Joelle Thomson

Wine writer and award winning wine author

What I am drinking, reading and savouring each week


Friday wine with Ata Rangi's Helen Masters

Aromas of freshly fermenting grape juice float through the crisp morning air as the sun peeks through the misty clouds in Martinborough this morning and Helen Masters is busy heading up the winemaking at Ata Rangi, one of the first four wineries in this remote rural village in the Wairarapa.

Masters arrived at Ata Rangi in Martinborough in 1990, ideal timing to help over vintage when the founder Clive Paton and his partner, Phyll Pattie, had a new baby on their hands. It was Masters' gap year and she was interested in winemaking but had little idea of how it all worked so she wrote to one of the most highly rated wineries she could find. She describes her first year there as amazing and  formative and it led her to study food technology at Massey University, which was the popular choice of study for winemakers in those days.

The rest is history - or her story, as is the case here. Meet Helen Masters.

The weekly wine interview on this website is inspired by the Proust questionnaire.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Making great wines consistently, year to year.

What is your current state of mind?
Full of excited anticipation for harvest but with a measure of concern that we will not have enough staff due to covid to be able to harvest the fruit in a timely manner.  So much work has gone into growing the fruit all year and we have a small window bring the fruit in and do justice by it.

What is your favourite part of winemaking?

Seeing the fruit that has been carefully grown all year naturally transform into wine over the harvest period.  Harvest is exciting, dynamic and a time of camaraderie and great bottles of wine.

Do you have a most treasured wine?

I have a whole list of treasured wine.  A lot of them are bound up with memories, places visited, made by friends or really hard to get hold of.

Where is your favourite wine region?

Barolo and Barbaresco are such fun places to visit with wonderful wine and food. The hills, terraced with vineyards are intriguing with the different soils, aspects and elevation making it somewhere you need to keep returning to understand more fully.

When and where are you at your happiest?

Sitting on the deck with a beer after mowing the vineyard.

What do you most dislike in wine?

When I have been carefully saving a rare wine for years for a special occasion, I open it with proud fanfare and anticipation, only to find it reeks of cork taint.  And then it has been so long since you purchased it you can’t send it back to the seller for a replacement.

What is your greatest regret?

Not learning languages at school. I did sciences but, as a winemaker, French and Italian would have been good to know. Trips to these countries take on a deeper dimension when you converse with people in their native tongue.

What talent would you most like to have?

I would love to be able to sing.  My husband and daughter can sing and I would love to be able to join in, but when I open my mouth the sounds that comes out is not how I’m imagining it to be.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Lying in bed at night during harvest listening to an ex tropical cyclone drop heavy rain on unharvested grapes for the third day in a row.

What is the trait that you most deplore in yourself?

Impatience. I wish sometimes that I was more laid back, that I could let things flow over me a little more.

What do you most value in your friends?

Loyalty and a sense of humour… oh yes - and a good wine cellar.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

I use the word great too much.

What is your favourite meal?

A meal shared with friends where we have all cooked it together and there is a sense of wellbeing and friendship. Nearly any food can taste good in that sort of environment, with good wine of course.

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

I don’t think I’m coming back but if I did, it would be exciting to be Annie Lennox.