Misha, the Kitten and the Eight Golden Coins

A Kiwi Travel Adventure by Dear Darling Spouse

NZ Wine Regions from nzwine.com

New Zealand wine growing regions. Map courtesy of nzwine.com.

Hopefully, by now you know that we at The Thirsty Kitten appreciate great stories as much as we do great wines. This post has all the trappings of a modern-day fairytale. It’s about taking real life risks and about following your dreams with a passion. There is even a little buried treasure mixed in for you fortune seekers.

Our tale begins on New Zealand’s South Island in the Bendigo sub-region of the Central Otago wine growing area. Here, in the town of Cromwell, we find the home of Misha and Andy Wilkinson, co-founders and co-owners of Misha’s Vineyard. We originally discovered Misha’s on Twitter several years ago as we began exploring New Zealand Pinot Noir. When my father invited me to join him for a mid-January bucket list trout fishing trip to New Zealand, I couldn’t believe our good luck that Misha’s happened to be right on our driving route from Queenstown to Cedar Lodge, our fly fishing destination near the town of Wanaka. We wasted no time in arranging a visit.

Arriving at the Wilkinson home, my father and I were greeted warmly by Misha, Andy, and their Standard Poodle Bogart, whose official title is Receptionist. After getting acquainted, we hopped into the Wilkinson’s SUV for the ten minute drive along Lake Dunston to the vineyard.

En route, Andy told us the story of the winery. He explained that he and Misha (who hails from Australia) decided in 2001 to leave their corporate careers to pursue their lifelong dream of making world class wines. Living in Singapore at the time and working in sales and marketing for global technology companies, they created a detailed business plan which included a list of very specific conditions that they wanted in a vineyard and winemaking operation. Andy explained that their key tenet from Day One was: “No compromise. Meaning that if we couldn’t find the right property with the right criteria, we would simply walk away.” They decided on Andy’s native New Zealand as the location for their new venture and spent two years searching the South Island for the right parcel. Their spectacular 140-acre vineyard is ample evidence that they succeeded in holding true to their primary tenet. With 65 acres planted, the property stretches from 210 to 350 meters above sea level and overlooks glacial Lake Dunston. By 2004 they had planted their first Pinot Noir vines, and by 2008 they had their first release.

Ah Foo’s House

While touring the vineyard, Andy told us that the Bendigo sub-region was first planted with vines in only 1998. Before then, the area was known for producing some of New Zealand’s finest wool from Merino sheep. The name Bendigo comes from the town of the same name in the Victorian gold fields of Australia, from which many miners migrated during New Zealand’s gold rush in the late 1800s. Andy noted that while developing their property, they discovered several gold mining camps with artifacts and remnants from Chinese miners who had come from Canton. To honor the memory of these miners who had staked their dreams on the very same land Misha and Andy had bought for their own, the Wilkinsons painstakingly reconstructed a stone mining hut that would have housed several miners in that era, naming it Ah Foo’s House after an actual miner who had migrated to Bendigo from China. Misha’s uses the house for periodic wine tastings, but in the winter it serves as much needed shelter from the cold winds for vineyard workers during work breaks and lunches.

The “Lucky 8” Vines

Just below Ah Foo’s House, there is a prominent row of eight Pinot Noir vines called “The Lucky 8 Vines.” Andy explained that throughout the process of developing the vineyard, they noted that the number eight kept reoccurring. The property happens to be situated adjacent to State Highway 8 and is located exactly eight kilometers from Cromwell on Sheeprun 238. As karma would have it, eight happens to be a lucky number in Chinese culture and is associated with strong intuition and insight. At their 2004 groundbreaking ceremony, Andy and Misha placed eight antique golden coins under the eight vines as a symbol of returning the old gold to the earth to bring in the “new gold” of Pinot Noir. Andy further noted that the wine produced from these inaugural eight vines is sold exclusively through The High Roller Club at the Singapore Sands Casino and is appropriately named “The Lucky 8.”

The Wines

Back at the Wilkinson home in Cromwell, we tasted the 2009 High Note Pinot Noir, the 2010 Lyric Riesling and the 2009 Dress Circle Pinot Gris. I found all of the wines to be wonderfully balanced and refined without losing any intensity of the fruit. Misha explained that the “High Note” was inspired by her opera singing mother, in a nod to the pinnacle of every opera performance. The Dry Riesling was wonderful and crisp with a lovely hint of mineral effervescence on the finish. And while we don’t profess to be huge fans of American Pinot Gris, I found the Dress Circle Pinot Gris very much to my liking–clean, tart and well balanced in the vein of the Old World Pinot Grigio from Italy. Misha explained that they intentionally hold back all of their wines for release two to three years longer than many of their peers, preferring to warehouse them in the bottle to maximize the intensity of flavor and structure of the fruit.

Under the careful direction of young and upcoming winemaker Oliver (Olly) Masters, Misha’s produces roughly 11,000 cases annually with their estate grown fruit. Two-thirds of their production is Pinot Noir with the balance coming from the four major cold-climate white wine grapes: Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. At harvest, all grapes are hand picked in small batches sometimes over the course of a month, depending on weather. Misha said, “Olly will be very selective in terms of which rows, which plants and even which individual clusters to pick.” This meticulous care is also reflected in the fact that the vineyard is was granted “Sustainable” status from the very rigorous New Zealand Winegrowers certification program.

We can’t help but be impressed at the level of success Misha’s has achieved in such a short time, having grown to a global brand exporting to 17 countries. Named by Decanter Magazine as one of New Zealand’s Top 20 Wine Producers, Misha’s has received high praise from many well respected critics with New Zealand wine writer Michael Cooper calling their Riesling and Pinot Gris, in particular, “potential classics.” Last month, Misha’s was invited to participate in an “Icon Wines of World” tasting event in London hosted by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Clearly, Misha’s is a winery to watch (and sip!) on the global wine scene.

As we bring this fairy-tale-come-true to a close, we salute all of those like Misha and Andy who follow their dreams and pursue their passions in search of new found treasure. And when that treasure turns out to be world class wine, so much the better! Cheers Mate!

Misha’s Vineyard does not have a public tasting room, or “Cellar Door,” as they are known in New Zealand. While their wines can be purchased through their website, international shipping fees to the U.S. are rather prohibitive. Luckily, Misha’s is available in the U.S. retail market in the NYC metro area and through at least one on-line retailer we found in a quick search.


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