Destiny Bay Vineyard

I have the very pleasure of being friends with the owner/winemaker of one of the top wineries in New Zealand, Sean Spratt of Destiny Bay.

Located on the idyllic island of Waiheke, New Zealand, Destiny Bay is something truly special indeed. Established in 2000, it is a young vineyard by the world's standards, but have already achieved a distinctive name for itself on both a national and international platform. Destiny Bay grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot from top-grade clones selected from premium wine districts around the world.

It is also the first fully accredited “Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand” vineyard and winery on Waiheke island, and emphasizes old world traditions with new world techniques, resulting in memorable wines that truly stand out from the crowd. I know, I've tried them.

A few years back, I had the chance to spend a day at the vineyard helping out with harvesting, sorting, and probably making more of a nuisance of myself with my questions than actually being productive, but Sean was kind enough to put up with me, answer my questions, let me take my gazillion pictures while admiring the spectacular view, and after all that, taste some of his vintages, without actually doing all that much work - a fact which I still feel a little guilty about. Only a little.

Wine is perhaps THE greatest passion of my life, and when you love something so much, it is only natural that you want to discover all about it - know how it is made, why it was made that way, the history and tradition behind it, the philosophy and passion of the person who made it.

I created this 'Behind the Brand' series to fulfill this need/desire, not just within the wine industry, but to get to know the people that are the reason why the things we love exist - because of their love, their initiation, their hard work and dedication and their passion for their craft. I'm so happy that Sean has obliged to be the pioneer and agreed to answer some questions about his wines, his work, and how they became to be. Thanks Sean!

Meet - Sean Spratt of Destiny Bay

What attracted you to winemaking?

I grew up in California in the 1970's and 1980's under the shadow of some of the iconic California wineries, most notably, Ridge in Santa Cruz. Mostly I was inspired by my grandfather who was an artist and an avid collector of wines. In my early teens he cultivated an interest in wine and by my 20's I was trying everything from German Rieslings to great California Bordeaux-style blends. Furthermore, my mother was a microbiologist and chemistry major and I picked up her knack for Chemistry in school as it became my star subject. However, in high-school I was encouraged to pursue Chemistry with the goal of getting a degree in Chemical Engineering and pursuing a job in the Pharamceutical or Petroleum industry. This had zero appeal to me, so I pursued my love the arts, specifically stage, and pursued a degree in Theatre Arts. One of the last classes I took before graduating was a course called the World of Wine where I discovered that you could actually get a degree in winemaking and it was an excellent course of study for those with an aptitude for Chemistry. I vividly remember thinking to myself, "Why didn't anyone tell me this when I was in high-school? This would have been perfect for me?!? Oh well....maybe in another life...". Little did I know what the future held at that time.

Why did you choose the island of Waiheke to grow your vines? 

We didn't. The vineyard chose us. I know, it sounds a little cliche, but it's true. My parents emigrated to NZ in 2000 and fell in love with Waiheke and bought some property to build a home. There were a few other sections of undeveloped land adjacent to their property and they decided to purchase them as well. My mother suggested that maybe they could plant a few vines and make wine in the garage. They spoke with the folks at UC Davis' wine department and got the name of a well-respected viticulturist in NZ/Australia who we enlisted to survey the site to determine if it was suitable to grape growing. The assessment was that it was not a good site to grapes -- it was a FANTASTIC site to grow grapes (especially Cabernet Sauvignon). Upon learning this, my father asked me I would have had any interest in being involved in a vineyard/winery project and I relayed to him the story I just told you about my World of Wine class. It all just seemed like it was destined to be, and hence, the vineyard and name Destiny Bay was born.

What do you like best about what you do?

The blend of art and science in Winemaking is what appeals to me the most. There is a mountain of research and technology to delve into with winemaking and this really appeals to my inner-geek. However, you can't make wine according to a text book. Vineyards and vintages are unpredictable. Weather is different each year and grapes perform differently in one part of the vineyard then another. So you have to have a sense of vision and style for your wines and, at a certain point, throw out the textbooks and start listening to your palate and what the vineyard wants to produce.

How do you think NZ wines, and Destiny Bay in particular, compare to other new world wines? 

Well, I think you have NZ wines, then I think you have Waiheke wines and then I think you have Destiny Bay. New Zealand produces less than 1% of the world wine supply. Waiheke is a drop-in-the-bucket for New Zealand. So Waiheke wines, and Destiny Bay, are exceedingly rare. In terms of style, I think the new world vs. old world debate is really falling away now, too. So many of the great Chateau are right on the cutting edge of winemaking and this is largely a product of the innovations in 'new world' regions raising the bar in terms of quality. So I think the separation between 'old world' and 'new world' is a really blurry line these days. Our inspiration is classic Bordeaux blending techniques, but we use every tool available to ensure our quality standards are the highest in the world. As a result, our wines have surprised and confused wine critics like Gerard Basset (OBE, MS, MW, Wine MBA) who said in a blind tasting he would have picked our 2007 Magna Praemia as a First Growth.

What are the challenges/what has surprised you as a winemaker in Auckland? 

Wine is a fiercely legislated product that has numerous trade protection barriers erected around it. It is incredibly challenging for a small producer to export wine to the EU for example. We once had a bottle of wine get sent back and forth 3 times on plane between NZ and Valencia, Spain before our logistics company told us they simply could not figure out how to deliver this one bottle of wine that was being sent as a sample.

As far as Auckland goes, not much. The biggest issues in Auckland are cost related. Everything is more expensive here.

What is your winemaking philosophy, that is, what are you trying to achieve with your wines?

The vineyard really calls most of the shots. However, from winemaking standpoint our goal is to shepherd the grapes from wine to bottle and let the vineyard express itself. That is why we are true Single-Vineyard Estate Bottled winery. Not a single grape goes more than 500 meters from the vine to the bottle. Our level of hand picking and sorting of grapes borders on obsessive so we can express fruit characters to their full potential and our ultimate goal is to produce a wine that is elegant, balanced, with great aroma, length of palate and cellaring potential.

Destiny Bay is currently recognized as one of New Zealand's most expensive wine brands, and is achieving star status on a national and international platform. Did this surprise you? What are your plans from here?

It was a little nerve wracking those first few years. We knew the vineyard had the potential, but you just never know how things are going to come out. Was I surprised that we are able to make a world-class wine? Not really. I knew we had a great viticultural, winemaking and business team and a great vineyard. While we were new to this business the people involved were experts in their fields so we had over 100 years of combined experience dedicated to getting Destiny Bay started on the right foot. What did surprise me was being able to get the attention of folks like Gerard Basset, The Wine Advocate, and other M.W.'s like Bob Campbell. We are now consistently the highest rated Cabernet blend producer in New Zealand according to rankings and M.W. Bob Campbell just rated our 2010 Magna Praemia 98/100.

Our plans? Keep doing what we are doing. By being a specialist producer of Cabernet blends we haven't allowed ourselves to get distracted with restaurants or producing eight different wines and I think that is as big a key to our success as any. However, you never know what the future might hold. What this space. ;-)


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