With few Māori in the winemaking industry, and even fewer Māori women, Jannine Rickards is a rare breed. Charlotte Muru-Lanning visits her in Wairarapa.
An eye-catching bone hei matau adorns Jannine Rickard’s neck.
A fishhook symbolic of journeys that are interwoven into journeys, it’s been worn for the last 20 years, since her parents gifted it to her on her 21st birthday.
Those unexpected twists and turns that have unfurled along the way have coloured her own journey, which has brought her to where she is now, making wine in the Wairarapa.
There are just a handful of female Māori winemakers in the country, so, like her own small-batch wine, Rickards is something of a rare breed.
She was raised further north, in Pūkorokoro/Miranda in the Firth of Thames – near the famous hot pools that are now closed. She grew up with parents who rarely drank wine and two younger siblings on a 1,000-acre sheep and beef farm that’s now been subdivided.
After finishing high school she had a stint in Europe, then moved to Australia. It was working in restaurants – and dating chefs, she says – that sparked her interest in wine. After a time working in hospitality in Canberra with her then boyfriend, she came home. “I just worked and worked for a year and then I got a bit bored of it, and then I got bored of him – all he did was work.”
Rickards moved back to New Zealand and spent three months with her dad scuba diving and helping out on their family charter boat. She then worked for a fine food importer, who also owned a winery in the Hawke’s Bay.
In 2003, she worked her first grape harvest and has been in the wine industry ever since, working as an assistant winemaker at Ata Rangi in Martinborough in 2007, and later spending three years at North Canterbury’s Pegasus Bay, working with their pinot noir wines.
After over a decade spent overseas and moving around Aotearoa, Rickard came back to Wairarapa in 2017, where she has worked as a winemaker at organic vineyard Urlar since. That year she also started her wine label, Huntress, which began with a pinot noir made with friends who run local vineyard On Giants’ Shoulders.
Her brand name, Huntress, isn’t metaphorical – it’s a central part of her life. Rickards hunts nearly every weekend.
But it wasn’t always so. She just about turned vegetarian when she left hospitality. “I didn’t like the quality or the price of meat.”
On her first hunting expedition many years ago, her brother shot a goat. “I just cried and cried and cried and cried,” says Rickards.
It wasn’t until 2010 that she found a love for it when a friend, Mick, now Rickards’ partner, taught her to hunt just before her 30th birthday. The first time she shot something she remembers feeling a lump in her throat – “like when you can’t swallow”.
“I was just really emotional and this animal was warm and I was sitting here and it hit home a bit,” she says.
Mick, who Rickards describes as “a master hunter”, taught her the butchery side of it too. She’s passionate about using everything; hearts and liver to make pâté, bones for stock and whatever’s left for charcuterie – when she has time.
Rickards finds a surprising sense of calmness on these expeditions. She loves the immersion and honing of senses while out in the bush, which make for a close relationship with the changing environment and seasons. There’s always something that smells interesting. Like tī kōuka or cabbage trees – “they smell so sweet”.
She’s drawn to the process of winemaking for the same reasons. Among the yearly routine and rituals, the seasons are ever-present and crucial. For Rickards this is the beauty of the job. She finds creativity within the change from summer to autumn, winter to spring. “Every year is unique,” she says. “You remember a year or a time in your life from the vintage.”
“I feel like it connects you with your journey.”
Having that intimate understanding of where your food or drink comes from is central to the way Rickards looks at the world. Part of this has meant surrounding herself with a community of like-minded food makers –people like Claire Edwards, who, alongside her partner Troy Bramley, runs sustainable seafood supplier Tora Collective, diving for catch-to-order pāua and crayfish from a remote part of the southern Wairarapa coast. While Rickards’ and Tora’s products may be entirely different, their philosophies run parallel.
I join Rickards, Edwards and Bramley on a seaweed-foraging mission and as she drives her ute out through the valleys of South Wairarapa to Tora beach, Rickards reflects on the picturesque pastoral scenery. “I do wonder what this would have looked like before they burned everything down for farming.”
The relatively short list of restaurants Rickards supplies tend to have similar outlooks to hers. Cazador on Auckland’s Dominion Road is a natural fit – cazador means hunter in Spanish and the restaurant is famous for serving up game and locally sourced kaimoana and produce.
