Reviving a Lost Story Through Wine with Caleb Forlong
At 24-years old, Caleb Forlong is the Director of Marketing & Business Development for the only single estate winery in Upper Wairau Valley in Marlborough, Hillersden and spearheading the winery’s growth in the United States.
Caleb originally began his studies in theatre, but after observing the creative, sustainable methods being implemented by his father in the vineyard, he decided to plant himself in the family business and sought to learn as much as he could about wine. Caleb now splits his time between a set a farm clothes at the Hillersden winery in Marlborough and a sports coat in Los Angeles where he is spearheading the brand’s U.S. operations.
In this episode, Caleb and I dig into the story behind his father's vision for making wine in the remote Wairau Valley in New Zealand, how he has been working to grow the Hillersden brand in the USA as a 24-year-old just starting out, and the commitment to innovative sustainability that cares for the land the vines are grown on, people who work with them, and the wines they're making.
They believe that part of the fun of wine is learning about and exploring the many regions from around the world. They also know that it can be difficult to navigate through the vast number of wineries out there. Who makes the best wines from a particular place? How do I get my hands on them? These are the reasons that they started The Grand Tour.
Every month they will highlight a new wine region of the world. They spend that month tasting through hundreds of wines to find what they think best represents the region. They want to take you on a journey through and showcase the different types of wines that help tell the story of that place, while featuring producers that they feel are some of the best; the insiders, the ones who really know what's up.
A subscription to The Grand Tour will get you four different bottles of truly special, sommelier-approved wine for $95 each month (plus shipping), along with expert insight into the stories behind the wines, from the people and places who produce them to how they’re made, tasting notes, pairings and more. So you can go on with your life, leave the research to the geeks, and look forward to enjoying unique, remarkable, trustworthy wines in the comfort of your home.
Find a transcription of the conversation below
In this episode we mention…
Upper Wairau Valley
Hillersden Wine Labels
Rich Cook Hillersden Riesling Review
Adam Kubrock, winemaker
Sustainability at HIllersden
Michael David Winery
Seven Deadly Zins
Follow Caleb & Hillersden online…
Caleb: My name is Caleb Forlong. I’m the youngest son in the Forlong family. We are the family behind Hillersden Wines coming out of the Upper Wairau valley in Marlborough, New Zealand. I love to say that I live in this beautiful place in the middle of nowhere up the Wairau valley. I’m generally either on a plane, in a hotel, or traveling somewhere. I did the marketing and the main sales push behind our family brand and currently, spend a load of time in the United States as we are growing on distribution, sharing our story, and our loves with people over here.
Chappy: Very nice, very nice. Just so people know, how old are you?
CF: I turned 24 in February. So in America, I’ve had three legal years of drinking but back home, I’ve been legal since I was 18 so I got an extra three years in most Americans.
CC: Yeah, nice, nice. That’s the same with me. So, as I told you, I grew up in the US so I’m only 23, almost 24 next month. So yeah, pretty much the same age as you. So, what’s the story behind how your family started making wine in the vineyard.
CF: Sure! That one’s kind of take us back to 2008 and that’s the time in New Zealand where Sauvignon Blanc is still having great big boom that started in the late 80’s. So anybody’s that’s got a little extra cash lying around is encouraged to the agricultural field in New Zealand. It’s one of our biggest industries. My family, my father at that time, got to sell his shares in his engineering firm and so he was transitioning into the next stage of his life. He had a great idea to take the family out of the country and buy this piece of land in the middle of nowhere because obviously, people have been planting vines in Marlborough for over 20 years by this stage. We weren’t getting anything close to the town so dad takes us all the way out. I remember my first trip there. He took me in a camper van and we drove all the way from the north island, all the way down and it was this great trip. I remember having some great memories of my dad, but as we drove up that valley, you’ve got these beautiful, tall mountains on either side. And we pull into what was then a deer farm and I had to listen to my dad talking about his dreams and his visions and I was a lot younger than I am now so I didn’t quite picture it. But I think, more than that, I was just frustrated that there was no internet or wifi or running water. But fast forward a couple of years, I finished up my college degree in the United States. 2014, I went back to New Zealand and now visiting Hillersden for the third time, the first time in a few years. And now suddenly, there are these vines planted everywhere and there is wine that we are able to drink and there is fiber optic internet because of an incident that happened digging an irrigation channel through the state highway. There’s solar power and it is just remarkably transformed. At the same time, my brother’s moved in and he started the Hillersden farm. We’ve got 2000 sheep there, some cattle, deer running around, some of the workers are keeping piglets. And it was just a single moment, I was walking around the vineyard with my dad and listening to the dreams and plans he had for Hillersden that I kind of looked at him and said, “Who have we got selling this vine?” And that’s when I first got introduced to the world of brokers and volume wine sales which is what 90% of the New Zealand wine industry is built on which means that 90% of the wine labels that we get to drink in America from New Zealand really had a specific place of origin or specific wine maker or specific story behind it. That felt like a really great injustice to a 22-year old me. Yes, I’m biased because I’m super proud of my dad but listening to what he had planned, I was, “Somebody’s got to be interested in this and there has got to be a better way.” So my dad let me. I first had to go out and read all these books about how to import wine, wine savant, and I just started to digest as much information as I could. And then, we kind of sat down two months later and I told them how simple and easy it would be to start a family wine brand and bring it to the United States and get distribution and we were all excited and fast forward two years down now and we’re in eight different states across the country. It’s been an exciting dream but I think it all stand from my father and the unique ways that he’s engineering sustainability over in New Zealand, I’ll talk about that a bit later. He’s been a great inspiration to me and we’ve taken everyday as it comes since then.
