In 2006, school friends Rob Cameron and Tim Lightbourne were in a London bar, talking about starting their own wine business. Fast-forward to today and their company, Invivo Wines, has sold millions of bottles — thanks in part to their unique collaborations with Graham Norton and Sarah Jessica Parker.

The Last Fashion Bible spoke to Lightbourne about Invivio Wines’ beginnings, celebrity collabs and their future expansion plans.

What was your inspiration for starting Invivo Wines?

Rob and I caught up in 2006 in London, had one too many beers and talked about starting our business in the wine industry. Rob is a winemaker by trade. He studied winemaking and horticulture at Lincoln University, then went to work in wineries in New Zealand and across Europe. I was working in marketing for classic FMCG companies like L’Oréal and Heinz.

We looked at our complimentary skills — Rob would manage all our growers and winemaking and I’d do the marketing side and try some different things in how we’d position the brand.

In 2008, we ended up coming back to New Zealand and starting our own wine brand, Invivo Wines. We wrote a business plan up in London for that, which kind of went out the window when we hit the GFC, as there weren’t too many banks forthcoming at the time.

To top that off, when we first started, we did one sauvignon blanc at the time and it was the largest harvest of sauvignon blanc that year. Like, by loads — it was huge. What we had was an oversupply of sauvignon and we were trying to hand-sell that around New Zealand. It was really tough, no distributor would take us on board, so we sold it ourselves for a while.

Living that entrepreneur life, as they say.

Yeah, for sure! It was a real rollercoaster. It was hard work, though. We both put our own funds into the business. While everyone was putting a deposit on a house at that time, I used that money to buy some grapes. I ended up having a lot of grapes that year and living in a flat that was also the office for a number of years. It was hard yards. Everything we sold was put back into the business, to buy more grapes the following year, just to survive, really. We didn’t pay ourselves much. It was survival tactics for the first few years.

It’s obviously paid off — you’ve received over 200 medals in international wine competitions. Are there secrets to your success that you’re able to share?

In terms of quality, that’s obviously led by Rob and his skills as a winemaker. A lot of winemakers will go to California or France, those real classic winemaking nations, but Rob went to Moldova and Cyprus. He learned skills as a winemaker, getting the best out of the fruit, in more challenging conditions that he’d experience. When he came back to New Zealand, to make a Central Otago Pinot or Marlborough Sauvignon, he’d learned some really good skills that others haven’t been subjected to. That’s a little bit of his secret.

In terms of marketing and all the collaborations, it wouldn’t have worked if the quality wasn’t there. With Graham or SJP, we’d find out overnight if the wine was crap. It wouldn’t sell and people would rip into us. People buy things if they’re interested in Graham Norton or SJP, but they’ll come back because of the quality.

You’ve sold millions of bottles of Graham Norton wine. Why do you think it’s so popular?

There are a number of factors. Graham enjoys a glass of wine on his show — it’s our wine that he’s drinking. He’s a great ambassador for our brand. He’s professional. His show is super popular around the world.

Then there’s that authenticity. Every year we do the blending session with him and we film it. That’s part of the arrangement and he loves it. We let the cameras roll for three hours as we taste through the sauvignons from that year. He’ll turn down stuff, turn down ideas for wines that we have. He’s pretty hands-on with it all, which is key. Every year, we’ll take up eight samples from Marlborough, rosé, all sorts of stuff. We’ll taste it and release a little film about the tasting. We’ll send that out to media, which goes out to consumers, so it’s a bit of authenticity. How often do you see the collaboration? Not only in the wine industry but if it’s perfume or shoes, you don’t always see the talent involved with the production. That’s the key for us — actually getting them involved. It’s not just a name on the label. It took a while for that to get through.

How did the Invivo Wines x Graham Norton collab begin?

A bit of hustle, really. Back in 2011, watching the show, we noticed him drinking wine. We sent some for him to try, to see if he’d like it. He did, so we struck up a deal and sent him Invivo Wines every week to Graham for his guest to drink backstage. Then in 2014, we asked him if he’d be keen to make a wine with us. He wanted to be involved, and not just put his name on the label, so that’s how we built it up.

In the first year, Graham said to sell it in New Zealand to see how it goes. We wanted to sell it everywhere, but he said to trial it in our home country. It sold really well, so he said we could sell it in the U.K.. Now, it’s a range of wines and we also do the gin.

What inspired the direction into gin? Any plans for other spirits?

