Larry McKenna, the longtime winemaker at Zealand’s Escarpment winery who is hailed as “Prince of New Zealand Pinot Noir”, will retire from the Martinborough-based winery after this year’s harvest.
Known as “Larry McPinot” to some, it’s difficult to imagine New Zealand wine without the Australia-born winemaker.
Having served as winemaker and CEO of Escarpment Wines for 23 years, McKenna is recognized widely as a Pinot Noir pioneer in New Zealand when mass focus was on its Sauvignon Blanc.
The reason for his retirement? “It’s about time,” he says with signature self-deprecation, “I think I’ve done what I can for Escarpment — there’s a huge future, but I can’t contribute much more.”
It’s fair to say the value of McKenna’s contribution has rippled far beyond Escarpment, “Larry was at the forefront of developing the reputation that NZ was capable of producing world-class wines,” explains Bob Campbell MW, “Sauvignon Blanc may have opened the door for the world to learn more about New Zealand Wine, but Pinot Noir raised the status of New Zealand wine globally.”
“He identified early the potential that Pinot Noir could be,” says Master Sommelier Cameron Douglas, “Larry could have taken his talent anywhere but he chose Martinborough and set about putting his efforts into the growth of Escarpment, Pinot Noir, Wairarapa and New Zealand wine in general. He is a leader first, a visionary second and a friend always. A gentleman of the industry. He had a vision and he’s seen it through.”
Thankfully, McKenna is leaving Escarpment in the capable hands of an energetic young team led by viticulturist Rowan Hoskins and winemaker Tim Bourne, with the backing of Australia’s Barossa wine marque, Torbreck Vintners, who purchased winery in 2018.
This is a significant investment in New Zealand for the company — one that shows the undeniable belief and potential of New Zealand, and particularly Martinborough, Pinot Noir. “We’d been on a three-year journey of canvasing districts around the world. Martinborough had identified as a key district for the variety. We liked the tension of the wines, they were really structured. That’s in keeping with Torbreck,” says Torbreck Chief Winemaker and General Manager Ian Hongell.
Torbreck has spent the last three years working alongside McKenna and his team at Escarpment. “Escarpment’s future has never been brighter because it has an unconstrained opportunity to fulfil its potential,” says Hongell, “Larry has been the foundation and done much of the hard work, and now his protégé’s are able to take the baton and break new ground.”
Torbreck also recently invested in a state-of-the-art new winery at Escarpment, which will officially open later in 2022.
Incoming senior winemaker, Tim Bourne, says, “Torbreck have been incredibly committed and generous — given us everything we need. They’ve invested in Escarpment, the region and its people” On McKenna’s retirement, Hongell says, “Succession and change is difficult anywhere. Larry’s decided to leave Escarpment on his own terms and he will always be welcome back. My hands and my heart are open to him, and we hope he remains connected to what we do. He’s someone we respect very much.”
“When I arrived in New Zealand there was very little pinot noir grown in the country,” McKenna reminisces, “To be involved for 36 years in Martinborough and watch it develop has been fantastic.” When asked what’s next for him, McKenna is philosophical, “I’m not the sort of person to do nothing. I can’t see myself not working to some extent. It’s a huge decision. But I enjoy getting out of my comfort zone.”
So, what does the future hold for Escarpment? Hoskins and Bourne are filled with optimism, “It’s about being respectful to the past but also grasping the opportunity to take it to the next level — Larry’s set this place up from nothing and he’s put it on the map. It’s an incredible thing. Now it’s time to carve our own path here, to let the unique characteristics of our vineyards speak for us through the wines,” Hoskins states emphatically.
“Escarpment has an amazing story,” says Hongell, “Martinborough is an amazing region. We value it immensely. The investment we’ve made already reflects that. We’re ready to use our expertise to tell that story to the world.”