Plenty of business owners have five-year plans they abide by. Not Kerensa Johnston. The CEO of Wakatū Incorporation instead abides by a 500-year vision that guides her business on a day-to-day basis.

Wakatū is a company that’s owned by over 4,000 shareholders and their families — all of whom are descendants of Māori landowners of the Nelson, Tasman, and Golden Bay regions of New Zealand. Johnston, who is herself a descendant, was named CEO in 2016.

Kono is Wakatū’s food and beverage subsidiary, and features a variety of unique seafood, fruit, and beverage brands, including Kono Wines. Focusing on protecting the land and the employees who work on it, Kono Wines abides by Te Pae Tawhiti, an intergenerational plan that considers how Wakatū can preserve its businesses, resources, and land for future generations.

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VinePair chatted with Johnston about how Māori culture seeps into every aspect of Kono’s mission, and why planning for the future plays an integral role in the business.

1. What does it mean for you to be the first Māori-owned wine brand in the world?

In 2018, we marked the 20-year anniversary of the launch of Tohu Wines, and it gave us a chance to reflect on why we embarked on creating a wine company. Our families have always been entrepreneurs, gardeners, fishers, orchardists, artisans, and providores. One of the reasons behind founding a wine company was to have a platform to share our culture, story, and values with the world. Thanks to the vision of the board at the time, we were relatively early in planting grapes in Marlborough, which is now strongly associated with world-class Sauvignon Blanc.

2. How does kaitiakitanga impact on the mission of Kono?

Kaitiakitanga is a term in te reo Māori (the indigenous language of New Zealand) that is often used to reflect sustainability and caring for the environment. It is a reciprocal relationship between people and the environment, and it is important to us that it isn’t just a concept, but that it underpins everything we do. Leaving the land and water in a better state than we inherited is a key responsibility for us. We have a 20-year Whenua Ora (broadly translated as land wellness) strategy to ensure our environmental values and obligations as kaitiaki (guardians) are given priority across all our activities.

3. How is Kono working toward more sustainable winemaking?

Our vineyards and winery have been certified by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, an industry-wide certification program, for a number of years. Across the whole organization, we are aiming to transition from conventional farming practices to regenerative practices that draw on our traditional systems and knowledge. We are looking at ways we can eliminate the use of herbicides on the vineyards — we’re in year one of a five-year program.

We are also working towards being zero waste to landfill by 2028 and net zero carbon by 2030. To help us achieve this, we are working with Toitū Envirocare. We have signed up to be part of their “carbonreduce” certification program to measure, manage, verify, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

We are growing and planting thousands of native plants to increase the biodiversity at our vineyards: Whenua Awa in Marlborough, and Whenua Matua in Nelson. We’ve also planted multi-species cover crops between our vines, which is also about increasing diversity. These cover crops help to conserve soil moisture, attract beneficial insects, and improve soil health and structure.

4. Can you tell me more about the 500-year vision that Kono is guided by?

A number of years ago, the Wakatū board tasked Te Hunga Panuku, the group of young people who have been involved in Wakatū programs like scholarships, to come up with a vision to guide us into the future. Te Pae Tawhiti, our 500-year intergenerational vision, is the result. Te Pae Tawhiti means “towards the distant horizon,” and it reflects that we are always thinking of the generations to come and looking to the future. It’s a declaration of our fundamental values — our common goals and guiding objectives that will ensure we are here in 500 years and beyond. Of course, 500 years is a long time, so we’ve got business strategies that guide our day-to-day activities and our short- and medium-term planning.

5. What makes Kono stand out from other wine brands on the market?

The winemaking team, led by Bruce Taylor, crafts wine that consistently wins international awards. Our wine business is vertically integrated, which means we can take our own grapes from the vineyards to our winery, through to market and to the people who enjoy our wine. Our winemaking philosophy is to create wines that capture the flavors of each region’s unique environment, while upholding respect and protection of the land for future generations.

We are immensely proud to produce award-winning wines in a spirit that embodies manaakitanga — a concept that encompasses the hospitality, generosity, and kindness we show for others and encapsulates care and respect for people and relationships, including the relationship with the natural environment.

6. What does your day-to-day look like?

My role is incredibly diverse and no one day is ever the same. My work day can range from meeting with the senior leadership team to discuss our strategies for the next five years and beyond, to working with the government regarding indigenous land matters and other issues, and spending a day working in the māra (garden) that we have set up to grow indigenous crops.

7. What’s the best part of your job?

There are lots of wonderful aspects of the work I do. It is a privilege to work for our extended family — both in terms of people who are my relatives, and the people who become part of our family through working with us. Development and succession are a big focus for us, and we have a number of programs to support the families associated with Wakatū, and our employees. Seeing people grow through their involvement with us is one of my favorite parts of my role. The last couple of years have been challenging, but it has also been heartening to see how we have come together to support each other. For example, during this last vintage, our usual harvesting crew was not able to work due to having Covid-19. A call went out across the business to help hand-pick grapes on our Whenua Matua vineyard, and people — including the chair of our board — put aside their usual work to help with the harvest.

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