Man O’ War: A little team with a big heart

May 20, 2019


What’s in a name? A lot of history as it turns out. Man O’ War got its moniker straight from Captain Cook’s journals. The story goes that when Captain James Cook came to anchor during his first voyage around the islands of New Zealand in 1769, he noted that the magnificent Kauri trees at the eastern end of Waiheke Island would make ideal masts for the Man O’ War warships of the Royal Navy. Thus, the name Man O’ War was bestowed upon this special piece of land.

Cook wasn’t the only one to admire the area’s rugged beauty. For over a hundred years, generations of the Spencer family had sailed past the Eastern End of Waiheke Island admiring its spectacular coastline and, with the desire to protect and enhance the land, the family progressively purchased the four contiguous farms that now form Man O’ War Station through the early 1980s. Inspired by the world class wines being grown on Waiheke by Stephen White at Stonyridge and the Goldwaters, the Man O’ War founders began planting the first vines on the rugged hillside in 1993. Over the years, they have transformed the area into a patchwork of vines, covering 150 acres across 76 individual hillside blocks, each with a distinct soil profile, plant density and microclimate to best match the specific terroir on offer. “Our white varieties have been planted on the exposed volcanic hilltops, where they benefit from cool sea breezes, which extends their growing season and gives them great concentration and minerality. Our red varieties are on steep sheltered clay hillsides, which provides intense heat and drainage, promoting serious intensity and depth,” Josh explains.

Man O’ War can now lay claim to be the largest producer on Waiheke Island. “We produce 12 varietals – the largest on the island – and everything we produce is either from vines on Waiheke or Ponui Island, also known as Chamberlain Island. Forty-five of those vineyards are dedicated to Bordeaux, Ironclad, Warspite and our white label red blend. We do a few blends within the portfolio, so it allows us to mix and match the harvest and come up with the best offering with the fruit that we have,” says Josh.

Man O War Wines

Despite the company’s size, Man O’ War runs a tight ship with just 12 full timers. “We all work together, so camaraderie is a big part of what makes our team so tight. Obviously, we have the right people in the right roles, but those roles are very diverse – and that’s all part of the fun. I am a Sales Manager, but come harvest time, I will head out with secateurs and a bucket, or you might find me stomping grapes in addition to being in the office writing presentations or managing the marketing. Whatever needs to be done we get it done. A desk job would do my head in, so it’s awesome to have an ever-changing schedule each week, while adhering to the core of the business,” he says. Josh believes this ‘all hands-on’ attitude ensures a cohesive team that takes enormous pride in the work they do and the wines they produce. “This is a family, not just a job. Our Chief Viticulturist Matt Allen is one of the longest standing employees. He joined Man O’ War as our first and only Vineyard Manager in 1993; he planted the first vines on our land, while living in a home he now shares with his wife Denise and their two daughters, Brooklyn and Gracie. Our Chief Winemaker and CEO, Duncan Mctavish has been with us for 11 years. One thing is for sure, what’s put in the bottle is something we all love.”

Recently, the team decided to create a lager, which Josh says was ‘his baby’. “Because we only need a relatively small amount, our lager is produced off-site. We partnered with a commercial brewer and worked with them to create the style of beer that best suited who we are and that we thought would be refreshing for summer consumption. “Beer is good to cleanse the palate after a couple of wines. A large majority of our visitors are from the boating community and the advantage of beer is that they can take a few back to the boat and crush the cans, so they take up minimal room,” says Josh.

Although the trip to Man O’War is somewhat lengthy and bumpy, thanks to corrugated gravel road surface, visitors say it is a picture-perfect spot to while away the day. Josh emphasises that the team have worked hard to make sure there’s something for the whole family once you get there.

Over the past 12 months the team has been busy creating a commercial kitchen, building a second wedding venue and making sure that they have the right people on board to deliver beautiful, simple food. Josh explains, “The goal is to ensure consistency and quality, and this year we felt we were able to extend our offering and invest more in the bay and our hospitality side of the business.”

While Man O’ War is known for being a fantastic place to spend a lazy, summer afternoon, what many may not be aware of is that they are one of the only wineries open over winter too.  “Over the winter period we will make use of the new pavilion to secure some winemakers’ dinners during our quieter times, so we are really looking forward to that,” says Josh.

