing was in my time – I was at university then, when we had conscription in Australia, and Vietnam and all the rest of it. So we had a lottery system – basically they drew your birth date out of a hat. And I missed out, so apart from being in the cadets at school … I went to Scotch College in Adelaide, and I was in the cadets; I was a Corporal. That’s about as close as I got to service. That’s it in a nutshell really.

I suppose, you know, there’s a few things I guess along the way, that I did in terms of innovative stuff at Morton Estate. I started the whole barrel fermentation of Chardonnay. That was probably the first commercial barrel fermentation of Chardonnay in Australasia, and the Aussies picked up on it quite bit, you know, and I ended up giving papers in Australia; not just on Chardonnay but also sparkling wine production … Champagne, or Méthode Champenoise production. So you know, I went back and taught the Aussies a little bit maybe.

I certainly followed Aussie Rules quite strongly, and I played Aussie Rules in Auckland; you know, I played in Australia quite a lot, and I did play in Auckland; played for West Auckland; got selected in the Auckland team, and then following that in the National Carnival they used to play Wellington and Christchurch … Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch each year. And we picked the New Zealand side and I was selected in the New Zealand AFL side, probably in 1980-1981. We didn’t play anybody, but it’s a bit like the Australian being picked in the Australian team; they don’t play anybody either.

It’s a great game if you knew the rules …

Well there aren’t too many rules really, ‘cause I mean there’s no such thing as a forward pass; there’s no off-side. The object is to move the ball as fast as you can.

Yeah, and get it in between the posts.

Yeah. Yeah, so I played cricket quite a lot too. I played in the Bay of Plenty. I was captain of the Katikati team. Well look, I got to know a lot of the guys, ‘cause at Morton we actually sponsored Northern Districts, so you know, I knew those guys pretty well and now still see those guys, or used to … obviously he’s dead now, but Martin Crowe … he’s been a big wine fan. Jeff Crowe I know pretty well; a good friend of mine’s Ross Taylor. He’s a lovely guy, and he’s a very keen wine man too, ‘cause he was good friends with Martin Crowe; and Martin being a wine guy sort of handed it over to Rossco, really. [Chuckles]

I knew their father extremely well; yeah, we were at school together, Dave and I. We had the best wine … “Audrey, get that best bottle of red out of the cupboard”, [chuckles] “and we’ll have it now.” I was there when he played his first test aged nineteen at Eden Park; it was a great day.

And a very elegant batsman … reminded me a little bit of Greg Chappell, ‘cept he didn’t get anybody to bowl underarm, huh?

[Chuckle] Yeah. Okay, well …

Cool.

that’s pretty good. Thank you, John, for that talk, and pleased that we’ve got something from you; and this will go down in the annals of the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank in years to come.

Fantastic … fantastic.

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Interviewer:  Jim Newbigin

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