High on the hills overlooking Marlborough’s Awatere Valley are rows of grapevines blanketing 73 hectares of land. Among the vines are well-fed sheep contently grazing on the dandelions and weeds that freely grow among the vines in the fertile soil.
The parcel of land is peaceful, tranquil and baked in sun. From this elevation, 150 metres above the ocean below, it feels like you can see the end of the earth. The Loveblock vineyard is a little slice of heaven, at least for New Zealand wine industry power couple Erica and Kim Crawford.
Following a prolonged hiatus from what they do best, Erica and Kim are back in the game making world class wine, as an infectious love for the craft meant these two wouldn’t stay away forever.
From infancy to fame
You’ve probably heard of the wine label Kim Crawford, you may have even enjoyed a drop or two.
Loveblock Wines CEO, Erica Crawford was the marketing mogul behind the Kim Crawford brand which shot it and the New Zealand wine industry from infancy to fame within a few short years. Her husband Kim, the namesake for it, is the highly esteemed vintner who produced the product.
Originally from South Africa, Erica started her career as a young scientist in cardiac medicine. But when the opportunity arose to make a wine label with her husband she changed tact.
With a couple of marketing courses under her belt, a large portion of self taught exporting and marketing skills, and a heavy reliance on instinct, they went into business.
Unable to afford land and vineyards of their own back in 1996 didn’t hold Erica back. Her resilient and forthright nature saw her revolutionise the wine production model in New Zealand. They bought fruit from contract growers and set up a ‘virtual winery’, a model that hadn’t previously been successful in New Zealand. Under Erica’s management they pumped out wine on mass, exporting 400,000 cases annually at its peak.
They sold the brand just seven years later for an extremely handsome sum. Erica says the buyout couldn’t have come at a better time. “We got to a point in our growth where we couldn’t fund ourselves anymore. We would have had to go to an IPO [initial public offering], take on more shareholders or sell, and so we sold.” And she says put simply, “it was an offer that we couldn’t refuse”.
Today Kim Crawford Wines, owned by US company Constellation Wines, is massive. It produces more than a million cases annually and is the biggest selling sauvignon blanc in America and Canada. “The new owners are doing a good job. It is doing fantastically well,” she says.
Back in the game
After selling their stake in the business the Crawfords fell off the radar for a few years, quietly investing money in smaller New Zealand businesses. But when the global financial crisis hit they had to roll up their sleeves and plan their next move.
Returning to the industry wasn’t a hard decision to make. “It is the industry we both love – Kim is a winemaker and it’s his passion.”
But this time around they have taken a totally different approach, having money, experience and a certain clout in the industry has influenced this, but Erica’s new philosophy and approach to wine making has had the biggest impact.
Loveblock is certified organic, made in small quantities, boutique and at a premium price point – everything that the old brand was not. But perhaps the biggest difference is that they now own land, something they never had with Kim Crawford Wines. They are responsible for their two vineyards, Loveblock and Someone’s Darling in Central Otago and it’s a responsibility they take very seriously.
From the humble posy of weeds and dandelions which adorn the label, to the much loved and tended certified organic vines at the heart of the operation, everything about this new brand is different. “Earthy, mother, and honest,” Erica says Loveblock is a direct contrast to the former sleek, urban brand of bygone times.
Despite being an industry leader, the launch of Loveblock didn’t come without a few pre-launch jitters. Erica says both Kim and her were most definitely nervous, largely because the wine style is so different to what they did before. “We were very nervous to see what sort of reception we were going to receive.” But those nerves were quickly quelled when Loveblock’s five varieties were picked up for distribution by an American distributor, Terlato Wines.
“The first thing we did before we even made a drop of wine was find a distribution partner to work with. It took us about three years, but we eventually found the right one and it’s going really well.”
Working with the Italian family business means they are capable of exporting into the US market, which is typically tough to enter due to its complicated regulations. The first wines were launched in the US in April 2013 and the New Zealand launch followed a couple of months later.
In this calendar year to date it has exported about 18,000 cases of wines, 90 percent of which to the US, their biggest customer. Smaller volumes are also sent to Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
She aims to make Loveblock more widely available in New Zealand, but with more than 700 brands on the New Zealand market, they are up against extremely stiff competition. A lot of the bigger players with large marketing budgets dominate supermarkets shelves, leaving smaller brands to clamber for space.
Despite the challenges to take a bigger stake in the local market Loveblock is on the up and up. Now two and a half years into business the fruits of their labour are beginning to show. “We are actually ahead of what can ordinarily be expected from a small winery. I think our success is down to our previous relationships. We had three states in America that took direct imports, rather than being channelled through California and that doesn’t just happen.”
Live your values
Erica says when they first entered the industry almost 20 years ago the market was young. “We had to explain where New Zealand is to every offshore person we dealt with, so it had a pioneering feel about it.” That pioneering feel is nothing more than a distant memory in today’s glutted market, but Erica and Kim are still managing to make pioneering moves in the industry, just in a different way.
Loveblock Wine is certified organic by BioGro New Zealand, one of just a handful of wineries in the country to hold this title. “There is a lot of work involved in getting certified and huge commitment and labour of love.” But it was a commitment and an ethical decision Erica was confident she needed to make.
Her awareness of a green, organic lifestyle came about rather abruptly in her early thirties. Erica was in a car accident and during a medical check-up after the accident, it was discovered her heart was struggling. “The doctors said my heart was presenting like a 55 year old highly stressed businessman. The hard, fast, stressful lifestyle she was living with the new business and young family had taken its toll.
“So I had to make some changes.” Cutting out additives was the first move and looking at ingredients on packages was next – eventually she eliminated packet and tin foods altogether. She also adopted a slower, almost relaxed, approach to life. “The difference that made to my state of mind was quite amazing.”
Next Erica made the switch to natural skin care products and eco-friendly cleaning products that It was a logical transition to take the natural, organic philosophy to the vineyard. It’s an opportunity to ‘live your values’ for me. have fewer chemicals in them. “You may have to scrub a bit harder, but you also lose a few extra calories at the same time!
“It was a logical transition to take the natural, organic philosophy to the vineyard. It’s an opportunity to ‘live your values’ for me.”
It may have been a “logical transition,” but getting certified has come with its challenges. Running an organic vineyard implies that no chemical fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides have been used. “That makes you a lot more vulnerable to pests and disease and we have certainly felt the effect of that.”
Loveblock uses a holistic system seeking co-operation with nature and relies on an understanding of the ecological processes to achieve rich, robust soil and plants. It incorporates methods that are centuries old, such as composting to promote biodiversity, a resident population of beneficial insects to control pests and sheep and cows are used to nibble the weeds under the vines.
Since converting the vineyard to organic in 2008, Erica says she has noticed an increase of awareness among other wineries and grape growers around organic practises. “There is a change coming about, we’ve seen grape growers reduce the amount of chemical input, moving away from the traditional full chemical method. People are beginning to get it and low impact growing is gaining momentum.
“I think there is also a ground swell from consumers as they become more interested in where their products are coming from and how they are made.”
The pinnacle of Erica’s career was the sale of Kim Crawford Wines and she says she is happy to leave it that way. Rather than looking to top her past accomplishment Erica is finding career success in quality not quantity. “We certainly don’t want to grow into a big brand again,” she says.
“This time we decided we are only going to produce wine from the estate to maintain the quality. Our estate can produce some 60,000 cases, unless we buy more land, so that’s where we’ll cap it.”
By Laura Baker | Images courtesy of Chris Dillon. www.dillon.co.nz