Jen Parr winemaker at Valli Vineyards Jen Parr winemaker at Valli Vineyards

Jen Parr

05 Mar 2019

To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, we’re interviewing four women in different professions and at different stages of their career about their journey into wine.

First up is Jen Parr, winemaker at Valli Wine. Originally from Oregon, Jen now calls Central Otago her home. Like many people in the wine industry, her career did not follow a straight path.

Recently, she was nominated as a finalist for the Gourmet Traveller NZ Winemaker of the Year award. But she remains grounded, not letting outward successes distract her from her journey in making site-expressive Pinot Noir.

For me, winemaking is a lifestyle more than it is a career and I know there are many people who feel the same way.

From software to wine

My interest in wine began when I went to Stanford University in Northern California in the early 90s. A couple of times a year we would drive the 2 hours to go wine tasting in Napa.  At the time I could only afford the cheap stuff, but I loved visiting cellar doors and vineyards.

From Stanford University I moved to NYC then London to work in the global financial software industry. I travelled a lot and became very interested in wine (much more so than software and finance).

I was in charge of financial software sales for South Africa for a couple of years. Through many visits, I discovered many amazing wines there.

In London, I was a regular at Lena Inger’s (Wine Education Trust) wine classes and would research wines of each region in Europe that I travelled to, so I was sure to try the local stuff.

I visited the southwest of France regularly on holiday and got to know the wines of Gaillac. Eventually, I quit my job and moved to the Southwest of France for 6 months to work harvest at Causse Marines and learn about winemaking. I never looked back.

Winemaking around the world

From there I worked harvests in New Zealand, California, Australia, Oregon and other parts of France. While I was in France, I wrote to about 70 wineries in NZ until Villa Maria finally offered me a harvest job in 2003.

In New Zealand, I continued to travel and learn winemaking hands-on from people I respected until I eventually was offered the Assistant Winemaker job at Olssens (which is now Terra Sancta) in Central Otago in 2007.

It was the break I needed to be able to move here full time. I bought my house in Wanaka in 2009 and married a Kiwi in 2014 - this is definitely home. 

Career highlights

Jen Parr holding a glass of red wine next to barrels
Jen Parr

My first major highlight was winning Cuisine Magazine’s top NZ Pinot Noir for the Olssen’s Jackson Barry Pinot Noir ‘09.

My best wine show success was the 2012 New Zealand International Wine Show where wines I’d made received three trophies (including Champion Wine of Show). I was also the first winemaker to receive their Winemaker of the Year award.

More recently at Valli, I was nominated as a finalist for the Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine NZ Winemaker of the Year, which felt like the biggest achievement to date in terms of recognition. All of these are outward signs of success. Surviving the 2018 harvest which was early, large and compact definitely feels like huge success even if nobody else knows it!  (The wines are pretty delicious too!)

Lessons Learned

Making site-expressive Pinot Noir is a never-ending quest, it is much like seeking the holy grail. I’m not sure it can ever be achieved - it is a journey rather than a destination.

I have learned that mistakes can be turned into great lessons and that nature is something we must respect as we certainly can’t control it.

The wine industry is challenging and that is the draw for most of us. We like to say, “if it was easy, everyone would be doing it!”

On the New Zealand wine industry

I love the cooperative spirit in NZ wine and the friendships I have made are so special. I feel like the industry is still in a pioneering phase even though we are a bit over 30 years old now in Central Otago.

The thirst for knowledge is never quenched and I admire the tenacity and generosity of my colleagues.  


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