[As published in July/August BayBuzz magazine.]
“Bruno, our schnauzer, may greet you with a bark,” was the text from Ollie Powrie a few minutes before I pulled up for our interview. So I was prepared, as I noodled up the driveway of his 1920s Napier bungalow, for a furry, barky welcome, but instead I received a fat, feathery kind. The chubbiest kererū I’d ever seen whomped past my face and made a wobbly landing on the cover of the tiny, timber hot tub attached to the tiny, brick shed where Ollie and his wife Rebecca Moses of Chateau Garage make their wine.
They say a man’s house is his castle, yet for Ollie his shed is his castle. Mainly because being ancient, being covered in ivy and being topped with actual turrets, it totally looks like one. “I’ve never seen wood pigeons there before,” says Ollie, “they’re always in the trees down the far end.” And the end is indeed far. Their section is a long, lushly overgrown, inner-city oasis clustered with natives, perfectly climbable fruit trees and secret hide and seek spots.
Their house is stacked with original character and oozes charm. The bright, newly-renovated kitchen adds a contemporary injection and there’s Vietnamese furniture and exotic art everywhere you look. It’s calm and relaxing. Yet the family have had a tornado of a time in the lead up to launching their wine brand and I’m here to find out how it all kicked off.
“We moved here in 2007. It was the craziest year because we’d come home after living in Vietnam, I started my job with Villa Maria, then we had a baby in the middle of harvest and bought this house, all within a few months. It was really fun,” he shakes his head. (Ollie and Rebecca actually had two harvest babies both born in March. Sophia in 2007 and India in 2010.)
Before the mortgage and babies, Rebecca was a primary school teacher and Ollie worked for Sacred Hill. They moved to France where Ollie worked for Gabrielle Meffre wines in the Languedoc before travelling to Vietnam where Rebecca taught at an international school and Ollie went to university in Ho Chi Minh City to learn how to speak Vietnamese. “It was just me and an Aussie guy called Ewan and our teacher, and it was really intensive for 3 months where we’d study every morning then jump on scooters and roar around getting up to mischief.”
The couple came home briefly for a friend’s wedding in 2006 and Ollie saw Emma Taylor, Head Viticulturist from Villa Maria and said “I’m coming home in January 2007 and I’d love to work with you.” She told him to jump on a plane to Auckland to see owner Sir George Fistonich, who interviewed him for 2 hours. Later he was also interviewed by their head winemaker Alastair Maling MW.
Unbeknownst to Ollie, Emma was about to take maternity leave so when Ollie was offered the job of head viticulturist he thought they’d faxed him the wrong job description. He’d only asked about a standard job. “I said to Rebecca, ‘I think they’ve cocked it up’.”
But it was real and the couple raced home to Hawke’s Bay where Ollie based himself at the old Vidal winery. He worked hard to learn everything about their local vineyards and jetted regularly to Marlborough to oversee their southern team. “It was pretty full-on because I’d never managed an operation that size. I had to coordinate the Hawke’s Bay harvest across five wineries so I had this massive spreadsheet that I’d work on till midnight each night trying to keep on top of everything. So it was a shock, but it was so exciting and the team were amazing and the company was incredible to work for.”
What started as a maternity leave contract turned into a 15-year career, which he stepped away from on January 7th 2022, not long after the company changed ownership.
“Rebecca and I had talked about taking our daughters overseas and we decided this’d be a really good time to go and do something for our family. But it was a really nerve-wracking thing to actually make that call to leave the company, I was pacing and anxious before announcing it. But Chateau Garage had been bubbling away in the background as a hobby for a couple of years, just sharing it with family and friends and we’d just had our first sort of celebration release, so the timing to go on a trip, then begin turning this solo wine venture into an actual business just seemed right.
Ollie had attended Colenso High, then after years of work and travel, he began studying at EIT. “In 2000 when I was studying viticulture and winemaking I did my first ‘garage’ wine which was a barrel of chardonnay,” he explains. “And then, on and off, for the next 20 years, we’d pretty much always make a wine wherever we were living.” The idea was that each year he’d try and find fruit (sometimes literally foraging for what was left behind after the harvesters had been through), and then get family and friends over and make a wine.
“It sort of switched in 2020 when Ian Quinn from Two Terraces vineyard in Mangatahi rang me quite late and said, ‘I’ve just hand harvested two tonne of of syrah that I was about to deliver to the Wairarapa but they’ve closed their winery because of Covid. Do you know anyone who could help out with taking it?’ I was super keen to do some syrah here at home so we split it. I drove out to his vineyard and it was pitch black when I arrived; it was the middle of lockdown so I couldn’t even get out of the car.
