Wine business at home in warehouse precinct

Paul Williams outside his business, Wine Freedom, in Water St. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Paul Williams outside his business, Wine Freedom, in Water St. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Paul Williams searched for 11 months to find the right premises for his new wine business.

But it was not until he walked into the historic NMA building in Dunedin's warehouse heritage precinct that he ''fell in love''.

While the internet was going to be the ''voice'' for Wine Freedom, the business needed to have a strong home and the NMA building fitted the bill.

Describing it as a ''charm'', he said it was probably one of the more indulgent buildings built in the 1880s period.

The building, owned by Stephen Macknight, had previously been refurbished and earthquake-strengthened. It had an ''incredible history'' and a lot of Dunedin residents had memories of it, Mr Williams said.

He had to gain consent from the Dunedin City Council to establish the new venture, as the proposal went against district plan rules, which zoned the Water St building for large-scale retail use.

The retail store, housed in part of the building, has been open for six weeks in what he described as a contemporary, clean and modern space.

Originally from Dunedin, Mr Williams left in the 1990s to follow a career in wine with Montana, working in Christchurch, Wellington and, most recently London.

His passion for the industry was whetted when he worked at Robbie Burns in Crawford St and started cleaning glasses when he was about 17. He then came under the tutelage of Peter Munslow.

During his two and-a-half years in London the idea for Wine Freedom was seeded and he returned to New Zealand two days before the first earthquake struck Christchurch in 2010.

Returning to his old hometown was purely a business decision, although it was a ''great treat'' to have his brother and sister in the city, he said.

The aim was to establish a business that served not only Dunedin but also outlying areas, through internet sales. While he had to first prove himself locally, the brand and set-up of the business was built to be transferable - ''it's a concept that could sit in any city and have some relevance'' - but that was down the track, as he had to seed a market first in Dunedin.

He believed he offered something new - ''a new business has to be innovative'' - and he felt his point of difference was the destination, his experience and his knowledge of what he had seen overseas. The response from the wine industry had been ''really, really positive''.

Wine Freedom was a place where wine and people were ''free to meet'' and he wanted to remove any snobbery associated with wine. A Friends of Freedom group had been established.

Mr Williams said it was not a fine wine store - ''I really dislike the term'' - and prices ranged from $10 to $400 a bottle.

A downstairs cellar could be used for tastings and as a distribution centre and event venue. Two or three tastings were planned a month, while there were also plans for Saturday afternoon festivals. He also hoped Central Otago winegrowers would use it as a venue.

Tastings provided ''a big interaction'' between himself and the wine community. As well as being educational, it allowed for people to come in and enjoy themselves.

''Wine is about a bit of a journey. It's got a really nice story,'' he said.

He was serious about the venture, saying he had not ''come down to invest for a hobby'' and a lot of planning and research had gone into it.

''It's nice to take a risk but it's nicer to take a calculated one. I want to do things properly,'' he said.

His two and a-half years spent overseas was ''incredibly important'' business-wise. It was a tough time to be in the industry. It was good at the start, when the market was growing and the industry was in a younger state, but then a lot more wine started being produced.

He was fortunate to havelaunched Montana in new markets. While new markets were great, they did require reasonable amounts of investment and time to get some traction.

New Zealand's wine industry was very young and he compared it with people from Alsace who were drinking wine from 1945. What was needed in New Zealand was vine age.

The industry should give itself a pat on the back and be very proud of itself and what it had achieved, although it should never rest on its laurels, he said.

Although he missed London ''terribly'', particularly its diversity, he loved being back in Dunedin and he believed the city had ''never been so comfortable with itself''.

He believed it was a good time for the city, although he felt that it needed to self-publicise more. He was also excited about the future of the warehouse precinct.

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