Alistair Bowes – Hawke’s Bay Wine
Alistair Bowes: I have had quite a few roles in wine, because it’s a terrific passion. But the talk I’m going to give you tonight about Hawke’s Bay Wine is not a panegyric; it’s the way that I see it; hopefully I have a balanced view of wine in spite of the fact that I’m nuts about the product.
Hawke’s Bay was blessed … God blessed it in regards to wine, because it had a wonderful climate, wonderful soils, which together we call Terroir. But He also did something really special, because He sent some missionaries to Hawke’s Bay who started the industry here. And the Prior, in his wisdom, in Paris, said, “Look, it’s tough enough in the colonies to be there, without making the missionaries go without wine.” And I thought, ‘What a really nice thing to do.’ So he sent them out with cuttings; and unfortunately not a particularly good sense of direction, because they set off to come to Hawke’s Bay and they got off the bus at the wrong place – or the boat, I should say – they got off at Gisborne. And so they were there and lost, and there was some worry about what might’ve happened to them.
But they were found eventually, and they were brought into Hawke’s Bay in 1851 and planted grapes; and in 1852 the industry started … by the Brothers. And they were put up under the protection of the local Kahungunu Chief, who was called Puhara, and he lived at Pakowhai. Unfortunately he was killed in 1858, so they moved to Meeanee; and then Meeanee was the subject of floods, and so in 1897 they moved to Greenmeadows, and they did that progressively. The Seminary building – that wonderful building which is now the focus, if you like, of the offices and the cellar door and the like, was bought much later … 1910 to be specific. They’ve been through fires and earthquakes, and so they’ve had a lot of trials; but they have been very aware of Disraeli’s dictum about how you get success; and Disraeli’s dictum was ‘Constancy of Purpose’. And so their combination of faith and constancy of purpose has been pretty terrific.
But they lost the Seminary at one stage; it was transferred to Auckland. And in the story of wine there is always doom around the corner; so as an observer, and a sympathetic observer, I felt … it was doing my head for the Mission, because they’d lost the pool of workers that they needed for the business. So we leave them with … they’re looking down a pretty hard situation. The Seminary’s gone; they’ve got a lot of old buildings which aren’t much use for anything else; and they have limited resources.
But there is a nice story about a member of the Mission who was a lay brother – he wasn’t ordained. But he hopped over the fence and met a lady, which was pretty … you know, pretty unusual for people at the Mission … and he married her. And so he left and founded a winery on what had become known as Church Road. Now Church Road got its name because someone went into the Council and said, “Look, I’m buying some property there”; and it wasn’t a named street – it was a dusty trail. And the person buying the property was asked, “Well, what’s the street name?” And he said, ‘I don’t know, but there’s a church on the end of it.” And so it’s been called Church Road ever since. Those were the good old days. [Chuckles]
So Steinmetz took over this, and got homesick, ‘cause he was from Luxembourg. And he had the good fortune in 1921 to hire a fourteen-year-old to come and work at the winery. And that fourteen-year-old’s name was Tom McDonald. And he was – he’s a legend. And I had the great fortune to spend time with Tom, because I was the wine writer at the time, and he was terrific to me because he made me feel pretty valuable. And he came round to my house, and I went to his house, and we shared the odd wine together. And the best wine I’ve ever had in my life was with Tom and a few others at the Hawke’s Bay Club; and it was a 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. So that’s the best red wine I’ve ever had. The best white wine I’ve ever had was at the Christmas party for … still TMV [Te Mata Vineyard] Wines in 1979, where John Buck and I and our kids, [chuckle] sat around a fire. The kids had sausages on a stick and we were drinking mainly Bordeaux wine – fabulous wines. But he brought on a … pièce de résistance was a Château d’Yquem, the great Sauternes. So I’ve been lucky to’ve been associated with two of the great legends of wine.
So the Steinmetz’s passed on the business to Tom McDonald when Tom was nineteen. And so you can’t deal in wine in those days until you were twenty-one; so Tom originally leased the business – and he probably didn’t have the money either – he took the business over; and then in 1944 Ballins took over the business; then McWilliams in ‘62, and then Montana in ‘86. So that winery, that Church Road Winery which I just adore, has been through one or two ownership changes. And Tom … I don’t want to overplay this; there’s a lot of talk about Tom McDonald, who seems to me to have been a very pragmatic person. Sure he had a dream, but he had a lot of common sense; and he’s a guy that if you stood beside, you felt small. But he never made you feel small. So he was a wonderful person – a dreamer perhaps, but pragmatic, and a very precocious talent.
