Lauren Swift

Lauren Swift

Ash Ridge Wines (Winemaker)

“I love solving problems and encountering new challenges.”

Lauren Swift, the winemaker at Ash Ridge Wines, is a rising star in the wine industry. She is energetic and forward thinking, and totally enchanted by wine. Our conversation took place in the winery’s cellar door that features patio seating overlooking grapevines and olive trees.

Lauren grew up in Marlborough, a city south of Blenheim on the South Island. She remembers always working hard, first in the family’s apple orchard, and then after it was ripped out and replanted with grapes, in the new vineyards. Working in the vineyards coupled with attending weekly international food events with “WWOOFers” (aka Willing Workers On Organic Farms) from other countries, inspired Lauren to take a gap year in Great Britain to work with other 18 year olds with a farming background, and she had a great time.

“I returned with no plans but I knew I hated working in vineyards.” As fate would have it, her mother found her a well-paying job in a vineyard in Blenheim. The vineyard was French-owned, and the owners “devoted time and effort to education.” Lauren found much to her surprise that she loved the work! The next year she decided to study winemaking at the Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) in Hawke’s Bay. Her extensive vineyard experience gave Lauren a good grounding for her degree and made her competitive for part-time work pruning vineyards, which provided financial support while going to school.

There were 30 students in Lauren’s entering class, but only 10 graduated three years later with their Bachelor of Wine Science and Diploma of Wine Marketing. Of the 10, four were women, Lauren and her dear friend, Sophie Harris, whom we also had the pleasure of meeting.

Sophie also works in Hawke’s Bay and is an assistant winemaker at Rod McDonald Wines. She is the only woman working fulltime in the cellar. A top student while at EIT, Sophie was awarded the Bragato Exchange Scholarship to study viticulture and winemaking in Italy. She has also worked harvests in South Africa and California. Lauren noted that Sophie is known for her wine intuition and technical knowledge. Sophie, however, is quite modest about her knowledge and accomplishments. When we asked about the winemakers she most admired, Sophie said “. . . those who make great wines, are humble, and are willing to share.”

After graduating in 2012, Lauren accepted a contract position with Chris Wilcock, the proprietor of Ash Ridge Wines, a relatively new family winery located in the Bridge Pa Triangle Wine District of Hawke’s Bay. A few months later, she was appointed the Assistant Winemaker; she was only 23 years old at the time. Lauren worked offsite at a local winery to make the 2013 vintage of Ash Ridge wines. The Merlot she crafted just three months after graduating won a trophy at the Hawke’s Bay show!

Lauren was involved in the design of Ash Ridge’s new winemaking facility, and decided to travel to Sonoma “to work with a Kiwi guy” to learn more about running a winery. Returning in December, she took over as Chief Winemaker. The winery’s first vintage was in 2014, the same year in which it received the Winery of the Year award at the Hawke’s Bay show.

Always looking for a challenge, Lauren entered and won the Hawkes’s Bay Young Winemakers competition in 2015. She went on to the National competition, which involved three days of intense testing on all aspects of winemaking, and again was the winner, which led to her being named New Zealand’s Young Winemaker of the Year. This hard-won honor has put Lauren on the national stage of winemaking. For example, she was selected along with Elaine Chukan Brown, the renowned wine writer, to judge a recent international wine competition.

Lauren has been at Ash Ridge Wines for five years now and could not be happier. She has a long-time commitment to Ash Ridge and hopes some day to be named General Manager to add to her title as Chief Winemaker for the winery.

The Wines. Lauren crafts her award-winning wines from several estate-grown varietals including Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Gris, and Syrah. The current production is around 8,000 cases a year. Her wines have received accolades in international and national wine competitions and high ratings from wine critics.

We concluded our informative and enjoyable visit by tasting the Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and Vintner’s Reserve Syrah, and being red wine lovers, came home with a bottle of the 2015 Ash Ridge Vintner’s Reserve Syrah, a luscious wine with layers of blackberry and boysenberry fruit and a wonderful finish.