Te Mata Estate – John Buck

Michael Fowler: Welcome everybody to June Landmark’s History Group and we are very privileged to have with us tonight a man who probably doesn’t need a lot of introduction, especially to wine aficionados – Mr John Buck of Te Mata Estate Winery. And without further ado … John, welcome.


The history of Te Mata’s a quirky little thing. In 1996 Te Mata celebrated its one hundred years as a winery, and taking it in reverse, to go back to a starting date, the only date we could officially authenticate – we had lots of anecdotal evidence that suggested the business had been around some years before then – was 1896 as the year when wineries were first required to be licensed. And the licence was for the sale of wine, not the production of wine, and those licences were annually renewable. So we talked to the wine industry historian, who’s a very elderly man who lives in Auckland now, but has been a professional historian for many years – a man by the name of Dick Scott, who said “I would run with ‘96 because it’s in official records and therefore you can say that is correct. So whether they were making and/or legally or illegally selling wine before then is somewhat irrelevant – take it from the formal date because it’s unquestionable.”

So 1996 when we had our centennial, and had a quite marvellous event out at Te Mata, Random House, the publishers, commissioned a book on ‘100 years of Te Mata’ as a commercial production – it wasn’t something that we funded – and then subsequently put that book on sale.  And it sold out fortunately; we didn’t have to buy the remaining two thousand copies sort of thing, that often happens when you have the indulgence of a history. And so it was sold through the conventional book retail trade, and I daresay there’s probably a copy of it in the Hastings Library and Havelock Library, and so on and so forth. But in preparing that history it was very interesting – and in terms of a group like this one, it illustrates how easy it is to neglect your history and when the time rolls round that you want it, regret that it was not taken more official care of.  Now in the case of Te Mata it’s interesting because we only acquired Te Mata in 1974, and there’s a big hole in its history because people didn’t care.

So the wine industry in New Zealand started with the need to produce wine for sacramental purposes for church ceremony. So the man who’s regarded as the founder of wine production in New Zealand was Samuel Marsden, the Bay of Islands wanting something with which to celebrate communion. And it was a long time between deliveries of sailing ships, and probably most of the alcohol based products they carried were not really appropriate for church ceremony. One gulp of most of it and you would’ve been on the floor, I would’ve thought.

But our first commercial winemaker in New Zealand was a man called James Busby, who had a five acre vineyard next to the Treaty House at Waitangi. And of course Busby is recorded formally in the annals of New Zealand history as the man that drafted the treaty of Waitangi, and is one of the three European signatories to it. Busby was a strange and quirky man who came from Yorkshire, and was sent as a very young man to an area outside Sydney – a place called Cabramatta – to be in charge of an orphanage. And although he came from Yorkshire and had no background in wine, he was fully convinced that a healthy past-time for the charges he had in the orphanage was the growing of grapes and the making of wine. Seems somewhat illogical that that was his reasoning. And in order to foster that, and given that he was a British colonial government appointee, he took two years’ sabbatical leave and went back to Europe – but clearly with some element of crown funding – and travelled through Europe and took vine cuttings of all the classic vine varieties everywhere, from Germany in the north to Portugal and Spain and North Africa in the south, and right across to Persia which gives rise to the Australian use of the name ‘Shiraz’ to describe the use of the variety ‘Syrah’;  because he took it from the town of Shiraz in what was then Persia. He shipped all those cuttings back to Kew Gardens where they were properly grown on, and then ultimately transported by sea to Australia. And then when he was appointed the British Colonial Administrator in New Zealand, brought the same collection to New Zealand as a kind of a side enterprise with no particular commercial benefit in it for him. And that provided … so he was the founder of the kind of original vine nurseries for all of Australia and New Zealand, which was very, very important.

Busby was such a quirky man; his wine was tasted by d’Urville, who writes it up in a journal as being ‘light and delicious, and somewhat sparkling’, which means 1) he couldn’t get the ferment to complete so it had trapped CO2 in it, and after you’d been at sea for six months or a year in a smelly old sailing ship, anything would have been light and delicious. It was probably pretty awful – it was probably lightly sparkling, slightly acetic and cloudy, and … you know. But anyway, who cares? It doesn’t matter, it was the first recorded commercial for New Zealand wine, and subsequently the military camped in Busby’s [chuckle] vineyard one night and tore it all up. And Busby became somewhat disillusioned with Colonial government and turned to land speculation, and had some – again – quirky belief that wine was fine but the rest was the demon drink;  and became the founder of the Temperance Society in New Zealand. So Busby was 1) our first commercial winemaker, and second, the founder of the Temperance movement. And I don’t believe anybody in politics today has ever accomplished kind of wide-ranging … it’s sort of like being the Pope and owning a chain of massage parlours on the side – it’s that sort of massive contradiction. Nobody could get their head around Busby, and so that was the end of that.