It’s not easy running a weather dependent business, something that the team at Man O’ War knows well, particularly being based in Auckland. The Finn brothers summed it up perfectly in their 1992 Crowded House hit, ‘Four Seasons in One Day’. “Mother Nature is tougher on the North Island vineyards,” he says. “As the weather is so variable, we have to work so much harder. That means the chance for vines to become susceptible to disease is a lot higher, so our viticulture practices and spraying techniques must constantly improve in order to get us through ever-changing weather. It all comes down to the vineyard team, stringent with practices and knowledge.”

Josh recalls the particular weather challenges Man O’ War faced in recent years. “2015 was cold, 2016 we had a cyclone and flooding, in 2017 we had two cyclones and flooding, and 2018 we thought would be a great harvest but March hit us with torrential rain,” But Josh says there’s much more to it than just good luck and sunny days. “This exceptional harvest is not all down to nature. The vineyard crew have really learned from previous vintages and have refined our spraying techniques, our vine care, viticultural practices, Duncan’s winemaking techniques have excelled… everything has evolved and adapted to ensure the fruit is of utmost quality come harvest time. This is where our price point gets determined, because everything is done by hand.”

When it comes to caring for the environment that provides for their business, Man O’ War is committed to doing their very best to give back to the land. “We are licensed and registered under the Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand programme. Our estate is predominantly farmland, so we adhere to the highest sustainability practices across both farm and vineyard, and work with the Department of Conservation. We have planted over 150,000 native trees, bushes and plants across the estate.”

And the wine? Man O’ War uses the term ‘old skool viticulture for new world wine’ to explain who they are and what they do, in other words ‘old practices but with a contemporary style’. “Given that people only began growing wine in New Zealand in 1968 and we are pretty young in practice, it makes sense that the wineries here predominantly produce ‘new world wine’. In fact, we’d have to go out of our way to produce old style wines,” explains Josh. He sees New Zealand’s ‘youth’ in the wine industry as a real plus. “It means that we have the ability to mix and match clones and create exciting new flavours without adhering to formatted practices that have been passed down from generations.”

The Man O’ War team appears to be doing plenty right. They are no stranger to awards and some of their top drops have made a serious impression on Bob Campbell ONZM MW, who has recently rated Man O’ War Valhalla Chardonnay 5 stars, with a score of 95/100 and a number 1 ranking out of 24 ‘2018’ New Zealand chardonnays, The Ironclad Bordeaux Blend received 5 stars, 96/100 and ranked #1 merlot blend from Waiheke and finally, the Bellerophon 2016 Syrah also rated 5 stars 95/100 and is in the top 10 Syrah’s currently produced in New Zealand.

Without a doubt, the team is absolutely delighted to receive such an impressive review’s from the man known as ‘Mr New Zealand Wine’, but when I enquire about their recent harvest, Josh’s excitement ramps up even more. “2019 has been a record-breaking year in terms of yield and quality of produce. 2013 was the best vintage that Waiheke had seen in over a decade, however our 2019 harvest has surpassed that year in both quality and quantity, which is very difficult to do. We are really excited and happy with what we are getting off the land,” he enthuses. “We couldn’t be happier with the quality of the fruit that is coming off the vineyards and rest assured, you will enjoy some amazing wines when they are released.”

5 Questions with Joshua Howlett

What is your drink of choice and what food do love you pair it with?

The Man O’ War ‘Warspite’ is a wine that’s often overlooked, but is an absolute Rockstar in a bottle; I would almost consider it as a ‘underdog’ to the rest of our flagship wines. Warspite is a blended red consisting of Cabernet Franc dominant with an equal portion of merlot and Malbec thrown in for good measure. Beautifully balanced and perfect for the winter months.

It’s an easy wine to match with. I usually drink it with a hearty stew, lamb or beef dishes however my favourite match is dark forest chocolate.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Unfortunately in front of the laptop solving the world’s problems one click at a time.

When you’re not drinking a Man O’ War wine, you like to sip on…?

I love a good Scottish Whisky… Ardbeg and Dalmore are my favourite houses however I am loving what Matt and Rachael at Thomsons Whisky are creating out in West Auckland, it’s exceptional quality, well-priced and you’re supporting a local business which provides the feel-good factor.

What’s the best thing about your role?

The diversity within my role has been the key to happiness. Every day’s a school day at Man O’ War… from wearing gumboots on the cliff’s edge of Man O’ War Estate hand-harvesting fruit, to suiting up and presenting our story to the world. Each day has new challenges and every day we learn. Can’t ask for more than that.

Josh has an extensive background in alcohol distribution for companies such as Hancocks, Pernod Ricard, and has many years of overseas hospitality experience in Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. ‘Home is where the heart is’, so he returned to New Zealand in 2010 to settle down and has been working for Man O’ War for the past four years.