And the next phase of our winery was through gentlemen, which … a lovely word. But it relates to people of considerable wealth, mainly farmers who had visions of a finer life. They were living pretty rough, and one of the civilising agents of the world has been wine, I think. So one of them was Henry Tiffin, who planted at Greenmeadows, and he started planting in 1856, but that was mainly for table grapes. In 1891 he built the winery, which people’d be proud to have today because the only manual labour in the winery was loading the grapes and the stalks onto a conveyer that took it up to the next floor, and from then on it was worked by gravity. And if any of you have knowledge about a flour mill … a flour mill with grain; first thing that happens it goes to the top of the building and then it’s fed by gravity down through the systems. And Tiffin had a winery [where] the wine press was on rails and he could push it up and down these rails; and so the must, as it was pressed and came from the press into the fermenting vats – which were eleven [hundred] and fifty-two gallons each – they did that automatically by sitting above the open vat. And so when that was full or he wanted to change the grape variety, [he] just pushed it along another metre or two, and did it all by gravity. Very clever stuff.
Unfortunately, as happens to most of us, well all of us sadly, he died, and it meant that his wife took over, who was a very special lady. And it was a bit strange, because she had a winemaker who had an epiphany; and the epiphany involved him saying “I will not make filthy liquor.” And if you’re in the wine making business this is a pretty hard hurdle to get past, so she had no one to make the wine so she had to pull the vines out. And eventually in 1921, many years later, Wadier Corban, the son of A A Corban [Assid Abraham Corban], the great winemaker from Auckland, came down to Hawke’s Bay; bought the lot, and then … no problem to him, he just hired a train; took it all up to Auckland. So that was the way we got the stuff back.
Another early gentleman farmer was J N Williams at Frimley; he put in grapes … a winery … and then onsold to a consortium. And I think from that moment to this we should be very careful about involving financiers in wine, because what happened, the consortium couldn’t make money out of it so they ploughed the whole thing up. Now there’s a big lesson about wine, and John Buck is one who will tell you that the way to make a small fortune out of wine is to start with a big one. So [chuckles] … you have to love it to be in it. So that was a setback for the industry; but money wants a return – quite rightly. But if you don’t do it and it doesn’t come right, there is a big downside.
And then I think a real understated hero appeared; [that] was Bernard Chambers at Te Mata. Now he was a wonderful man; in 1896 he had a winery with five acres. In 1909 he had thirty-five acres and fifty-four thousand litres of wine, and given the population round, you know, Hawke’s Bay at that time, it’s quite a lot of wine. And it was the biggest winery in New Zealand at that stage. And he sold out in 1917; and then it was sold again in 1923 to TMV. By that stage there was only four acres of grapes with the winery, so that to me was another place with doom written all over it.
And the final gentlemanly type that I wanted to talk about – Anthony Vidal. He came here in 1905 and started a winery. And it was a family business, because he had three boys who all worked with him in the winery. And it developed very slowly over many, many years; and it was always a small business and they ended up in a situation where the market changed and they didn’t have the resources to convert from table wines – which were the sherries and ports and so on – to the table wines that we used to call claret, but now we’d call them Cabernet, or Syrah, or Chardonnay. And so that was a sad business, and that had doom written all over it. What they needed were some, you know, good practises, or a fairy godfather. Seppelt were involved in Vidals at one stage, but then they couldn’t make money out of it; and overseas ownership to me is a real threat to our industry, and they just sold off and went away. And that didn’t help Vidals, or it didn’t help Hawke’s Bay.
So we’re now around the turn of the century, so none of us were born then, but there were some very interesting times ahead for the wine industry in Hawke’s Bay. We were lucky at the time, we had a very good Prime Minister – and I say that advisedly. Richard John Seddon was Prime Minister, and he came from Kumara; and I’ll always have a special place for him ‘cause I grew up in Greymouth, and there weren’t too many [?meant it?] as well as he did. So he got in an Italian ball of energy; he was Romeo Bragato, and we borrowed him from Australia. And I’ve never felt bad about borrowing something from Australia, ’cause I think of all the things they’ve pinched from us. Now you think about, you know, pavlova; and Crowded House; and Phar Lap. I mean it’s just … there’s a legend of things they’ve pinched from us. So Bragato came here, and the problem with Bragato was … two things; one is he was too smart; [you] can’t have smart Italians coming here to tell us what to do; and the other thing, he was too energetic. Now he was dealing with civil service people, where smart and energetic, you know, are big ‘no-nos’. [Chuckles] So he came here in 1895, and wine was entering really it’s dark ages. All of you will know about the European dark ages where it was very dodgy; and wine had its own. So what we’re doing now is we’re going into the dark ages. And around the corner, I have to say, the good news comes, because we have something of a renaissance. But we had three things that were really against the wine industry; one was a phylloxera, which is … I always say phylloxera is a bit like the government. Phylloxera in the wine industry is a vine louse. Now that’s very much like the government is with the wine industry, so forgive me. The other thing was prohibition, which was a [an] earnestly felt concern about society and the need to get booze out of society. And the third thing that people had to deal with was government mismanagement.
