This is one job that doesn’t exist in Malaysia. Being a viticulturist means you take care of grapes, work with Mother Nature and make sure that each year, the vineyard provides the fruits that winemakers need to produce award winning wines. Jim White is the viticulturist for Cloudy Bay, producer of the award winning Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc that played a significant role in pinning New Zealand onto the world wine map.
Every year on the first of October, Cloudy Bay releases the year’s production and markets that hold the wine label would throw tasting events for the launch. This year in Malaysia, Jim travelled to Johor Bahru (JB) and Kuala Lumpur, meeting media and wine lovers, talking about the results of the year’s work and how the weather affected the grapes. We met Jim in Cava at Bangkung Row for luncheon. He had just arrived in KL after a 4-hour drive up from JB, looking dazed from the journey and the usual Friday traffic he had braved through.
I took a sip of the Sauvignon Blanc 2015, fruity, rich and fragrant, and just like how one of the guests described, passion fruit. The interview was arranged for pre-lunch so I approached Jim, introduced myself and asked him to pose for a photo. He’s a natural, didn’t take a jiffy for the shoot.
I didn’t come to ask about the 2016, it’s Cloudy Bay and it’s a done deal. I was pretty sure he was going to tell everyone the same story, and it would just be repeated if I were to ask about it. As limited as my knowledge is about farming, I knew Jim wouldn’t get a job doing what he does in Malaysia. I wanted to find a job equivalent to that standing: What kind of a farmer would you get in Malaysia that can mean deciding the sales result of a globally known brand and get to travel the world talking about it? There is no equivalent. Farming is not fancy in Malaysia.
Can you tell us about your job?
I am essentially in charge of the growing of the grapes that we make our wines with. I work from the science perspective and with Mother Nature, like the weather, the soil that kind of thing. Unlike growing other fruits, viticulture for grapes has a massive impact on the quality and style of wine. I work very closely with winemakers to interpret their desires. Ultimately, winemakers are my customers and I develop the vineyards into producing the grapes that will make the wine they want. That involves planting the right variety of grapes at the right places, and at the same time, work with or against Mother Nature in every different season to get that result.
Have you always been working for Cloudy Bay?
I have been with Cloudy Bay for 6 years. I originally started a business in Yarra Valley, Victoria and then I moved to Margaret River winery Cape Mentelle, working for a larger wine business for 12 years. The company had wineries in many countries around the world. This year will be my 20th harvest.
Did you always know that you would become a viticulturist?
In high school, I wanted to become a graphic designer. Then I realised I didn’t want to live in the city and had a dream to live off the lands and grow vegetables. In order to fulfil that, I needed to learn how to grow things and in order to buy a farm, I must get a reasonable job, so I went to study agriculture in Melbourne University. It was then that wine became a thing to me, a passion. A lightbulb moment came to me one day when I was having the perfect bottle of 1992 Mitchelton Cabernet Sauvignon: This is what I want to do, grow grapes for wine. It’s far more genuine when it’s about the taste and not about nice looking apples in the supermarket. So I started practising viticulture and learned a lot over time. Wine is incredibly complex, it comes from all around the world with over 100 grape varieties. You learn everyday about wine.
What’s the difference between what you do and farming?
Basically we are farmers for grapes. We are a bit more detailed and give more input to the vineyard so that we achieve a certain flavour and style. The difference might just be farmers are trying to grow lots and lots for yield. For example a farmer would want to grow many bananas and he wants the bananas to look very nice; for us we want to reduce the amount of grapes that we have so that we get more concentration of flavour and therefore make quality wine out of them.
Can you grow vineyards anywhere around the world?
There is typically a band where wine can be grown and produced. It can’t be too hot and has to be in a season where there is a real winter so there is a dormancy. But there are places in the tropical world where grapes are grown quite successfully, like in Bali, India, Thailand and the tropical area of South America where people make wines. I once helped out a vineyard just outside of Mumbai over a 4 to 5 year period. So, typically you need somewhere with weather similar to the Mediterranean climate. Not too much rain during the harvest but not too cold.
How about Malaysia?
Malaysia would be a struggle. Friends here have suggested Cameron Highlands but there will be problem with the rainfall. When it’s too wet there will be mold and diseases in the grapes, and we can’t get them to ripen.
Are there a lot of people doing what you do where you are from?
There are 25,000 hectares of vineyards in Marlborough where I am based, so there is demand for my kind of job at different levels. There are people who work on the vines with their hands, people who drive tractors, managers who look after particular parcels of the vineyards and there are people like me, who work closely with the winery as well as the vineyards.
You have chosen a career that you really love and have planned it since your university degree. What would your advice be for anyone who is starting off trying to find their career path?
You have to find what you love to do. Ultimately, you are going to be spending a lot of time doing it for the future. Finding something you love to do and gets you out of your bed that you are passionate about, makes everything far more enjoyable.