John Belsham has been producing fine wine for 40 years. His American-born partner Kelly Brown has a passion for exceptional customer experience. Together they’ve created a tasting room in Ponsonby that’s fast becoming an urban legend.
By Glenn Baker.
My first question for John Belsham and Kelly Brown, the couple behind The Foxes Island Tasting Room in Auckland’s Ponsonby, is “how did you first meet?”
Turns out, it was a shared passion for wine that brought the Kiwi and American together.
“Meeting John and New Zealand all kind of collided at once,” recalls Kelly. “I was in Tokyo judging wine and at the end of the day the American, Kiwi and Australian judges would end up in the bar having a laugh and talking shop. I asked a fellow Kiwi colleague some technical questions about the new screw cap. He said he’d ‘send me some information’.
“About four weeks later, back in New York, I received a technical book on screw caps with a note scribbled inside from John. In addition to being the founder of Foxes Island and one of the original ‘flying winemakers’ I then learned John was, and still is, chairman of the screw cap initiative and was instrumental in shifting New Zealand’s wine industry from corks to screw cap closures.”
The couple didn’t meet in person until a year later, in 2008, when Kelly flew down to Marlborough to meet a client. “I had one free evening so John and I agreed to dinner.”
As well as being captivated by John, Kelly also fell in love with his wines. “They were elegant, textural and impeccably balanced, a complete departure from the young, commercial New Zealand wines I knew in the States,” says Kelly.
With their busy travel and work schedules, it would be another year before John sold Kelly the dream and convinced her to move to New Zealand.
Her first impression of New Zealand was of “a mixed space”.
“Putting into context the country’s remoteness, the early adaptive use of intelligent, innovative technology across a range of business sectors, combined with a strange sense of desired anonymity, made me feel like I’d discovered Ann Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. After all, I was in the country that developed the first kosher dishwasher, which for a New Yorker is huge!”
From a fine wine perspective, Kelly found it interesting getting her head around the cool climate challenges and the “terrific wines being produced at the top level”.
But she believes too often New Zealanders sell themselves short. “They need to stop apologizing to the world for charging premium export prices for top class products and start marketing them appropriately!”
2016 marks the 25th anniversary of Foxes Island and John’s 40th year in winemaking.
One of the pioneers of modern day winemaking in New Zealand, he learnt his craft in France, returning in the early 80s when there were just 45 wine companies in New Zealand. Today there are 670 wine producers.
Kelly and John believe truly iconic brands stay core to their fundamental principles, while also being fluid and evolving with the transcendence of time and changes in the market place.
“We constantly look at ways to elevate the space in ways that preserve our core beliefs, is of outstanding quality, and continually earns the trust of our clients and trade partners,” explains Kelly. “At the end of the day, trust is the most paramount product we sell and we work diligently to earn and maintain it.”
The first Foxes Island wine was a Chardonnay in 1992; a Pinot Noir followed in 1993 and there were no other varietals produced until 2003. Today, single vineyard wines continue to be at the heart of the company and Pinot Noir represents 70 percent of production. Foxes Island is still one of the few wine companies in New Zealand that cellar ages its wines prior to release.
Kelly describes the Foxes Island look as classic and tailored. “Think of it as the little black dress that never goes out of style. The cut might change, the accessories updated but the core design is timeless and the quality always superior.”
Export success relies on business partnerships, says Kelly. People who share the Foxes Island vision and are committed to the space long term. “We purposefully do not sell our premium single vineyard wines in large grocery store chains anywhere. We believe the consumer must have a similar quality experience with our wines whether they’re in London, New York, Sydney or Hong Kong. They can’t spend $50 to $100 on a bottle of wine in Auckland then find it in a UK supermarket for 15 pounds.”
This means they must constantly develop new distribution channels to expand the base, she says.
Wine production is understandably fraught with risk – in particular, extreme weather events.
John remembers 2002 when his entire crop was lost to a rare spring frost in Marlborough.
“The cost of managing 12 months of overheads with no product to show for it was a very humbling experience,” he says.
The GFC also stretched their resolve. “The appetite for wine did not reduce in volume but it definitely reduced in price expectation.”
But there have been many high points over the past 25 years too – such as the countless medals, trophies and accolades from wine critics, wine competitions and publications.