So I want to talk a wee bit about phylloxera; it’s been around the world, and it devastated the European wine industry. One place in the world where it didn’t get to and it didn’t do a lot of damage, was Hawke’s Bay, ’cause we had better practises here, and the people who were setting up our wine industry, like the Mission, were well connected to France. I can remember going there when I was writing about wine, and I asked the winemaker there, Brother John, a question. He went away and got a book, and I was very impressed ‘cause it was in French. So we’re talking a very, you know, international sort of know-how. So they had that sort of knowledge, but the gentleman farmers also took a lot of trouble about where they got their product from, and made sure that they didn’t put in rubbish.
Government policy of the day was to inject into the ground carbon disulphide, and the idea was that it would kill off the vine louse. But it had never worked anywhere in the world, and Bragato was silly enough to say that, that “Your policy is rubbish, and it won’t work.” So he got the “Don’t come Monday”, so he went away. And things didn’t improve, so Richard John Seddon, who, as I said, is quite a man, got him back in 1902; and he instituted the use of phylloxera-resistant root stocks, which is the heart of the industry today. There is no way you can stop the vine louse, any more than you can stop the government taxing you, so these are two, you know, crosses we have to bear in the industry. So you have to have something that resists phylloxera, and it’s a root stock. And the person that instituted that was Bragato, and he put in a thirty-acre vineyard here in Hawke’s Bay called Arataki, which was on land that was made available to him by … or to the government … by Bernard Chambers. And he put in these vines that were labrusca, which is American native grapes, where phylloxera had come from, so they were resistant to this louse. Then you could also make hybrids with labrusca and vitis vinifera, which is the classic grape. And so he did that, and that made a huge difference. But unfortunately, you know, shortcuts unfortunately, were being used. And then in 1903 and again in 1904, he made a plea to the government to try and control some of the rogue winemakers who were making wine and selling it as wine, but it was made out of … I mean, turnips or beetroot or apples or oranges; but not grapes … and he said, “Look, we need some controls.” And he wouldn’t shut up about it, silly man; and of course he got really offside with the powers that be – I’ve described them rather unkindly as ‘boofheads’. And so they thought, ‘Well we can fix you.’ And so he had quite a few staff at Te Kauwhata and at Arataki, so the government took all the staff away from him, so
the wine department had one person, Romeo Bragato. So that was a way of knee-capping him and making sure that no one would hear him, so he had to leave, with no staff – he left in 1909. And damn it – he had a very unsuccessful love life, and he threw himself out of a window in a high building in Canada in 1909. So he never got his just desserts, I’m afraid to say.
And so wine was buried in a department of the Department of Agriculture, which was Orchard, Gardens and Bees; and … hopefully …. the government and the bureaucrats thought, ‘Oh, thank goodness we got rid of him!’ And ‘We’ll stick it in with the bees and no one’ll ever hear of it.’ So that was one big problem for us – government, you know, incompetence; and the next one that we had was prohibition and phylloxera. And prohibition was, you know – an earnestly felt, and you know, desirable goal was to control liquor because it was running out of control, making society violent, and leading to a lot of injuries and a lot of hard times for families. Sounds fairly familiar, doesn’t it? You look at your paper. But it was spurred in partly by politicians who played the old race card. And our winemakers at the time were largely Dalmatians; and Massey, the Prime Minister, under parliamentary privilege, denounced them as, you know, making wines that made you mad and were you know, very unhealthy and dangerous. And so that put a bit more momentum behind prohibition, but there were a lot of other very good people who were wanting prohibition as well. And in 1919 there was a plebiscite, which was going to be binding on the government. Now these days governments have referendums; they don’t have plebiscites, ‘cause plebiscites – you have to do what the people want. Now no government’s going to do that; come on, let’s get real! [Chuckles] So they had a plebiscite, and it was only beaten by the votes of servicemen coming back from the war. However, it’s not all bad, because in 1914 the government put in licensing, so that, you know, they made sure that wines were safe and were okay. But they thought it’d been so successful that in 1920 they stopped issuing licences; so if you were a wine person and wanted to make wine after 1920, well – you couldn’t get a licence. So they [chuckle] pulled the licences off the system. I guess you could buy them, but it wasn’t very helpful.