In Hawke’s Bay however, the wine industry on the east coast of the North Island was really initially fostered by the Society by Mary … the Marist Order … who set forth from Auckland having originally come down from Futuna in the Pacific where they grew vines, and then set sail from Auckland and were told to sort of go forth and take religion down the East Coast. And they initially settled in Poverty Bay where they made wine, and came to Hawke’s Bay and had a somewhat unfortunate series of mishaps in that the first vineyard they planted near Meeanee was in fact a battleground for the local sub-tribes, who … they sort of turned up their equivalent of the All Blacks versus France. And it happened to be where the Mission had planted grapes, and that wasn’t a very healthy combination. So they had three locations in Hawke’s Bay before they finally moved to the site they’re on in 1902. I don’t know if any of you have been up in their offices there but there’s a wonderful picture of the buildings being sledged up the hill. It’s a magnificent photograph with Napier and the Bay in the back of it, as they were setting up their winery there.

However, at the same time or shortly before the Mission got established there – so they’re in their third or fourth winery in Hawke’s Bay, on their third or fourth site – so they are the oldest licensed winemakers in New Zealand, but don’t have the oldest winery – that honour belongs to us.

Our winery was originally started by the Chambers, who along with the Tiffens – two great early land-owning families in Hawke’s Bay – had this somewhat utopian ideal of the place of wine in an ordered and measured society. Those people of English ancestry really had some view about replicating England in New Zealand. Climatically it wasn’t very sensible, but they were people of very strong ideals.

And of course the Chambers, as well documented, were a family of Quakers. You may or may not know – I guess some of you do, some don’t – but for many years when he was alive I had a house at Waimarama next to Syd Grant, who wrote the history of the Chambers. And Syd was a great old boy, and we used to chatter about it because we had the winery. And so the first John Chambers who came to New Zealand, originally left a place called Castle Hill. The Chambers named the area from Te Mata Peak running down toward Te Mata Road, the Castle Hill block. All their farms had these large blocks within them. And Castle Hill is the peak adjacent to Almondbury near Huddersfield in Yorkshire, and on it is the Jubilee Tower built in honour of Queen Victoria. But if you drive the motorway from Leeds to Manchester or vice versa, and look south – there is Castle Hill and the tower sitting on it. It was originally a peak where they lit signal fires to warn of the invasions of the Vikings into the north of England as they were sort of looting and pillaging their way across Northern England; they would light the beacons … light the fires … to warn people of their advance. So that’s where John Chambers … that’s where he left, although he was born in Derbyshire, and he went to Australia and became a provedore on the goldfields in the State of Victoria around Ballarat, and is reputed to have come to New Zealand with £150,000 in gold in the early 1850s, to buy land. Being a Quaker he bought it – there was never a question of just sort of fencing it and say “that’s mine, and the rest of you leave us alone”. So he came to New Zealand and purchased that part of Hawke’s Bay from nominally this side of Havelock North out to the Maraetotara River, and all the lands totalling about thirty-five thousand acres; went back to Australia; collected his wife and children and a flock of Merino sheep which he sailed to Wellington; and he walked them to Hawke’s Bay, essentially around the coast. The reason I tell you this – and I guess the stories get a bit embellished in the telling – is it gives you some inkling as to the sort of indomitable spirit of the sort of people they were.

So Chambers came to Hawke’s Bay and settled immediately to the north of where our winery is now … the home that’s currently owned by Jonathan Wallace … and settled there with a little cottage, and that has grown into the edifice it is today; and set about creating a large scale version of an English farm in Hawke’s Bay. He had nothing to do with wine; his Quakerism prevented that happening. However his eldest son, Bernard, was persuaded by visitors that the landscape resembled Burgundy, which in point of fact it doesn’t really, but that’s by the by. It was easy when you travelled long distances in those days to persuade people of any sort of fanciful notion – I mean he couldn’t google it and check it out, you know. So that led Bernard Chambers to plant grape vines and convert what was a coach and buggy house, a walking out yard, stables and cookhouse, to a winery. The best date that we can ascertain for his planting of vines is 1892. We think it’s fairly accurate because Bernard’s daughter Hazel, whose married name was Hazel Foxley, only died a few years ago, and lived on the hill where the homestead now known as Te Mata is. And we had quite a lot to do with Hazel; she was a lovely lady, and in fact not long before she died, said “I’ve got a collection of wine I’d like you to have – it’s never been touched, and I was given it in 1903.” And it’s a collection of hand-blown wax-sealed bottles, full of … she never knew what the contents were, but Dad had kind of just said, you know, “Here you are daughter, these are for the future.” And they didn’t have labels on or anything; the corks were all crumbly so we seized the moment and took them out and put proper ones in, and at the same time had a bit of a sniff and slurp at what was in there because of a lot of it was what we oenologe – it was down in the shoulder. And they’re very interesting, and in fact we did find one very good bottle that we opened for media a few years ago, and it was amazing.

