Corban’s Wines – Alwyn Corban

Jim Newbigin: [We’ve] got Alwyn Corban here from Corban’s Wines, talking to us 10th November 2020.

Joyce Barry: Good evening every one. Alwyn is not keen to talk; he’s too shy, and he just didn’t think he would have this interest; well there we go. Very, very proud to have the Corban family living in Hawke’s Bay and the fact they originally came from Lebanon;  and that’s the story he’s going to tell tonight. This year Alwyn was elected into the Hawke’s Bay Wine Growers Hall of Fame. [Applause] Not everyone gets in; must’ve been with some illustrious names there, Alwyn.

Alwyn Corban: I have, and one of them’s here tonight.

That’s wonderful. So over to you, Alwyn, thank you.

Thank you, Joyce. This is going to be very interesting ‘cause I don’t know how long I prepared for and what ground we’re going to cover. But I am very pleased to be here so thank you for the invitation, and it’s great to see so many friends and familiar faces here, and I thank you for coming.

I want to acknowledge my family here – my son, Abraham, my sisters Jenny and Heather, and my brother-in-law, Garry. I want to acknowledge John Buck and Wendy as well, and Jim Newbigin. I’m not sure whether they’re here in support or here as fact-checkers and correctors, [laughter] so I’ve tried to get the history as accurate as I could, and I’m very happy for interjection if it’s not quite right.

[Showing a series of slides]

I’m going to start with this slide which is my grandparents on my mum’s side; they were farmers at Te Karaka in Gisborne. But the reason I’m doing that … well, perhaps I should say before I go there, they farmed for a long time; they would’ve been in their seventies in this photo. But I remember being a fleece-o for my grandfather when he was eighty-two, and he shore forty-three sheep in that day, and I actually thought he was going to die that night, [chuckles] the groans coming out of his bedroom were so loud. But the reason I put that up there is because when I was a teenager he gave me this book, which is Boy’s Own Annual 1902. And inside it it’s got ‘William George [?Durham?] from Mrs T H Lowry, Christmas 1902’. Now the reason he was given that book was because his father worked for the Lowrys at Okawa Station. He gave it to me a long time before I came to Hawke’s Bay, but he talked very fondly of the Lowrys and particularly the Lowry Hut during the First World War, which was recreation for the soldiers that were over there. A couple years ago I thought I’d take this to Tom Lowry and show it to him, because he filled me with the history of his grandmother, and also his grandmother’s brother who was E J Watt, who actually owned the Ngatarawa in the early days … I think E J Watt bought it off [from] G P Donnelly … which is where we ran the winery for about thirty-five years.

Now the other thing that was interesting in this book, and my grandfather didn’t tell me, was a story in here ‘A Tale of the New Zealand War’, and it was written by [?Havelock Durham?] who happens to be my grandfather’s older cousin who was thirteen years older; so he was into writing stories and journalism. And we’re very lucky because he started to write his family history, but he didn’t finish it and he actually got his grandson, who was my mother’s cousin … no, he must be my cousin [chuckles] … I think they’re the same generation … interested in it, and [?Tim Durham?] actually finished this a couple of years ago. And I find this interesting because when I go back in my grandfather’s family, they were well-off lace-makers in Nottingham, and when my grandfather’s grandfather died, the two sons inherited the business – this is 1857 – but they quickly fell into trouble. The sons fell out with each other; there was a strike over wages; there was a change in fashion from lace to less-decorative clothing. They had stock built up, and they ended up not being able to pay the bills and eventually went bankrupt. And they decided to come to New Zealand, and I think it was through the wife’s family’s money that they came.

They came in 1859 on the ‘Spray of the Ocean’; they’d bought land sight unseen up at Mangōnui in Northland, and when they got there – there was no way they were going anywhere else because they’d spent everything they had – and it wasn’t what it was portrayed to be. James, the father and husband, died about five years later aged fifty-nine, but the wife, Mary, and my grandfather’s father stayed there for nineteen years before they left Mangōnui and shifted.

So of the five kids that came out on the ship – I find it actually quite interesting because they ranged in age from eleven to about mid-twenties. And depending on what age they were they had different expectations, and expectations of entitlement as well. And when you look at what they did … one of the older ones went back to England; another one tried to settle into commerce, and there’s a story in the book about [how] he lasted in one job a week because his employer was on the ship that they came out on, but the employer was in Second Class and they were in First Class; and he didn’t want to work for him. Anne became a teacher in Auckland; Mary married a farmer and he actually came to Hawke’s Bay, Mary’s husband; and William who is my grandfather’s father he went into farming as well. They really settled down.

