Ross Lawson, founder of Lawson's Dry Hills Estate in Marlborough, New Zealand, and a driving force behind New Zealand's switch to screw caps, died peacefully at his home Tuesday evening after a 15-month battle with lung cancer, four days before his 67th birthday.
Lawson and his wife, Barbara, were among the pioneers of the Marlborough region, now known as the home of a crisp, zingy style of Sauvignon Blanc. Having grown grapes there since 1980, they started bottling wine in 1992. All they had in their vineyard was Gewürztraminer. When the Sauvignon Blanc wave came along, they rode the trend, and over the years have made their best wines from that variety. The winery also grows Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir in vineyards scattered around Marlborough.
"The New Zealand wine industry has lost one of its great characters," said Steve Smith, winemaker for Craggy Range. "Ross Lawson is someone of many disciplines who brought an attitude of hard work, sensibility and good humor to the wine company he founded with Barbara, and in the relationships he had with others. He was a classic Kiwi businessman whose opinion I always trusted and company I enjoyed."
Lawson was one of the instigators behind the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative, which promoted the closure on the basis of improving wine quality. The group's efforts have helped push more than 90 percent of New Zealand's wineries to ditch corks and switch to the closure.
In 2001, Lawson bottled all his wines under screw cap—he claimed Lawson's was the first winery anywhere to bottle all of its wines under screw cap. His Sauvignon Blanc 2001 was the first wine in Wine Spectator's Top 100 to be closed with a twist-off.
During his life, Lawson worked as a musterer (someone who rounds up livestock), sheep shearer, trade union organizer and pool builder. He was awarded New Zealand's Order of Merit for services to the community and the wine industry. The winery was also part of the Family of Twelve, a marketing alliance of prominent family-owned wineries in New Zealand. The group includes Kumeu River, Craggy Range, Ata Rangi, Fromm and Felton Road wineries.
"[Lawson] spread the word about Marlborough, New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc in particular," said Michael Brajkovich, owner-winemaker of Kumeu River. "Ross had a great ability to show his excellent wines to the world in a very down-to-earth way that left no doubt they had their roots firmly planted in the Marlborough soil."