But they also, [in] 1914 when they started licensing winemakers, they made rules for how you made wine, which you couldn’t make wine by doing. And rather than saying, “Look, we got this terribly wrong”, they took someone to court, and were made to look really quite silly because the court threw it out; it was laughed out of court. So we’re talking about this combination of phylloxera, prohibition and government silliness; so you had to have a big ticker to get into the wine industry, and these are really special people that got into wine at this time. Very brave. And that’s why I call these sort[s] of people dragon slayers, ’cause they had terrific opposition to go ahead. And they were people like Tom McDonald, who I’ve spoken of – he’s really a legend. A lesser person who doesn’t get a fair press really, is Robert Bird, who started Glenvale in 1932. That was right in the middle of the Depression, so he had all these other terrible things happening round him, and he still had enough bravery to start a wine company. And he was tuppence [twopence / 2d] a pound for his grapes … for table grapes; and he thought, ‘Well, I can add value by making wine out of it.’ It reminds me of another person, who in 1934 saw a lot of fruit lying around, also in the Depression, and he thought, ‘Oh, I can do better than that.’ And I ended up working for him, and he was a fairly great man [chuckle] … James Wattie.
So there were also people at the Mission who at this really, really difficult time, were working on it; we had Vidals going, the family business; and we had TMV. But it was a business that was in crisis, and unfortunately it went up a lot of cul-de-sacs. It ended up going into places that really weren’t long-term fixes; because they were helped in 1935 by what was a cul-de-sac. And that was when the Labour government brought in import licensing, and that meant that the business locally … suddenly the imports halved, and it made for a lot of opportunities. Now I’m all for in favour of economic nationalism, but I think import licensing is not the right way to do it.
The war came along, which was an absolute tragedy; but in that tragedy we had a lot of Americans who came to New Zealand and liked to drink; weren’t fussy about what they drank which was a shame, but the industry gained out of that. A lot of our soldiers went overseas; a lot of them didn’t get back, which was bloody terrible. But the ones that [who] went to Italy got used to drinking wine; and quite a few of our fliers in [the] UK were known to have a pot or two, but also got involved with wine. But while on the one hand the government gave, on the other hand it took away. In 1942 it quadrupled the sales tax on wine, just when our industry was starting to make some money. It doubled sales tax on other products like beer, but quadrupled it on wine. Now, you think I’m paranoic? Well you can see why I am; so it didn’t help a lot.
We also made a lot of mistakes in the industry. We got into fortified wines, which you don’t need good grapes for – all you need is some brandy; make it strong and the burning sensation will kill the taste. We also thought Riesling-Sylvaner was going to be the answer… which is properly known as Müller-Thurgau. We had local councils that had no idea, especially in Hawke’s Bay; we had a shocker here. They had no idea where grapes should grow, and so they pushed all grape-growing onto the best horticultural land where you got super yields, but terrible quality. The wine industry chose labrusca and hybrids for the grapes ’cause they gave high yield, and because they were easier to grow; they were more robust. Gave absolute rubbish for wine … wine with a foxy taste. And we had limitations on what you could do with a winery; you couldn’t sell a corkscrew there, and until 1955 you had to sell at least six bottles. So it wasn’t a friendly place for wine.
We had a big step forward in 1960, when the government in its wisdom allowed restaurants to sell wine; but because they didn’t want a rush, they only allowed ten in the whole country. So that was the big-hearted of the government. [Chuckle] Ten of them! [Chuckles] I mean, the failures in the wine industry were there; they failed to organise; the quality was appalling. Standards of hygiene were, you know, just ridiculous, so you know, they didn’t deserve what they got, but they didn’t help themselves by having pretty appalling standards.
But there were some glimmers of hope. In ’49 Tom McDonald put out a handy Cabernet, and in 1955 single bottles were allowed to be sold. The redemption came, not from outside sources, but the industry itself. It started to follow up consumer demand: ‘What do you want?’ And by the sixties and seventies a lot of people had travelled and they were used to wine and they knew what reasonable wine tasted like. So Tom McDonald made a big step with his ‘65 Cabernet, which Peter Holland, the local architect, gave me … one of them … for which I’ve been ever grateful; and he’s had all our architect work ever since. [Chuckles]
But Tom also made things like Baccano, Trestador and Marque Vue, which some of you will remember, were very good commercial wines and one of them was adopted by the French rugby team as their team wine, the Baccano. And this was a part of a switch, so we had people who were starting to follow not just their heart, but their dreams. And they started to say, “Well, we’re not here just to follow the leader; we’re going to make something we can be proud of.” And this was obviously Tom McDonald, and John Buck came in ’79. Peter Hubscher became the chief winemaker of Montana in 1973, and Peter Robinson [Robertson] bought Brookfields in 1977. The Mission, all this time, had very old stocks of Pinot grapes; and I have to say I embarrassed them a little bit, ’cause I was writing a wine column. And I wrote in the column that I’d become a Catholic for a case of Mission Pinot. [Chuckles] Now they wrote back and said they doubted the sincerity of my conversion, [chuckles] but they sent a case on the bus anyway. [Laughter] They also made a genuine Champagne, which was Fontanella.