CC: I like it. So, is that when you went back in 2014? Were you interested in wine then or did you know much about wine or was it just there’s a comeback and all of a sudden there’s vines and you’re like there’s something to this and I need to figure it out?
CF: Yeah, it was definitely a process of learning. I didn’t know much at all when we started. What I remembered about wine was , because my parents didn’t drink a lot growing up. I used to go to my aunt’s place and her and my uncle were just amazing chefs and each night they’d bring out a different wine. I remember just devouring anything they had. I didn’t necessarily soak in everything but the appreciation that they had for food and wine kind of grew on me. Then I used to watch all the Masterchefs, all the cooking shows on TV and I was obsessed with the service industry and then wine for me kind of took it’s own place then I just kind of jumped into it. And I think my first real experience withwine was at a New Zealand wine trade fair in San Francisco. I was standing there, by myself, with a big, big table with one bottle of wine on it because at that time we were only making Sauvignon Blanc and I’m looking around the room and 25 other wine producers who have at least five different varietals on their table, different vintages, and I think my eyes were open to how much is possible in this wine world. And so at that event, I went around each table and tasted different wines and suddenly, what I think I needed personally from wine which is kind of an intellectual stimulation came in the form of how there’s so many different tastes and forms of a single grape varietal. And I started to get terminology and language to describe what my personal likes and tastes were about wine and so it was that fascination that grew inside me. And at the same time, I’ve always been a very creative, expressive person. I love telling stories. I’ve always been a performer and so the chance to step in the marketing role also be that storyteller was really a combination of that intellectual stimulation as a Branding and Marketing Manager was what sold me in it.
CC: So what did you study at university? Which school did you get to?
CF: What school did I go to? I started in New Zealand at University of Auckland. I was an undergrad in Opera Studies and Business Studies. And then in 2012, I had a four-week trip planned to go to New York city to go and study Acting Conservatory there and kind of fell in love with New York and the culture and there’s an American spirit that somewhat identified in New Zealand where people had a passion about their dreams just go for it. Where in New Zealand, we’re a little bit more reserved and don’t want to get our hopes up too much so being there and being immersed in the environment there really encouraged me to want to continue to discover what America was about and what these people were up to. So I ended up transferring to NYU Acting School there and spending three years there before 2014 when I went back to New Zealand and walking in the vineyard with my dad.
CC: Very nice, very nice. So where does, you mentioned before that when the vineyard is in Wairau valley, is that correct?
CF: The Wairau Valley.
CC: So it used to be just basically a deer farm, there wasn’t much there. Is that kind of just the history behind the valley as a whole?
