Tiffani Graydon entered the wine industry 25 years ago after a stint in hospitality. She worked first for Montana as a sales rep, then moved to roles at Lion Nathan and Pernod Ricard. She also spent time in Shanghai setting up an Asian distribution network for water company Antipodes. Since taking the helm at Yealands Wine Group in 2019, she has managed the company through the impacts of covid, rapidly changing biodiversity/climate and record low grape yields. She believes New Zealand’s winemakers need to be working more in harmony with nature, because the country’s traditionally cool-climate grapes are being impacted by our increasingly warmer temperatures.

I was born in Wellington but when I was a preschooler, my family shifted to Pakuranga in east Auckland. 

It was just me, my parents, and my older brother until I was about 10 or 11. Then my parents separated, and I later inherited a couple of stepbrothers as well. 

My parents both worked  mum in a bank and dad in freight forwarding; he was quite a successful businessman. I definitely learned the value of hard work from both of them.

Tiffani Graydon and father Paul on holiday on Waiheke Island in 1981. (Image: Supplied)

I was a bit of a nerd in primary school. I wasn't overly sporty or good at anything other than dancing. It was something I was passionate about and really enjoyed, and in my teens, I ended up being a dance teacher.  

I was friends with the neighbourhood kids because those were the days when everybody just jumped on their bikes and went around each other's houses. 

My friends and I used to make up dances and then we would get all of our parents into the lounge room at 3pm on a Sunday and charge them 20c per person to watch us. Afterwards, we’d use the money to walk down to the local dairy and buy lollies.

With brother Leigh and their dog Beau in 1984. (Image: Supplied)

When I hit high school, I discovered independence, boys, and all those other things that go along with being in that age group.  

I didn't want to be at school, so I left. I didn't really know what I wanted to do, though, so I had a gap year. It wasn't that common back then, but it did show me that I really wanted to be in the workforce. 

I've always had this real independent streak and I wanted to be able to fend for myself. And I realised that, actually, I needed more than just a Joe Bloggs job as well.

I was, like, right, I need to go to university. So I studied politics and psychology, but I didn't finish. I am three papers shy of getting my degree.

In my last year at uni, I had got coerced into investing in a hospitality business – a bar and restaurant. That became quite a major distraction because it was a much bigger exercise than I had anticipated. 

I heavily invested time and energy into it. I had three business partners, and it was a pretty steep learning curve in terms of everything from running a small business to employing staff to managing income streams – the whole thing.

Although we sold the business at a loss – it wasn't economical – it taught me that if you want to get somewhere, you've got to make it happen yourself. 

On the job at Yealands. (Image: Supplied)

Hospitality also helped me to fall in love with wine. I used to have a lot of wine reps come into the restaurant and I remember thinking, I'd really love a job like that. You get to talk about something you're passionate about, you're meeting new people all the time, and you're on the road, not stuck behind a desk. That was basically my “AHA!” moment when I realised that working with wine was what I wanted to do.

When my older daughter was six years old and my son was about six months old, we relocated to Shanghai. I had previously travelled a lot, but I'd never actually lived overseas before.  

I loved Shanghai – the vibrancy of it. We lived right in the middle of the city and, yeah, it was a crazy experience – although there were definitely some moments when you were, like, I need to get out of the concrete jungle. We spent two years there.

Back then – we’re talking 2006 to 2008 – there was definitely a virgin wine culture over there. The Asian population in general, and certainly in China, have a real affinity for red wine as opposed to white wine. 

In Shanghai, there was a definite Western influence, probably the biggest of anywhere in China. So anything that was hot in other parts of the world, say in Australia or the States, became the next big thing in Shanghai.

The marked rise in the quality of NZ wine has led to a commensurate increase in the prices buyers will pay. (Image: Supplied)

In NZ in 2010 and 2011, there was an oversupply in the wine market, and coming back into that dynamic after maternity leave with my third child was really interesting. All of a sudden people were putting sauvignon blanc into casks and all sorts of other crazy things. I'm very pleased to say we're well beyond that now. 

I think that as an industry, we're quite progressive. When I started at Montana Wines, we had around 60% market share in NZ, which was just crazy; it would be unheard of today. And 73% of all the wine we sold at Montana was cask wine. Now, it's probably around 5%, maybe even less. 

We’ve gone on such a quality journey in the years since. As an industry, we've done a really great job of exporting the NZ brand to the world. There's never a quality question in people’s minds when they purchase an NZ wine. That stands us in really good stead because it means that, ultimately, we can charge more.

After more than two decades in the industry, Tiffani Graydon knows her wines. (Image: Supplied)

I love the fact that wine is so subjective; there's no right or wrong answer. It's the yin and the yang. It's the logic and the facts and the science behind it. And then there's also the craft and the creativity and the small nuances that if somebody just does something slightly different, it can be quite meaningful.

I'm a very social person, but I also love to have those moments when I'm just sitting on the couch reading a book. 

I walk with my husband and our dog a lot. We also get out on the water as much as we can. For me, there's something special about jumping on the boat on a Saturday morning and watching Auckland City disappear into the background. Honestly, a day on the water is enough to recharge the batteries because there's nothing to do.

Holidaying in Central Otago with children (from left) Wil, Grace and Ava and husband Todd. (Image: Supplied)

NZ is Godzone, right? We're so lucky. I feel very fortunate to be able to see so many amazing places around the world as part of my job – but there's nothing like coming home. 

My favourite things about our country are the outdoors and the mentality and the mindset of New Zealanders because we are a give-it-a-go kind of people, and super resilient. I probably wish we got behind each other a little bit more as I think that if we did that collectively, we'd be even more successful than we already are. 

There's always competition between Australia and NZ. We definitely make better sauvignon blanc, but there's nothing like a great Adelaide Hills riesling.  

That's what makes the wine industry – these little pockets around the world that just do so well in one particular variety. And then those wines become synonymous with that place.

As told to Ella Somers.
My Net Worth interviews may be edited for clarity.