Uncorking problems, rather than bottling them up, is the
answer to resolving rifts between relatives who work together
on a daily basis, Sarah Mills tells reporter Lucy Ibbotson.
The wine analogy is a fitting one for the Mills family, who
founded Wanaka's Rippon Vineyard 30 years ago and still carry
forward a century-old family legacy.
The land on which Rippon vineyard sits on the western flank
of the Upper Clutha Basin, overlooking Lake Wanaka, forms
part of the once vast Wanaka Station, bought by businessman
and philanthropist Sir Percy Sargood in 1912.
His grandson, Rolfe Mills, who had long been assessing the
land's potential for quality grape production, realised his
vision in 1982, when he planted the first commercial vines at
Rippon with wife Lois.
Rolfe died in 2000, but today, four of his children are
working on the property - David (58), from his marriage to
first wife Myra, and Sarah (41), Nick (39) and Charlie (34)
from his marriage to Lois (63), who still lives on the land.
Nick's wife, Jo, also works for the company. The land itself
is the final, and perhaps most important, part of the family
''That's the key family member that I feel like I'm working
with,'' general manager or ''team captain'', Nick said.
Rippon also has four other full-time staff, who are ''pretty
much the glue that holds the family together'', and
considered honorary family members.
Having staff members from outside the family was vital or
''we'd all go mad'', Nick said.
''It would be horrific if it was just family ... you need
fresh thought and directives.''
Asked for the family's job titles, Nick said it was difficult
to box anyone into a specific role.
''We don't do titles, because we're winegrowers and that is a
single craft and so ... we're all working towards the same
''We all do a bit of everything. There are sort of parts of
the company's structure that we all focus on a little bit
more, but we're all happy and comfortable in any of the other
ones as well.''
Pressed for a description of each person's area of expertise,
he explains his own position requires a large amount of
international travel as the ''face of the brand'' to promote
and grow the business. It is a business he knows inside out,
given he ''pretty much grew up with the vines'' and, like his
siblings, worked on the vineyard during his youth.
Rolfe gave his ''spirit'' to Rippon and to its people and
Nick hopes he is fulfilling that role to some extent.
''There's an ethic and a culture that permeates throughout
the property because of [Rolfe's contribution].''
The vineyard's machinery is maintained by qualified mechanic
David, or ''Bones'', as he is known, who is also property
manager and looks after everything non vine-related.
Charlie - the vineyard manager until taking leave to have
children - is vineyard supervisor and lead vineyard hand, and
older sister Sarah, a qualified chef, does ''odds and sods''
around the property, including cooking for visiting groups
and general labouring.
Jo, who joined the team six years ago, is the business and
export manager, while Lois still has an active role as
co-founder and director of the company, vineyard host, Rippon
Hall promoter and carer for her six grandchildren, the
fifth-generation family members on the land.
''Rolfe was the dreamer and the visionary of winegrowing at
Rippon and Central Otago ... to a large degree, but Lois
totally created the business Rippon Vineyard and Winery
Ltd,'' Nick said.
These days, Lois spends Wanaka's winter months in France, and
the rest of the year lives in the family homestead on the
hill at Rippon, overlooking the vineyard.
''It's my investment, so I need to keep an eye on it,'' she
After handing over the company reins to the next generation
in 2006, she remained on for a ''gestation period'' of about
nine months to pass on her knowledge, but since then she has
been determined to let her children do things their way.
''I see so many families who try to work together where the
previous generation stays on and looks over their shoulder
and it doesn't allow the next generation to spread their
wings and fly and make their own mistakes,'' Lois said.
She encouraged a shift from talking about the vineyard's past
to focusing on its future.
''The pioneering stage of the Central Otago wine industry had
finished, so it was getting a bit old hat hearing the same
story all the time.''
While the Mills' workplace dynamics are generally positive,
like any family, they have less patience with one another
than the ''neutral'' staff, according to Nick.
''We're all different people and we all have different but
equally important visions ... there's always going to be some
''It doesn't always gel, it doesn't always come together, but
I think that's the magic of it. There's always some tension,
but I think that's important. It's not lax and lazy; that
tension keeps the team strong.''
Charlie lives in a cottage on the property, while David,
Sarah, Nick and Jo live elsewhere in Wanaka. For Nick and Jo,
having their home life away from the vineyard is important.
''For better or worse, my direct siblings, and Bones for that
matter, are so insanely rooted to this earth and, for most of
our lives, have been defined by this earth,'' Nick said.
''Jo coming along meant I could redefine myself away from the
property ... I feel like I'm coming to work, rather than just
living another day.''
Jo describes working with her husband and in-laws as a
wonderful way of life.
''Without sounding all kind of chocolate-boxy, when it's
family, you've got a greater sense of purpose and
direction,'' she says.
''And, at the end of each day, you don't have to say `How was
your day dear?'''The biggest challenge has been keeping work
away from home, ''but there's nothing like children to make
that a necessity''.
Being part of a family business also allows Jo, Sarah and
Charlie to work around the needs of their children, who spend
plenty of time at Rippon.
''This is their playground as well - the whole vineyard,'' Jo
Sarah finds great inspiration in being surrounded by family
''You can get to higher heights ... having people who believe
in you, that family love.''
For Charlie, Rippon's long family history is a great source
''I really like that part of it. That we can say we've been
here 100 years and, hopefully, we'll be here for 100 more
and, as we see our kids running around and being part of it,
you kind of see that continuity.''
The two sisters share a particularly close bond.
''Even though there's six years between us, I would certainly
say that she's probably one of my best friends in the
world,'' Sarah said of Charlie.
The women agree with Nick that bringing different ages, ideas
and attitudes together also brings occasional ''gripes''
between family members.
''But, on the whole, I think that we are a communicative
family, so I think that when there is hiccups we do air them,
rather than bottle them. The cork's pulled,'' Sarah said.
Half-brother David has a cheekier outlook on working with
''Being family, you can tell them off,'' he said. He has been
working on the vineyard since 1998, after shifting south from
Christchurch, and he has no plans to give up his dream job.
''I wouldn't trade it for anything.''
Nick said Rolfe and Lois never pushed their children into the
business, nor would he do so with his own children. But
having them or his siblings' children choose to continue the
legacy would be the ideal outcome.
''I think you bring them up on this land and nurture the same
relationship with the land. It's only natural they're going
to fall in love with it and want to nurture and care for it
the same as we do.
''But ... the key goal is just to get it right in our
generation ... to maintain and strengthen the land and its
ability to look after us.''
He hopes the land at Rippon can be kept as it is ''in
perpetuity'' for future generations of the family and the
''Heritage-wise, it's one of the last vestiges of Wanaka
Station ... I'd like to be able to maintain its pastoral
values into the future, but obviously that comes with some