So the next reference I have is the story of Olrig: ‘Hey Days and Dray Days’, written by Dick Paterson. I forgot Dick’s wife’s name, but she was a Smith – Olrig was the family farm. And there were a few connections there too; Olrig was twenty seven thousand acres and the owner, Smith, died suddenly in 1877 and so the farm was managed by a supervisor who happened to be J H Coleman. And apparently J H Coleman was on that ship in 1859 when they came to New Zealand, and [he’d] visit them in Mangonui. So Coleman leased Olrig to Farmer and James Watt, so there’s another E J Watt … James Watt … connection there.

So my grandfather’s father came to Olrig – they say through knowing J H Coleman – and he was manager from 1891 to 1894; he actually went there in 1877. He was paid £275 a year; there were eleven staff. In 1892 they shore sixteen thousand lambs and the wool clip was six [hundred and] fifty one bales from thirty thousand grown sheep in 1893. It’s also got another connection for me because we for many years bought grapes from Terrace View Vineyard, which is the old Kemblefield, and that’s just a stone’s throw from the house that my grandfather was born in, which is this house here. [Slide] Maybe it’s more than a stone’s throw, but someone with a good arm like Jim [Newbigin] would be able to do that.

And this is my mum’s grandfather here…William [?Durham?]. He left Olrig in 1894 because the lease had run out, and I think the Smith sons who had been at school in England, came back to the property. When he left Olrig he tried his hand at farming at Waihi, up by Lake Waikaremoana, but it was very tough – he walked off the land there. He came back, and that’s when he worked at Okawa for a short period, and then he went to Gisborne and worked for Ian Hutchinson for many, many years. And at the end of the war, William was working for Ian Hutchinson; two of his sons were working for Ian Hutchinson; and a son-in-law was also working for Ian Hutchinson; so the [?Durham?] family had a very long association with Ian Hutchinson.

The next thing I want to refer to is the thesis that was written by my grandfather’s brother in 1925. He was the third eldest son of Assid Abraham Corban. He was the only one of the nine children not to work in the vineyard and winery, but he did have an education. He studied medicine at Otago; he worked in mental health hospitals in Tokanui and Westport for many years before setting up general practice in Remuera. He was still closely involved with the wine business – my grandfather gave me a stack of wine industry journals from the 1920s, and I can see that … his name was Doctor Corban Corban … I can see Doctor Corban’s [chuckle] handwriting all over the articles, with comment on them and recommendation as to what the family should do about it. So David, I don’t know how he wrote a medical thesis on the wine industry, [chuckle] but he did; and it was called ‘A Brief History of the Wine Industry’. And what is very strong in it is commentary on the temperance movement which we lived with for many, many years. [Slide] This photo was taken in 1919 at … I imagine something like the Auckland Easter Show, something like that … and was much about influencing people’s vote in the referendum on prohibition, state control, or continuance. This is Doctor Corban here, I know that; and this is his older brother, Wadier; this is Assid Abraham Corban who was their father. So he’s very strong on that, and particularly the impact that had on investment in the wine industry and the uncertainty for people in the wine industry. That referendum was held every three years; it coincided with the elections, and it continued through to about 1986, I think it was.

He also talks about prospects for the industry in here – wine-making regulations, labelling regulations, statistics, international comparison of the New Zealand wine industry to the industry overseas, the local market, and he gives a winemakers’ perspective. This is actually in the Auckland Museum as part of the Corban collection there.

As part of the thesis he did a tour of New Zealand vineyards, and he did come to Hawke’s Bay. He says he tramped miles on dusty roads during a hot December spell, and he said the cellars are generally built of brick; some are wooden. Electric lighting finds much favour; fermenting vats are both wood and concrete; the press is mounted on a wheeled truck which runs along iron rails; casks vary in size from hogshead to eleven [hundred and] fifty gallons. A couple of establishments have stills for fortifying into brandy. So this is Hawke’s Bay. In 1923 forty thousand gallons of cider were manufactured in Hawke’s Bay, and he list the wineries that he visited; Mission is the first one he talks about, and he goes into detail of describing the cellars etcetera, etcetera in the vineyard. But he’s got a couple of photographs in there which aren’t that high definition, but the one that really interested me was the grapes growing on the hillside where the concert is [held] … on the terraces of that hillside, so that was wonderful to see that.

He visited Mrs Randall in Greenmeadows, who was virtually opposite the Mission. Her father was Tiffen … what was Tiffen’s name?

