Dr. Glen Creasy
University Lecturer, Mentor, Consultant and Grape Guru
Glen Creasy is a Canterbury based viticulturist/grape guru who dons multiple hats such as University lecturer, co-winemaker, mentor, researcher and consultant-- not to mention husband and father. He has written books, published many academic papers, contributed several entries to the Oxford Companion to Wine, and wrote a chapter about viticulture for "The Wine-Drinker's Guide to the Vineyard" by David I. Jackson. He has spent much of his career mastering the art of growing exceptional grapes and has taught many of New Zealand’s greatest viticulturists and winemakers. It is his emphasis on education, research and passion for producing better quality grapes in cool climate that really struck a chord with us.
Originally from Ithaca, New York, Glen was first introduced to viticulture through a series of fortuitous events.
WF: Your family has history in farming, can you tell us how you got into grapes?
GC: Historically the family on my dad’s side has been involved with farming for a long time. There’s that [points to picture of chicken on his office wall] the Creasy strain of chicken that my great great grandfather produced. There’s also a barrel stencil that my great great grand father used to use on his apples on Long Island that were sent to the city back in the days when they used to ship them in barrels.
My dad didn’t grow up on a farm but used to work on a farm in Pennsylvania and got bitten by that bug. And although we didn’t have a farm when growing up my parents always used to have some form of property like 15 acres of woodland where we used to tap the maple trees and collect the sap and boil it down to maple syrup. We used to collect our own wood, collect our own huckleberries. So I grew up wandering around in rural areas.
Glen obtained his bachelor's degree at Cornell University and began specialising in grape production partway through his studies. At about the same time his parents, Le and Min Creasy, started developing a small commercial seedless table grape vineyard.
GC: There were a number of people developing seedless table grapes for the cooler climates. Not very well known, but it was being done. My parents saw a niche market and bought land that had previously been used for corn and wheat to plant seedless table grapes. They bought the land about 1996 and planted their first vineyard in 1997--which is coincidently about the same time I was getting interested in grapes.
During his studies he worked alongside viticulture greats like Bob Pool.
GC: He was a very cool guy and was my mentor who got me into grapes
As an industry newbie Glen took to research early on. His first projects included the factors that affect the coloration of table grapes and mechanization in the vineyard.
GC: That’s what got me hooked into grapes.
Fascinated by the performance of grapes in cool climates, Glen travelled to the other side of the country to study in grapevine physiology at Oregon State University, eventually emerging with a Masters and PhD.
GC: That was a really exciting time because at that point the Oregon wine industry was shooting up in terms of its notoriety through some of the pioneers. Also when I was there phylloxera had been discovered so there was this whole thing about rootstocks and redeveloping vineyards. I loved the lifestyle.
Still hooked on cool climate viticulture and now joined by his wine guru wife, Kirsten Creasy, Glen took up his current position at Lincoln University where he is involved in teaching and research programs, as well as consulting to industry.
Although recent changes in government funding has made viticulture and wine research a lot more difficult, Glen says there is definitely a lot of collaboration happening both within and outside the wine industry.
GC: At Lincoln we have such a wide range of expertise that covers the whole spectrum of the wine industry. From pre-planting to consumer interaction with wine we have been able to gain some great results, like Jo Fountain and her research into wine tourism and cellar door sales. Val [Val Saxton, University Lecturer at Lincoln University] is also supervising a student, Andy Kirk, who is working on a robotic pruning project with University of Canterbury.
WF: It sounds like there is a lot of cooperation at an academic level, is there as much cooperation and collaboration within the industry?
GC: What happened after 2008* is a good example of how the industry has really good communication and is able and willing to act for the greater good and not the individual because people did limit their yields quite significantly. That only came about because of the cooperation between the wineries and the grape growers as well as the help of the NZ Winegrowers.
NZ Winegrowers is a key component to our industry. I’m still convinced that one of the reasons NZ wine has done so well in the last 10-15 years is because there is one entity that represents us overseas as a generic branding identity. Whereas in other industries, or even within wine industries in other countries, people become divided because they start competing with one another. I think the combining of the winemakers and grape growers to form NZ Winegrowers was a very clever.
*2008 was a record-breaking harvest for NZ. The harvest bounty led to huge volumes of wine and, as a consequence, an unfortunate supply imbalance in the market.
WF: How does NZ Winegrowers support the research?
GC: Discussion for research happens at all levels, from CRI to Plant and Food to the government to NZ Winegrowers. Research focus has shifted through the years. We’ve looked at how viticulture practices can influence Sauvignon Blanc, generating new vine materials, growing new vines better and now it has moved into low alcohol wines.
WF: What are the opportunities and challenges for viticulture particularly
GC: Climate change is a big one. Another is based on how the most popular and well-known region in NZ is almost completely planted out. So then the question is how do you develop and grow outside the boundaries of Marlborough? Where those boundaries end I don’t know, but we’ll be pushing the limits of viticulture for sure. We may also see people pushing into regions that are lesser known but where the land is relatively cheap and produce good quality wine. So Canterbury is probably one of those areas. There are a lot of areas in Canterbury that are potentially developable especially as global warming takes hold.
Another question with regard to global warming is whether we will be able to continue to produce the style of wines the consumer wants. So that will also push people into areas that are cooler now, but may produce a Marlborough style wine in a few years. We may need to consider renaming things, or blending to make sure that we can supply the demand.
WF: How does the industry manage overdevelopment and as a roll on effect oversupply?