“He just hooked up the trailer containing about 800kg of syrah grapes, and I roared home with it. We spent the next 3 days hand-destemming and that was the first time we did something of that scale. Like our other wines, it wasn’t for sale or anything, just purely for friends and family.” What happened next? “It was a good wine so my confidence was boosted. Most people only knew me as a viticulturist right. And for years I’d take samples of my wines into the guys in the winery and they’d say ‘tell us about the winemaking’ and I’d be like ‘oh I fermented it in a plastic tub in the shed’ and there’d be a bit of eye rolling. But this new syrah captured everyone’s imagination.”
Ollie and Rebecca then thought it’d be cool to have a label, so they contacted Max Parkes (Unit Design). “Max came over and we were talking about the shed and then he called photographer Richard Brimer and said ‘you’ve gotta check out this cool garage in Napier south’. Richard was doing his Road Trip book at the time and he came over and took a photo and all of a sudden I had these creative people around me who were really excited about what we were doing.”
So, borrowing from images of castles and manor houses adorning famous wine bottles from France, Chateau Garage was born.
And Ollie’s become the very definition of garagiste. The term garagiste originated in 1990s Bordeaux, when a group of winemakers rebelled against the exclusivity of winery inheritance (and prohibitive property and vineyard-ownership expenses), by making wines at home, mostly in their garages. Today, garagistes can be any winemakers who don’t own vineyards, but bring grapes in from elsewhere and make wine on a tiny scale either at home or in other people’s wineries. They’re an increasingly common breed. California even has a garagiste festival showcasing this small-scale approach.
“Once people try the wines the biggest surprise for them is the quality,” says Ollie. “I had them at a charity auction recently, and a man who was a classic Bordeaux buyer asked me to explain how I made them and he was blown away when I said ‘in my shed’!” he laughs. Right now he has a bunch of wines on the go, some in barrels, one in a plastic egg and one in a large 300kg clay amphora, both of which were mistakenly delivered to their neighbours who got a hell of a fright when they discovered them in their driveway.
Alongside entertaining the neighbours, Ollie definitely has favourite parts of the process. “I’ve never experienced something so exciting as driving a truck loaded with two tonne of handpicked grapes, knowing it’s the start of something. I love being able to reach inside my clay fermenter to plunge the bunches with my hands. And I love just being out here in all hours of the day, toiling away. We don’t have any pumps or anything, it’s all gently done, via gravity and siphoning.”
Ollie also has albariño from Bridge Pa quietly sleeping in his little plastic egg. It’s the first albariño he’s made and like all his other wines, it goes through a ‘wild’ ferment, meaning he relies only on yeast cells in the atmosphere to kickstart the process, turning the heater on occasionally to keep it ticking over. Sometimes Ollie’s ferments take entire seasons to complete. Last year his chardonnay gently fermented right up until they left for 7 months in Italy, then it kicked off again the following Spring. “I don’t know how many months it fermented for,” he laughs.
Ollie was also able to get his mitts on some very healthy Gimblett Gravels chardonnay from 2023, a season plenty had written off as a disaster. “We were so lucky. So much of what Chateau Garage is about now is trying to hold on to these amazing parcels of fruit. Which is so different to what I thought we’d be doing in the beginning, thinking we’d just get grapes from wherever. But we’ve had such amazing results recently that its convinced me that to have that thread of consistency, you’ve gotta have those relationships with great vineyards.”
While Ollie’s having fun running solo for the first time, he still keeps his secateurs sharpened as a viticulture consultant for five companies across Hawke’s Bay. And new things are also on the boil.
But right now the couple are working that shoe leather and Rebecca is now officially Global Head of Sales. “I’m taking a break from teaching in order to get Chateau Garage into as many glasses as possible around the motu. I’ve discovered that my preferred natural habitat is fabulous restaurants and cool bars, so this is a great job for me!” she laughs. In Auckland you’ll find Chateau Garage at Paris Butter and Homeland, while in Wellington Noble Rot is their best customer alongside Rita and Hiakai.
It might be a backyard operation but some serious coin has been sunk into buying quality barrels and fermenters. “Every dollar earned has gone back into exactly that,” Ollie explains. “Their potential in terms of the quality of what we produce will be quite significant. Sir George (Fistonich) used to always say to me, if I ever had questions about buying anything or doing anything, ‘what will it do for wine quality’. So they’re definitely worth it. Plus we only want to bring in the very best fruit. There’s no point in doing anything otherwise.”
There’s an exciting future ahead for the Powrie’s a couple of crazy kids who met at a dinner party in London back in 1997. “I was impressed by Ollie’s great chat, his sense of humour and easy going nature, and also his total lack of ego,” Rebecca muses. “His love of people, travel, adventure, food and wine has meant we’ve had an insane amount of fun over the last 26 years. Probably should be illegal!” she laughs.