And another one of the heroes I have is George Fistonich, who … you know, we had this poor doomed Vidals … he bought that in ’76, and later on bought Esk Valley as well, which was the Baird family business.
And then we had a vine pull in 1986, which the government helped pay for; but sure, they needed to, ’cause they charged the poor industry like wounded bulls. And that took about a quarter of the grapes out, but they were all the bad quarter; so I mean suddenly our standard lifted. Now I know wine-makers say good wine is made in the vineyard. In my opinion it’s only to make sure that someone else gets blamed if they get a dud. [Chuckles] But there is something in that.
The other thing the industry did is that it took off the balance sheet some of the growth factors; and this was the use of contract growers. And that was a big step forward because one thing we do have in New Zealand is fantastic farmers, and so they took over growing a lot of the grapes. But unfortunately, our industry in Hawke’s Bay was still fighting with one hand tied behind their [our] back[s], ‘cause we had an absolutely dreadful Council – and I’m not telling you something that I haven’t told them – so I felt constrained to … as a local person who loved wine … to make contact with the Council and tell them, you know, what they were getting wrong. And they were good enough to listen, but totally ignored pretty well what I said. But it was known at the time that the worst Council in New Zealand for the wine industry to deal with was in Hawke’s Bay, which was just one of the reasons why our industry has not made the progress that I had dreamt about, and others have dreamt about, for quite a while. So just think of some of the fights that the industry’s had locally. Gimblett Gravels was going to be used as a shingle pit. Now that’s one of the best bits of vineyard country that we’ve got in the country, especially for red grapes that you want to get some sugar and ripeness out of. Vineyards could only be grown in the Pakowhai and other areas in the coastal areas, and not out … my vineyard was out at Mangatahi. Lot of places where you can have … The Triangle at Ngatarawa … and all over Hawke’s Bay there are great places for grapes, but you couldn’t grow them; you had to grow them where it was fertile. And this was decided by some people in a Council, and they’d never … I don’t think they had too much knowledge about growing.
So we also had a problem with winery restaurants. Winery restaurants were being built for … because wine and food are natural partners, as you’ll be well aware … and we had a ruling from the local Council that you could only have forty-two people in the restaurant. Now that was nuts, because winery restaurants are ideal places, for example, for a wedding, or a business-type convention or the likes; and to have forty-two people was just nuts; it just crippled it. And I can remember going across to my next door neighbour, Kemblefield; [he] wanted to build a two and a half million visitor centre, and the Council people turned up and said,”Well, you know, you’ve got a big place here for forty-two people.” So it got quite tense after that.
We also had a fight over the Havelock North special zone. Now the prince of red grapes in a lot of people’s opinion[s] is Cabernet. Cabernet’s problem for us is getting it right; and you can get Cabernet right in that Te Mata zone, but Cabernet doesn’t go where you have houses. So that was a real problem for the industry, and that was another big fight that we had. We also had the problem of where a winery had been built out of zone; so, you know, a hundred years ago when they built the winery it was okay to put them anywhere. But under the new rules brought in by the Council, if that winery had been burnt down you weren’t allowed to re-build, because it was out of zone. So that made insurance quite tricky, [chuckle] to say the least.
And then another thing I wrote to Council about was the issuing of water licences. Hawke’s Bay has areas where ground water is [in] very short supply, and the Ngaruroro River is one area where there’s not much aquifer until you get down to past Maraekakaho. And to me it seemed absolutely vital for a resource like this, to make part of a decision about granting it, economic grounds. And the Council would not wear it, and so we have the ridiculous situation in some of the driest areas in Hawke’s Bay … in the Ngaruroro … where we have massive dairy farms, where the water is used – first stage is for grass, second stage for milk. Now if you have a two stage, it’s not as efficient as if you have water being put on apples, or sweetcorn, or tomatoes; you know, directly [?] the job. So it’s something that hasn’t been fixed, and there’s not enough intellectual fire power in the Regional Council to ever fix it; so I’m not holding my breath on that one.
And just as an example about the fights the industry’s had – between 1989 and ‘91, John Buck and Alan Rimmer, bless them, went to forty-two hearings on zoning. Now these are blokes with businesses to run. They’re spending time, and some of these hearings go for days, where they’re giving up their time to try and defend the industry. But I have to say that Lawrence Yule has represented a change for the better, so I don’t sort of get too excited, but he does at least try and understand the industry. He’s in an important role because he’s also on the New Zealand-wide local authorities, and so he can influence a lot of places for the good, I hope.
