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Business Is Boring #25 – Rod McDonald on combining business and nature to make excellent wine

‘Business is Boring’ is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt.

Since arriving in the Hawke’s Bay in 1993 with everything he owned in the boot of his car, Rod McDonald has worked hard to create a business built on his love of wine. He spent 7 years as the winemaker at Vidal, gaining the 2006 Winemaker of the Year gong, and then set out on his own to make singular expressions of what Hawke’s Bay Wine could do. And it’s worked out well. He is now selling and winning trophies and design awards around the world, with Australia, the UK, Singapore, the US, Sweden, and China all important markets.

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Rod McDonald (left) and Simon Pound compare close cropped beards.

His business encompasses making wine for others in his large winery, leasing and owning vineyards, running a cellar door, building export, a good deal of compliance and the small matter of making excellent wine with the elements and nature to contend with.

You couldn’t blame a guy for wanting a drink after that but, as a leading wine judge too, he spits most of it out. To chat about the world of wine, thank you for joining us on the podcast, Rod McDonald.

Either download (right click to save), have a listen below, subscribe through iTunes or read on for a transcribed excerpt.

It’s often in business you feel, if I just get a couple more plates spinning then everything’s gonna be okay. But then you’ve got all these plates spinning that you have to make sure don’t drop. Are you at a level where you’re feeling that you’ve got the right mix or are there still more plates you have to get going for it to work?

We’ve had a lot of good help along the way. There’s nothing like looking at other businesses and unpicking what they’ve done and why they’ve done it. And the wine industry’s great in terms of people sharing information and knowledge, and promoting generically as a country and as regions internationally to try build the sector or to build our category.

In terms of how many plates are in the air now and how many are spinning, you don’t notice it. I don’t know what to call it but it’s the opposite to a death of a thousand cuts. When you need it, you learn it. That’s got to be the way any small business grows to be a big one. What I know about stuff now, I didn’t even know existed three years ago. You don’t even realise you’ve learnt stuff along the way and just assume. I remember looking at George Fistonich, who runs Villa Maria, and the ability he had to drop into any part of the business that needed him, to put out a fire and work in that part of the business until the fire was out, whilst keeping everything else spinning. It’s only because he’d worked in every part of the business in the build, so he had the learnings and experience.

So part of the trick is knowing, yeah I can do it but it’s better if I don’t and I’ve got to trust the person who I’m going to employ to do that part, I’ve got to trust them to do it right. And he was phenomenal at that. If there was any sense that what you were responsible for wasn’t working, he’d be on you like a rash and you would work until it was sorted. And if he had confidence in what you were doing and there were no hiccups, I mean, I went through periods where I didn’t see him for three months and he’s my immediate report upwards. There would be periods where we just didn’t talk because we were going good. He was certainly setting expectations and giving us targets and all that sort of stuff but having the ability to jump when you need to jump and leave it alone if it’s working, employ the right people and jut leave them to do it.

Where will we see you in another five or ten years? 

One of the biggest changes we made in the business 12 months ago, we employed a commercial manager to look after the day-to-day running of the business so Mike could do what he does and I could do what I do. We’re obviously still involved in the running of the day-to-day business but it has freed us up enormously to consider a future where we’ve got the time. I love to travel, I love to see other places. And there’s nothing like visiting a wine region to get a sense of how the wines work and why they taste like they do and why they’re made like they are, and I love that.

I love hosting people here and explaining why Hawkes Bay Wines taste like they do and showing them. The reciprocal of that is I love travelling and using wine as the gateway, but really just trying to better understand the reason for things being like they are. For me, if in ten years time we were still fine-tuning what we do from a winemaking point of view, and making the wines taste more like where they came from and who made them, and travelling the world telling that story to people who are into what we’re doing, that would be success.

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