Anyway, that’s again to digress. So Bernard planted vines on two sites: the one where I currently live … where our house is just over the road from the winery and slightly toward the intersection going to Waimarama; and one up behind what has been the Lombardi Vineyard but is … it’s appropriate, there’s a twenty-one, twenty-two acre site up there that is in front of Peloha, or what is now Weleda. And it’s quite clear that those early settlers, because they knew what their land would do – ‘cause they’d farmed it all by hand – and Chambers had a staff of three hundred and fifty people which you needed to farm, you know – you only had horses and people, you didn’t have sort of internal combustion engines. So they had selected these two sites which we own, and they are still our two best vineyards. They’re both sensational sites; they have that slight tilt to the east, they slope to the North, they don’t get frost … even in 03, they don’t get frost. They knew where their warm and early spots were; and whether it was bony land so the vines aren’t vigorous and you get little berries and intensity of smell and flavour.

And so they had planted those and they planted in four varieties: two whites, called Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc … and we find that very strange because they’re cognac varieties … that’s where they grow in France, that’s why nobody’s ever heard of them. It’s not like Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay – its Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc, and they grow in Cognac in France and make very acidic, thin white wine which is almost undrinkable on its own but is a great base for distillation to make the best cognacs.

And they planted two red varieties: one called Hermitage, which was clearly our famous old … what we called Syrah if it’s a French selection, or the Australians call Shiraz … same stuff, just a matter of where it originates from. And the other one they had was Pinot Meunier, which is the second red variety used for making Champagne. Champagne is made from three grape varieties – two reds, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and a white Chardonnay – interesting … white wine, and two of the three varieties are red. So that’s what they planted and they seemed inappropriate, but that they made fortified wine from them, and table wine from them, and they’re obviously quite good.  And I think the sites might’ve had a lot to do with that.  So they equipped this winery and had a winemaker and all sorts of things, and away they went.

However the Chambers became quite disillusioned. The difficulties of wine making in New Zealand were such that from 1908 – so they planted vines in as best we can ascertain in 1892; they were clearly making wine 1894-’95; selling wine we know because it’s documented, or they had applied for a licence for it from ‘96; and of course in 1908 the first electorates in New Zealand go dry, Wairarapa being one. All the Beetham’s vineyards down there were pulled out as a result of that, and so on. So there was anti-wine feeling from the political establishment, and that carried on for many, many years. Some of you are probably aware that in 1918 New Zealand actually voted for prohibition, and it was only the brewers lobbying the returning servicemen whose votes were counted late because of the troop ships coming back, that swung it back the other way.

And of course we had a triennial licensing poll until 1989 – those of you as old as me and Graeme Clark will remember that you used to go along every three years and you had the licensing option you voted for after you voted for your Member of Parliament – which is a strange thing, to think we voted for State control or prohibition or the status quo – it’s hard to remember, except fortunately they did away with it. You may recall somebody who had a pro or con belief about abortion and its place in our society, said, “Use the licensing poll to express your view.” And we that had lots of capital and [chuckle] were affected by that, found it all too difficult.

However – so that’s where the Chambers got started. So they sold in 1919, and the winery was bought by a group of people involved … including the Cascade Brewery in Taihape, and Reginald Collins, the Wine and Spirit Merchants in Wellington and so on, and it went through a change of hands.  And because of the more depressed times the outlook was for cheap fortified wine, and all the premium table wine went. And very dubious concoctions that were coloured and flavoured and had alcohol as a base and were called Creme de Menthe, or whatever … but they were dubious, let me tell you … we’ve still got bottles of some of them and they are still dubious.  They always were and they always will be. They weren’t high quality examples of those sorts of products, but they provided plenty of kick and that was about all there was to it.