We had a terrible fight with the government, because the government has – you know, phylloxera … vine louse – they have decided to put excise tax as a function of the consumer price index. So they’ve just recently put it up; and the consumer price index recently has been driven up by dairy products, and oil products, electricity; none of which have much to do about the price of wine. And the price of wine has gone down in the last three years – all of you will notice that when you’re buying it it’s cheaper. So the government’s putting tax up at a time when the price of wine’s going down, and it’s doing it because they’re stuffing up other things; so if they make it mess up the economy and inflation goes up, they get more money out of the wine industry. Now that is so grossly unfair, you’d hope that something might be done about it, but nothing has. It was done by both Parties who’ve been in power when this absolutely inequitable tax has been on.
But let’s get on to something a bit more positive – our heroes; because I have to say, Tom McDonald’s got to be top of the list, and we’ve seen what he achieved with his commercial range and his fine wines; and of course John Buck’s right up there in my opinion, too. His 1982 Coleraine was a real benchmark.
I recently had a 1982 Awatea, which at the time was the same level as Coleraine, with again some really good wines, and it was unbeliev[able] … this was earlier this year … it was a lovely wine, still fresh, and with life in it. I’m very proud of him. I’m also very proud of Peter Robinson, [Robertson] who went into Brookfields, which was a place where you took your half jar, and got a tap and turned it on and got your sherry and your port. And it’s not … not nice; but he’s done a terrific job there and it just shows you what hard work can do. And he makes a wine that I just … I adore, and it’s his Gold Label Cabernet Merlot.
And I think we’ve got to thank someone even from Auckland; George Fistonich has done a hell of a job for Hawke’s Bay with his Villa Maria, Vidals and Esk Valley; each of them are jewels in the crown of Hawke’s Bay.
I’d like to mention early Gimblett Gravel pioneers … Chris Pask, Kate Radburnd, and the Lawson family. Now Lawson’s are known as Te Awa Farm, but people don’t know that they put a vineyard in on Omahu Road, just round the corner from where Sacred Hill is, about the time that Chris Pask was planting there as well. So they’re heroes in by book. And I’m very fond of Alan Corban and Sacred Hill; they’re quite big wineries, those, and so they’re very important to us. And I think John Hancock brought another dimension into the area, ‘cause he had the Australian experience. And he has a fair knowledge of Syrah, which is going to be important to us; and I also think Graham Avery deserves a big pat on the back. He came in as a person from outside, and saw the way that Hawke’s Bay operated, which is appallingly separated and disunited and dysfunctional, and tried to do something about it with a lot of his own money. I know that he put in hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own to try to get us organised on one basis; and he was a lot of the brains and a lot of the impetus behind the Hawke’s Bay Wine Country brand, which unfortunately seems to be … you know, tailing off a little bit.
And I’ve great hopes for Terry Peabody and Steve Smith. ‘cause they have a good feel for it too. And Montana under Peter Hubscher was a pretty damned reliable outfit, and a good thing for New Zealand. But I’m really worried about Montana at the moment, because the talk is that Corban’s Winery, which was the biggest in Hawke’s Bay, is going to be sold or closed. And that’s going to be a lot of grapes that won’t be needed in Hawke’s Bay, because they’re talking about centralising at Church Road which is a relatively small winery compared with that one. And it’s certainly not Peter Hubscher’s fault.
And then I love all the small people, like Sir Richard Harrison … the late Sir Richard Harrison; and he said Hawke’s Bay’s got the Central Hawke’s Bay area. Well I think there’s a lot of upside in going to Central Hawke’s Bay. And I think Anna Limmer’s been a great help to the industry, and Tim Turvey; I mean, he’s just brilliant, ’cause he’s got outrageous wines, but boy! Are they entertaining, and they certainly let you know they’re there.
