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Their goat enterprise was successful but both Rolfe and Lois were more interested in their vines. To help them decide if they would commit to producing wine commercially,
Summer evening at Rippon, they spent 1981 living and working on a vineyard in France and took their children with
Lake Wanaka. Rippon them. They chose the village of Sigoules about 7 kilometres from Montbazillac and 15 kilometres from Bergerac, east of the elite appellations of Bordeaux. The two oldest children were enrolled in the local school and became fluent in French, an experience that was later to benefit Nick professionally.
This sojourn convinced Rolfe and Lois to keep developing Rippon although it also alerted them to the depth of the commitment required to carve out a successful life in wine. Rolfe, by then 57, was later to declare in a discussion with journalist Ric Oram:
Time beat me. When I came back from France I realised that winemaking is not a hobby but a skilled profession. Difficulties there were, but not really in the growing of the grapes nor the ripening of them. The only problem was you cannot change overnight, throw your collar and tie away and become a viticulturist.
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But time did not beat the Mills family. Rolfe and Lois continued to develop Rippon and its reputation. Their children extended it.
Rolfe and Lois were slow to make wines in commercial quantities, but after their experience in France, they recognised the need to take technical advice. In 1985 they arranged to send 200 kilograms of grapes north to the Te Kauwhata Viticultural
Research Station to be made into wine and assessed professionally. They left their Muller Thurgau on the vines as long as possible to reach optimal ripeness but lost much of the crop to birds. Not to be thwarted, the following year they netted the vines and their first crop of Muller Thurgau was successfully fermented and bottled at Te Kauwhata where Rainer Eschenbruch endorsed the quality of the grapes and the resulting wine. This confirmation convinced them to employ Tony Bish from Hawke’s Bay as their first winemaker in 1986. They went on to employ a series of professional winemakers many of whom were also knowledgeable viticulturists (Table 8.6), building an enviable reputation for their wines in the process.
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