Joelle Thomson

Writer, author, journalist

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Tuesday wine talk with Judy Finn of Neudorf Vineyards

Weekly wine talk is usually published every Friday but this week’s appears today due to the following week being on annual leave (at a yoga and fasting retreat).

This great interview with Judy Finn took place today but is based on over two decades of having known and followed the wines that she and her partner in life and in wine, Tim Finn, produce in Nelson.
This high achieving couple own Neudorf Vineyards, which they  founded in 1978 in Nelson's Moutere Hills, an enclave of excellence when it comes to Chardonnay, aromatic whites and Pinot Noir, but in a region that Judy describes as being "deeply unfashionable when we started here".

Survival is her greatest achievement, particularly given the lack of support she felt when the pair first started out in wine. “Nobody believed in what we were doing and we were seen as deeply strange. People told us it was bizarre that we would come here to make wine. We were seen as hippies…”

This couple’s quest for excellence cast a new light on Nelson wine and this is Judy’s story, which incorporates much of Tim’s story too. This interview is based on the Proust questionnaire.
The wine that set her palate and mind on a different path was a bottle of burgundy gifted by their United Kingdom distributor, Roy Richards, of Richards Walford; a company that was acquired by the 300 year old wine merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd, because neither Richards nor his business partner, Mark Walford, had a successor.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Surviving. When we planted the vineyard in 1978, nobody thought it was possible. We were considered quite mad. The Rural Bank wouldn’t lend us any money and we’re growing grapes in a region that is not considered fashionable. We only ever wanted to make great wine so none of that was easy from being seen as mad to other people’s perceptions of region.

What is your current state of mind?
Relieved. I feel so relieved to have Todd as our winemaker and general manager and to have Rosie (our daughter) in charge of sales, marketing and exports. She is also a director of the company.
I feel quite optimistic most days, despite the state of things right now with Ukraine, Covid and climate change. I am a real news junkie but I have decided for my mental health to dial it back a bit. I was thrilled today to hear Chris Luxon call Putin unhinged.

What is your favourite part of the winemaking process?
What I really love is walking into the winery and smelling it. I treasure that smell of wine as it’s being made.

Do you have a most treasured wine?
I do actually. Roy Richards is our distributor in the United Kingdom and his favourite wines are Burgundy and German Riesling and the wine writer, Tim Atkin, showed him some of our wines many moons ago. Roy responded by saying that he never thought he would have an Antipodean wine but he took us on and way back, over 30 years ago now, he sent me a bottle of Henri Jayer, one of his producers. That bottle would be worth somewhere close to $10,000 today.
The day that we opened that bottle, we realised that we were now dealing in a stratospheric side of the wine industry. It was a pivotal moment.

Where is your favourite wine region?
I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for sub regions. A lot of people would say Burgundy but I’d say Saint-Aubin. The wines are a lot more affordable than most in Burgundy and the quality is very good.

When and where are you at your happiest?
That’s easy. We’ve got a bach in the middle of the Abel Tasman. There’s no cell phone coverage, no electricity and no easy access so it’s not a second home. It really is a bach. We have to go in by boat. Tim will be out fishing with Rosie and I’ll be sitting with a crossword and a book. Bliss.
Rosie was in a backpack when we were building it. We’ve now got solar panels and it is my absolute favourite place.

What do you most dislike in wine?
Inelegance. Too much sugar, too much oak or anything where the wine doesn’t flow. These days there is not a lot of wine out there that is undrinkable but there is also not a lot of wine out there that has a strong sense of flow.

What is your greatest fear? 
Losing basic abilities. Losing the ability to walk. The things you worry about as you age are very physical things. Very simple things.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Books and art. I love reading. I love William Boyd and I have a group of friends who will read a lot so there is a constant movement of books that go round. I was lucky. Tim gave me a beautiful piece of art by Reuben Paterson for my 70th birthday. I’ve been buying art for most of my life but never to invest in it, purely buying bits that I like. Tim loves art as well so he’s got a good eye.

What is your greatest regret?

Letting Rosie Finn drop French. She was quite good at it and I was never a mother who said “I don’t care that you don’t like it but you’re going to stick with it” so she dropped it and now she works in the wine world, I think it would be so good if she could speak French.

What talent would you most like to have?

I’d like to be able to sing and I can’t.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

I don’t think that as New Zealanders we can have any idea of what the lowest depth of misery is. I grew up in an era where I think my generation was quite spoilt. I don’t think I can extend my mind to visualise what the lowest depth of misery really looks like.

What trait do you most deplore in yourself?

I think I have a reputation for some forms of excess. All the obvious ones. I probably eat too much and on occasion I have drunk too much. I have enjoyed my life but if I look back, I wouldn’t mind being a size 8.

What do you most value in your friends?

A sense of humour and tolerance.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Just a small one. If someone says “Would you like a glass of Riesling?”, I’ll say, “Oh yes, just a small one. Thanks.”

What is your favourite meal?

Raw fish. I love ceviche, sashimi, raw scallops, raw oysters.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing what do you think it would be?

I’ve got a cat that was Rosie’s rescue cat from the SPCA, which we adopted because she lives on a busy road. This cat has a life of luxury and a family that spoils him but ironically he’s still a total asshole. I like his style. He doesn’t care. He knows he’ll get fed and cuddled when it suits him and he does his own thing the rest of the time.
Cats have just got so much style.
I’d like to be Basil.