Touring New Zealand during his gap year, Canadian Wes Johnson never imagined he would return to study wine science at EIT. Like many school leavers, Wes wasn’t too sure about what tertiary course to take. Good at maths, he initially enrolled to study calculus and physics but, intrigued by the fine arts, switched to art and sculpture.
Still feeling uncertain about whether he was on the right path, he took time out to travel in Thailand and New Zealand. When he returned to British Columbia, he worked in his parents’ vineyard and winery where Kiwi contract winemaker Dan Barker suggested he pursue wine studies in Hawke’s Bay.
Dan, who co-owns Moana Park with wife Kaylea, offered Wes part-time work at his award-winning winery in Puketapu, close to EIT and in the heart of one of New Zealand’s leading wine regions. Every year, at the end of vintage, Dan flies out to work as a contract winemaker for several Canadian companies, including Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery in Creston, which Wes’ parents started as “a hobby” and has grown into a thriving business.
The couple planted the former apple orchard in cool climate varieties – Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc – and they buy in Merlot and Cabernet Franc to produce 4000 cases a year. Most of the wine is sold in British Columbia although some also finds its way to neighbouring Alberta.
“Initially there was just one winery in the area,’ Wes says, “but now there are three or four and there are vineyards popping up everywhere.”
Dan, who employs many EIT students and graduates, gained his Bachelor of Wine Science from EIT so he was well-placed to recommend the degree programme.
Now into his second year, Wes is dovetailing studies with working weekends in Moana Park’s winery, vineyards and cellar door while sharing a big house with flatmates in the nearby semi-rural community of Meeanee. “It has been a big learning curve,” he concedes of his move to a new area of study and to another country. He considered studying wine science in Ontario but says it’s been good to go somewhere different. “New Zealand made a really good impression on me when I was travelling here and there are many similarities to Canada – the scenery, the people, the history and the culture.”
Wes Johnson helps with winemaking at Moana Estate.
Initially, he found it “a little worrisome” not having been good at chemistry at school but EIT has provided the support he needed and he’s put in the work to get on top of the subject. “EIT' small classes are good, you get heaps of support from the lecturers. What I like about wine making is that it’s an art as much as a scientific process. It’s something I like to learn, so that makes it quite easy. Because I didn’t have the passion, I didn’t see my career in calculus and physics and I can always pursue art as a hobby.”
Wes will take over Baillie-Grohman’s winemaking after graduating while Dan will continue in a consultancy role. “It’s interesting to find myself studying in New Zealand when I was on track to pick up art studies in Edmonton. It’s definitely out of left field but I feel at home here.”