Pegasus Bay Winery - the brains of the family

Story and photography by Michael Hooper

In the gracious gardens of Pegasus Bay Winery in North Canterbury we find more than one stroke of genius. There’s inspiration evident in the barrels and bottles of trophy-winning Waipara wines, and in the generous portions plated in their restaurant, winner of Best Winery Restaurant in Cuisine magazine for five consecutive years.

Genius and slightly wicked humour bubble from the “prescription pad” newsletters of the patriarch, founder and retired neurology professor, Dr Ivan Donaldson, who has long been an advocate for wine as an aid to health.

It is family that makes this a special place to visit, because the Donaldsons are hands-on, influencing every facet of your interaction, making sure their standards are consistently met.

It’s worth subscribing to the winery newsletters just to enjoy his wit and learn about sex, nerve fibres and eating chilli (all in one, inter-related topic) or perhaps to breathe a sigh of relief at his professional advice that “you have to be a fairly serious boozer” to damage your liver if you drink wine regularly but responsibly.

In the winery gardens, the good professor has created a huge hedge in the shape of a brain. He regularly lunges at it lobotomically with surgical shears to control its cortex, having recently wrested the responsibility from his wife, Christine. Crowning the five gardens, which include nods to Versailles and Monet, the brain symbolises the eclectic, academic and hedonistic world the Donaldsons pursue with unflagging vigour and creativity.

When Ivan was in his final year as a medical student, Christine gave him guru Hugh Johnson’s Wine Encyclopaedia, which started him on his vinous path. By invitation, the couple visited Johnson in Essex and discovered he was also a tree expert with expansive gardens.

“He had a brain formation there, and, being a neurologist, it took my fancy,” says Ivan.  “Brains are beautiful things, so we put one in.”  As you do.

There’s real genius in the involvement of almost an entire family in making, managing and marketing Donaldson Family Limited (which is not limited at all). Paul is general manager, Edward globe-trots, conducting tastings and taking orders, while his wife, Belinda, runs the restaurant and raises a young family.

The winemaking is in the pinot-stained hands and Einstein-like electric head of Matt Donaldson, who, on many a late night, is more surreal than cerebral.

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Once, when I was marooned at the winery during a snow storm, he appeared at the door around midnight, back-lit by the ghostly blue night lights of the winery, holding forth a beaker of cloudy liquid and a tasting glass.

“Do you think we should stop the ferment now?” was his earnest question. Honoured as I was to be asked, the occasion did come as a surprise. It should not have - this family does everything with absolute fixation upon achieving excellence.

As a visitor, we quickly see in the groomed grounds the artisan chandeliers crafted from collections of wine bottles, and the oddity of the strangely Swiss-chalet-style buildings that somehow take on the character of a Kiwi chateau. There are statues from Europe, a magnificent wrought iron gate, and a village-square fountain that somehow made its way from Cavillon in northern France. I hope they asked the mayor first.

It is family that makes this a special place to visit, because the Donaldsons are hands-on, influencing every facet of your interaction, making sure their standards are consistently met. If more Kiwi businesses were passed down through generations we would have more stability, less debt and fewer business failures.

Thankfully, many in the wine industry are proving this point and surviving, even through the greatest downturn the industry has known for decades.

A spring weekend lunch at an outdoor table on the lawns behind the winery can turn into an extended waltz of the tables, as staff obligingly move them so guests can catch the last rays of the sun.

Wines on the list go back to 1991, the family’s first vintage, and are candidly rated on a scale of one to seven as a guide. However, if you start your visit in the tasting room, the choices can be well rehearsed in advance.

Oh yes. There is one supreme stroke of genius. Unseen by most visitors, in the midst of Matt’s tanks of burping blends, a farm of fragrantly flatulent yeast and a hall of red-banded barrels, there stands a monolith; an old fridge with a tap poked though a hole wrenched in its door. It takes a lot of beer to make great wine.

 

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