Reply: Henry Stokes.

Alwyn: Yeah. And Mrs Randall belonged to the temperance movement, so she actually shut the vineyard and winery down. [Chuckles] And that’s when my grandfather came to Hawke’s Bay with his two older brothers, because they purchased Mrs Tiffen’s [Randall’s] winemaking gear and took it back to Henderson.

The other thing they did is they went by train and they stopped in Taumarunui, which is where my grandfather met my grandmother, and so it was sort of … I wouldn’t be here – we wouldn’t be here [chuckles] if it wasn’t for Mrs Randall. [Chuckle]

And he also talked about the Arataki government experimental farm; the liqueur varieties; described the water supply for both the vineyards and the urban area; sewerage discharge; and how trade waste was dealt with. And his general remarks on the community were: “Goitre is extremely prevalent and on the increase, especially the toxic type”, which I found quite interesting. And: “The climate dries out rapidly after rainfall leading to catarrh of mucus membranes of the nose and throat.” [Chuckles] “Yet in spite of all this Hawke’s Bay is a pleasant place” [chuckles] “and congenial locality with a climate of good features.” He concluded with future suggestions and recommendations to the industry, which was ‘Need for security of tenure’, and he referenced the three yearly referendum; and, “The history of wine in New Zealand indicates how unsuitable an occupation it would be for a retired person, but happily we are not of that type. It is to the credit of the Dominion that its population has a reputation for sturdiness and hardiness and is willing to tackle anything.” I think that still applies today, doesn’t it?

So that leads me to Doctor Corban’s father, who was Assid Abraham Corban, and he was the one that was born in Shweir, Lebanon. And we’re very lucky to have this book written by Dick Scott, which is called ‘A Stake in the Country: Assid Abraham Corban And His Family 1892-2002’. Shweir was a Christian village of about two thousand population, thirty kilometres inland from Beirut, and about three thousand five hundred feet above sea level. It had a natural spring in the village, which is probably why the village was formed. Assid Abraham Corban was born in 1864 in the midst of a civil war; in 1860 the Muslim army laid waste to Christian villages on the lower slopes of Mount Lebanon, and eleven thousand people were massacred. So I think he had it in his mind to leave Lebanon for a long time, but he had great respect for his parents; he didn’t leave until both of them had passed away, by which time he was a married man with a child and another one on the way. But he left, and he didn’t find it easy to leave; he went to Egypt – I think he spent three months at the port trying to get a ship. He really wanted to go to [cough] South America but couldn’t get a passage; went to Marseilles, and eventually went from Marseilles to Australia, where he hawked for six months; then came to New Zealand. He arrived in New Zealand in 1892; he couldn’t speak English, he had a bible written in Arabic, and that was about it. And he worked as a hawker in the goldfields around Coromandel.

As Lebanese law was if you are … away from your wife, I’ll say that … for seven years, the marriage is declared null and void; so after six years his wife and two sons came from Lebanon and joined him in New Zealand. So when she came they set up a shop in Queen Street, Auckland, virtually opposite where the town hall is now. In 1982 [1892] they went to Henderson. He brought a four hectare orchard and vineyard – it was right next to the railway line, right next to the creek – and they settled down. And really, he established a commune there because as I say, he had their ten children – one died as an infant, and Doctor Corban went to study medicine – but the rest of them actually lived in the same house, worked on the same property, and when they married their spouses came and lived in the house and worked on the property. [Chuckles] Oh, there he is, yeah [slide] – that’s Assid Abraham Corban when he arrived in Auckland, 1892.

[Slide] So this is grandchildren – David, Assid, Alex, I think that’s Regina, and Mary. But this is our father, and these are his cousins, and this was their grandmother here; you can just see her in the back there. So the family was a large family, the business was a reasonable size and they had to make it work, so they were industry leaders and pioneers. And I thought this was really interesting – I put up two wine reviews there – and this is one from 1912; that’s 2013. And you can see what the emphasis is on here – it’s about ‘Free from Harmful Materials; Particularly Suited for Invalids’. [Chuckles] You know, with the threat of prohibition etcetera, etcetera, appealing to the health benefits of wine was really important. And there was nothing about … well, he does talk about the quality in the wine and the flavour, but no descriptors like there are in this: ‘Seductive notes of game, cedar and cocoa’, etcetera etcetera.

