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‘I feel a part of Auckland’s village.’
Gems in this
For Jing Song, wine holds the magic to transport you through time and space. This connection to the past plays strong in the wine entrepreneur’s work, with recollections of her grandmother’s cooking and her upbringing in China informing her experimental and highly–awarded approach to winemaking.
Jing’s childhood was spent around her family table in Chongqing, before she made the solo move to New Zealand at age 14 for schooling. Finding herself faced with a foreign culture — and a new language — she tackled the challenge head-on and built a new home for herself in Aotearoa. Then, years later, with no background in viticulture, a chance encounter sparked Jing’s interest in wine, and inspired the idea for Crown Range Cellar. Since, Jing’s creative journey has seen her traverse through the Gobi Desert with fellow winemaker Grant Taylor and jewelry magnate Sir Michael Hill, collaborate with Bordeaux wine legend Patrick Léon in France, and shake up the often insular wine industry with her wins at the illustrious International Wine & Spirit Competition. Now based in the charming pocket of Parnell in Auckland, we chat to Jing about her grandmother’s cooking, overcoming challenges, crying on flights, and her Parnell Travel Playbook.
On where you’re from
I was born in Chongqing, a mountain city with rugged, steep and gorgeous terrain, surrounded by the Yangtze River. It's so hot and humid in the summer, up to 40 degrees or more. Even though it's so hot, I remember seeing people sitting outside on the street, eating hot pot. Some of the old men would take their shirts off, almost naked and sweating so much. Oh my god, it was something else.
On memories of your family table
My grandmother was an exceptional cook. I was very close to her. Even now I close my eyes and I can still smell her cooking. My favorite was the five-spice, slow pork belly, with star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, fennel seeds, and the five tastes that come out — sweet, bitter, sour, salty and savory. Most weekends, she would have the family gathered together around the table. We would share 10 to 15 dishes with a rice bowl in front of us. I wondered, ‘Why are we sitting around this giant round table?’ And my grandmother would always say, ‘In traditional Chinese culture, this symbolized a family always together, in harmony’. It’s called tuan tuan yuan yuan. She would prepare the food for three days, including everyone's favorite. It was important for us to sit around and share the dishes together.
On touching down in New Zealand
I was 14 years old and my mother sent me to Christchurch with the impression that I was studying English and having a holiday. When I arrived, I couldn't believe the air was so fresh and transparent. Then I found out that my parents planned to make me stay in New Zealand. They had terminated my school back in China and I wasn't properly enrolled in a high school in New Zealand. I was so scared and panicked. But with a bit of help, I interviewed at St Andrew's College. I'd only been in the country for about two months and could speak about 10 words. Somehow I was accepted. I won the English prize and history prize when I finished school — that was probably one of my biggest achievements. Then I became a scholarship recipient of KPMG in Dunedin, so I left Christchurch and studied accounting and theater studies at [the University of] Otago and became a ‘scarfie’. I didn't study a single course of viticulture or winemaking whatsoever.
On your chance encounter with winemaking
I met a winemaker [Grant Taylor] at a packing facility in Cromwell, Central Otago, that I mistook as a winery. We found out that he lived down the street from us in Queenstown. He’s a passionate fly fisherman, so sometimes he would come over to the house with a trout and my mom would cook Sichuan spicy fish, and he’d bring a bottle of wine. I didn't really know what I was tasting, because I didn't know anything about wine. That's when I became more interested in the taste of wine and really spoke my mind about what I like and what I didn’t like. It started my interest and passion in winemaking.
On becoming a wine entrepreneur
With winemaking, I didn’t come from a technical background, I never really studied it. However, I think being an entrepreneur, it's not actually asking you to be an expert, but to have an understanding of it. I had no intention to be in the wine business — I was working as an accountant. A few years later I had a grasp on wine and encouragement from winemakers. I started with the intention and mindset of experimenting and seeing where it would take me. At the start, I only made 100 cases of very limited pinot noir. That's the signature selection I made with Grant. I've always been quite artistic — I write and design, I draw — so I designed the labels and came up with the concept. Two or three years later, we won the Pinot Noir Trophy at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, and Outstanding Gold. From that point, it gave me a lot of confidence.
‘Wine is magic because when you are drinking it, you are drinking the place.’
On travel and wine
The different winemakers I’ve met and the places I've traveled encouraged me to experiment with wines. Wine puts me into travel mode. It's been 10 years since Crown Range Cellar started. In 10 years I have achieved and created seven brands, seven different wines. And that's all over New Zealand — different regions, Central Otago, Nelson, Hawke's Bay, Canterbury. I've even made wine in France with Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s winemaker Patrick Léon. We experimented with the wines from some of his favorite regions down the south of France at Saint-Chinian.
On growing grapes in the Gobi Desert
A winemaker was telling me that in the next 50 years, there will be some parts of the earth that will be really good to grow pinot noir and other reds. It turns out it was near the Gobi Desert. We were taken to this vineyard with a farmer who was farming 4000 hectares. Get your head around that — 4000 hectares of vineyard! That's probably equivalent to the entire Otago region. This man was doing it on his own, with a very traditional way of farming. There are donkeys walking up and down the aisles of the vines and because it's so cold in the winter, they bury the vines. There are differences, but there are similarities as well. It’s a different soil, different climate, different culture. Wine is magic because when you are drinking it, you are drinking the place. I don't know whether we're going to make wine there, but part of the wine journey was to explore and experiment.
