Hard working family toasts award-winning feijoa wine

Lothlorien

For Tolkien lovers, Lothlorien was the forest realm of the Elves in the Lord of the Rings. For wine lovers Lothlorien means the smooth, refreshing taste of fermented feijoa.

The DeMeulemeester family, living in the Ahuroa Valley near Warkworth, combined their resources to establish the Lothlorien Winery and organic orchard, and produce 50,000 bottles of certified organic feijoa wine a year.

The wine has consistently featured in the annual NZ Fruit Wine and Cider Markers awards, with the Lothlorien Sparkling Feijoa Medium taking out the supreme award (highest scoring fruit wine) and Graeme Oldfield Trophy (best feijoa wine) in 2013 and 2014.  The Lothlorien Feijoa `n Honey liqueur also won the Best Fortified Wine category in those years.

Father Dale (pictured, top), an American who moved to the Auckland region from Detroit in 1970, planted the first of the feijoa trees after buying the old dairy farm in the Ahuroa Valley a year later. Dale was the first Tolkien lover and called his property Lothlorien, well before the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was mooted.

His son Eli set up the winery, by converting a packing shed, in 1993 with his brother Cy and local winemaker Logan Petly.

Eli’s sister Leah works in the orchard with her father and looks after distribution to the supermarkets. Eli’s sister-in-law Malik is pushing on-premises sales to hotels, bars and cafes in Auckland.

His wife Kim and another sister Amaya share the weekly duties of manning the family stall at the Matakana Farmers’ Market, and Kim has done all the design work for marketing the Lothlorien wine.

The formidable family effort has paid off. Lothlorien is the only specialised feijoa winemaker in New Zealand and its label has become a preferred choice for many consumers, particularly in the Auckland region.

Lothlorien’s peak production was 80,000 bottles in 2008 and though sales were steady for the next six years through the global financial crisis and price discounting of wine, the company is now gearing up for increased business.

“We’ve been working to get ourselves fit for growth and we are ready to ramp up production and sales,” says Eli, the managing director of the winery. His father Dale is the orchard manager and a fellow director, along with Cy and Logan.

“We do a lot of tastings at the Matakana market, food shows and expos and in supermarkets and liquor stores. People say they have wondered about feijoa wine, they try it, like it and buy it.

“People come to the Matakana market from all over the place and it gives us the opportunity to showcase our product throughout New Zealand and overseas,” says Eli.

ATEED’s rural business adviser, Jennifer Dahl, and business and enterprise manager, Jane Finlayson, first met the Lothlorien Winery directors in 2013 and talked about their business structure and sales and marketing programme.

ATEED organised a NZTE Capability Development Voucher lasting two years, and Lothlorien received valuable coaching and mentoring from training provider, Buy Pure NZ (formerly Organic Systems).

“We definitely had a weakness in sales and Buy Pure trained us at a governance and strategic level to develop the front end of the business,” says Eli. “It was definitely worthwhile and it’s still work in progress.

“We now have a clear path and understanding to achieve our goals. We have established a national distribution and marketing programme, and we will likely appoint a full-time sales rep who will be on the road approaching new customers as well making sure our existing customers are happy,” he says.

Lothlorien Winery has headed the feijoa wine market by introducing 200ml bottles for its sparkling dry and medium varieties. “We wanted to lower the risk (of selling) to on-premises, and make it more convenient for consumers to take home a three pack,” says Eli.

Since 1971 Dale has sold parts of the old dairy farm and the property is now 40ha of mixed use - the feijoa and grapefruit orchard (8ha), pasture, exotic forest, regenerating native bush and five houses.

The grapefruit is turned into a pure fruit juice and sold as Poor Man’s Orange Juice. The 1000 feijoa trees produce about 20 tonnes of fruit each year, enough to make 50,000 bottles of wine.

Lothlorien

Only 250 of the 1000 trees are mature and at full production after 40 years. The other trees were planted between two and 12 years ago, so the Lothlorien Winery is confident of having increased yields over the next two decades.

Lothlorien produces six varieties – Dry and Medium sparkling feijoa wine, premium Reserve wine made with the best feijoas of the season, Feijoa `n Honey Liqueur made with organic manuka honey, Apple `n Feijoa juice and Poor Man’s Orange juice. The wines are blended with apple, imported from Hawkes Bay, to balance the acidity.

Lothlorien has 160 outlets, mainly in the Auckland region and spreading to Northland, Coromandel and Wellington. These include 100 liquor stores, 20 on-premises and 40 supermarkets.

The family business is planning to double wine production and sales within three years. Presently certified by Organic Farm New Zealand (OFNZ), Lothlorien is applying for BioGro organic certification that is recognised internationally, and is looking to export its wine to Taiwan.

“We have a partner who has taken the product to Taiwan and was well received,” says Eli. “The fruit was not well known but they liked the taste. Taiwan is regulated for organic use and hopefully we can develop a niche export trade there.

“We can’t grow indefinitely and will always be a niche producer,” he says. “We will continue to work hard and establish long term, sustainable trade, both domestically and overseas, and head towards production of 100,000 bottles a year.”