As a viticulturist in New Zealand’s North Canterbury wine region, Zoe Marychurch details her life of grapegrowing and winemaking with journalist Samuel Squire.
Armed with an interest in chemistry and a love of the outdoors and part of a family with a healthy interest in wine, Zoe Marychurch found herself attracted to a course in viticulture and oenology at an open day at New Zealand’s Lincoln University. Just a few short years later, and she now has the honour of being named the Bayer North Canterbury Young Viticulturist of the Year for two consecutive years running.
Now a viticulturist by trade working for Pegasus Bay in Waipara, in North Canterbury, Zoe enrolled in Lincoln’s course straight out of high school.
“I think the funniest thing about going to university to study viticulture and oenology is I wound up studying wine before I could even legally buy a bottle myself,” she said.
In 2013 Zoe moved to Blenheim to work over the summer on a vineyard in the Awatere Valley before transferring for a semester to Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.
“This meant I could graduate on track while fitting in my first vintage – a real eye opener at Cloudy Bay,” she said.
“After graduating, I moved to Central Otago for a stint at Peregrine Wines, then settled into a graduate internship at Felton Road – an exciting role comprising vineyard, winery and cellar door operations.”
It was at Felton Road where Zoe developed a love of Pinot Noirs and organic wine production. In 2016 she decided it was time for some international experience in the world of wine and travelled to Oregon before returning home to New Zealand.
“I flew to Oregon for crush at Yamhill Valley Vineyards. This was fascinating – a stark change from New Zealand,” she commented.
“The winemaker at Yamhill Valley Vineyards, Ariel Eberle, had lots of trials and experiments during my time there. We worked with small ferments too, so blending was complex.”
Back in New Zealand, Zoe shifted to North Canterbury where she worked in a vineyard in a Girl Friday-type role before a season in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills.
“Kate Laurie of Deviation Road produces epic ‘methode traditionelle’ with precision and punchiness. It was a fantastic time and I got to hone my skills with mass spectrometry and in the lab, while having my own interns – wine students themselves.”
Next came Zoe’s first trip to Europe working for a natural winemaker in the Jura. Picturesque Franche-Comte and the French way of life made it hard for her to even consider returning home.
“I spent four months not just in Arbois but also in the Rhone, the Loire, Burgundy, Provence, Languedoc and Bordeaux. Experiencing and exploring the vines, wines and people I had so far only read about was revitalising,” she said.
Zoe then spent a season at Greystone back in North Canterbury, “harvesting beautiful Pinots” before picking late-picked Rieslings and Bordeaux reds at Pegasus.
“I stayed with [Pegasus] for pruning which allowed me another trip back to France before moving into an assistant viticulturist role where I am now.”
Just like The Beatles, Zoe says she hasn’t had an ordinary day working in viticulture. Her active roles have kept her busy and constantly challenged.
Whether it has been working in different regions, different climates or different countries, she has learned to adapt to the ever-changing nature of viticulture and oenology and says it keeps her switched on.
“So far I haven’t had an average day ‘in the office’, so to speak. I have an active role in supervising staff, checking work and progress, pest and disease monitoring, yield estimation and managing biosecurity,” she said.
“As every viticulturist knows, the tasks on your list are numerous and varied. The hectic nature of grapegrowing and how priorities are ever-changing as the season develops are my favourite things about my work.
“Our challenges are by no means unique to us, we’re fighting the weather constantly, sourcing and keeping labour, pests and diseases are keeping us all on our toes.”
In 2018, Zoe was named Bayer North Canterbury Young Viticulturist of the Year but says she struggled to feel that she had earned the title. She entered the competition again in 2019, become the Bayer South Island Regional Young Viticulturist of the Year.
“Repeating that performance meant I could stand tall in it,” she said. “It helped that I felt in the zone on the day and had great support from Pegasus Bay.
“I started competing back when I was 21, so the competition has been there as I’ve grown in my career, forged friendships and professional connections.”
Another consequence of the exposure to the competition was the opportunity to assist with the judging of the Silver Secateurs in 2019.
“Our regional pruning contest is really important in giving some recognition to the vital people out in the vines every day and it was great to be able to support those troops,” she added.
Zoe hopes to one day take home the national Young Viticulturist trophy but is also hoping to be part of more vintages around the world.
Zoe currently works across 69 hectares over two sites tending to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Malbec, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscat, Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Semillon.
“I have been blessed through my career to be surrounded by smart people who are passionate, filled with knowledge and always up for a discussion,” she said.
“I’ve mentioned some of those people already, but credit for helping me in my career goes to Gareth King and Annabel Bulk from Felton Road for shaping me into the viticulturist and woman in wine that I am.
“Michelle Hansen of Pegasus Bay has also stepped up and modelled how the best ones do it, answering many of my questions along the way.
“Outside of work, I’m a big reader and I love my crafting time in the evenings – knitting, cross stitching – or bullet journaling with Netflix and a hot drink. On the weekend it’s camping and fishing trips or time with the family.”
Zoe’s advice to anyone thinking of starting their career in the wine industry is to get out there and get your hands dirty before signing up to study.
“With a good attitude, nothing can stop you.”
This article was originally published in the January issue of The Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.