Vic Tutton never saw herself in the wine industry. Now she owns and manages one of New Zealand’s multiple award winning wine companies. Owned by the family partnership Tutton Sienko and Hill, the labels Waipara West and The Boneline are two of New Zealand’s success stories.
As a teenager, Vic grew up around horses and saw herself becoming a vet. After obtaining a master’s in business administration, however, she moved into arts management. It wasn’t until she and her brother, a wine exporter, bought an old sheep farm together that the opportunity for winemaking came up. A winemaking course at Lincoln University helped her to convert the farm into a vineyard.
“The usual path [to becoming a winemaker] these days would be to do a polytechnic course in Marlborough or Gisborne,” she says, “or the various degree and post-grad programmes in viticulture and oenology that Lincoln University offers.”
Working in vineyards (known as ‘working vintages’) in the holidays and then travelling the world after study to follow the various harvest seasons are good ways to get into the industry.
“It’s great fun!” says Vic. “There’s lots of travelling and meeting other people and getting experience.” However, because the industry is so competitive with a tight domestic and international market, study is essential, she advises.
“Any wine company’s main goal is to make really good grapes and good wine in the most efficient way possible… a lot of that is having good, experienced, and knowledgeable staff.”
Sean Houghton, assistant winemaker for Waipara West, says he has been provided with travel opportunities to “pretty much any part of the world that grows grapes”. After 10 years in the job, Sean still loves it and gets great satisfaction from producing a good wine.
“It’s the sum of the year’s work. You can look at the wine and where and how it was made and then make changes for the year ahead… you’re engaged in a process of improvement.”
Vic says typical winemaking duties include being heavily involved with vineyard staff and keeping an eye on the fruit through the growing season to make decisions about when to harvest. Moving around big hoses and barrels can also be quite physically demanding and, as Vic says, requires “some pretty hard grunt”.
“You can’t be a prima donna in winemaking, you have to be really on to it,” she says. That means mentally as well – keeping precise records, studying market trends, supervising production then refining the wine through until bottling requires more than just muscle strength.
Having learnt from launching straight into her own wine company, Vic advises, “Go and work first. Go and make your mistakes at other people’s places. Don’t do it to your own business. It works out a lot better for you.” And who would argue with that when it means being paid while travelling the world?
Although Waipara West and The Boneline each have a significant market internationally, Vic stresses the importance of attending local events such as the Lyttelton Farmers’ Market every Saturday.
“It feels really ethically important to come to a farmers’ market… I’m really proud that we can make and grow and sell our own product locally… I love the locals!”
Judging by the mass of regulars who popped into the market stall to buy wine or say a simple hello, the locals love her too.