CF: I love this question because getting to talk about Hillersden is super exciting and most people don’t have a great story behind the name of their wines. To sit back a little bit, the Wairau valley, people have been making wines since the late 80’s. There are three main wine grown regions in Marlborough, there’s the Wairau valley, the Awatere valley, we’ve got southern valleys. The Wairau valley happens to be the largest of the valleys since it is where most the wines are made but, most of those wines are made in the lower Wairau valley closer to the town. We’re like a 45-minute drive state highway 63 going out to Nelson, which is the nearest town. And, that far out we started to see subtle differences in the wines and my family really excited championing the Upper Wairau valley as it’s own sub-appellation of the Wairau valley itself. So that’s the designation that we’re with. The story behind Hillersden actually comes from a town that used to be in the Upper Wairau valley. It was started by the New Zealand government back in 1860 and it was a settlement town. People were coming in from all different parts of the world. A lot of them coming over from Scotland and from England, setting up farms and also Hillersden specifically was one of the country’s largest flax mills. So here was this thriving town with the town hall, school, a couple of church buildings, you’ve got your local grocers, markets and things and just this great community that existed and thrived up to World War II. World War II had been when we were introduced polymers and synthetics and the use and need for flax in everyday life just kind of disappeared and so this great flax mill just shut down and all people moved back to town to find industrial jobs after the war. Over the course of 60 years, all those signs that say ‘Welcome to Hillersden’ shut down, the school closed, churches closed their doors, and the history was somewhat forgotten. We originally went into the branding and marketing of our wine by choosing Off the Grid because I wanted something to tell people about to invoke this distance, how remote we are even though we are part of the Marlborough wine community. We were so close in that journey to having all these bottled product and it was two days before we’re about to print off thousands of labels that I got this phone call from my lawyer saying, “This is going to be impossible to trademark it.” That was kind of my first real introduction to the legalities and the corporate wine world and how you couldn’t do something that someone else has already done. Even if they did it five years ago and experimented with the name Off the Grid, they could still come at you and make you stop selling all of your wines. So we stopped the press and we spent a week of late nights just trying to come up with a name. And I think it was the end of the week, I was really getting stressed. I was about to throw in the towel and my dad was just very casually like, “How about Hillersden?” and that’s it. Why Hillersden? He said, “Well, down at the corner of the farm there’s the old Hillersden church.” and I was kind of like, pretty upset at my dad about why he didn’t mention this before. And that’s when we dove into just Googling Hillersden and finding some old records from newspapers that was stored in the library and hearing about weddings and about tea parties and things that used to happen around the church and then the town hall and then we realized that the pub that we go to that’s just a ten-minute drive from where we were living, is actually the Old Hillersden Hotel and since, it has been turned into a tavern and private accommodations for people that run the tavern. They start to pull up these black and white photos of horse-drawn carriages. We got really, really excited about this idea of bringing people back to this town, creating new future for this town, and let’s do it with wine. It’s kind of a cool and amazing journey because we’ve gone full circle. The town closed because there were advancements in technology that meant they didn’t need the flax mill anymore. We are regrowing. We’re at a higher elevation from everybody else at Marlborough. We have stronger winds. We’ve got seasonal flooding. We’ve got frosts. You could not grow wine in there ten years ago. They didn’t have the technology and now that there is technology and we were able to move back in and create a new future. So when we created that label designs, we’ve got Hillersden and then in an aged bottle there’s a creature, part animal, part machine. It just really inspired to just show people our commitment to bringing nature and technology together. To create the right environment for growing great grapes and great wine.
CC: That’s awesome. That’s a really good story.
CF: Yeah, it’s a fun one to tell.
CC: That’s really, really cool. I like it a lot. So what wines are you making now? You started with just Sauvignon Blanc but where has it expanded to?
CF: I swore that I’m never going to go back to a trade show with only one wine. And so my next trade show, I had two. So, we started with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris and then realized that these wines are quite seasonal. You need a certain type of weather. This was what I was trying to discover. There’s such a variety in wine. There’s a time and place for almost any wine at any price and we realized that we needed a red wine. We went Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir. We had Riesling. We had these wines that we were growing as blending components for the big volume wines that are being made in the region. So I don’t know if you know but in New Zealand, the regulation is such that you can call it a 100% Sauvignon Blanc if it has up to 85% Sauvignon Blanc. And then sometimes, I add a little bit of sweetness or flavor from different varietals that are grown. So we have Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling growing on the site. Our neighbor has a big Pinot Noir vineyard and my brother board into that one so, we now have our brother’s Pinot Noir onboard. And then we decided to start making sparkling wines so, we introduced a Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc which was really great because like everybody needs to have a celebration wine in their portfolio and we’ve been able to do some cool things like charity events, creating a lot of excitement about wine. That journey was interesting because we sat down with winemakers and said, “We’re going to make sparkling wine. We don’t make chardonnay. It’s too cold if we are to grow chardonnay.” So we can’t think about chardonnay. We can’t think about brute wine. They asked what we are going to do. I said the question became, “What is New Zealand’s version of Cava? What is New Zealand’s version of Proseco.” And it was a very natural answer that we found in, “Why not make a Sauvignon Blanc that is bubbly?” And so we created a wine that is just, that has all those flavors of Sauvignon Blanc. Our particular Sauv Blanc appellation is slightly more tropical than some of the southern appellations of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc so we really got some bright flavors in there and it’s just blends so well into a light afternoon sipping wine. It’s just gorgeous. And then, we jumped in the Rose train. We were catching up with everybody else there purely because we wanted to make the people feel excited about wines and we see that people are excited about Rose. So, we have Pinot Noir and we’re making Pinot Noir Rose released by the end of this year.