GC: NZ Winegrowers surveys NZ wineries and determines what the sales forecast are for the next 5 years. They then summarise and disseminate that information to everyone in NZ. They also disseminate information about who is planting what and when it is going to come on stream. It gives people thinking about planting grapes or developing a winery the opportunity to decide whether putting in 500 hectares will fit in with what everyone else is doing-- whether the market can bear new planting
WF: Will growth level off naturally then because there is a limitation on plantable areas such as Marlborough?
GC: Since 2008 people should be more cautious about investing in vineyards. I’m also seeing people redeveloping their vineyards to be more efficient. Planting density is going to go up, so there will be more production per hectare while still maintaining quality.
WF: Are there potential varieties other than Sauvignon Blanc that would suit NZ or do people only plant what they’re sure people will buy?
GC: It’s hard to say. That’s sort of following the leader thing, but playing around with other varieties will mean we discover the little speck in the pearl. But you can’t predict what it’s going to be because it depends on so many factors. For example Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is entirely serendipitous. It just happened to be that things came together and somebody said some nice stuff about it and everyone else sort of agreed.
Pinot Noir was a little different whereby people did a fair amount of planting without necessarily knowing there was a market there. They took the punt and turns out that NZ Pinot Noir is now firmly established. It is a lot harder than just stumbling over something and knowing that they have something unique. The key will be people who continue to experiment and not afraid to make something different and put it out there. So for instance making an Albariño like it’s made overseas is such a lost opportunity because that’s not how Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc got to be popular. It will be up to the pioneers to experiment.
WF: Because NZ seems to be producing wine with such unique characters; do you think that our wine is best suited for an overseas market who sees that individuality?
GC: NZ products have an amazing amount of character and individuality. And is great value for money. You can buy a really nice Australian red wine relatively cheap, but most NZ wine has more character than that. Some people may not like that character while others might love it. Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent example of this. Some are very tart and some are really in your face but that appeals to a lot of people. They have character, they have personality, and that’s why they are successful in the overseas market.
Our domestic market has changed a lot in the last 20 years. New Zealanders have more idea about regions, better expectations about the wines they drink overall. New Zealand’s domestic market is half a billion dollars, so there is obviously a lot of value in selling locally.
New Zealand accounts for 0.9% of global wine production. Ninety per cent of the world’s wine drinkers have never even tasted New Zealand wine; because of that there is still definite potential for growth.
WF: Is there an opportunity to move people up that consumer curve? To go from entry level wines to the next level?
GC: The average punter will pay $10 for a bottle of wine and think that’s pretty good, however, we do have a very steep consumer curve. Most wine is sold under US$5. When you get up to the $10 range the percent of buying market drops to 20%. Get in the $15 price range and you’re looking at 8%. The reality is that the size of the market spending $40 on a bottle of wine is really small. As people learn more about wine they discover new wines and end up spending more on better quality wines. When you learn more you go into it a lot deeper. It’s the same with sport, food and wine. It’s so interesting to see people starting to learn about wine and think, wow, you’ve got such a journey ahead of you.
WF: How do the small producers survive with such huge players who sell cheaper wine?
GC: Quality is different at the level of wine you are trying to sell it to. Someone buying a $15 bottle of Pinot is going to have different expectations about the wine they’re buying compared to someone buying a $40 bottle of Pinot Noir. For me the big guys are really important because they can satisfy supply demands that small producers could never do. That volume exists at lower price points. Small producers just can’t produce cheap wine and supply demand at that scale.
As with any industry you need to have the bread and butter to pay for the other things. For example a lot of automobile companies will have a flagship car and don’t make any money on it. But the halo effect that car has on the other cars they make is how they make all their money. It’s the same with wine!
Large companies, like Pernod Ricard, are great for the industry because they are very interested in research and have access to international information. They influence a lot of people growing grapes because they give them management advice or they buy equipment and other people see the equipment working and invest.
WF: NZ prides itself as leaders and innovators. Do you think that we are?
GC: The bigger the industry gets the more emphasis there will be on research and innovation. Back when I first arrived in NZ the industry was totally focused on expansion and very little focus on development. As a result of 2008 the industry has had time to think and be more measured about how to expand and maxmise efficiencies. We are now looking at different ways to do things and emphasis has come back to research. Right now the funding isn’t hugely available, but industry people are becoming more interested.
Last year grape levies were so great that growers actually got a refund. For me that surplus is a tremendous opportunity to invest in the future of the industry and do more research. It would be great to know from the industry whether we could canvas this money and use it for research.
NZ Winegrowers are very efficient in getting the information out. Fact sheets are coming out all the time now. And that’s an easily digestible bit of information that the industry can take away. NZ Winegrowers are really proactive with that, for example bringing in international speakers for their national conference. The New Zealand Society for Viticulture and Oenology (Glen is the current President) has been talking about hosting the International Cool Climate Symposium again, bringing more knowledge from abroad for NZ people to see. I think for such a small country we have done tremendously well. Our uptake of new technology is really impressive too.
Things are better for smaller producers now too. The market has changed with the use of social media. You can be a really small producer and still have access to a huge number of people that may be interested and willing to pay for your product. Everything you need in order to sell your wine including having access to market, online payments and getting your story out to the market is much easier now with social media and other technology. We’re far better off now than 20 years ago.
Thanks so much for your time, Glen.
You can find out more about Glen and his amazing work via his Lincoln University profile http://www.lincoln.ac.nz/Staff?StaffID=Creasy%20Glen. If you would like to get in contact with Glen email: firstname.lastname@example.org