Just as my grandparent’s on my mum’s side were long lived, so were my grandfather and his family on Dad’s side. So these two were the kids that were born in Lebanon; they were in their eighties here, and they’re still going to … it was a viticultural field day, which in the day was the big wine seminar that was held once a year when they lobbied the parliamentarians. And this is their youngest brother – this is 2002 – and he was in his mid-nineties at this point. They remained very active and very involved in the industry, and they all had their own area of responsibility. Wadier was the winemaker, Najib was the vineyard manager, and Khaleel was the salesman; and our grandfather who was in those photos, he ran the wholesale wine and spirits business in Hobson Street, Auckland.

And this is [the] third generation; this is our dad, Alex. [Slides] He was the first New Zealand winemaker to get a winemaking qualification as such – he studied at Roseworthy, came back with his … it was called a Diploma in Oenology … and of course got all the lab gear and the lab coat and the microscope and everything. This is Dad’s brother, Joe; cousin Assid; and I mentioned Wadier and Najib – that’s them there. And that generation all had roles in the business too – Dad was the winemaker, Joe was the vineyard manager, and Assid was logistics.

One thing that does irk me a bit is how easy it is to dismiss the history and heritage in the industry, and I know there’s been books written that the industry started when Sauvignon Blanc was planted in Marlborough. When I went away on generic marketing trips overseas, the number of New Zealand winemakers that got up and said, “Well the industry started when I planted my vineyards”; which really used to get to me. But in my mind you’ve got to acknowledge people like Assid Abraham Corban, who persevered through difficult times, and the industry went through very hard times. It was at a low in the 1940s; sales were terrible. They had a boost with the war and American soldiers here just after alcohol, but the sales were lagging and stocks were … I think there was six years’ inventory in stock.

So the change did start in the fifties, I mentioned Dad with his degree – he did that in Australia at Roseworthy College which was in South Australia. He actually mixed with the winemakers there, and saw their industry which had the different varieties, and table wine as well. They made a lot of fortified wine but they did have table wines, it was about the time when … actually it was starting to make wines like Grange etcetera etcetera. So Dad came back with a vision of what he wanted to do, and it was really to make light, fruity table wines that could find an international market. He settled on Müller-Thurgau which did that naturally – low alcohol, fruity – but is quite often derided in the modern wine industry.

At the same time there was legislative change happening, and that was through lobbying. People like George Mazuran would lobby hard; other winemakers would lobby hard; they’d go down to Wellington and sit in the Gallery and make submissions and so on. So one of the obvious ones was licensed restaurants – before 1960 there were no licensed restaurants in New Zealand. You couldn’t have wine with a meal at a restaurant. And also – which seems odd because there was sort of a leaning towards reducing consumption of alcohol, yet the minimum quantity that you could sell from the winery was two gallons, so [chuckles] it’s a little bit incongruous. So there was a change from fortified to table wine, export markets were being developed, and the big push came with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in the UK [United Kingdom] in the 1980s. And I think part of the success of that is – number one: it’s very distinctive in its flavour; number two: it was very [cough] consistent in its style and quality from producer to producer and vintage to vintage; and number three: it’s got quite an accessible price point, so it’s available to a lot of people.

We move on from there – globalisation, vertical integration, consolidation and eventually commoditisation. So I think that’s the path that a lot of the wine industry has gone through. [Slide] This is from Kevin Judd’s Instagram, and Kevin was the original winemaker at Cloudy Bay. He’s a very, very good winemaker; he’s very humble and doesn’t say a lot, but he’s a very good photographer as well and in the 1990s he took a lot of photos of New Zealand winemakers and he had them tucked away until about April when Denis Irwin passed away. He put up a post about Denis Irwin, and then he decided he would start to put his photos out with a bit of a commentary on them. So … it’s better if somebody else says it: ‘Alex Corban, wine industry pioneer and patriarch, [?commanded?] huge respect from every corner of the industry, and was widely credited with gaining New Zealand an international foothold in the world of wine.’ And I think that’s true.

Right, now we come to Hawke’s Bay. And we’re very lucky because Dad’s uncle was a good photographer, and dad was actually a very good photographer as well; he told my brother that if he wasn’t a winemaker he would’ve liked to’ve been a documentary film maker. We do have a couple of movies that he did, but he took still photos too. [Slide] So this is Tom McDonald, Frank Thorpy, André Simon who established the International Wine and Food Society, and is probably the original gourmand. [Chuckle] And I think these guys look like government people. [Laughter] But that photo is definitely Hawke’s Bay; you could tell that, can’t you?

And I go to the next one as well … d’you recognise these people? Brother Sylvester and Brother John – I don’t know their individual names, but these are the Vidal brothers.