CC: Very nice. I’m excited to see that. So you have these words, I guess you can call them values or ideals, that not only you yourselves but, you want the company to live up to some of them being intrepid, rugged, rustic, industrious, and relentless. What’s the significance of those pillars and how do they kind of flow through not only you, as a part of this family, a part of this company but also, how does that reach the end consumer?
CF: We call them cornerstones and we call them brand pillars. They really paint the narrative of Hillersden. And I guess our goal is to transport people from where they’re at in their days and wherever they’re at to experiencing what Hillersden would be in a glass because I can’t really grab everybody and put them on a plane and fly them over to New Zealand. But I think my mission is to give everyone an experience of Hillersden. I can do that with a glass of our wine. So it’s a sense of, a narrative of Hillersden. Intrepid is about that spirit of adventure that’s taking you to the edge of the world where we grow our wines and Rugged is the idea of the mountains and the different soils and stones and this river and just New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s not easy to grow wine there but if you succeed, you can create some gorgeous wines. Rustic was thrown in there because there is something so charming about wine and about traditions and values that have placed around wine as some have existed for a millennia and we really wanted to honor that. And even though we are really future-focused and trying to innovate and create a future for the wine industry, there is definitely a part of us that knows that there’s a lot of people we have to thank and a lot of experience that we take from those that came before us. Industrious, that’s the future side of things. I’m really pushing forward with technology and trying to find new ways to be sustainable, go above and beyond the call of duty there, It’s our ability to get up everyday and go out and sometimes in winemaking, you’re doing the same thing over and over and over again. You have to wake up and renew that passion every single day. So all of these kind of values remind us the significance of the project we’re taking on and I think the effect that we could have in the wine making community and the environment where we want to succeed. And I guess for the consumer, it’s about how do we put who we are and what Hillersden is in a glass.
CC: And I feel like there is, there really is so much history and story behind the name that it would be difficult to get all of that into a label. There’s so much story and everything that how do you convey that? I feel like those pillars are a good way to show and I guess narrate these all different assets, facets of this wine that you are about to grab and let me just tell you a little snippet of it because I can’t take you with me to New Zealand to show you around.
CF: Absolutely. I think the cool thing is that today with social media and the way the internet is growing is that I can almost virtually take you there. I can show you images and videos and you know, people tweet us, tweeting me and our winemaker. You are able to be connected and my dream is that one day people be able to come and visit Hillersden. I would love for us to be able to renovate the church and restore it’s original state so we can create a tasting room there and have people come. There is a romance about wineries that sometimes I wonder whether people will get married in that church one day because weddings at churches at the vineyards are very popular. It could be a really great, there’s a lot ahead in this journey of reviving Hillersden and figuring out what new history is going to be.
CC: I like that. That would be really, really great and I would love to go visit one day.
CF: You are very welcome.
CC: Love it. Love it. So, as a 24-year old Director of Marketing for a wine company, what does an average day look like for you?