That sense of place and provenance is an ongoing process for Rickards and her whānau. “My connection to my Māori ancestry is something that I’m still journeying with,” she says.
Alongside her mum, she’s been working to slowly piece together their whakapapa. She knows she’s Ngā Puhi, she knows she’s Ngāi te Rangi. “I’d love to be able to work back to what waka we came here on.”
For many of us who have grown up distant from our kāinga, marae and reo, there can be a nervousness around certain tikanga or the pronunciation of particular kupu. Rickards is finding ways to reconnect through learning te reo Māori, becoming involved in her local marae and embracing Matariki.
Last month, she joined Hau Ariki marae, a community marae encircled by the vineyards of Martinborough. She’s been delegated to run the kitchen team on particular occasions. The openness of Hau Ariki has allowed those barriers that had previously discouraged Rickards from being involved on the marae to fall away. “That’s been helpful for me to continue on my journey,” she says.
“If you make a mistake, or you don’t know what’s going on, you’ll get told.”
While Rickards has for the most part felt supported as a Māori woman winemaker, she wonders why there remains such a striking lack of diversity within the wine industry. She contemplates whether the taboo positioning of alcohol in te ao Māori plays a part – the most common Māori translation for alcohol is waipiro, which translates to stinking water – or perhaps the damage alcohol has done to Māori communities has put some off entering the industry.
When it comes to her own product, Rickards engages with this complicated and fraught relationship by striving to create wines that are an expression of place. “It’s something that should be treasured and enjoyed, not like an alcohol that’s just to get wasted,” she says.
What’s on your plate is as important as what’s in your glass when you’re drinking one of her wines, and the intention is to pair them with local food that is wild or foraged. “It’s not just about being a standalone drink.”
Her Wai Koa white, she reckons, is best “while smashing back some kaimoana”. The pinot noir, on the other hand, has a savouriness from the Wairarapa grapes that can hold up to gamey meats. She believes it gives wine more depth and meaning when it’s designed for food.
And kai has always been important for Rickards. Even when she was a toddler, food was on the brain. “My dad would get up at five, he’d have a quick breakfast and I would be out every morning in my highchair eyeing up my dad’s plate.”
Cookbooks clamour for space in Rickard’s kitchen – another expression of her love for kai. She admits with a laugh that her ever-growing collection inside the house Rickards and Mick built last year on a block between Featherston and Martinborough is “a problem”. Nigel Slater is a favourite author; she shares his penchant for uncomplicated cooking. Then there’s a book by Irish cook Darina Allen, gifted by Rickard’s grandmother, which is so well-loved you’d wrongly assume she bought it secondhand.
“I keep buying them. I’m like, ‘Mick, I need another bookshelf’ and he’s like ‘you don’t use them’.”
“I do,” she says. “They’re inspiration.”
Despite the support she’s enjoyed as a Māori woman in the industry, she thinks change is needed when it comes to cultural competency within the trade. Pointing, for example, to the appropriation of Māori names and imagery on wine that gets shipped overseas for export, labels that New Zealanders mostly don’t see. “It’s all just marketing ploys, the big guys making bulk wine and selling it – it doesn’t sit well with me.”
She’s worked through a process of checking that the names of her own wines are tika with academic and Hau Ariki marae committee member Kevin Haunui. “It needs to be appropriate and approved by someone who actually understands the language,” she says.
As we wait for our order on a Sunday evening at a trendy food truck in a bustling Martinborough town centre, Rickards lists off other potential projects she could take on. She’d like to grow and supply organic herbs, create a local, seasonal food truck, a cellar door where she can sell wine alongside her preserves and charcuterie, and, of course, she wants to keep making wine. “The problem is I want to do everything.”
When Rickards’ dad passed away in November last year, she’d been busy preparing for the harvest. Shortly afterwards, she had her 40th birthday. “I just kind of lost it,” she says, which prompted her to reflect on the amount she’d been taking on. To take time to breathe.
This past week, Rickards has been bottling, including two newly introduced wines. Kuratea, a lightly chilled red, will replace the Waikura Rosé, while Waihōanga is a “nectar-like” skin-fermented pinot gris.
When you’re a small winemaker, you have to be creative. A slight seasonal variation can mean everything changes. So there’s a constant process of learning and taking new directions. “Wines evolve,” explains Rickards. “They’re living things and they change.”