So this is when I came to Hawke’s Bay; I went to UC [University of California] Davis and studied my winemaking; came to Hawke’s Bay in 1977. And when I arrived McWillams were the leader in the Bay – I worked for McWilliams as a winemaker. Tom [McDonald] had just retired and Bob Knappstein was my boss; Bob had been at Roseworthy with Dad, and I actually went and worked at Bob’s family winery in [the] Clare Valley before I came to Hawke’s Bay. The winery was in Faraday Street; we had three bottling lines going every day. We had a sparkling wine line which was Marque Vue; we had a fortified wine line; we had a table wine line which was often Cresta Doré or Bakano, and occasionally we’d have a liqueur line going as well. [Chuckle] And it was flat out. Cresta Doré was made from Müller-Thurgau, but we did have what Evan and I – Evan Ward was my contemporary winemaker there – we had what we called ‘the toy winery’, and we had experimental vinifera varieties and we’d make them in the toy winery. And we were very lucky to have a bigger patch of Chardonnay; there was ten acres of Chardonnay at Wharerangi, which we made. Tom had made Cabernet since 1949, but it was sort of the holy grail, so it was kept out at … well it’s Church Road winery now, which was Tom’s original winery … and we didn’t see that until it was ready to go into barrel in August.

Mission and Vidals – strong wineries; Warwick [Orchiston] is Vidals, and Paul Mooney is Mission. We met twice a month; one meeting was Hawke’s Bay Vintners, and this is Hawke’s Bay Vintners members in about 1985; that was all of us, and we would meet and talk marketing things and advocacy things, and then we’d have a winemaker’s tasting once a month where we’d all bring a wine and talk about it and dissect it. And Kim Salonius never came to these but he came to the winemaker’s one, and we became good friends; and I think Kim needs a special mention, because – he was Eskdale Wine Growers, but he was I think, the first winemaker in New Zealand to be one hundred percent table wine from a hundred percent vinifera. And he started in 1971, but he’s really a beacon like that; but he never promoted himself or anything like that.

In 1981 I went to Ngatarawa. Actually I should finish off these guys … Peter Robertson at Brookfields; Robbie Bird at Glenvale, Esk Valley; Tony Green of Lombardi; Bob Knappstein, John Buck, Te Mata; Jack Madison, who was our honorary secretary, and Jack was known as Montana Jack – he was Montana’s sales manager in the South Island for his career but he retired in Taradale, and he gave us a lot of good service. He taught us how to price wines so at the time the wholesaler and retailer put on their margin you knew what the retail price was going to be. And Ash Oldershaw who was the honorary treasurer – Ash is still around, he was in Hawke’s Bay last week. So what I’m saying is, it was a pioneering exercise. These out of Warren Moran’s book, which is a really good book; it was really a lifetime’s work for Warren, doing this. He was the Professor of Geography at Auckland Uni, [University] and he started collecting material for this book fifty years before he finished writing it. And he has got a lot of good stuff in here, but this is one of his maps [slide] – this is vineyards in 1960, and you can see they were all really close to the coast. And there was a thing – you’ll know this – keeping vineyards away from the farming areas because there was that law about … you can’t use hormone spray within a five mile radius of a vineyard and so on; so there was strong desire by farmers to keep the vineyards away.

1980 which is when we started – starting to come inland; I think we were about there [indicates on slide] – that’s where we were – we started [in] ’81. 1990 you can see it go up the Tūtaekuri River, and a little bit around the Bridge Pa triangle. And then [in] 2000, the development up the Ngāruroro River which was really quite significant. So this is where we started, and the wineries; they had a little arrow here – ‘Keep going for ten k [kilometres] to get to the Ngatarawa …’ [Chuckles] It was going to cost too much to reprint the map. [Chuckles] And this is the current wine trail map, and this dot and this dot are in the same place, but you can see all of these wineries and vineyards that’ve popped up west of Hastings. And I like this map because I think this is topical at the moment when you talk about the Class 1 soils and the fertile soils of the Heretaunga Plains, and just how the demarcation between orchards, which are the green, and vineyards here. And it’s really because those two crops are site-specific, but the grapes like the freer draining stuff and the orchards like it more fertile and more water-holding capacity. That’s 2000, and I think if you looked at it now a lot of these vineyards here in the lower part of the Tūtaekuri would be in apples now; I’m not sure which ones. I think – is that Woodthorpe there? Yeah, Woodthorpe would be there, and [?] would be there, [indicates map] but they’re actually up the river a bit and they’re on terraces, so they’re not the fertile soils that are down here; and I think that’ll be apples, and a lot of this red stuff in here would be apples now as well. So the demarcations become even bigger.

