Dr David Jordan: Growing science in the field

06 Nov 2023

Dr David Jordan has spent his career taking science into New Zealand vineyards, while heeding the knowledge and experience of those in the field.

Sophie Preece

“I like to think it’s more collaborative than prescriptive,” says the viticultural scientist, who has been named a New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW) Fellow for his services to the industry and its research over the past 40 years. DJ, as he’s known to most, adopted a synergistic and adaptive approach to the introduction of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ), to the development of the Lighter Wines programme, and to the Vine to Wine consulting business he’s run throughout the country for nearly 30 years. “I would rather foster people coming along and everyone having an input,” he says.

DJ’s contribution to the industry includes 34 years on The New Zealand Society for Viticulture and Oenology, many of them as its president, an extended period as a member of the NZW Research Committee, and working on the organising committee for three International Cool Climate Symposiums.

“We need to continue to evolve new initiatives that give our industry a spark and bring international attention to what we’re doing.” Dr David Jordan

In the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle this year, DJ has been part of a NZW project offering technical advice to impacted industry members. No two visits have been the same, ranging from young newcomers to wine, with nascent operations devastated by the floods, to near retirees who lost their nest egg when the cyclone hit, after decades of work, he says. “And some were grappling with the loss of the family home, which was more overwhelming than the damage to their vineyard.” DJ reckons 95% of his job is about people and 5% technical knowledge. “The people part has been pivotal, starting with my formative years,” he says, recalling members of the Dalmatian/Croatian families that had pioneered winegrowing in Auckland, who were “very welcoming and inclusive”, openly sharing their intergenerational knowledge and experience with new entrants into the industry.

He continues that tradition, sharing his own knowledge and insights with the next generation in wine. “I take a lot of joy and encouragement in seeing how their own careers have flourished. I was playing the same role that some of the founding members of our industry did for me. And long may that continue.”

DJ grew up on a sheep and beef farm in Katikati in the 1960s and 70s, when farming was in the “doldrums”, but horticulture bloomed. Citrus, kiwifruit and avocado plantations were progressively taking over land in the region, and while farmers tightened their belts, horticulturists were spending. The rural lifestyle was in his blood, but what he saw over the fence excited him more than pastoral pursuits.

Part of that excitement was in the generous information sharing he found in his school jobs on a strawberry farm and a vegetable block, each owned by political leaders in their respective industries. They were also leaders in the community, says DJ, who learned about the politics and commercial aspects of the operations, while getting dirt under his fingernails, “because they were out there running their commercial operations; physically involved”.

In 1983, after completing his Lincoln University horticultural science degree with First Class Honours, DJ got job at Ruakura Research Centre near Hamilton. Table grapes were one of his crops, which meant working with Government Viticulturist Richard Smart and his viticulture team at Te Kauwhata.

When he was awarded a scholarship at Oregon State University, DJ kept an open mind as to what his PhD research project would be. Oregon had a new and burgeoning wine industry, with excitement around Pinot Noir, as well as Chardonnay and Riesling.

It had many synergies with New Zealand’s wine industry, including a cool climate and shades of David and Goliath, and was the most dynamic realm of the horticulture department. DJ settled on a research project with a focus on wine grapes, “and really got a taste for the wonders of the wine industry”.

There was good support for research in Oregon, but when DJ returned to Ruakura, he found the Te Kauwhata Reseach Station on its last legs, with the previous staff of more than 40 – split between the vineyard and winery trials – relentlessly whittled down. Within a week of his return, Richard announced he was returning to Australia and DJ took over his role. “I was effectively the scientist responsible for the closure of that research center.”

In 1994 he relocated to Blenheim and found an industry hitting its straps. It was still quite immature, with a lot of new players and a heavy dependence on Kiwis who had trained in Australia, or Australians bringing their technical knowledge to the region. “It was a very dynamic time, but the research funding was in a bit of a dire state at that time,” he says. “The writing was on the wall that to sustain a research project was really hard yards.”

By the end of that year, he had moved away from research and into his consultancy business, one of just two full-time technical consultants in those days. “Our industry was developing seat of the pants, copying each other over the fence,” he says.

Working on NZW industry projects like SWNZ and Lighter Wines along the way has been part of the joy, and he says the technical focus and broader networks he had established over the years were key to the success and achievements of both initiatives.

The SWNZ programme, launched in 1995, was based on a Swiss model DJ appreciated for a format that encouraged growers to progressively improve their environmental footprint. “We developed that from the vineyard up,” he says, reflecting on three years of meeting with growers and evolving the programme to ensure those on the ground could see its practical application, and have input in refining it. “I think it enhanced the likelihood of success.” When something is forced on people the initial response is always to push back, he adds, using the Freshwater Farms Plans as an example. “There may be logical sense to it but to be forced on growers is never the way to get adoption.”

The Lighter Wines Programme – which wound up in 2020 with several New Zealand wine companies using its momentum to grow their lighter alcohol and no alcohol labels – was similarly collaborative, with a flexible rather than prescriptive approach. “If a research direction was not fulfilling expectations, we changed it, taking advice from our growers and production colleagues.”

Being open-minded to input from the coalface, which contains “huge talent” and capability, is also a hallmark of DJ’s consultancy. Some clients advise him to be more “forceful and prescriptive” in his interactions, but he considers that a “risky approach”. There are some things he will disagree with, “with great energy”, but admits that’s quite rare. “For most things there are 10 ways of doing something in the vineyard, as an example. Two of which I think are worthy, a couple of which that will get there in the end and a couple that are not wise. You can coach and encourage people to come to an end point, and I think you get better outcomes than being autocratic.”

Looking forward, DJ reflects on the fact that every 10 years there’s a “pivotal moment” that helps the industry progress. There was phylloxera and replanting, SWNZ, the transformational transition to screwcaps, and Lighter Wines, which has put New Zealand’s wine industry a decade ahead of Australia’s lower alcohol research, he says.

Now the greatest challenges are diminished financial viability for small and medium producers – especially outside Marlborough – and a new generation of drinkers less interested in wine, he says. “We are not doing a good job of fostering a new generation of wine drinkers and bringing then into the fold.” Lighter Wines played a major role in that, and companies like Giesen, with its highly successful 0% brand, are considering the growing segment of people who eschew alcohol, DJ says. “To not acknowledge those people exist is putting your head in the sand.”

New Zealand wine needs a vibrant and diverse industry that keeps it in the spotlight with new initiatives, “or there’s the risk you get superseded by the new sliced bread,” he adds. “We need to continue to evolve new initiatives that give our industry a spark and bring international attention to what we’re doing.”

The industry here is one of the most technically advanced in the world, thanks to growth that’s ensured a flow of new wineries with the latest technology, and new or replanted vineyards guided by the latest knowledge. But it’s a global advantage that is at risk. “Marlborough will be full in a few heart beats,” DJ says. “Where is the next wine product offering diversity that will underpin our future growth?”

This was first published in New Zealand Winegrower magazine issue 142 and is republished with permission.

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