Karen McLeod: Wearer of many hats

08 Mar 2024

Karen McLeod wears many hats. Even she admits it’s hard to define her current role, because she’s often doing several at once – and that changes depending on the time of year. Karen and her husband Troy have a vineyard in Hawke’s Bay, from which they have recently started producing wine under their own label, Herringbone Wine. They also own a dairy farming business in Whakatane. “I guess agribusiness owner covers it all,” she says.


Karen McLeod (left) and her family

Karen became interested in the wine industry when she was living in London on her OE. “I loved seeing that New Zealand wine had such a presence over there – particularly in the premium wine space.” When she returned to New Zealand, Karen worked in a winery for a vintage which helped her to decide this was something she wanted to formally pursue, leading her to undertake a post-graduate diploma in viticulture and oenology at Lincoln University. 

“Dairy and viticulture may seem quite different but there are a lot of similarities,”

At face value, dairy and viticulture seem worlds apart – what makes juggling both work? “Dairy and viticulture may seem quite different but there are a lot of similarities,” she says. “Both rely heavily on managing soils and inputs to create a healthy growing environment. Additionally, the vineyard is quiet in winter once pruning has finished which works well with dairy as calving starts mid-July – the busiest time on farm. So, during winter/spring we are both very hands-on on the dairy farm. Once calving and mating have finished at the end of October, we have time to focus more on the vineyard and wine.” She adds that having great staff on the farm allows them the freedom to get down to Hawke’s Bay during summer and then again in March/April for harvest.

Karen and Troy chose Bridge Pā Triangle as the place for their vineyard largely because of the soil profile there. “It sits on the historical riverbed of the Ngaruroro River before it changed course. The underlying stony soils are perfect for growing premium grapes.”

“I love the variation [in winemaking] there are so many different aspects to producing and selling wine. I love that it is a science as well as an art."

The vineyard was already established when they purchased it in 2016 and it was a good-sized block at 11.5ha, she says. “It also had the classic red varieties that we were looking for and that Hawke’s Bay grows so well, like Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.”

The pair started producing wines under their own label in 2021 and so far, have produced a Rosé, Syrah, Merlot Malbec and a Chardonnay. Their penchant for hard work and attention to detail is obvious. “For us it’s all about producing a premium wine from quality fruit. It isn’t always easy in some seasons, particularly the wet and wild 2023 season where disease pressure was high. That season, we hand-picked everything so we could ensure the fruit that went into the winery was clean.”

The name Herringbone Wine is a nod to their second lives as dairy farmers. “The Herringbone comes from the name of the traditional dairy milking shed. It was a reference to our dairy farming beginning.  Both our families have been farming in New Zealand for generations, so it was nice to acknowledge that history.”

What’s next? It appears the sky is the limit for this entrepreneurial duo. “We want to grow our brand awareness in the marketplace. We know we can grow great fruit and make amazing wine, so the focus now is to really start to get a presence in the domestic market. We’d also like to establish a cellar door in the future so we can have that direct relationship with our customers.” The pair have also recently top-grafted some Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc and planted their own Chardonnay. “We would love to make a sparkling wine at some stage,” adds Karen.

It’s evident that the ethos Karen and Troy live by is doing far more than the bare minimum. Their operations are SWNZ-certified, which Karen says keeps sustainable practices at the forefront of how they do things in the vineyard. Additionally, “over half of our vineyard is grown organically which can add additional challenges such as controlling the weeds under vine”, says Karen.

When Karen did her first vintage in 2003, she was the first female to be employed in the winery she worked for. “Up until then, all the women were given jobs in the lab despite some of them wanting hands-on winery experience,” she says. “I think they were a bit sceptical that I could do some of the more physical jobs. I remember having a bit of an audience when I had to dig out my first tank.”

On the topic of women in wine, Karen does believe that, like a lot of other industries, the number of women in the wine industry is increasing. “We supply fruit to a number of smaller boutique wine labels and most of the ones we deal with are owned by women, such as Jannine Rickards (Huntress), Amy Farnsworth (Amoise Wines) and Diana Hawkins (Responsible Hedonist). Bridget Wilton is our vineyard manager and is one of the most sought after viticulturalists in Hawke’s Bay, and there are several very influential winemakers in Hawke’s Bay that are women – Jenny Dobson and Outi Jakovirta come to mind – both of whom are leaders in their respective fields.”

“Everyone these days can name two or three well-known chefs – I doubt many could name any winemakers.”

Karen says raising the profiles of our leading female winemakers outside of the wine industry could help to encourage more women to consider a career as a winemaker. “Everyone these days can name two or three well-known chefs – I doubt many could name any winemakers.” She adds that larger wineries offering more flexible working terms to help women with the juggle of their career and family commitments would help this cause. This is also a reason Karen points to for the gender pay gap that still exists in the industry. “It’s still challenging for women to raise children and maintain their career progression in any industry. It’s hard to get the balance right without the guilt factor creeping in. I know personally when my daughter was younger, I always felt guilty when I was working and would be constantly rushing to get home to her and vice versa.”

Despite the challenges, “my happy place is just being out there amongst the vines,” Karen says. She doesn’t stop short in singing the wine industry’s praises. “I love the variation – there are so many different aspects to producing and selling wine. I love that it is a science as well as an art. There is a creative aspect to it that we don’t get in the dairy industry. There is also a real sense of community in the wine industry in Hawke’s Bay. There are a lot of extremely passionate people out there that all share a common goal of producing amazing wine. There’s something for everyone in the wine industry.”

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