CF: I feel like everyday since we started this journey over two years ago has been different. There’s always been something to learn, somewhere new to visit, some new people to meet, and my role as kind of span from everything from just where we started. We’ve got to figure out how to put these components of glass and label printing and enclosures and wine and bottling and scheduling everything logistic-wise and there was everything creative-wise whereas were working with designers to really tell the story and have the business side of everything. We have to figure out how to sell to the distributors we like to work with. So a single day to me would look like, to have a design meeting in the morning, calling different accounts, and doing some research on the new trendy wine spots picking up or the different distributors across the states because we’re in the process of growing, reaching out to, by the end of the year, to get at least half of the states covered where we can actually sell wine into and have people enjoy our wine. It doesn’t seem to be happening fast enough. Yesterday, I got a phone call. I got a Facebook message from somebody in Australia who’ve been in Pennsylvania and tried our wines there and was just in love with the Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc and asked, “Where can I find it in Australia? I’m so excited! We drank all the stock at this bar.” And I was just like, “You can’t. Sorry!” And it sucks because it’ll be great if wine were simple enough to build a way and say, “Yeah, you can buy it everywhere.” But there’s so many laws and legalities and it’s a physical product and shipping and I want everyone to enjoy the wine. I want them to enjoy it affordably and if everyone was willing to pay $100 shipping, I could probably supply wine to the world. But right now, it’s one step at a time. We have fun if we’re in the office playing music and trying different wines. One of the things at the moment, really exploring other New Zealand wines and getting to figure out where we really are positioned in the whole spectrum of what New Zealand has to offer. We’re always bringing new and figuring that out has been really cool.
CC: That sounds like a really good office that you’re a part of. So, what have been some of the challenges with breaking into the US market?
CF: One of them is definitely there is an impression from Americans sometimes that New Zealand’s good at one thing, which is Sauvignon Blanc, which we don’t believe at all because we have six different wines that we offer and then another one is people think that there is only one particular style and taste of Sauvignon Blanc. Like I shared earlier, even my first experience at a New Zealand trade event, I was running around and I tasted 25 different interpretations of this wine. So when people give me that answer and say that’s why they’re not even, they don’t even need us to send a sample when they have the conversation of bring in new wines, it’s kind of painful. It shows their ignorance a little bit. I get it because so much of what needs to happen in America and around the world is just education. We’ve come so far. New Zealand is now recognized as a growing wine region in the world. I’ve got so many great people to thank for making that happen. That the next step is just showing what else we’re capable of and I think this year, we really had a cool experience with Riesling being a wine competition and this Riesling is going up against Mosul, Germany and all different regions of the world and we took the Platinum award. That’s the first time ever that a New Zealand Riesling has taken the trophy in this competition. And Rich Cook, the wine writer who did a review for it said, “if this is an indication of what’s possible, I hope to see more New Zealand Riesling in the future.” And I just loved that individuals in the American wine community stated issuing challenges to New Zealand saying, “Show us what else you’ve got.” And I’m glad we’re bringing it.
CC: It’s exciting. That’s awesome. If people haven’t actually tried a bunch of Rieslings around the world to have a Riesling from New Zealand, which for Riesling is kind of a new area, it’s a new product coming out to the market essentially, compared for Riesling for the rest of the market, that’s huge. Essentially, you’re facing other wineries that have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. That’s insane.
CF: Yeah, I guess that’s why Rustic and just honoring traditions is hugely part of our brand, partof our psyche because we do know that people have their wine traditions. They have their likes. They have their predispositions about what is a good wine and what’s possible with wine but at the same time, we’re pretty excited to challenge almost every norm out there.
CC: I love it. So, you kind of mentioned about people’s, I guess stigma, about New Zealandwine in general but, due to your age and how young you are, have you found it difficult to get in front ofpeople when in the US market to actually try their wines as a wine buyer or at a restaurant, distributor, or whoever else there is?
CF: Yeah, I mean, sometimes I have issues. I was on my way to a trade show and I lost my passport so for an entire week, I couldn’t actually drink wine at the trade show or present to any store buyers. From that incident, I think the biggest thing is the wine industry is full of people that have great buddies and experiences and friendships and relationships. And when people meet people that they really enjoy in the wine industry, they are for a long time. So when everybody that has buying power seems to be around the age of 50, obviously they’re not people that I had the chance to be buddy with yet. And so for me to come in when they already have favors to other people and to be just so willing to listen is sometimes a rare person to find. I’ve presented wines for people who think that at a first glance that I’m some brand ambassador, someone hired by the company and therefore I wouldn’t know anything about the wine so they won’t questions about the scientific process of wine or the winemaking or the vineyard that they will ask somebody else more seasoned who will have the answers but I think I have to work very hard since we started this journey and asking a lot of questions and learn every day. I think the biggest challenge of being young is that there is too much to learn in this industry and it’s almost impossible to learn it all in a single lifetime, let alone the two years that I’ve been running around Hillersden.
CC: So do you have any specific stories of kind of where you had that inequality where people thought they didn’t want to ask those questions or they just thought you were a brand ambassador?
