Winemaker's Comment - Spring 2023

I’m not sure how many of our followers know the origin of our logo. (The clue is on the labels when the fruit originates from The Elms Bannockburn Vineyard”.) Stewart selected the Elm tree as a logo for our brand and surreptitiously sourced the image from Hugh Johnsons The International Book of Trees (Hugh later forgave the impertinence!). We have had reason to reflect on this as we received the very sad news of the passing of our founder, Stewart Elms. The following is a little personal, but its an important story thats a critical foundation to the success of our wines and therefore needs to be shared. Please stay with me and read on....

We have always credited Stewart as a key part of the success of Felton Road. It was his vision for a fine wine estate and his dedication to: astute site selection; meticulous vineyard design; and early positioning of Felton Road as a fine wine, that assisted greatly in enabling us to become a successful and enduring global wine brand. Some of you will have met and remember Stewart, some will even remember the City Hotel of Dunedin, but his legacy in what he created with Felton Road and his name on our labels, will live on as a tribute to a man who combined vision and serious study to create a fine wine estate. One must remember that this was in the early 1990s: Muller Thurgau was still the most planted variety in New Zealand and Pinot Noir was only just starting to find successful homes in Canterbury and Martinborough, let alone Central Otago.

I met Stewart when completing my final year of a Horticultural Science degree at Lincoln University in Canterbury. Stewart was undertaking a postgraduate diploma in Viticulture and Oenology and, as the most senior of the class, was paired with the most junior for wine chemistry laboratory lessons. I, as a 20-year-old and in my fourth year of a science degree, was partnered with the 55 year old, who had no chemistry or science study, simply a commerce degree.

Stewart would always respectfully quiz me to assist with writing up the lab work which culminated in me saying: Look, heres my report, use what you need to, hand it in on time and dont get us in trouble!”. After many careful classroom document switches, halfway through the year, Stewart reached over from the row behind, passed me a package wrapped in newspaper (Stewarts frugal ways were infamous!) and gave me a wink, thanks for the help!”.  Inside the economical wrapping were a couple of exalted bottles from his cellar, each as old as me. We all had an interesting and fun year and, along with Stewart, I made some very close friends in long, after-hours research and development sessions.

Little did I know that a dinner with Stewart in 1994 - right before I was heading to Napa on a two-year work visa to work with John Kongsgaard at Newton Vineyard - would be a significant moment in my life. Over a pleasant dinner and wines, Stewart showed me photos of the vineyard hed planted a couple of years earlier, in a place called Bannockburn (where the heck is that, I thought). Stewart slipped into the conversation, ....hmmmph, in 2 years-time, I might be looking for a winemaker, lets stay in touch”.  Stewarts were some of the first vines in the Cromwell Basin. In fact, The Elms” plantings in 1992, along with two neighbouring vineyards, doubled the Central Otago hectarage from 11 to 22 ha! Letters were exchanged over those two years which became increasingly more detailed, serious, and eventually resulted in not only an offer of a winemakers position, but also an invitation to become part of the business with him.

Stewarts previous experiences set him up well. Firstly, he grew up in hotels: he was born in Eichardts Hotel in Queenstown! He then ran the family hotel business, a fine dining restaurant and wine retail through the 60s and 70s. A remnant of this was Stewart handing me a box full of wooden wine box ends just prior to the opening of the winery in 1997. I flicked through them: '61 Latour, ‘66 Cheval, ’71 Margaux, '67 Yquem....etc. These were the wines with which Stewart chiseled his palate and understanding of fine wine. But, there was the dilemma of where to put them when christening a Pinot Noir winery? Bordeaux and Burgundy have never been close chums: our toilet walls became well adorned!

Stewart also frequently travelled through Europe visiting the classic regions, gaining an understanding of fine wine culture. He sold the City Hotel in the late 70s and went farming in North Otago: sheep, cattle and blackcurrants. Stewart never did things by halves and quickly became an astute and successful farmer. In the late 80s, Rolfe Mills and Alan Brady, amongst a few others, were establishing pioneering vineyards at Rippon and Gibbston Valley which piqued his oenological interest. Stewart had the fine wine experience and passion, the farming and business skills, but for him that was not enough. He knew how tough the task might become; he would need knowledge, qualifications and renewed study. Thats where we met.

While he had regrets after selling his last great project to Nigel, with time he reconciled his decision and was very proud of what his creation became.

Stewart, there is only one wish we would have requested of you: could there have been just a little more imagination in the naming of the vineyard parcels?! Nevertheless, with Blocks 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and the others, we will always fondly remember you and treasure the vision that you created. Your name will forever adorn our labels and our logo, and we trust we can continue to do you proud. We raise a glass in your honour.