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DEVOUT LOVERS OF WINE

by Sarah Heller

Owning a vineyard is the wine lover’s ultimate dream. The Hall-Jones’ shared how they
made a success of their wine business in New Zealand and France by pure enthusiasm.

 

Domaine Thomson’s vineyard in New Zealand, Central Otago

(Domaine Thomson’s vineyard in New Zealand, Central Otago. With the bright sky spreading above the Central Otago vineyard, the dry, sunny climate produces perfect Pinot for quality wine. Assurances from local pioneers like Rolfe Mills of Rippon suggested that they had found a potentially great Pinot site in New Zealand.)

Anyone who’s ever experienced the concrete maze of Hong Kong – its unblinking skyline, its bumper-car harbour – will agree it’s one of the world’s most exciting cities to live and work in. And yet who among Hong Kongers has not fantasized about some quiet, bucolic spot with bluer skies, slower days and bumbling vines in place of bustling crowds? For David and PM Hall-Jones, Hong Kong – which they and their sons William (21) and Hugh (16) call home – works partly by virtue of its equidistance from their two other homes in Central Otago and Gevrey-Chambertin. 

David and PM Hall-Jones

(David and PM Hall-Jones)

“You can be on a plane in the evening and kicking the dirt in either vineyard by midday the following day,” says David. Star litigator David and PM, who works in a bank, first plunged into vineyard ownership in 1999 after a successful half-century between them in Asia’s World City, buying 14 hectares in David’s native New Zealand. For David the choice was obvious – John Turnbull Thomson, the historical Surveyor Thomson for whom their property is named and David’s great, great-grandfather, was the first European to lay eyes on and paint Lake Wanaka, 40 minutes up the road from their vineyard today. “When we started we knew absolutely nothing except what we liked to drink, which was Pinot Noir,” says PM, whose father introduced her to Nuits-Saint-Georges at 15, and who David describes as “essentially French, except she was born in Singapore.” 

However, like all who worship at Pinot Noir’s altar, the Hall-Jones’ heard Burgundy calling. David describes their first visit to Gevrey, where they would buy and renovate a house in 2003: “I said to PM, ‘I feel like I’m home.’” He sees similarities between the two regions everywhere: the clouds; the lavender, rosemary, cherry trees; the summer nights leavened by sounds of neighbours bantering over a barbecue. The Hall-Jones’ integration into sometimes parochial Burgundy is a case of cultural sensitivity and luck. “The fact that we all speak French is big,” David says, “if you come in with a big check book and behave a certain way, that doesn’t go down well.” PM jokes that for the neighbours they and their Singaporean-Kiwi boys are to some extent “exotic objects of fascination.” However, even for the most welcome newcomers, acquiring a parcel of vines is tricky. The Hall-Jones’ had owned their house for a decade when their friend Gerard Quivy, now their winemaker at Les Evocelles, called: an elderly village lady had died and bequeathed her vines to her domestic helper in thanks and they were now for sale. Quivy said “if you want to buy these vines you need to say now; tomorrow they’ll be sold.” They agreed in 15 minutes, sight unseen. If this seems rash, the Hall-Jones’ don’t see it that way: “I don’t see wine as an investment in money terms,” says PM “you go into this because you really love wine or the lifestyle it brings.” David agrees, advising anyone dreaming of vineyard ownership to lay foundations for the long-term instead of chasing short-term profitability or rapid expansion. 

Central Otago is dominated by northeast mountain ranges

(Central Otago is dominated by northeast mountain ranges)

the biodynamic team in New Zealand

(the biodynamic team in New Zealand)

a barrel of Suveyor Thomson Pinot Noir from Central Otago

(a barrel of Suveyor Thomson Pinot Noir from Central Otago)

Still, it is in the truest sense a family business. The boys pour wine at events in both countries (Hugh’s been involved since he was nine), the couple try to join every harvest and visit for several weeks in the off-seasons, monitoring every detail of the businesses remotely. “If you build it from scratch, it’s much more difficult than if you inherit it,” says PM. David especially admires PM’s natural understanding of marketing. Together, they flip through their new brochure, PM noting which photos they each took, David highlighting lovingly drawn maps that would make Surveyor Thomson proud. “Whatever you do, it has to be personal,” says David. The new logo for Domaine Thomson – their company that owns both Surveyor Thomson and Les Evocelles – features a Kiwi bird (for David), the Surveyor’s theodolite, a cockerel for France (also David’s nickname for PM, “Chook”) and the scallop shell of Gevrey-Chambertin, found on the mantelpiece of their Gevrey home. The question of whether the wines have ended up being similar draws bemused looks. “The style we’re after in Otago is lighter and more elegant. You could call that “Burgundian,” but it’s just wine that goes well with food. That’s where it all starts for us,” says David. 

Les Evocelles in Burgundy in the morning

(Les Evocelles in Burgundy in the morning)

apple-fed cows in New Zealand

(apple-fed cows in New Zealand)

the scallop shell in their Burgundy home

(the scallop shell in their Burgundy home)

Besides its appealing end product, viticulture is something both have embraced. PM, an avid gardener, says she did extensive research on biodynamics, to which they converted two years ago after two of organics. They now raise apple-fed cows, dynamize preparations and even have an unfortunate story about a stag’s bladder and an inflatable dinghy to tell. PM isn’t devout, but she thinks biodynamics has made the wine more “complex and interesting.” As a trout fisherman and chamois hunter, David’s attitude to natural farming is pragmatic: “people think we’re weirdo hippies because we’re biodynamic, but the weirdoes are the ones spraying blooming chemicals all over their vines!” Underpinning it all seems to be the boys’ relationship to the oases their parents have built, though David says he would never want them to feel pressured to join the business. Having raised their boys in a high-rise Hong Kong flat, David says he cherishes memories like that of six year-old Hugh splashing through the puddles with his gumboots on, having just arrived at Surveyor Thomson. Turning, he looked up at David and said “you know Dad, it’s great to be back among the vines.”