So why did I go to Ngatarawa? What attracted me was – I’ve just talked about the free-draining soils versus the fertile soils – so it was the free-draining soils. And this is the soil profile – that’s about seventy centimetres there; some water-holding capacity there but actually free-draining. Yeah, it was very free-draining which appealed to me. It was in what was known as the Hastings dry dock, which was … Garry Glazebrook always told me it was lower rainfall than other areas of Hawke’s Bay. When we went there it was a discretionary activity, and we had to apply to the county council for approval; and there was no right to rebuild if the one you built burnt down. We put in a very modest application – we put an application in for a vineyard of twenty hectares producing three ton to the acre; that’s sixty ton, which is about four and a half thousand cases. So they granted us permission to build a winery with a footprint for that. Mark Reed was one of the county council people that [who] heard it; and they approved it, and when I was walking out he said, “I think you’ve got your crop estimates wrong, son”. [Chuckles]

When we started we thought we’d be dry farming; we thought we would not be irrigating. And we knew it was free-draining so we cultivated the soil and had it weed-free, but we quickly learned we couldn’t carry on like that because the leaves just desiccated before the grapes were ripe, and we adopted grassing the vineyard and using drip irrigation. And that did have benefits; there was no wind erosion. Wind erosion on those soils there is … it’s amazing really. I remember being out in the vineyard and the wind came up, and so we all sat in the vehicle; it was just dust, dust, dust. And yet when the wind subsided, parked about from me to Selwyn [member of audience] away was another vehicle that had pulled up in the dust, and hadn’t seen us and we hadn’t seen them. It was just that strong.

We did have a number of setbacks … climatic setbacks. We had a terrible hail storm in ’94 which just … it was about three weeks before harvest, but it just – the hail was like this size and it just shredded all the grapes on the vine; all the leaves, and actually cut into the trunks. We had frost in 2000 and 2002, but we grew beyond four and a half thousand cases quite quickly. We actually got contract grapes supply; we settled on about fifteen thousand cases for some time. I’m pleased Kevin’s here because I am particularly pleased with this – he made a heap of great wine and built a number of superb international brands, and we sold Ngatarawa, the brand, to the Mission in 2017.

I should say that when we started at Ngatarawa, I started in partnership with the Glazebrook family. We leased the property from the Glazebrooks and we put all the improvements in, which we converted to a company after seven years, and bought the land; and we already own the improvements. And we operated like that for another eleven years, and Brian Corban purchased the Glazebrook shares in 1998.

When Brian came in we actually scaled the winery up about two hundred thousand cases; we had comprehensive national distribution, and we had key export markets in China and the US. [United States] If I just talk about Kevin’s mention of international brands … the brands drew on the heritage of the place. Ngatarawa was our mother brand, if you want to call it that, but we had a heap of resistance to Ngatarawa … people couldn’t say it; so by default our sub-brands actually became quite strong, and they included Stables, which referenced the horse racing history; Alwyn, our founding winemaker; and Glazebrook, [cough] from the founding partners. We had a range of wines … quite a wide range of wines … but really, the specialties were Chardonnay, dessert wines Maple Harvest and Syrah, just seemed to be a natural winner for us.

You can’t do this sort of stuff alone, and I’ve been very lucky to have been a partner with the Glazebrooks, but Garry Glazebrook in particular; and Brian and Lindsey Corban as well; and Peter Gough, who was our winemaker for twenty-five years; John Halligan, who came off and on for about thirty-five years; and Karen [?Mendels?], who originally came to pick grapes and stayed for thirty-two years. [Chuckles]

So if we talk about Hawke’s Bay wine today, we have that photo of … it was eight or nine of us in 1985; well, it’s grown to over seventy winemakers now, and more than two hundred and twenty grape growers. Hawke’s Bay wine has found its place up the river valleys in the free-draining soil. Hawke’s Bay is a diverse region with recognised sub-regions – you can talk about Gimblett Gravels, you can talk about Bridge Pa Triangle, Mangatahi, Crownthorpe, and … what do you call it up the Tūtaekuri? I don’t know what you would call it, but there are distinct sub-regions.

