Asia Dreams catches up with Jason Yank, managing director and co-owner of Astrolabe Wines

Committed, enthusiastic and passionate about what he does best – Asia Dreams catches up with Jason Yank, managing director and co-owner of Astrolabe Wines

Bearing degrees in Marketing, Communication and Design as well as Human Resources, Jason Yank boldly jumped into the burgeoning wine industry in 2004. His viticultural journey began on the ground as he tried to garner as much vineyard exposure as possible. After four years in Ormond Nurseries, Jason joined Astrolabe as General Manager. His affection for Marlborough wine has rightfully granted him recognition as one of the most prominent figures in the New Zealand wine scene. Currently one of the shareholders and Managing Director of Astrolabe, Jason Yank drives the ship with conviction to ensure the success and integrity of the brand.

Q: It’s a real pleasure to meet a leading figure from the Marlborough Wine region. But a Brit in the New Zealand wine industry! How did that happen?

A: In a round-about way really: born in London, educated at the University in Amsterdam, where I met a Dutch girl who’d grown up in NZ. We visited NZ several times, fell in love and I emigrated from UK to NZ in 2004. I have never looked back!

Q: In just a couple of words, how would you describe yourself?

A: Committed, enthusiastic, passionate, driven, loyal and loving.

Q: Born in the UK, educated in Amsterdam and with a CV that includes time working in the Marks & Spencer lingerie department — how did you acquire the knowledge required to run a very successful winery?

A: After we arrived in 2004, I asked the right questions to the people I thought knew the right answers, or at least they knew more than I did! I listened well and I tried to remember most of it.

Pre-emigration, back in the UK, my soon-to-be father-in-law was keen to export his own family label into the UK and, prior to leaving London, had asked me what and who I knew. Now, at that time, I was involved with Investment Banking IT recruitment, in the City of London — I drank wine, of course, but really knew nothing. In fact, it was as I introduced the wines to potential clients, I realised how little I knew and also how interesting the industry was.

We first moved to Marlborough, which in itself is a major cultural challenge from growing up in London — having moved to Amsterdam at 18 years old, followed by 12 months of backpacking, then back into my role as a lingerie manager at Marks & Spencer both under- and post-graduate — then the recruitment job — it was all bright lights and big city living. Then suddenly here I was in the Awatere Valley in Marlborough: our closest neighbour 5 kilometers away and the nearest supermarket a 35-minute drive!

Q: Extraordinary, Jason, and what an upheaval?

A: Yes, indeed. Get a plan, I was told, and so I decided I would take the journey from plant to bottle.

Q: So by this time you had already decided the wine industry was for you?

A: Yes, I knew where I wanted to be, but had very little understanding of where my transferable skills would lend themselves best. So I decided to start in the vineyard as a labourer for a season: working the vines, cutting the grass, lifting the wires, picking the fruit and then pruning the vines. It seemed like a perfect foundation. I’d follow the 2005 harvest fruit into a winery and my next role was as a cellarhand during the 2005 vintage — a brilliant experience. I loved it. I worked as many hours as I could, worked in as many areas of the winery that I could and just couldn’t soak up enough info…Just so much to learn and so much fun, too. So there I was, 12 months later: no money, but buckets of experience and at the start of what would prove to be a most magnificent and enjoyable journey. I still look back and see those early decisions and the people I met at that time to be pivotal points in my success.

Q: No money, but buckets of experience — so what came next?

A: I was truly fascinated with growing things — fascinated and intrigued by the vineyard cycle. I went for an interview with a grape propagation nursery here in Marlborough that was looking for a business development manager in a national role in NZ. I went along and was simply captivated: plants, vineyards, travel, wine tasting, wine people and grape growers.

Wow, what an opportunity! I got the role and, it must be said, I had a very helpful tailwind since New Zealand was in midst of an enormous growth phase of new vineyard plantings. Vineyards were popping up in every nook and cranny; suitable viticultural regions in New Zealand were being explored, from way up north beyond Auckland, south and east through Hawkes Bay and Gisborne to the bottom of the North Island in Martinborough, through the South Island’s Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara and the Central Otago regions. I had a cracking time. Another key development factor in this role was that I was surrounded by people with a huge knowledge base and who were always keen to share this information when asked and I soaked it like a sponge.

Q: How did you get involved with Astrolabe?

A: Back in 2004, having had our feet on Kiwi soil for about three weeks, we were asked to join a dinner with a load of winemakers and wine industry people. “Bring a wine!” I was told, but what should I bring? I asked someone I knew and she promptly told me that Sauvignon Blanc was the grape best associated with my new home region and of the Sauvignon Blanc, “Take an Astrolabe — Best Sauvignon Blanc out there. You’ll never be disappointed with an Astrolabe,” she said.

High praise, I thought, and at the dinner party, I placed the wine on the table and one guy there turned, saw the wine and asked who brought the Astrolabe. “I did,” I said. “Great choice, dude!” And that was that. My love affair with Astrolabe began.

So in 2008, Simon Waghorn, founder and chief winemaker of Astrolabe, asked me for a beer. This wasn’t unusual for a Thursday in Marlborough; often a group of us would meet for “”Thirsty Thursday”” drinks after work. But on this Thursday, we met earlier and had a chat. Simon was seeking a general manager for Astrolabe Wines. He thought I might be interested in applying. He was right. In 2012 I became a shareholder and managing director and now I manage and run my favourite wine brand and company and I love it!

Q:  Is there a winemaking philosophy that underpins what you do at Astrolabe?