CF: Not necessarily specific stories but being behind the wine tasting table and people, you can see the look in their eyes. They just divert their eyes. Like when you make eye contact and they divert and walk to the next table just because they see that you’re young, excitable, like, “Oh boy! Too much energy happening on that table. Move on.” But I think in every wine event that I’ve done, we end up being the most popular table because about the time they’ve gone around to everybody else, they eventually end up at us and our story is so fascinating, ever so new, that there’s so much to discover and I think that’s what people love most about wine is discovering, just the process of discovery. It’s been really good. I do do things like last week, I’ve put a new pair of glasses just because I thought they made me look a few years older and I dress a certain way and I always make sure to have a stubble in my face. The little tricks you learn.
CC: Nice. That’s something I’ve had. I guess that’s unfortunate, maybe not, but I think I’ve had like a full beard for the past two or here years. They said a lot of people can think that I’m 30 or something.
CF: I wish I could grow that. I cannot grow a full beard.
CC: So when I’m 50 or 60 but for now, it works for my advantage. What are, I guess, the more solidified or maybe digital marketing tactics and strategies that you’ve been employing to get the name out there?
CF: So, we definitely are on all digital marketing platforms sharing out stories with videos. We recently got a drone down in the vineyard so, last time that I was there, while everybody was working, I was flying around with drones and taking videos of them at work and they hate me for that but I was having the time of my life. So just creating a lot of brand content and being really as proud and loud as you can what you’ve got going on. So many wineries have made amazing things, amazing stories to share. If you tell them day in and day out, you start to get a little tired of it but you have to find a way inside of yourself just to be reenergized, be motivated. I think working as a family is really great that we get to check in with each other and there’s a lot of purpose behind what I do so I’m quite driven to just get out there as often and as loudly as I can. One of the failings I see in a lot of wine brands out there is that this story, often times, they create the label and make the wine and say, “Oh gosh! We need to figure out the story to tell this.” And so, there are lots of wine labels out there that you pick up on a shelf and the message is confusing or especially sometimes you get to talk to one of the brand representatives. The more questions you ask them, the easier it is to stump them because eventually, their knowledge and understanding kind of runs out and what they memorized just have these holes in. So for us, having a real solid understanding of who we are and what we’re trying to create has really benefitted us. So when we find the right people willing to listen, they engage in a way that they would with some other wine brand. We get sales reps excited about us. We get buyers excited about us. We get restaurants that are excited. Sometimes, I had the experience with them, “Oh I want to bring all five wines onto my wine list.” And I’m there saying, “Okay. Maybe let’s go with one, two wines. Three maximum.” They look at your wine list looking really interested but we do get some enthusiastic responses and it’s really, really great because I feel that everybodythat supports us is also kind of supporting my dad’s mission in creating the sustainable technologies that we’re someday able to share with other wine growers. I think what’s really in my mind right now is kind of future-proofing the wine industry. We’ve seen so much variation in the past few years and the different harvest that we’ve had and weather is always unpredictable. Frosts in the last few years driving up in the valley, you can see vineyards that just turned brown. With the altitude, there’s not a lot you can do except my dad’s attitude is, “There’s got to be something we can do.” And when you kind of get into the appreciation of how much resource goes into planting a vineyard, working the vineyard, fertilizing, and keeping the sustainability of these crops, it’s such a huge thing when come harvest time or even in budding time. The frost will sit in and mean that even if you’ve pulled all those resource, you couldn’t get anything out. It’s like I said, one of the things we’re focusing on is future-proofing the wine industry and figuring out whether there are sustainable ways to really make sure that, like what a winemaker says “We’re the defender of the grapes!” we have some noble mission that they make it to harvest. By the time that they make it to harvest, they’re beautifully ripe and ready to make good wines.
CC: So what are some of the specific things that you’ve been doing to help future-proof?