When I was at McWilliams, we knew all of Tom’s great vintages; we knew ‘49, ‘51, ‘65, ‘69, ‘71, and really they were the years where a new vineyard was planted and we got the first fruit off it. And it was really to do with the vine balance and fruit exposure, and the sun on the grapes etcetera. And then, sort of during the eighties and nineties, we knew which were the good vintages and they were really based on climate. I mean the vines were older, but we knew when it was a hot year or whatever; but now it’s almost as though every year is a good year. And okay, we have few that are climatically not good, like 2011 and 2012 were different but on the whole Hawke’s Bay wines are good quality and good consistency. And that’s not to do with the soil, but it’s more the climatic influence and the winemaker’s philosophy that’s doing it.

Just as in Doctor Corban’s thesis, the industry today is driven by passionate and resilient people. I do have Tom Belford’s book here which gives a history of Hawke’s Bay wine, and it’s an interesting read.

And there are a lot of good winemakers in Hawke’s Bay but I’d just like to mention a few, and that’s because these people have really given their life to Hawke’s Bay wine; they’ve been devoted to Hawke’s Bay, they haven’t had interest in Marlborough or other places; they haven’t had other business interests as such.

First is Tom McDonald, who worked in the industry for sixty years; and I think he was a teenager when he started working for Bartholomew Steinmetz, but he bought that winery when he was nineteen years old. He eventually became the boss of McWilliams, and McWilliams bought McDonald winery.

Kim [Salonius] who I mentioned before – he developed a fine wine focus in Hawke’s Bay.

John Buck at Te Mata – John took over Tom’s mantle as a leader in Hawke’s Bay. And I remember going to Tom’s farewell, which was a surprise for me. [Chuckle] We were at the McDonald winery in the tasting room, and there would’ve been about twenty people just with a glass of wine in their hand and standing around the edge of the room. And I think Brother John got up first and said some words for Tom, and then he went around the room and we all had to say something, [chuckle] which I didn’t feel comfortable about. But I remember John acknowledged what Tom had done for Hawke’s Bay and the vision he’d given for Hawke’s Bay, and said that he was going to carry it on. I remember that.

And the fourth one I’d mention is Alan Limmer from Stonecroft. Alan was the Gimblett Gravels champion; well he was the leader, but John [Buck] helped him, Babich helped him, Pask helped him overturn the Fraser Shingle decision. And really, what Alan showed us was that we need to protect our unique production assets – you know, what soils are valuable to us and what sites are valuable to us. And that’s what Alan did.

So if I look at the future – I know this is a history talk – I want to put these up, which are a couple of recent … they’re both 2020 … quotes on Hawke’s Bay wine, and you can see the high regard that it’s [held] in. This is more general, and this is specifically Syrah, but it’s saying that Hawke’s Bay has made great Syrah for over thirty years, and it can be compared with Rhone’s finest.

Great wines talk a place; I talked about commoditisation, or I mentioned commoditisation of the industry, but great wines really talk about where they come from. And the three that are doing it for Hawke’s Bay and aren’t generic as such, are Chardonnay; reds are Merlot and Cabernet, and Syrah. New Zealand and Hawke’s Bay have natural advantages in the climate and the purity of the environment, and that translates into the perception of the place and the marketing. The New Zealand industry is approaching a future with a science based approach – I mean there’s a lot of research goes into the vineyards now, and trial and experimentation; but more than that, Hawke’s Bay’s got a culture – it’s got a wine culture and it’s also got a food culture; it’s got a restaurant culture; it’s got a [an] arts culture; so that’s all important about wine, because wine isn’t just wine alone – it’s actually all the other things that go around it. And if we’re talking about sense of place and where it comes from, all those things are important.

If I talk about changes ahead, quality and consistency are given and expected; may be some new varieties, and there may be some experimentation; some new approaches. There’s interest in organic wines, and biodynamic wines and natural wines, but I think the biggest thing is … it’s a bit like the beer industry … as the industry matures and there’s consolidation etcetera, it’s a bit like a forest; new things grow up underneath, and for the beer industry it was the craft breweries etcetera. And I see that happening with Hawke’s Bay wine.

The key to the future’s going to be marketing and recognising the continuum, because it’s what I was saying before – recognising where we’ve come from and the direction we’re going, and it’s telling the inclusive story to the world. Thank you. [Applause]

Joyce: Alwyn, that was just fantastic. Just one more thing, too – weren’t you very close to a certain historic event in New York when you were marketing?

