Featured Winemakers: Hollywood And Vine
An interview with Hollywood producers turned winemakers Joanne and Bruce Kerner.
If you've spent your career in Hollywood producing TV shows, what do you do for a second act? Make some wine, of course.
Rather than dash from Studio City to Sonoma, however, Joanne and Bruce Kerner settled in Marlborough, New Zealand (her production resume includes Cosby and A Different World; his contains Judge Judy, Sabrina The Teenage Witch and several years as head of production for Viacom). And just as in their previous careers, the Kerners are relying on creativity to ensure their success.
It all started when the Kerners took a family vacation to New Zealand in the early '90s and decided this was where they'd plant their vines — in particular, on a spot in the Upper Wairau area that none of the locals believed to be viticulturally sound. Today, Kerner Estate is completely surrounded by other vineyards (their children Will and Lizzie joined the family business, too), proving that their gamble was a good one.
The Kerners also didn't bet the farm on Sauvignon Blanc, and instead split their plantings into that variety and four others: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and — Joanne's favorite — Pinot Blanc. Although it's an unusual variety for New Zealand, the Pinot Blanc has turned even the most skeptical of heads. And the Kerners' Sauvignon Blanc, available in the U.S., is not your typical Marlborough white, either: It's made half in stainless steel and half in old barrels, resulting in a very smooth, drinkable wine.
Sure, history suggests that thriving in an unrelated industry doesn't always translate to success in the wine business. But it turns out that producing hit TV shows and high-quality wine aren't terribly different skills. To find out why, read our full interview with Bruce Kerner below.
(Oh, and can you spot Bruce in this famous scene in The Terminator? Hint: He's not the guy who says "I'll be back.")
Bottlenotes: What was the moment that you realized that you wanted to get out of Hollywood and make wine, and how did you decide on New Zealand?
Bruce Kerner: We came down here as a family for a hiking vacation in 1992. This was a very refreshing place. We had talked about establishing a vineyard and producing wine, but we couldn't even afford Temecula, much less Napa or Sonoma. But we could afford purchasing land here, and we went on a multi-year quest to find the right property. Both Joanne and I were at the peak of our earnings in the television scheme of things — it was still primarily scripted shows that we were working on, as opposed to what television has become, which is primarily non-scripted shows — and we were doing very well.
We bought some really fine land on the outskirts of Marlborough. We ultimately have developed it into 55 producing acres of grapes, and 25 acres of olives. Most of the olives will come out, and we'll plant grapes. At one time [the land] was a U.S. Air Force airstrip, then it went into pasture — we bought it when it was pasture. We're at the confluence of two rivers, and our land was originally a river terrace. So it's very free-draining soil, very rocky and warm. It just produces like nobody's business. We sell the majority of our output, and we keep a small amount of the output for ourselves for our own label.
Your land is in the Upper Wairau area, which no one else had planted with grapes when you moved there. Did the locals think you were nuts? Did they tell you so regularly?
Yes, they did. They also thought we were nuts for paying what we did for the land, which we thought and still think was very reasonable. Even with the recession and the tremendous drop in property values, we're still economically ahead of the game. The rule was go to the edge of town, then go a little further, and that's the rule we followed. It's filed in completely since we planted. The classic New Zealand attitude was, “You can’t grow grapes out there.” Well, four years later all the land around us was planted. By the time we started producing our own grapes and wine in 2000, it was booming out here.
If we make 5,000 cases in two or three years, we'll be very happy. Historically we made less than 1,000 cases; this year it will be 2,500 cases. We do things that are just a little out of the ordinary. We did [our Sauvignon Blanc in] 50% in stainless and 50% in old oak. It's a very nice mouthfeel and a very smooth-drinking savy. It doesn't have any of the effervescent green quality of the historic, classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. We find that the people in New York City, which is our primary market, enjoy it tremendously.
Why Pinot Blanc?
Joanne wanted to produce Pinot Blanc because she'd started drinking it as an alternative to California Chardonnay. So we put in five acres of it. Good wine, difficult sale. But ultimately those five acres are now producing handsomely, and they're now an organic block along with our Pinot Gris.
The biggest production we did of Pinot Blanc is 1,000 cases (we only produce 200-300 cases of it now). If you put ours next to an Alsatian Pinot Blanc you can taste the varietal, and you can also taste the soil — the New Zealand contribution to it. We've created a very good wine — I'm very pleased with it. We were renting rows to [winemaker] Mike Weersing, who put out a Pinot Blanc under his label Pyramid Valley. It's ultimately the best fruit off our vineyard.
I made several sales calls to wine bars, bistros and restaurants in New York, and every one of them found our wine very distinctive. Several have ordered and reordered — they have customers who enjoy a fine wine at a very reasonable price.
[Winemaker] Brent Marris [originally] made the Pinot Blanc for us, and he said he didn't want his name to be known as the winemaker. But fade out, fade in, he was at the Auckland Wine and Food Show pouring our Pinot Blanc because it was an exceptional wine.
Are there any parallels between making good TV or movies and making good wine? Do the challenges have any overlap at all?
Yes. I did very limited episodic directing — I spent my time being a producer, and the last seven or eight years of my career I was SVP of production at Big Ticket and Viacom Productions. In terms of organizing the season in TV that [skill] was completely transferable to here. If you understand the seasonal problems and what takes place at flowering and bunch closure, just to name two within the epic of the growing season, then you know how to allocate assets such as labor and equipment. It really requires a skill set that most filmmakers have. It's interesting that so many filmmakers go into producing wine--Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Neill, Roger Donaldson. The grape production is almost like producing a motion picture. People think I'm crazy when I say that, but you have a start date and a stop date, and you have to achieve certain results at each of the critical moments.
When we do our budgeting, I do it as if it's a season for x number of episodes. We've got five varieties here, and they all mature and develop at different times. It' exactly like having a hundred guys on a TV show times seven.
Do you see yourself at the same size 10 years from now, just keeping the quality high and the volume low? Do you hope we'd be having the same conversation a decade from now?
Hopefully we'd be producing 15,000 cases of wine a decade from now. We're not going to produce 40,000 or 100,000. That's just a totally different business. It just gets out of hand. You can't do 'hand-crafted' wine at those levels. 5,000 cases is a big output for us. Basically, it's just Joanne, myself and my son, who's going to Chile right now to be an assistant winemaker.
I have to do a lot of work here because the sale of grapes has gone down. [But] the lifestyle can't be topped. People think I'm nuts, but I love my tractor work.
Talk a little about how and why you're switching to organic farming.
The underlying epiphany for me is that when my son went to Taruna College and studied biodynamic and organic farming, we took a trip to California and Oregon, and we went to wineries. We went to a place that was absolutely beautiful, totally in balance, and the wine tasted better. So I started to sample a lot of wines that had come out of organic vineyards and were made in wineries that were certified, and they tasted better. The fruits and vegetables that came off the same land also tasted better.
My son worked for Seresin Estate, which is organic, and they're just down the road, so we had a chance to see what was going on. So we decided that we would make the Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc using organic techniques. The soil has rejuvenated itself in two seasons. The vines are healthier. And the flowers and the grasses and clover that grows inter row, it's just nice to be in it as opposed to a scorched-earth chemical regime. I'm out there doing it every day, and I notice a complete and total difference between the inherent and actual health of the plants, and I think that translates into the wine.