Gin was right there a couple of years ago. We asked what’s next for the range, wine varietal, or what spirits Graham enjoys. He certainly wasn’t a whiskey fan. Vodka? Not so much. Gin was something he was really interested in. It was over a conversation, really. He was keen for it to be made in Ireland. We went over to Ireland and found a local distillery that could work on the project. We took Graham down there and spent a day with him, tasting through the different botanicals to make the gin. He was keen to make a very dry style, instead of really sweet ones that are on the market. He wanted a pink gin, but scaled it back a bit. We had a few goes at it and got there in the end.

No plans for other spirits, but never say never.

The branding is so considered. It’s very beautiful.

Getting the GN initials into everything is a challenge. If you look at the range, we do a Shiraz and trying to get GN into Shiraz was difficult, but we got there.

What inspired the Invivo Wines x SJP collab?

We were looking at the United States, which is a tough market to crack. We thought, “Could we roll out a similar model that we did with Graham?” Before we worked with him, it was tough to even get an email from a buyer. But once we had that collaboration, when they saw the video, it opened doors for us everywhere.

The idea was to replicate that model. It was about having a talent that was U.S.-based, who we could get involved in the blending session that was well known, could add value to the business, who liked wine. We didn’t want a young reality star or anyone like that. We had a list that included Sarah Jessica’s name. She was perfect. She is a businesswoman. She’s still working hard. So, we reached out through her agent and pitched our idea about the blending session, which was fairly unique. I think she liked our approach, being Kiwi guys who are down to earth. It wasn’t a multinational corporate. So, one day, she called my mobile. It was pretty amazing to have her on the phone. We put her on speakerphone and spoke to her about the project. We then flew up to New York, opened a bottle, had a glass and spoke for an afternoon about what we wanted to do. That’s how the Invivo x SJP collab came about.

She’s great, super down to earth, very casual and lots of fun. We had a super amount of fun over the blending session in those hours we spent with her, with lots of banter. We couldn’t have picked a better partner. She exceeded our expectations as a brand partner.

The following she has… people that are super excited and loyal. They remember her from Annie on the stage, right through to Sex and the City and what she’s doing today. Her fans have been with her for a long time. I’ve never seen it before. We did a bottle signing on Madison Ave in New York and there were queues down the road which was off the charts. Rob and I sat next to her at the bottle signing and people were so excited and emotional to meet her. It was a great experience for us.

She seems like a person you could enjoy a glass of wine with.

Exactly. She’s been really great to work with. With the creative, I sat down with her last year with the label designs. I didn’t know what she’d think of them, we put them on the table and we just both went for it. From a tasting side of things, with the palette, she admitted that she was quite nervous. But within minutes, she dialed into it. She tasted very subtle differences in the samples, which is good.

Any other dream celebrity collabs?

Not at the moment. We’ve got our hands full with Graham and SJP. Not in the immediate future. But we’re excited to see where these two go in other categories. Graham is brilliant. On the day, he’ll turn up by himself. One year, he even rode his bike there. Sarah Jessica is the same. She turns up and we’re into it. Both of them really respect Rob and his knowledge as a winemaker. He explains and talks them through it. They appreciate it and there’s an immediate connection there.

Do you have a personal favourite wine?

It kind of depends on the situation. If you’re out and about having some oysters, you can’t go wrong with a sauvignon blanc. I love a good red — pinot noir. But I’m quite into some Californian chardonnay, which is super interesting. Rosé in this type of weather. It’s kind of horses for courses.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your winemaking journey?

It’s a hard one to answer. Being a little naïve in the industry helped us, in a strange way, because if we knew how tough it was going to be, we probably wouldn’t have even started it. It’s a weird thing to say. Our drive, what we wanted to achieve, if we’d known about the industry, we just don’t think we would’ve done it. It’s been a tough journey, but I wouldn’t change it for a minute.

We never started out the business in 2008 thinking we’re going to do all these collabs — it was never part of the plan. It took us a while to position ourselves as unique. We can’t talk about the soils or terroir because others can talk about that better because it’s their grassroots. Because it was Rob and me, there weren’t generations of winemaking history, which there is in other wineries. It took us a while to figure out where we fitted in the market. Now, we know. Collaborations are a way to be different — not only with the talent but artists and graffiti artists, all sorts of collaborations — but not for the sake of it. There’s always purpose behind it.

What’s next for Invivo Wines?

We’re rolling out a rosé with SJP that’s being bottled this week in France. We blended it with SJP in December, over in New York, and she was into it. That launches in the USA, UK, Ireland, Japan and Australia in the next couple of months and will be out in New Zealand in two to three months.

We’re also looking at other categories, to see where we can extend what we’ve done with Graham and SJP.

Keep an eye out for the upcoming SJP rosé release on the Invivo Wines website and Instagram.

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