It’s been a good decade for winemaker Rod McDonald. The company he founded in 2006, Rod McDonald Wines, is starting to take off overseas while his direct-to-consumer mail order wine club is also flourishing. We spoke to him about retail innovation and the business of wine.
McDonald didn’t grow up with the ambition to make wine. He’d always thought he’d be a farmer, not realising the intersection of winemaking with farming and business. He spent nine years as a winemaker at Vidal Estate in Hawke’s Bay. After being awarded New Zealand Winemaker of the Year in 2006 he left to start his own business, Rod McDonald Wines.
The business is a culmination of several years’ hard graft by McDonald. The first few years of any winery is all about laying the groundwork. The result is a carefully crafted blend of own brand wines including Trademark Syrah, Quarter Acre, Te Awanga Estate, Two Gates and One Off.
“The first few years were about accessing the fruit to produce the wines we wanted and now we’re building the brand,” he said.
Six years on from the launch he is focusing on building his business in the market. The retail side of things is one of the most important parts of his business. Rod McDonald Wines has its own retail outlet with a cellar door at Te Awanga on the Hawke’s Bay coast. McDonald is also expanding his mail order wine club, where he deals direct with the consumer.
In 2012, McDonald partnered with Mike Farrugia to jointly expand the brand further afield. Alongside its domestic distribution, Rod McDonald Wines currently exports to Australia, USA, South East Asia and the UK.
It has recently landed a contract with Buckingham Schenk, one of the UK’s top wine importers. Buckingham Schenk sells about 15 million bottles of wine a year from most major wine countries, so the contact is a big win for the small Hawke’s Bay business.
“It’s a similar process when we distribute overseas, but some complexities are added in,” McDonald says.
One of the biggest problems is understanding the overseas market. In New Zealand, McDonald and his team can mange the brand-building side of the business easily because the market is second nature to them.
“When working overseas we have to rely more on local sales people because they understand their market.”
Having worked as a winemaker for a much bigger player, McDonald learned an important rule of thumb about the evolution of the wine industry.
“It’s up to the small guys to innovate,” he says. “We look at new varieties and packaging and ways we can be different and niche, while also ticking all the boxes.”
McDonald said because his business was relatively small, it can be more nimble in terms of changing direction to suit market demand. Despite the strong emphasis of overseas exporting of his business, McDonald doesn’t want to only have an international reputation. He believes to be a great export, you must first have the respect of the local industry.
“If I think about Burgundy in France, which is renowned on a global scale, they are first and foremost great producers and recognised locally as being top of the game.
“You have to own your home before you can take it overseas and we’re really invested in that as an idea.”
To get customers to buy a product, McDonald believes it is important to be on the ground of a company. He travels the world sharing the business’ story and focuses on building a loyal customer base.