Export orders and new markets are always celebrated. “Seeing our wines featured in top international restaurants is always very special,” says John.
However, the best moments typically involve special connections with customers, he adds. “The greatest and most enduring highlights for us have been to witness the excitement of a new customer when they first discover our wines – be that in our Ponsonby tasting room, on a yacht in Sydney or an event in Manhattan.
“After all, the best moments in life are experiential and genuine delight cannot be faked nor bought. These small moments fill us with enormous pride.”
A new dynamic
Marlborough’s Awatere Valley is unquestionably an exceptional area to grow Pinot Noir and the Foxes Island vineyard is located in a magical setting by the glacial river waters of the Awatere.
“On a clear day looking north, you can see Wellington on the horizon,” says Kelly. “However, there is no bridge and the four-legged visitors don’t have credit cards.”
So six years ago, it was time to take back their trade distribution and start to sell directly, she says.
“It was a measured, strategic approach and with my background in sales, I understood the complexities and challenges that came with that decision.
“The critics told us we would fail but we didn’t listen and kept our focus on service, quality and profitability. We didn’t initially set out to open a tasting room in Auckland; however, when we started looking for a dedicated sales office and found our Ponsonby space, it was a great opportunity.”
The Tasting Room adds a different yet dynamic aspect to their relationship with the consumer, she says. “We want our consumers to know that genuine people are behind Foxes Island and that we’re committed to quality in every drop. We are not a soulless wine factory.”
Looking forward, the couple’s macro goal is to continue forming strong partnerships and opening new markets.
“Here in New Zealand, we want a thriving home market, which means we keep positively investing in our team and our trade partners whilst connecting to local businesses and consumers in meaningful ways,” says Kelly.
“We will keep building bridges through wine.”
A call for greater balance and diversity
John Belsham firmly believes that New Zealand creates the most diverse and exciting range of cool climate wines in the New World.
“We also export four times more of this wine than we consume domestically. All this should make New Zealand one of the most admired sustainable and profitable wine producers and exporters on the planet. However, we are not. Why?
“Firstly we have an imbalance in our product offering. Seventy-two percent of national production and 85 percent of all exports are Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. We farm and produce this variety extremely well – however, it is a very inelastic offering in terms of quality and style, and therefore value.
“The significant distribution channels for these types of wine are controlled by the major liquor wholesalers and grocery chains. These organizations are enormous and control the purchase price based on customer expectation and protect their margins irrespective of producers’ costs and seasonal variables.”
In most cases producers are sitting at the thin end of the value chain with little room for negotiation, he says. “Producers typically respond to this margin pressure by increasing volume in an attempt to leverage scale – thus providing some short term relief.
“What I am advocating is a more balanced and interesting commercial space recognizing the appetite for a more diverse offering for consumers and a more sustainable model for producers.
“However, ultimately this exacerbates the problem as global buyers reap the benefits of a competitive market.
John believes the secondary effect of this imbalance is the inevitable dominance of the major, often internationally owned, players who’ve invested in New Zealand Wine as part of their portfolio. “These companies have the resources to navigate the international distribution network and the muscle to catapult Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc onto the world stage.
“Whilst this has been very successful for them it has inadvertently muffled the voices of smaller privately owned operators as well as multiple wine styles from other regions. This sector may seem small in comparison, however it represents the very producers that have all the elements necessary to provide sustainable value for our industry – diverse and impressive wines accompanied by great stories.”
For New Zealand’s wine industry to evolve sustainably it must extend the distribution channels to provide opportunities for all producers, large and small, he says.
“A more diverse range of wines needs to be sold profitably and producers need to tell their incredible stories.
“Today’s consumers want diversity and are rightfully demanding this. Greater transparency is the modern expectation and the Internet provides it. It is the vehicle that will erode the stranglehold of the traditional distribution model. The fastest growing wine retailers in the US, UK, Australia and Canada are all online. Increasingly wine companies are growing their direct-to-consumer models via cellar door sales and wine clubs.
“I’m not proposing that we demolish the distribution model entirely. This system when used correctly will always provide an essential service for connecting producers and consumers.
“What I am advocating is a more balanced and interesting commercial space recognizing the appetite for a more diverse offering for consumers and a more sustainable model for producers. This equilibrium can and will be satisfied by the intelligent use of technology.”