A: Yes and I think that can be summed up best by what we say on our material: “Astrolabe creates wines of focus, purity and balance, expressing the full intensity of aroma and flavour possible in Marlborough’s ideal landscape and climate.” So basically, what I always say is that we produced balanced wines that give you a sense of place.

Q: From my experience, Astrolabe Wines are always excellent. How do you ensure the ongoing quality?

A: We have contracted access to some 40% more fruit than we currently require. This gives us the options in the winery or at the blending bench to “”pick the eyes out”” of each fermented batch of grapes/juice/wine to ensure we have absolutely the best examples for that given vintage and sub-region of Marlborough.

Blending excellent components from amazing vineyards is really a fabulous experience.

Q: Astrolabe crafts a remarkable selection of excellent wines. Is there a particular wine that really stands out for you?

A: This is always a tough question and remains a tricky one, but best answered on the spot. Right now, it’d be a clear tie between the 2013 Kekerengu Coast Pinot Gris and the 2014 Province Sauvignon Blanc.

Q: What’s open right now in your kitchen?

A: Cannonball Wines 2012 Chardonnay from California, Astrolabe Pinot Noir 2013 and I have a new 2015 Astrolabe Rosé and 2012 Angels & Cowboys Proprietary Red waiting for me this evening.

Q: Since the first Sauvignon Blanc crop in 2002, the label’s rise has been meteoric. What do you think gave Astrolabe that something special in the beginning?

A: The early recognition gained at some key global shows certainly put Astrolabe on the map. The IWSC (International Wine & Spirits Competition) in London was one, and twice, in three years, gaining the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc was a terrific boost. Now, with our launch in the USA, the Wine Spectator has been consistently scoring our wines at +90 points and that certainly helps
to build a brand in a relatively infant market.

Q: The growing Asian markets are a major factor in the 21st Century for New and Old World growers. Are the new markets driving changes to the characteristics and balance of the wines you craft?

A: Not to answer this in an arrogant way, but no, the markets are not driving a change in the balance or character of the wines. We are more aware that certain markets are more interested in certain styles. For example, we have four styles of Sauvignon Blanc: we have Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Albariño and a few other white wines together with our only red, Pinot Noir. The markets we are in appear to be interested (at our positioning in the market) in the wines and our interpretation of that variety from our region. The more commercial styles are more market-driven and have a far greater reach over a larger number of people and their palate choices. So, in fact, we chose to work in markets that we feel are most suited to our wines.

Q: How is Astrolabe getting its wines onto the wine lists of some of Indonesia’s best restaurants and bars?

A: We have an amazing partner in Indonesia in PT Pantja Artha Niaga, based in Jakarta. Knowing the people, the market and expectations of the brand is something that we have tried to understand and it seems to be working. Like us, the restaurateurs and wine influencers in Indonesia clearly feel that the styles are appropriate, groups we work with in Jakarta, Medan and Bali and throughout the archipelago are superb. I have spent time in the market, learning what is working and what could work. The Asian and Indonesian markets are very dynamic. The influences are broad and that has an impact on what may have historically worked and what may well work in the future. For me, being in Marlborough, New Zealand, it is vital that I get into Indonesia and learn. “Being there is everything” and I truly feel there is no substitute for that effort.

Q: What is an astrolabe and why did the founder choose that as a name?

A: An astrolabe is a navigational device whose name translates as “star taker.” It was used to determine their position by the stars. Simon chose the name Astrolabe because of the historic ties with Marlborough. It’s about the voyage, discovery, the journey and experience. Our Astrolabe logo is based on a motif of the instrument. As well as being a navigational instrument, L’Astrolabe was the name of the ship of French explorer Dumont d’Urville who explored the Marlborough coast in 1827.

Q: Where are your biggest markets currently?

A: Indonesia and the USA are our two single biggest export markets at this time and both are relatively new (only 5 years old). Canada is growing along with Australia and, of course, the home New Zealand market. Europe, Scandinavia and Asian markets like Singapore, Japan, Thailand, China, Philippines and Malaysia are growing more slowly.

Q: 2015 is officially an El Niño year — how will this impact on your wines?

A: During El Niño, New Zealand tends to experience stronger or more frequent winds from the west in summer, typically leading to drought in east coast areas and more rain in the west. In winter, the winds tend to be more from the south, bringing colder conditions to both the land and the surrounding ocean. In spring and autumn, south-westerly winds are more common.

How does this affect the wines? The growing season is warmer and drier, so the pressure on our scarce resource of water is hard. The grapes may well be smaller in size, but therefore the intensity of flavour is greater per grape, so the fruit we have may well be less in volume, but will not lack flavour, complexity and interest.

Q: What do you think the future holds for the label?

A: That is a great question. I have a yearning to grow the brand internationally and the desire for steady, sustainable and meaningful growth is a regular topic at our board meetings. We have some very good channels of distribution globally right now and that serves only to expose Astrolabe to more people. The ease and affordability of travel mean that many people experience Astrolabe away from their home only to return and enquire directly to us. That is a lovely thing and is exactly how we started in India, Holland, Slovakia and in the USA. Someone tried the wines, often in Indonesia on holiday, returned home and followed up. Social media, cameras and smart phones have made everything more accessible and the associated information consumable.

Q: What does Jason Yank do to relax and for fun?

A: My family, friends, exploring wines, skiing, fishing, relaxing at home and going to new places — not in any particular order — just depends! I carry a moto: “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” If I ask myself that question each month, it inspires me to look for something or somewhere new to go, see, taste and experience.