Samantha Connew may originally be from across the ditch but it’s that other Australian island, Tasmania (boom tish!), that holds her heart when it comes to wine. Rather than looking up to the skies and dreaming about making her own Tassie wine, Sam has recently taken the leap and launched her own wine label – Stargazer – which is all made from Tasmanian produced grapes.

She’s doing all this while still living and working in the NSW Hunter Valley as regional manager of the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI). And as though that wasn’t enough, she’s one of Australia’s most respected wine judges.

Samantha Connew

When, why and how did you first enter the wine industry?

It’s the usual story of abject student poverty. I was doing a law degree and an arts degree in English literature and political science at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. (I know, I know…not exactly relevant!) To support my way through uni, I worked at a wine bar for years and years…Let’s just say it wasn’t long before I became hooked on wine and the wine industry and decided to abandon all hope of a possible law career.

I’m pretty sure I made the right choice.

Where has your career taken you so far?

Well, I haven’t been to Africa or South America, but they are pretty much the only continents I haven’t visited so far. I have been extremely fortunate to travel to some fabulous places either to work vintage or for marketing trips. One of the joys of this industry…

You’ve recently started your very own label – Stargazer. How did that come about?

Hah! One of those crazy moments that seemed like a good idea at the time! I was at a loose end after finishing at Tower Estate [in the NSW Hunter Valley] in late 2011, so decided doing a vintage in Tasmania would be fun, having always loved visiting there.

Peter Dredge at Bay of Fires not only gave me a job, but also suggested that I buy some fruit and make some wine. 1.6 tonnes of Pinot Noir later and Stargazer was born!

You live in the Hunter Valley, so why are you making wines in Tasmania?!?

I just love it down there. It may be my cool-climate New Zealand roots, but the fruit is just stunning, and so is the environment. The other deciding factor was the varieties; it was only ever going to be about Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay!

What wines do you currently produce under the Stargazer label? And how and where can people find them?

So far just Riesling and Pinot Noir, but I’m making a small amount of Chardonnay this year also. Best way to find them is to shoot through to the website www.stargazerwine.com.au

There is a complete list of stockists and an online store, as well as some more about me and the Stargazer story.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in starting your own wine label?

I hate to talk about money, because it’s so dull, but yeah, definitely the finance side of it. I paid my first fruit bill on my credit card!

You’re also a judge at the Sydney Royal Wine Show! In fact, you’re the Deputy Chair of judges. Is wine judging something you enjoy? How long have you been involved in the Sydney Royal and do you do much other wine judging?

I first judged at the Sydney Royal Wine Show as an associate in 2003 after completing the Len Evans Tutorial the previous year, and have been there off and on ever since. I judge at about four or five wine shows every year, I guess. And yes, I enjoy it – I wouldn’t do if I didn’t! I love the focus and the intellectual rigour of it, the camaraderie, and I have been so fortunate with my life in the wine industry that I like being able to give something back.

How do you become a wine judge?

As mentioned above, I was lucky enough to do the Len Evans Tutorial in 2002 which is an intensive training ground for wine show judges. I have also completed the AWRI Advanced Wine Assessment Course which was another great learning experience. There are other educational opportunities as well like WSET for example, but I recommend that if anyone is interested in becoming a judge, to volunteer as a steward at their local wine show which is a great insight into what goes on behind the scenes.

When you’re not busy with Stargazer you’re Manager of the Hunter region for the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI). What does that involve?

Quite a number of different projects actually. We have been working on some research projects specific to the Hunter Valley such as identifying links between Semillon phenolics and soil types, which has been fascinating. More recently I’ve been working on extension projects helping grape growers make the most of smartphones and tablets in their vineyard operations.

How and why did you make the transition to that role?

Again, it was one of those ‘out of the blue’ moments. I have always had a close relationship with the AWRI, as we used to do a fair amount of winemaking trials with them when I was at Wirra Wirra. So I guess I was just in the right place at the right time when they were thinking about establishing an office in the Hunter.

What is your absolute favourite wine and food pairing?

Such a tough question, as I love food almost as much as I love wine! Desert island match would have to be confit Duck and red Burgundy though.

As a woman working in the wine industry, have you faced any particular challenges where your gender has ever been an issue?

It’s hard to separate out whether my battles have been because I’m female, a New Zealander or just plain stroppy! I suspect it might be the latter.

What’s your number one wine tasting tip?

Everyone’s opinion is equally valid, no matter how much they know (or think they know) about wine so don’t be afraid to speak up, ask questions and say when you like or don’t like something!

If there was one thing you could tell the sisterhood of wine-lovers out there, what would it be?

Constantly experiment and don’t get stuck drinking one style of wine. There is so much exciting grape growing and winemaking happening in Australia at the moment with different varieties and styles; it’s a great opportunity to discover something fabulous!

And revisit Chardonnay if you haven’t discovered how much it has changed. I firmly believe that we are making some of the best Chardonnays on the planet right now, so get into ‘em!