So that property was then purchased by the Toogoods – and I think Reginald Collins might’ve stayed in it – in about 1948. They then in turn sold it to a fellow called Smale in about 1966. And in 1974 – I had originally come to Hawke’s Bay in 1966; I’d been in the English and European wine trade for several years; came back to New Zealand with my new bride, who I’m still married to, fortunately, so I must be a very tolerant man. This is so that Cynthia can get her own back on me, you see. I’m giving her some ammunition – she’ll be able to say to my wife, “D’you know what John said about you at that tasting?” And then she’ll embellish it the way I do.

So I had originally come to Hawke’s Bay in 1966 having had a background in the English and European wine trade, and came up here at the invitation of the late Tom McDonald and had lunch with him, and tried some wines, and thought, “Gee, this is pretty good”. I’d just come off a vintage in Europe in 1965, and I thought, ‘This is impressive … this is the style of thing that interests me’, and decided, perhaps then and there, that wine making was the long term future. I had my own wine selling businesses in Wellington, and went through a period of being in partnership with Graham Kerr, the TV Chef, and that didn’t last too long. But Graham was a great guy, but other people got in the way. And [I] had this idea of ultimately wanting to go wine making, and kept making trips to Hawke’s Bay to look at bits of real estate. Over eight years I had a hundred and twenty trips to Hawke’s Bay. People say it’s easy to get into the wine business – it is, as long as over eight years you have a hundred and twenty trips [chuckle] to look at real estate.  And most of the real estate … you’d get an agent who’d ring you up and say, “I’ve got this bit of land for sale – it’s ideal for you”, and you’d get there and it was a piece of rubbish. Useless.

But in 1974 I got phone call, right out of the blue. I’d actually come up here for some reason to speak to a … must’ve been Hastings Rotary Club. I think that’s who it was, I can’t really remember. My Fourth Form Master and maths teacher was Frank Crist. Frank Crist is legendary in my life, because we were the top stream; we were the bright guys. And in the first week of the year Frank had us, and we gave him a hard time. We thought we were smarter than he was. We thought ‘We’ll set the pattern for the year – we’re the boss and you’re the teacher’. And Frank took it for twenty minutes and then he said, “Righto – I want you all lined up in the corridor”, and he belted the whole class. [Chuckles] And he earned our [chuckle] undying admiration – you couldn’t do it today. Frank was a big man, he locked the Wellington scrum, and when he hit you with a cane … boy! You knew you’d been belted. And he [chuckle] gave us two each – I’ve never forgotten, it went right down – thirty-four boys! Belted the lot. And ever since then, you know, I thought ‘What a great guy!’ And it set the ground rules, you know? You’re not allowed to do that today … you’re not allowed to set the rules … they might be offended. But we’d asked for it, and we got it.

Frank had asked me up here and I went to this event and did the presentation; went back to Wellington. And a matter of about two or three days later I got a call from the late Roger Bate, lawyer in this town and a man I came to have intense admiration for. Roger rang me up and he said, “I’ve got a problem with an investment that’s over a business in Hawke’s Bay, and I wonder if you wouldn’t mind coming up on a professional basis and valuing it for me?”  And it was TMV Wines. So I came up on an Easter Monday, my wife and I, went all over it and thought ‘Hey, this is pretty good.’ So went back and did the job for Roger and said “What’s the story?” And he said, “Well I’ve got the ability to foreclose on it, and I don’t want to”, he said, “that’s not helpful”. He said “But I’ve got to get this Estate’s money out of it.” So I said, “I might be interested in buying it”. [Chuckle] Funny how life works isn’t it, you know? It’s all luck. It’s what happens when you work hard. And so the long and the short of it was, he said, “Here’s the Statement of Affairs; that’s the sum of money that’ll get it, that satisfies all the creditors.” So the long and the short was, I said, “There’s a cheque for that amount of money, and if it’s cleared by Friday, that’s a deal”.  Cleared by the bank by Friday.  And at three o’clock on Friday it wasn’t presented – always remember this, and I was sitting by the phone, you know [chuckle] – it’s the big move. Half past four the phone went – belatedly they’d accepted the deal and presented the cheque. It was a very deferred settlement; there was a tenant in the business at that stage, so we got the vineyards … these two vineyards I mentioned … that was all; one where I live and the one in front of Weleda. And at the same time I had to sell businesses to fund the purchase … sell the businesses I had in Wellington to fund the purchase … and make my plans to come here to live. And that was all okay; there was a tenant in the place, so we got the vineyards within about six months of agreeing on the deal, and we didn’t get possession of the winery until the tenancy expired. So although we signed an unconditional contract, or concluded one in May 1974, we didn’t actually get possession of the winery until Queen’s birthday 1978. But we had the vineyards – that was the key. The winery needed a massive makeover – it was a sort of a scorched earth thing; take it back to what it originally was, and say, get the vineyards roughly knocked into shape, which is what we did.