And the little blokes like Kim Silanias has a small business out in the Esk Valley. He was very early on the scene and was a hundred per cent classical vinifera wines. And if you want the best Chardonnay that’s around at the moment that I’ve had – and I’ve been going out to Linden Estate because their 2008 Chardonnay’s still for sale there – and it is … talk about complex, multi-layered, brilliant Chardonnay. Here’s little Linden Estate with a chapter of unfortunate accidents there. One of the people that bought it – the last I heard of him he’s in jail in Mexico City, so [chuckle] not a good look. [Chuckles]
And I like people like Ian Cadwallader from Riverside. He gave hours and hours of time trying to promote Hawke’s Bay events and Hawke’s Bay wine events. But if you’re going to have to have one hero, I’ve always looked at somewhere like the Mission, who came here early, who’ve persevered, and has terrific faith, and they got to the stage, as I said, they were doomed, I thought, with things going against them. But there was someone there had a lot of good sense, and they said, “Right, well we need to adopt a different model.” And so they pulled in a South African, Peter Holly, to run the business; they got a very good Board of Directors; they sat down, did a strategic plan which said, “We’ve gotta get the hospitality side right.” So they’ve fiddled around, and they did a wonderful job with the old Seminary building which is now the cellar door, and there’s a restaurant there, hooking in if needed to quite a big chapel for larger events. Brilliant site now, something we can all be proud of; and that’s the front door of Hawke’s Bay wine, after all. Then they rationalised the vineyards; they sold off the ones on the very rich country, and have got much better vineyards. The third area has been the Winery, and they had a function to say, “We’ve now done the Winery”; and that is a wonderful success story. And I think in time smart business schools will say, “Now look, can we get the information from you about what you did?” Because they didn’t have huge resources to do it with, they had to do it internally, and they’ve done a wonderful thing for Hawke’s Bay wine so it’s there for a long time. So those are the good guys.
The villains are small-minded, lazy [chuckle] bureaucrats. [Chuckles] They way overestimate their ability. And they’re everywhere. And then I also am not very fond of greedy retail outlets, which are going to kill the golden goose. And you’ll end up seeing – and it’s started already – where own brands are in, and retail brands where people stand behind the brand, are going out. So you’ve got these things called ‘clean skin’; I’d never buy one, but I know a lot of people do. We have slap-happy licensing rules because of, you know, getting local Councils to run an important thing like selling liquor. It’s just nonsense. So it should be backed and you know, nationally run, and we’ll need some professional people to do it.
And then I’m really hostile to the people that stand in the way of Hawke’s Bay becoming a real place. At the moment, Hawke’s Bay means it’s [got] a pretty good rugby team, and somewhere you can go fishing; but Hawke’s Bay’s a joke if you think about it as a place. Hawke’s Bay is four or five villages that fight each other more than they fight the rest of the world, and so we’ve got small-minded people saying, “We don’t want to give up this – look at the depth that Hastings has got!” Blah-de, blah-de, blah. Now you know that you can have separate rating areas – that fixes that, you know, real quick; and then the government tax policy, you know – they see the wine industry as simply a place where you can pull money out of. They have no feeling for the industry, and all they want is money. So I’d like to see them, you know, give a bit more back to the industry, because the industry – it’s not over; the industry has not reached the heights that I think we’ve got, that we’re capable of. Part of that’s the fault of the industry, and part of that’s the fault of the people and the environment. So we have to gain government respect, and we need to upskill local authorities; and we should have, in my opinion, national licensing. This is for the good of Hawke’s Bay wine. We have to find what Hawke’s Bay is, because it means nothing at the moment, and we have to find our place as being Hawke’s Bay people. Now, I don’t care – let’s find a city name and put it on all of the cities, you know, all the bits of the city. So let’s call it Napier; and Havelock can be a suburb of Napier just as well as it can be a suburb of Hastings. So we’ve got to think outside the box, ‘cause Hawke’s Bay’s going nowhere; and it’s because we just don’t look after what we have.
A simple illustration is, there are people that can sell wine on a Sunday of Easter. Now I’m not sure about whether you should sell on Easter Sunday ‘cause I have some strong views on religion, and positive ones; but it seems unfair that in Hawke’s Bay we can’t sell on a Sunday, where in Rotorua you can. Now what’s the difference? The difference is that Hawke’s Bay can’t talk with one voice. It’s of great interest to say to some people, but not to others; and we haven’t learnt to work together. So we need to make that Hawke’s Bay, and we need to sing the same song – and that’s an industry thing as well. The industry doesn’t have the same voice, ‘cause I’ve been inside it and I’ve been trying to represent the industry, and you know, it doesn’t have the same voice. So that’s got to happen.
And we have to pick winners, and the winners are going to be root stocks, varieties of grapes … and that comes down to clones; not every Cabernet’s the same; not every Chardonnay’s the same. So there might be fifty clones of Chardonnay – you’ve got to pick the ones that are right for your terroir. And we have some wonderful sites; like, I think Lime Rock [is a] wonderful site for wine. Wonderful. It’s on limestone, which is the basis of Burgundy. What it means is, the grapes need to be a bit older, so that’s going to work in our favour. And we need to attract heroes – people that [who] come into the place, like Graham Avery, like George Fistonich, like Peabody; and we have to make them very welcome and know that they’ve got something to give to us. And we just have to be very worried about globalisation, in my opinion, because Corban’s Winery could close in a heartbeat, because of, you know … say a stock market problem in New York. The boys here have done a wonderful job with it; but it can go. And we’re very vulnerable. And the same I might say, will be true of say, the Nobilo big vineyard on the corner of Highway 50. So I’m not happy about globalisation. You don’t see a lot of it in the big successful wine areas. And climate change might make some changes too.
