George Bunnett was freshly crowned Wairarapa Young Viticulturist of the Year when he had a transTasman phone interview with Eleanor Danenberg. The self-described “typical Kiwi bloke” took Eleanor through his journey in the New Zealand grape and wine industry up until now, what he enjoys in his current role as assistant vineyard manager at Craggy Range in Martinborough, and why organic vineyards and wine are his “dream focus”.
A career in the wine industry, viticulture specifically, was a no-brainer for George Bunnett.
Growing up on a farm, “outdoors was everything I knew”, he says. Ever a cool customer, when a friend of Bunnett’s was heading to Lincoln University to study the Bachelor of Viticulture and Oenology, he “thought it was a good idea to tag along”. Before study, Bunnett headed to Hamilton to work at Mystery Creek Wines, to try the industry on for size to see what he was getting himself into.
After university Bunnett travelled to Central Otago to work for Terra Sancta, where he stayed for four years; then he ventured over to South Australia to work for Treasury Wine Estates in Coonawarra and Wrattonbully. Working for a giant such as Treasury was a valuable learning experience for Bunnett, who says the company was innovative and trialled “stuff you never see or would experience here [in New Zealand]”.
After a summer down under, Bunnett returned home, this time to Canterbury to work in the winery at Crater Rim Wines. Central Otago called him back, Bunnett admitting he has a soft spot for the region. He worked at Peregrine for a year, which further intensified his passion for organics and sustainability. Then, he travelled abroad to Austria, where he worked a harvest and made wine. Bunnett then moved to Craggy Range Martinborough, where he still is a year later.
Bunnett agrees it has been a busy and diverse 10 years in the industry, but he thinks that experience and getting out there is paramount: “I didn’t want to get stuck in one place and all I knew was that, and the way [one] company does things. In this industry we’re fortunate, we can travel and get work around the world, so I definitely think you should make the most of it”.
He would love to work overseas again, particularly to “experience the way they grow grapes and the passion they have for it” in France, and he’d also love to visit “up and coming” Oregon, which produces “really awesome wines”, focusing a lot on Pinot Noir and organics, the styles he likes.
As well as experimenting in different wine regions and countries, Bunnett also thought it was important that he have experience in the vineyard as well as within winery walls.
“I always wanted to try the wine side of it so I couldn’t poo-poo it too much at the start, but for me I’ve always had the focus of being outside and working with vines,” said Bunnett, believing “the grapes are really where the wine comes from”.
As one of two assistant vineyard managers at Craggy Range Martinborough, Bunnett runs day-to- day operations and organises five operator staff, planning their tasks and schedules. He says he enjoys that his role has variety, adding ,“it’s really awesome to be able to get a broad aspect of vineyard work”. Bunnett says “every day is completely different; one day, stuck in an office and hating it” the outdoorsman jokes, and the next few weeks, running around fixing broken pumps, “pruning, crop thinning, helping to fix a harvester”, and more.
Bunnett has recently competed in and won the Wairarapa Young Viticulturist of the Year competition, although admitting with a laugh he’s “sort of on the older, on the way out” end of the scale of the young viti community. Bunnett says the event revealed great promise for the future of the little region, with the focus on how the competitors can find their strengths and weaknesses, and become better viticulturists. This was Bunnett’s second try at the Young Vit competition, after competing for Central Otago when he was 22. As his first win was for Wairarapa, he hopes it sets the stage for a little region to win the nationals — “without putting a target on my back!”, he adds, looking ahead to the national finals in late August.
When asked what advice he would give newcomers to the grape and wine industry, Bunnett says besides “just giving it a crack”, it’s important to find somewhere that you like, the people, the wine, or what they stand for. From the side of the workforce welcoming new blood, he says passionate young people should be given the time of day, taught, and engaged, “because it really is an awesome industry we have”.
Bunnett’s favourite wine is “hands down” Pinot Noir, and he’s a self-described “big ambassador” for a good Chardonnay too, saying he is “on a crusade to bring it back”. Craggy Range is, of course, at the top of Bunnett’s favourite brands. He also likes Seresin, “because they do sustainable, organic Pinot; they really reflect the soil and climate they’re growing”, and his old work Peregrine; “I went there because their wines are gorgeous and they’re really fighting the good fight for organics and being at the forefront”.
Working with organics is a “huge focus” for Bunnett. He says his dream would be to own a vineyard, although he fears that is a far-fetched aspiration these days. At the very least, it would be his dream “to help with an organic conversion, or [to manage] a fully organic vineyard again”. What is it that attracts Bunnett to organic and sustainable processes? “The wine does reflect what you put into it, your hard work and everything you’ve done on a day-to-day basis, and the more sustainable and organic you can make things, I feel the product stands out a lot better”.
As a viticulturist and assistant vineyard manager, Bunnett’s favourite thing about his job is working in a team day in, day out and “everyone’s hard work coming together to produce something special” that you can enjoy with your loved ones; “you can say, this has taken me a whole year to make”, from being outside from negative four degrees up to 35 and 40 degrees.
At the end of the day, “we are farmers”, Bunnett says, and there’s an elegance and respect in the craft, where your hard work is reflected “and, if the season allows it, then that’s shown in a great, gorgeous wine”.
This article was originally published in the August issue of Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine. Subscribe here.