The story of how the Wooing Tree Vineyard came into being and how it has since flourished to become one of New Zealand’s top wineries is one of ingenuity and vision, of stepping off the traditional path and pioneering new ways of dong things in a changing world.
It is this same innovative, forward-thinking enterprise that is now driving its founders to take their prized vineyard in a new direction that they hope will not only transform their business, but also help the town of Cromwell grow into a tourism hub for the region.
Like many of us who visit Central Otago, Thea and Steve Farquarson were wooed by its charm, its lifestyle options, and its raw beauty, vowing one day to make this magical part of the world home. Unlike most of us, they acted on their impulse and made plans to ‘do something different’ with their lives.
Their plans for a vineyard were hatched in back in early 2001, when they were both working in IT and living in London. Pooling their resources with Steve’s sister and brother-in-law, who, coincidentally were also in IT, but living in Wellington, the four of them committed to buy their first vines.
“Demand was high at the time, so we had to buy the vines before we had the land,” says Steve. “We were looking for something on a slope – to avoid frost in winter – but couldn’t find any. Time was ticking. The vines needed to be planted out before October. In the end, we got a bit desperate and bought the land in July 2001.”
Now all Steve needed to do was learn how to make wine. How hard could that be, living in Brighton?
“I Googled wine schools and, low and behold, there was one near us – Plumpton College – so I resigned from my job and took on a full-time course in Viticulture. I started the course at about the same time as our vines were being planted in Otago.”
In between travelling back and forth the his course in the UK and planting and getting work experience in New Zealand, Steve set up a wine import and distribution company, selling NZ wine into the UK market. It was one of the best things they did, he says, because it gave them a really good base understanding about the sales and distribution process – and how hard it actually was to sell wine.
“During that time, we bought some clean-skin wine and put our Wooing Tree labels on it,” which is quite common practice, he says. “So we had the Wooing Tree brand of wine out in the market before we’d actually produced wine from our vineyard.”
Wooing Tree’s first actual vintage was 2005, two years after they’d launched the label. (Read the story of how the vineyard’s name came about below).
We had a great first harvest. We started winning all these gold medals, plus the Air NZ Trophy for top red wine in NZ – which is like the Oscars of the wine industry. All this in our first year."
“I remember sitting down thinking if we got three stars from Cuisine, we’d be delighted. We ended up with five stars, and second top Pinot Noir in the country."
Over the years, Wooing Tree has continued to do all its own marketing and distribution, and it’s still family owned and run. Production since has skyrocketed from 3,000 cases in their first year to 14,000 cases this year.
But it hasn’t always been easy, says Steve. “During the GFC there was over supply of wine, which hit a lot of independent wineries hard. We survived because we worked the business ourselves and did our own distribution through cellar door, direct to the consumer and handled our own exports to the international market.”
And it’s not been all Pinot. With a reputation for doing things differently, a few years back, before it became ‘fashionable’, Steve decided to give rosé a go. “People said to me, what are you doing wasting good grapes on a rosé – but I’d seen how popular rosé was over in the UK. So we began making a rosé from red grapes – we were ahead of our time there,” he laughs. “Also, we didn’t have a white wine, so we made a white wine from our pinot noir grapes – Blondie. And that’s been a huge success for us, winning the NZ Innovation of Winemaking trophy.”
Innovation, belief and hard work have been the three cornerstones of Wooing Tree’s success. And with their latest venture, the Farquharsons have come up with an ambitious project that will test them in all three departments. Discover more about this exciting new project here.
the wooing tree
The Wooing Tree Vineyard is named after the iconic tree that sits proudly in the middle of its vines. The story of the tree, however, goes back well before any wine flowed from surrounding land, to a time when it was a popular place for locals of all ages to woo their lovers, laying claim to the beginning of many romances, marriages… and even children.
When Stephen and Thea Farquharson purchased the land, including the fabled tree, they had no knowledge of it’s history and unwittingly gave permission for the Wooing Tree, along with a number of others, to be removed to make way for the new vineyard. The ensuing backlash from Cromwell locals was understandable, given the tree’s connection to the town. The story goes that local orchardist John Webb pleaded the tree’s future, and the new owners were sympathetic to his appeal, understanding the importance of the both tree and keeping on side with the locals. Not only was the decision made to save the tree for many more woos to come, but they appropriately named their vineyard the Wooing Tree.