Alwyn: I was, yeah. I was in New York on 9/11; in fact we’d had dinner at the top of the … I forget which tower it was, but yeah … Windows on the World, the night before. And we didn’t eat ‘til about one in the morning, so the receipt for the two of us was dated 11th September. But I never got a copy of that ‘cause I didn’t pay the bill. [Laughter] But it was an interesting time, and it was almost like lockdown during Covid – you saw those shots of New York with no one on the streets, etcetera. Thats what it was like. And the morning of 9/11 – I was there with Martin Carrington who was our export manager – and we walked from our hotel to our importer’s office and Martin came down in the lift and said, “Oh – a plane’s crashed into the World Trade Center.” And we both thought it was going to be like a little Cessna or something. And the further we walked, you could see the stress on people’s faces. And we went to the office and they told us what had happened, so we just decided to go back to the hotel; and on the way we stopped at a place – it was a sandwich bar – and we went upstairs. It was on the corner of Third Ave [Avenue] and Fiftieth Street or something like that, and we could just see the people, ‘cause they all left the city down Third Ave; they just walked. There was a stream of people walking, filling the whole of the width of the Avenue, for about two or three hours, just walking out. And then after that the streets were just empty. So we stayed there a couple of nights, and then when the train started to go, one of the salespeople said, “Well, come up to upstate New York, and stay with me.” So we did that; and we had to go to the railway station, and of course we’re looking over our shoulder at the [chuckle] rubbish bins and everything, worried about [if] there was going to be a bomb in there. And then we got one of the first planes out of New York, and we went to San Francisco; plane was half full, and it was actually air crew that’d [who’d] been stuck in New York, and when we took off they just cheered, and cheered, and cheered, and the pilot did a great big loop around the Trade Center, and it just looked like a cavity, you know, where your tooth had been, and it was all smoking and smouldering. And they promised to sell lots of our wine after that, because we had shared that experience with them.

Joyce: Oh! Any questions?

Question: Just last week, I was on the train going out to west Auckland, and looked down and here’s this pristine villa, which I realised was the Corban Homestead. Is it still in the Corban family?

Alwyn: No, that’s owned by … I don’t know whether it’s Waitakere City or whatever, but’s an art centre now … Corban Estate Art Centre. And all the winery used to be in behind there, and some of the concrete vats are still there but, yeah, the rest of the winery’s gone.

Question: Will climate change affect anything? Or you don’t know?

Alwyn: I’m sure it’s going to affect all horticulture, yeah. But just how much it affects it and how winemakers can adapt to that, I’m not sure. You got any ideas, John?

John Buck: I think we’re going to become more like Sonoma and Napa. [California]

Alwyn: Getting warmer.

John: Much the same varieties but with a different interpretation. Might mean that our … big future in the United States as their areas become too hot, which is problematic. But increasingly that’s where we’re looking as a technological research base, rather than Europe.

Question: Could you just confirm, what year was it that A A Corban started up in Henderson?

Alwyn: 1902 he started the vineyard and I think the first wine was made in 1907.

Question: I’m fascinated with the letter A as … has that been carried on, Alwyn?

Alwyn: Well the tradition was, the son’s middle name was the same as the father’s Christian name. So my dad was Alex, or Alexander – I’m Alwyn Alexander; his father was Annis – he was Alexander Annis; and actually Abraham is Abraham Alwyn. So that’s what happened. And Dad’s brothers … Joe was Joseph Annis; Richard was Richard Annis. Yeah.

Joyce: Well, Alwyn, that’s been fantastic. You did a fantastic amount of research and it’s highly appreciated, and I just think this turnout to hear you tonight’s just fantastic. We can’t thank you enough for your input tonight, Alwyn. Anything you’d like to finish with, John?

John: No, I’d just like to say they’re a great family. But our industry … they took us through all the hard times legislatively; never gave in. Well I mean, the vote for prohibition was lost until the troops got back, and we were liable for closure within six weeks, without compensation. And we owe them a debt that you can’t explain.

Joyce: We were very sophisticated students that [who] drank in the City Hotel in Dunedin; [laughter] it did a proper wine bar. And would you believe they brought sandwiches in in a little glass case, and they had to close. ‘Cause it was the mixing of food and drink. [Exclamations] That was the 1960s.

Alwyn: I wanted to acknowledge Jim [Newbigin] before I started. Jim was our first trade customer. He came out to the winery and ordered some wine, and I think I sent him more than he ordered, [chuckles] but he didn’t complain. [Laughter] And invoiced him for it, too. [Chuckles] He introduced us to our second trade customer too, Roger Farrell. Yeah, so I want to acknowledge Jim. And also John [Buck] – you could see him with a small group of able-eyed winemakers; meeting so often we were all good friends, and we all helped each other; and Te Mata gave us tremendous help when we started, so I want to acknowledge John for that, too.

Joyce: Fabulous.

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Landmarks Talk 10 November 2020


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