On defying expectations
It’s not an easy journey, because someone like me, who is younger and comes from a different cultural background, has a different perspective on how things can be done and how I express the wine. When it was announced that Crown Range Cellar had won best pinot noir in 2015, it was a shock for the industry. I was the first Chinese woman under 30 to win the Pinot Noir Trophy since the IWSC was founded. They didn’t expect to see someone like me go on stage to accept the award. Pinot noir awards are traditionally seen as quite prestigious. It has the most delicate fruit and is very challenging to make. Then when the best award landed on us it created a lot of attention and controversy. It was a shake-up.
On your China Girl Pinot Noir
I was going for a drive with our winemaker and discovered Bendigo Station. About 150 years ago, that was where the first Chinese people arrived and started dredging for gold. I found it fascinating that these were my ancestors. The harsh conditions and the resilience they had was inspiring. Ultimately the China Girl collection celebrates Chinese culture rooted in a foreign land. The name China Girl came from my favorite musician, David Bowie. When I was experimenting with the wine, I was quite nervous, because it's so different. I thought it would be a disaster if I didn't get it right. But I'm not making wine to please other people. This is my journey and this taste relates to me — it feels like my grandmother's cooking, with the five spices. I worked to make it into something I believe in.
‘I'm not making wine to please other people. This is my journey and this taste relates to me.’
On the charm of Parnell
Our family moved to Auckland, Parnell, in 2010. Previously, my mother and I were living in Queenstown for a number of years. When I moved to Parnell, I found the architecture reminded me so much of Christchurch. So I felt a sense of familiarity when I first came here. It’s got a lovely human scale of living. It's village life. You've got little shops and a café. If I need my hair done, I shoot up the road to see Paul at ASC Salon. Everything is really sweet, I think it's perfect.
On bringing Central Otago to Parnell
I decided to set up the Crown Range Cellar Lounge. When you're passionate, you want to share your experience. It was that simple. I had the vision of bringing the Central Otago environment into the urban setting. I designed the space myself. The week before we opened, it caught fire and burned the whole place down. We had eight fire trucks outside. It was on the news, but unfortunately our name wasn’t mentioned, so I didn’t get any credit from free advertising! Apparently there was electrical wiring on the roof that decided to explode on a hot day.
On rising from the ashes
It was very difficult. I was really depressed for a long time, and was ready to walk away. I had to sacrifice not seeing my son and my family. I’d put lots of work, time and money in, and it all burned down. Insurance didn’t even cover the wine. I took another year to rebuild the place. Our architect, Ron [Seeto], took the broken pieces of burnt wood and designed a sculptural piece that is hanging from the ceiling. It's called the ‘Smoky Cloud’ and symbolizes the catastrophe. We also used the burnt charcoal wood around the lounge. When you go in, it's really dark, but it's intimate. You can still smell the burn. I'm super happy now, but it was hard. We walked through those challenges, difficulties and heartbreaking moments, and now we look back and it’s the mark of living.
On a day in Parnell
I'll start the day by grabbing a coffee from NSP [Non Solo Pizza] and slowly walk down to the art galleries. Parnell has so many wonderful art galleries. The Black Door Gallery and Jonathan Grant Galleries are a couple that you can head to. I would sip coffee, enjoy the art. There's some nice places for lunch. There’s a wonderful Thai restaurant up the road called Blue Elephant Thai and the Japanese restaurant down the road, Gion. The one I go to quite a bit at the moment is Bandung. It’s Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine. The food is amazing and it's super casual, no fuss. I won't be too modest, definitely head to Crown Range Cellar Lounge on Friday if you want some live jazz.
‘I decided to set up the Crown Range Cellar Lounge. I had the vision of bringing the Central Otago environment into the urban setting.’
On your top walking route
I would start walking down from St Stephen's and take the bridge that connects you to Mission Bay. I would walk along the water, then head up the hill to Ōrākei Village and down to Parnell and around the domain. It’s a beautiful walk. It's long, but it's super lovely as you're in a city, but it doesn’t feel like it.
On your relationship with Auckland
At the start, I didn't really like Auckland at all. Given that I had lived on the South Island for most of my early life, I found Auckland overwhelming. Now it's been over two years and I've made some friends — I'm part of the community. My children go to school locally and I get to know their friends and their parents, and the people we work with, and the wine-lovers that come in to buy wine from us. I feel like part of the village.
On a window or an aisle seat
I would prefer a window seat. I often find myself in tears when I travel. I’ve probably been busy, then all of a sudden, you can't access your phone and things become quiet. You're up in the sky, you look at the clouds, and that often results in tears. In the physical sense, you are in a relationship with yourself for that 10 hours. When you're quiet, you don't know what to do with yourself and the sense of emotion starts to become overwhelming. Usually, it’s amazing as my creativity increases by 100%. I start drawing, reading a book, or come up with an idea, and tears run down my face.
‘We're so lucky to live in Auckland. The ocean is at our doorstep and the waves are coming to me.’
On a song that represents Auckland for you
The song that represents Auckland for me would be ‘So Much Magnificence’ by Deva Premal and Miten. The lyrics say, ‘There is so much magnificence, near the ocean, waves are coming in’. We're so lucky to live in Auckland. The ocean is at our doorstep and the waves are coming to me. It's a great feeling.
On Auckland in one word
I'd say Auckland is youthful, because it's quite new. There’s a diversity of different cultures, and the city has a vibrant energy. It's growing and it feels like the future is in the youngsters’ hands. It's such a vibrant, youthful feeling and it’s a city full of energy.