What started off as a quick way to make money for skiing, winemaking has turned into a career spanning almost four decades for Tony Bish and ignited a love affair with chardonnay.
Few people enter the wine industry with the goal of making some quick cash, but Tony Bish did exactly that when he got a job over vintage at Corban’s Gisborne winery in 1981. He worked 84 hours a week to fund a season skiing at Mt Hutt. He also got bitten by the wine bug and worked at Vidal for the next three vintages.
Bish signed onto a correspondence course at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga [Australia] and graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Oenology. While studying for his degree he co-founded Sacred Hill Wines in Hawke’s Bay with Mark and David Mason in 1986.
Nurturing this fledgling venture called for more cash, so Bish headed to Central Otago to work as a winemaker at Rippon Vineyards. It was a pioneering role, working with the region’s first commercial vineyards and wineries, and was followed by a three-year challenge establishing French Farm Winery on Banks Peninsula from 1990.
By 1994 Bish had returned to a considerably enlarged Sacred Hill as senior winemaker with wife Karryn and the first of their four children in tow. His reputation as a winemaker blossomed into ‘rock-star’ status with the help of Sacred Hill’s Special Selection wines, chiefly the Riflemans Chardonnay.
Now a consultant winemaker with Sacred Hill, Bish is forging his own way forward with a future exclusively focused on chardonnay. He and Karryn launched Tony Bish Wines in 2013, and they now sell four chardonnay styles direct in NZ and around the world.
Tony’s creative spirit was unleashed in 2013, following a trip to South America where he experienced wine produced in egg-shaped tanks. A plan to import these tanks was abandoned once the exorbitant price of freighting over two tonnes of concrete was confirmed. Instead, with some Kiwi ingenuity and local know-how from NZ Tanks, Tony built New Zealand’s first concrete egg fermenters.
Eggs have now become Bish’s preferred means of fermentation in his pursuit of the perfect chardonnay. The country’s first concrete egg chardonnay was launched in 2015 and he now has three concrete eggs filled with fermenting juice, plus an impressive Ovum imported earlier this year. It’s a massive sculptural giant made from French oak that holds the equivalent of 2,400 bottles.
He recently opened Tony Bish Wines, his new Napier base within The Urban Winery in Ahuriri. It’s a spectacular setting within an historic Art Deco building, which now houses a working winery, a cellar door and a space for gourmet experiences as well as the distribution centre for Tony Bish Wines. For Bish, it’s an inner-city sanctuary dedicated to producing world-class wine. It’s a bespoke space where he can handcraft his beloved chardonnay, using innovative techniques.