CF: I think the coolest thing, well there are lots of cool things, like I said, when I first went down there, there was no power. Everything now is solar powered. We have solar powered pumps that are drawing water from the river. They take water under three different terraces of the vineyard, all the way up to the top of the hills and how irrigation is gravity fed. And beyond that dad developed a computer software that he can look in his phone and turn irrigation on different parts of the vineyard and he knows exactly how much water is going into the vines and its measured. We can look at how the vines are responding to the amount of water they’re getting. That’s interesting because sometimes what you have to do in order to get a vine to start maturing faster is actually make it struggle a little. There’s this necessary struggle that the vines need to go through. It’s sometimes a surplus of water or fertilizer or something like that. It’s actually harmful and we can start to get this metrics and analyze the vineyard. One of the other big things is frost protection. We’ve experimented with some cool things. Our first idea we were going to create was giant balloons of air that would line the base of the mountain side so as the cool air started coming down, they would try to fit this giant bouncy castle and the flow of cold air would be away from where our vines are. We’re also looking at ways where you can actually improve on frost vent technology to keep that circulation heat trapped at the atmosphere so you don’t have frost sitting there. I think my dad has eight different patents and that’s one of the ones that we’re excited to really work on and develop so we can share with the rest of the valley because like I said, there’s a lot of brown vines after we really have some cold days. It takes like one night, only a single night, where it drops below freezing for you to have massive damage to your vines.
CC: And then you’re done.
CF: You’re done. You’re going to need another year. This is wine. It definitely takes a lot of patience and it’s fun.
CC: Have the balloons worked out?
CF: They didn’t work.
CC: That would have been cool.
CF: It would have been cool. It would have been very cool. It did look amazing. These giant rows of airbags lying across the vineyard but it’s also a hassle to pick up when we were on frost duty throughout the colder months and so everybody’s got to learn something. If it hits a certain temperature, we’ve got alarms going off across the vineyard and people are going out there so it was always, we prefer the frost not to settle. So I’m doing that a few times was enough.
CC: so we’re almost out of time, I just have a few more questions. One of those being, what’s the goal of Hillersden? What is thelegacy you want to create?
CF: For me, personally, it is my parents going to sleep really well each night knowing that people around the world are enjoying their wines and we have this pathway of distribution so that they know that whatever they create, is going to be enjoyed so that they can go on doing things they’re really good at and for my dad it’s obviously his invention and engineering. And so, I would love to see him in his workshop for the rest of his days tinkering away. And if I was able to create an environment that can support the wine community from consumers, I would be so happy. There is no ambition to be a big corporate wine group. There’s a limit to the amount of land, the amount of wines we can create. So, we’ve grown to that in the next five years, hopefully, and really just enjoy continuing to share our story and innovate and then look into having people come to visit us and really experiencing it for themselves.
CC: What are some of your personal career goals?
CF: I think for me, I’m just in love with storytelling and the creative aspect of everything we did to do so I don’t know where that will lead but hopefully some of the skills I learned here will be able to be applied to other people in different industries and just encourage them towards their own successes. I love working on projects and I love launching ideas. I don’t have a great answer other than that right now.
CC: Nice. I think that’s a good starting point. What have you been feeling grateful for lately?
CF: Grateful for? It’s got to be family. We’ve just had Easter and it was a time for us to kind of sit back and reflect on, they’re in the middle of harvest so, to take one day in the middle of all this chaos to reflect on the journey we’re on even though we’re sometimes at each other’s throats and we’ve all got very, very different personalities, it was such as an amazing thing to come together as a family and have a united vision and goal here. They’re the people that I can count on. They’re my continuity and my sanity sometimes. I mean they’re the ones driving me insane.
CC: I like it. So, where can people connect with you online and where can they buy the wines most importantly?
CF: We’re online at www.hillersden.com. You can find us on any social media By searching Hillersden and I guess the best thing you can do if you want to buy our wines is walk in to your local wine store and ask them to bring it in because if we’ve got people who want to bring in our wines into their stores then they can get in contact with us fairly easy by going to our website and if we got the right distribution network that’ll support it, we’ll get it to you. And we have, there’s some pretty strict laws meaning we can’t ship wine out to everybody and sell direct to them. So if you’re supporting Hillersden, you support our mission, and then local wine stores are the way to go then.
CC: Perfect. And this is a question that a lot of people find difficult which you may, if you’ve been trying all kinds of wines in the office, but what is one wine you’ve been excited about lately other than any of the Hillersden wines?
CF: There’s a lot to be excited about and I think this, I know this question stumps people because you want to give like a sophisticated answer like some reserve bottle that you’ve got stashed aside. I don’t personally have the budget to have lots of hundred dollar bottles lying in my cellar. What I do have is, I met some from Michael David winery, one of the daughters of that family winery and their wine project is Seven Deadly Sins. And because I’m a lover of all wines of different price points for different parts of your life, I’m just excited to see just a variety of wine they’ve created and out here in California and I think I’ve got about nine wines from them which she sent me after we met that I have to try and find an occasion.