Wine Talk: Michael Seresin

Cinematographer's eye for detail brought him to Europe; his taste for wine brought him home to New Zealand
Jul 10, 2006

Michael Seresin, 63, was born in Wellington, New Zealand, but left his home country in the 1960s, at a time when sheepherding had more cachet there than winemaking. He settled in Italy, where he developed an interest in wine although he spent long stretches traveling the world as a cinematographer, racking up credits such as Fame, City Hall, Angela's Ashes and, more recently, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. His interest in wine developed into a passion, and he decided to build a new career alongside filmmaking by starting Seresin Estate in Marlborough in 1992. Today the organic and biodynamic winery produces about 35,000 cases a year, mostly of Sauvignon Blanc, which has consistently earned very good ratings (85 to 89 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale), as have the estate's Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The winery also produces small amounts of Riesling, Pinot Gris and a méthode traditionnelle sparkling wine called Moana. It even makes extra-virgin olive oil from trees planted around the vineyards.

Wine Spectator: How did you first get interested in wine?
Michael Seresin: Italy is the first country I lived in when I left New Zealand, which was in 1966. We leased a house in Tuscany, northeast of Siena, right in the middle of Chianti. In a short space of time we got friendly with the Stucchi Prinetti family from Badia a Coltibuono. So I started looking around for a little vineyard or something, and nothing really came of it, mainly because I didn't think I was smart enough to do business in Italy.

WS: So how did you come to start a winery back in New Zealand?
MS: I had dinner with a friend in San Francisco, and he said, 'I had one of the best bottles of white wine in my life last night, and it comes from New Zealand--that's where you're from, right? It's called Cloudy Bay; you've got to try some.' Which I did. To be honest, I'd never been a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, but this was different. When I went to Marlborough, I didn't like the winegrowing area, but I loved the Marlborough Sounds. We got our house first there and then the land. That was pretty much it. It just sort of evolved.

WS: How long was it before the winery became organic?
MS: It was very early on. The turning point was driving around Italy and talking to Maurizio Castelli, who's a winemaker and also makes our olive oil [in New Zealand]. I said, 'It's amazing, it's only the vines growing.' He said, 'It's because they put so much weed killer on.' I just got on the phone and said to the viticulturist at the time, 'We're going organic. It's not up for discussion. No more herbicides, pesticides, fungicides.' Why not treat the land, the soil, the earth as an integral part of what you do, rather than as a medium for chemicals?

WS: And then the move to biodynamics?
MS: Some of the best vineyards in Burgundy are doing it. It has nothing to do with sales or marketing. I just believe it's right. It has elements of a spiritual side, but it doesn't have to. Because in essence it's traditional agriculture--it's how it was done before the chemical regime came along. And wine's been around a lot longer than the chemicals have.

WS: How involved do you get in the winemaking, in terms of the taste and style of the wines, to make sure that you're comfortable with your name on the label?
MS: My involvement is a constant one, but in terms of wine styles, not too much. In '96, when [winemaker] Brian [Bicknell] asked me what sort of Sauvignon Blanc we wanted to make, I said that one thing about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is they're all starting to taste the same. In New Zealand, pretty much what you see is what you get. Therefore, let's try and make one that has more mystery, more depth--the more you drink it, you keep discovering things. I think we've succeeded.

WS: Which are you more proud of, your work in film or in wine?
MS: In a way, they feed off one another. But I love it when we mix them. I had to give a talk to a bunch of film directors, producers and students, and afterward we were drinking the wine. It was brilliant, the combination of the two. I just got a new agent in Los Angeles, and I said if there's ever a social function, and you don't have my wine there, you're history!

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