I first met the ruggedly handsome (young) Ben Glover in the late 2000s at Wither Hills, experimenting with various pinot noir winemaking techniques. He started as assistant to Brent Marris in 1998 and took the helm following Brent’s resignation. My enduring memory of that meeting was his infectious enthusiasm coupled with winemaking geekiness. Even then, he deftly wielded the skill of cutting through the pretence that gathers around wine culture; something I’ve come to view as one of his hallmarks, which is interesting because he’s not anti-establishment. He left Wither Hills in 2012 to make wine for the Accolade Wine Group’s Mud House and Waipara Hills brands. Behind the scenes, Ben was quietly transforming the family vineyards into the Zephyr wine company, before leaving Mud House to focus on Zephyr in 2016.

Many winemakers, like musicians and artists, invest a lot of themselves into their wines. This tends to make their wines an extension of their beliefs, choices and hard work, and their egos end up intertwined in the successes and criticisms of their work. It is therefore all the more surprising that Ben does not have a hint of ego about him despite being lauded as one of the foremost winemakers of his generation. He remains inquisitive, open-minded and disarmingly humble about his achievements while openly sharing what he knows about wine and winemaking. And I think that is what makes him one of the most welcoming wine judges around.

I have had the distinct pleasure to judge in wine shows with Ben in the many capacities he has held over the years. Wine judging in New Zealand and Australia is largely an internal thing that has its roots in peer-supported quality improvement, with most judges doing it for the love of the industry and to contribute towards raising standards as a whole – they are seldom paid for their commitments of time. Ben is a stalwart of the judging circuit; on top of regular appearances as a wine judge, he has also chaired the Bragato Wine Show and the Marlborough Wine Show, co-chaired the New Zealand Wine of the Year awards and served as chair of the Pinot Noir Conference. In these positions he actively seeks and openly pushes for diverse representation in the world of wine, inviting different voices and opinions to expand the industry’s horizons.

In January 2020, Ben became the chair of Cuisine’s wine-tasting panel. In this role he has helped guide the direction of Cuisine’s wine recommendations towards increasingly current points of view, in keeping with the changing landscape of wine around us.

To understand how a wine judge can advocate for change, let’s lift the lid on how judging works. Rooted in technical assessment, judging harks back to a time when a good wine tasted approximately like it was meant to and a bad wine was undrinkable. Tasters measured objective traits such as varietal typicity, cleanliness and correctness. This became less relevant when winemaking standards improved. What was once helpful in pushing quality forward now started to discourage individuality, rewarding wines that were predictable and technically correct over alternative expressions. Since judges were usually winemakers, they also favoured more technical judging. More modern chairs, such as Ben, recognise that the drinking public and many of those who sell wine in restaurants and wine shops have different criteria and preferences than simply a faultless wine – intrinsic but less easily quantifiable qualities that elicit excitement in a drinker encountering something different. To give a voice to those opinions, judges of different backgrounds, professions and skills are needed. But that’s not all: these people require training and fluency in the wine show system to contribute meaningfully, something that takes time; and it is never easy to incorporate new, divergent points of view into something that has operated as a well-oiled machine for so long. This is where Ben’s default cheeky and mischievous manner merges with the ‘getting things done’ leader type that he activates when it is required.

Ben has also found another way to drive change for New Zealand wine at a regional level in Marlborough. Four years ago, he joined forces with fellow winemaker Rhyan Wardman to purchase the Seresin winery, which they converted into The Coterie, Marlborough’s cooperative organic winery for small-batch wines. In an economic environment where capital is getting harder for young aspiring wine producers and winemakers to secure, shared or rented winemaking facilities are a necessity. For small organic producers options are more limited as the large facilities are generally not organic. The Coterie seeks to fill that need and to create a sense of community among those who work there. It is a shared space that is open to new ideas that would be too difficult to implement in larger facilities: alternative winemaking vessels such as clay tinajas, bottling of pétillant naturel, low- and no-sulphur winemaking. Ben sees The Coterie as a wine workshop and a place of experimentation as much as it is a commercial production facility, creating an environment where a vision of a future Marlborough can coalesce.

One of the lesser-known facts about Ben is his participation in the inaugural Len Evans Tutorial 2001. The LET, as it is known, is an otherworldly five-day wine seminar held in Australia that famously involves 150 often ludicrously rare wines being judged blind, including several of the world’s most expensive pinot noirs. This places Ben in a very exclusive elite of wine people in Australasia who can call themselves Len Evans Scholars. So, while he’s not anti-establishment, he operates parallel to the establishment and is able to ‘cross the streams’ with ease. And he does that by harnessing one of the most Kiwi traits of all: treating people as people rather than according to who they work for or what that represents.

After more than two years as Cuisine’s tasting panel chair, he is stepping down to focus on his other projects. Stepping into his shoes as chair is another wine- show veteran, the urbane and technical winemaker Simon Nunns, who helmed the Cooper’s Creek winemaking team for 22 years before departing in 2019. So long Ben, and thanks for all the fish. ■