Young Gun: Jess Wilson

Young Gun Jess Wilson


This month, journalist Samuel Squire caught up with the Marlborough winner of the 2021 Corteva Young Viticulturist of the Year competition in New Zealand, Jess Wilson, a viticulturist working at Whitehaven Wines. Jess will be heading to the national final later this month to compete in hopes of bringing the national title home.

Jessica (Jess) Wilson is a young viticulturist from Auckland who works in Marlborough, New Zealand’s most iconic wine region. Growing up on a lifestyle block where her parents ran a hydroponics business growing lettuces and herbs exposed her to agriculture from a young age.

Jess Wilson

Viticulturist, Whitehaven Wines, Marlborough


Jessica (Jess) Wilson is a young viticulturist from Auckland who works in Marlborough, New Zealand’s most iconic wine region. Growing up on a lifestyle block where her parents ran a hydroponics business growing lettuces and herbs exposed her to agriculture from a young age.

By the time she got to looking at possible career options in high school, it was clear that being tied down to a desk in an office wasn’t for her.

Jess read about a Bachelor of Viticulture and Oenology course and went on a university visit, which she says sounded like a “perfect combination” of science and outdoor practical work.

“In high school I loved science, but when I was looking at career options my main criteria was I did not want to be stuck in an office!” she said.

“When I went to university to start my degree, I had never tried wine, so I had a lot to learn. Luckily for me, I loved the degree and I have never looked back.

“I studied my Bachelor of Viticulture and Oenology at Lincoln University, NZ and then moved to The University of Adelaide to complete my honours thesis on Grapevine Susceptibility to Eutypa Dieback.

“I loved my time at both universities. Lincoln gave me a fantastic base of knowledge while Adelaide allowed me the opportunity to design and complete my own experiments and write a thesis.

“One of my favourite memories was when I was at Adelaide and got the opportunity to attend the 9th International Workshop on Grapevine Trunk Diseases. Being able to hear all the research and how this will benefit growers was a fantastic experience. I met so many talented people from all over the world, all with a passion to protect our grapevines.”

Her first time working in a vineyard was while she was undertaking a summer student position Neudorf in Nelson.

“I loved it, I got a great range of experiences – hands on work and then a taster of technical data collection work,” she said.

“My first experience was so positive because of the wonderful people I met and how open the industry was about sharing knowledge.

“I learnt early on that it’s important to just get in there and give it a go and never be afraid to ask questions because everyone wants to share their knowledge.”

In 2015, Jess completed a harvest in Oregon in the US.

“That was an incredible experience. I was actually working in the winery lab, but this gave me the ability to see the maturity samples, taste the grapes and learn from the vineyard team,” she said.

“I absolutely fell in love with Oregon and their beautiful Pinot Noirs during my time there and I would love to return in the future.”

Jess currently is a viticulturist at Whitehaven Wines in Marlborough. It is a family-owned company established by Sue and Greg White in 1994.

“As a brand, we have a real focus on producing quality wines that truly reflect Marlborough. We have several company vineyards throughout the region and the rest of our supply comes from contract growers.

“What I love about Whitehaven is that we retain the focus of a small winery, even though we are relatively large, and the team prides itself on attention to detail and respect for every parcel that we are fortunate enough to receive.

“We have a small team that allows you to see all parts of the business and be connected to the other departments, for example I am able to participate in grading tastings which is a fabulous learning experience and so rewarding to be able to see the finished product off each vineyard.”

Young Gun Jess Wilson



Taking home the win

This year, Jess competed in New Zealand’s Corteva Young Viticulturist of the Year regional competition in July and took home the win for Marlborough, which made her the first female viticulturist to win that title for the region in the 16 years the competition has run.

It’s one of the original Young Viticulturist regional competitions and has always oversubscribed with many young viticulturists applying to enter.

“It’s wonderful to see young women thrive in viticulture,” said Nicky Grandorge, national co-ordinator of the Young Vit competition and Women in Wine NZ.

“It really highlights what a great career option it is for both men and women.”

“To win the Marlborough Young Vit competition was an incredible feeling,” Jess said, “I had set my mind to it the previous year, so it was a great feeling to see all the hard work pay off”.

“To then realise I was the first woman, there was a real sense of pride. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

“It proves viticulture is a career path for woman and we can compete with the men.”

Jess’ strengths have always been the technical components of viticulture, including pest and disease control and nutrition.

“This year, I focussed on the areas I find more challenging, machinery, irrigation, and trellis. My career path was through technical roles rather than machinery operator roles, so I knew I had to put a lot of work into these modules.

“I was lucky enough to have a colleague who spent numerous afternoons with me helping me upskill.

“Each year it’s so satisfying to feel that you have improved on a module, winning aside this improvement is what I wanted to gain from the competition.

“This year I actually won the trellis module and the pest and disease module,” she continued.

“To win the trellis module was a real shock, but it proves that I have put in the work to become proficient at more than just the technical aspects of my role.”

Later this month, Jess is heading to the national final at Indevin’s Bankhouse to represent Marlborough.

“I won’t lie, I am a bit nervous going into the national final, but I will give it my all and put in the effort to prepare,” she said.

“I am really excited to get out there and do it. I’m anticipating longer, more in-depth questions and modules that will really push me – but that is the challenge we all sign up for.”

For Jess, vintage 2021 started rough in the vineyard. Two significant frost events struck in the 2020 growing season; one on 30 September and the other on 16 October, which was then followed by a drawn out flowering period.

“This resulted in yields being down considerably on the previous vintage. However, we were lucky to have good weather and minimal disease pressure,” she said.

“The V21 wines are looking fantastic!

“Marlborough is a great place to grow grapes due to its many sub-regions, each of which has its own unique profile.

“Having the ability to source grapes from such varied microclimates provides us with more depth and flavour profiles.

During her time in the New Zealand wine industry so far, Jess has seen many changes occur, including the move that many producers are making to be more sustainable.

“There have been so many changes since I began in the industry,” she said, “One of these changes is the movement to even more sustainable, regenerative techniques, particularly in the last few years”.

“The focus on soil health is so important. Without healthy soils and microbes, we do not have a healthy and productive ecosystem.

“We need to view vineyards as more than just farms. They should be diverse, healthy ecosystems and we should be protecting this for future generations.

“Another change is curiosity and innovation. More people out there are looking for alternatives and are brave enough to give them a go. Finally, on the people side of the industry, I have noticed more and more women joining the industry, particularly in viticulture.”

The one piece of advice Jess says she would give herself at the start of her career is “do not wait”.

“Put yourself out there, enter competitions, and go along to events because you will meet incredible people, develop skills and you will get noticed,” she said.

“Viticulture interests me because no two seasons are the same. There are always new challenges and changes happening. For me it is the perfect mix of science, practical work and people.