A proud family of winegrowers

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 operation.

''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 goal.

''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 said.

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 conflict.

''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 said.

Sarah finds great inspiration in being surrounded by family members.

''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 of pride.

''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 relatives.

''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 Wanaka community.

''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 heavy challenges.''

- lucy.ibbotson@odt.co.nz