On the Trail

Getting Romantic at Rippon

Ryan Woodhouse

Every morning, in the pre-dawn glow, the small team at Rippon vineyard in Central Otago gathers to shake hands and discuss the day ahead. At this early hour the crisp mountain air is still, all you can hear is the crackling of the fire and birds welcoming the rising sun.  The meeting feels almost sacred; I feel like a part of this family getting a sneak peek behind the scenes of how this team (responsible for some of the Southern Hemisphere’s most prolific wines) operates. There is an intimacy amongst these people. They know they are creating something special here, but there is nothing extroverted or bullish about how they conduct themselves. Voices are hushed, discussion is thoughtful and intelligent. You can tell this is more than a job for all of them. This is passion. This is just what they do.

After the huddle breaks up and people shuffle off to their tasks at hand, winemaker/owner/ “custodian” Nick Mills and I head up to Rippon Hall overlooking the property. The view is perhaps one of the finest in the world. In the far distance the towering, snowcapped mountains of the Southern Alps; then the shimmering, crystal clear waters of Lake Wanaka; the perspective punctuated by an island that sits just off the lake shore. Rippon’s vines lead up right from the water’s edge, gradually at first, then moving into a series of steep, glacial moraines terraces, and up to the high point where Nick and I sit soaking in all this majesty. The sun’s rays are just starting to melt the gleaming frost from the ground, steam is rising from the vineyard posts and sleeping vines. We sit a while saying very little, this place is doing all the talking. After a few minutes I say to Nick: “You have a special place here. This would never get old. I can’t imagine coming to a place like this to work every day.” We chat for a while about his connection to this land. His family settled here over 100 years ago—the vines planted here by his father dating from the mid-1970’s are just one of many “viable pastoral uses” for this piece of land. Nick sees himself in a very custodian-like, pastoral role. As his father before him, Nick believes viticulture is just one appropriate use of this land, something that will support his family and allow a pastoral living to be made from it. It’s a refreshingly deep and philosophical way to look at the endeavor of growing wine, but if you know Nick this won’t come as a surprise. He is one of the most intelligent, abstract thinkers in the wine business.

Nick learnt his craft at the Lycée Viticole in Burgundy. He worked for many of the most famous domains in Burgundy including time with Nicholas Potel and at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Rippon is meticulously farmed according to Biodynamic principles. A huge amount of labor goes into this site from hand hoeing weeds, to compost turning, canopy management, fruit thinning / selection etc etc. Nurturing the truest, purest reflection of the land is the focus here and no amount of attention to detail is too much trouble. Nick’s classical training means the wines are made in a very natural non-manipulative way.

However what I think sets Nick apart from other great winemakers who apply similar regimes and obsessive practices is that he has an “alternative persona”. At first glance this alter ego appears in stark contrast to the winemaker I just described. Yet as you get to know him it is seamlessly interwoven. Prior to “coming home” and taking over the day to day running of Rippon, Nick lived as a self proclaimed “ski bum”. As one of New Zealand most talented young skiers he was destined for the Nagano Olympics before an untimely injury stole that dream away. Nick continued his skiing career and became one of the pioneers of Big Mountain Free Skiing in NZ and around the globe. A trip to the bathroom and Nick’s place and you will find stacks of Ski magazines…some featuring him on the front cover! As I found out last year, on a social night out with Nick in Wanaka you will likely end up Downhill Mountain biking, in the dark, with a bunch of his old Ski buddies who now split their time between designing Merino wool clothing and wing suit base jumping. All this adrenaline filled craziness is yet again contrasted with Nick’s idyllic home life with his wife and two young sons.

Long story short, the wines are Rippon are stunning, from a unique piece of land, crafted by one of the more interesting guys you’ll likely meet, and now you'll actually have the chance to meet him! Nick will be pouring his wines at both the Redwood City and San Francisco stores this week for a mere five bucks!

San Francisco: Thursday 3/3 @ 5-6:30pm

Redwood City: Friday 3/4 @ 5-6:30pm

Come see what the fuss is all about for yourself!

-Ryan Woodhouse