And finally, we have to have an industry that makes money, because at the end of the day it’s great, and many of us would do it for nothing, but we have to have some profit. So thank you for your attention. I’m very happy to take any questions.
Comment: You didn’t mention Sauvignon Blanc.
Alistair: Well, it’s not a big thing for Hawke’s Bay. But I grew it where I was and it was always a very successful wine, and, there’s some very nice Savvy Blanc, but it’s not the winner for Hawke’s Bay that it was for Marlborough. But I think it’s an important part of your mix. I’ve always been sad that some wineries have – new ones – have not put Sauvignon Blanc in, and then they’ve had to rush around and try and find some. That was I think, Seleni, admitted to that, that they didn’t put it in; and when they wanted to go export it was an important part of the portfolio that people looked for from here. And these things have a habit of evening themselves out. I think our future will be … personally, it will be Cabernet-led wines, and not Merlot-led wines. Merlots are perhaps an escape route, but you know, I’ve tasted wonderful Merlots here. And I think maybe Syrah looks pretty hopeful, and I think Chardonnay is pretty damned good. ‘Cause I think Chardonnay – it’s not the same is it? You know, I mean, you guys, if you have a Chardonnay you can get … one end you’ve got someone outrageous like Tim Turvey, and then you’ve got something that’s a bit more minerally, and a bit more closed; a bit more the Chablis-style. So it’s a very, very flexible grape.
Question: I heard on the radio that Peter Holly and Paul Mooney want to reduce the minimum-size bottle to 500 mls [millilitres] so there won’t be so much wastage.
Alistair: It’s a good idea, but they’ve already done it. It’s out in the marketplace. Years ago I did some consulting work for Nobilos in Auckland, and that was one of the ideas that I would put forward to them, because at the time New Zealand’s industry was all white wine, and it was a big investment to go into, you know, full-size bottles. And I spent a bit of time with Nick, and we came out with this thing called Shadow Valley, which was a red wine in the three [hundred and] seventy-five mls. And it wasn’t successful, [chuckle] I’m sorry to say. [Chuckle]
But anyway, I think that’s a good idea, but [it] wouldn’t work for everyone. I think one of the thoughts they had was when you go out, and it’s nice to have a glass or two at a picnic. And all power for them, because what we’ve got to try and do – because we all, including me, we all probably drink a bit much. And, you know, one of the things that led to the worry about prohibition was the minimum purchase from a winery from 1881 to 1955 was six bottles. And so you had to go into a winery; you’d buy six bottles; you’d probably feel [you] better drink them, ’cause I might say those days, there wouldn’t have been much cellaring potential.
Question: Recently there’s been proposals that the government put a minimum price on alcohol, which I don’t think will actually go ahead, but how do you think that would’ve affected the wine industry?
Alistair: It would have been as good as the scheme that was pulled in – the maximum retail pricing that the Labour government brought in years ago. You had to be a dolt to even think like that, so there’d be plenty of people that would be in that category. Because one of the things that I think that the people the wine industry should think about – the wine industry, under the rules of selling wine, you have sell wine to people of sound mind. So you know, first thing I’d do is I’d ban any sale to Bellamys. [Laughter]
Comment: Many people will remember Lombardi, a little family business …
Alistair: Yes. That was the Green family’s business, which is now Black Barn – well, in the same area. Yeah, that was a lady who married a New Zealander. She was an Italian woman; came out here, and they had a distinctly Italian feel. But that was at a time when those sort of off-wine things were quite popular, or fortified wines were more popular. And you know, a situation’s really tough if the market changes – you need a fair bit of money to change your product range to fit the new market, and some people just didn’t make that step. They didn’t have a George Fistonich to come along and save them, or the genius of the Board and management of the Mission. But the Mission also have another advantage, [chuckle] so they deserve success.
Comment: At the time, I remember going out to the Mission and the place was for sale for a couple of million, so I’m glad they did get Peter Holly and …
Alistair: … and the team. Yeah, you have to say that the Board take a big step, because they’re the people that sit down and say, “Look we want a straight plan; these are the resources that we’ve got; this is where we want to be; how do we get there?” And they went in three stages, you know – the cellar door and the visitor experience, the vineyards, and then the winery. And it’s a case study that hopefully will be available in the future.
Host: Alistair, look, on behalf of the group, thank you.
Original digital file
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Landmarks Talk 7/10/12