And that was an intriguing episode in itself, ‘cause I used to have to commute here to do that work. I had say, to sell everything up, and we were committed to moving to Hawke’s Bay, but I had to fit that in round three children’s educational programme[s] and so on. So we didn’t actually come here to live until 1980. And of course I made the fatal mistake of hiring Ian Athfield who was my neighbour in Wellington – I lived in a house that Ath had already designed – to do the house in Hawke’s Bay, and that provoked a lot of neighbourly response. [Chuckles]

And when I first came here I thought, ‘What the hell have I got in for?’ So I used to commute into Hawke’s Bay; sleep in the winery while the possums ran around the roof; and we had to rip out all the old concrete tanks, and clean it all up, and work in these vineyards.  And it was pretty messy, but we did it.

And then when I applied to build a house – the house I since live in – it was on what, under planning terms in those days under Hawke’s Bay County, was called a ‘sub-standard lot’. What’s a sub-standard lot? Apparently it was all to do with economic rationale, and it was deemed that on less than fifty acres you couldn’t make a living off agricultural land. Now of course, the lie to that is that if you had ‘Sir Tristram’ or ‘Zabeel’ [New Zealand thoroughbred racehorses] on one acre, you could make a couple of million bucks a year. But it wasn’t deemed to be economic ‘cause it wasn’t sheep. I mean – the logic of it, or illogicality of it was just mind-numbing! So I walked straight into the middle of this, and I’m going, “What?!” I mean that block … you know, if I sell [a] couple of thousand cases of Coleraine [Te Mata Estate wine] a year at $1,000 a case … you know, is that economic? Or is it not economic? But it was, you know, considered not to be, so …

Anyway, I bought Ath in, which was just … you know, I never thought [chuckle] of the impact he’d have. So I then applied to build the house, and all the neighbours objected to Hawke’s Bay County, and I thought, ‘What do I do?’ And I went to Roger Bate, [chuckle] as I say [he] was my lawyer at that stage – said, “What do I do? I just want to build a house!” You know. “Oh no – you have to go through all the process”, he said, “but I know the guy that gets you the building permit – a lawyer in Hawke’s Bay called Rod Gallen.” Rod Gallen was the man. Ooh … oh God, I was awestruck by him and his mind! And we went to this meeting at Hawke’s Bay County, and the objectors went in the morning. And they had three lawyers. They were going to have a go at me – they weren’t having these city slickers coming in here no matter what they were … “And this architect, Athfield!” What did they say? “He has houses with portholes in them!” they said. [Chuckles] God! Portholes! Poor old Ath – he said “No, that’s Roger Walker, that’s not me!” It was just crazy when you look back on it. And Rod Gallen, however, had a trump card. After lunch when the members of the County came back to continue the hearing, one of them fell asleep during the hearing. And Rod was into him – it was so funny!

Anyway, the long and the short of it was they finally gave us approval and we were able to build the house and get in here. And one of the things I enjoyed about building a house was, because it’s all built in lightweight concrete you just think of it as a ferro boat hold turned upside down, with windows and doors cut in it.

Comment: Portholes!

John: That’s not portholes, [chuckle] no, no. Didn’t have a porthole – didn’t dare, after what we’d been told. It has a waterproof membrane under … it’s painted white, and the base coat was matt black. And all the timber was primed in the old C-chrome primer – remember the burnt orange colour? So we left it like that for a couple of weeks [chuckles] – didn’t put the white on, just to piss them off! [Laughter] And – the tirade of abuse that came out about this architect, and this guy from the city – it was very funny when you look back on it. Anyway, that’s all history, and I’m supposed to be telling you about the history [chuckle] of Te Mata, but some of the things were so funny.

So anyway, we got in there; we slowly got the winery cleaned up. We had our first vintage off our own fruit in 1980. And we had some little blocks of fruit we found on this vineyard that we call ‘1892’ – the one next to Weleda – there were some Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, but previous owners had inter-planted them with some hybrid variety which makes lousy … to make some fortified base. So we went through the block and identified all the Cabernet Sauvignon, and individually marked it by putting a bit of coloured ribbon or something on it, and picked it separately. And in 1980 we made a Cabernet Sauvignon off that block. We put it in the Wine Show – those are the years I wasn’t judging, and was able to do that. And it won top red wine prize in New Zealand – the first red wine we ever made. [Chuckle] And everyone said, you know, “Who’s this guy? Where’s he come from?” And it was the site [that] was doing it; it wasn’t us – we weren’t particularly smart. It just gave us brilliant fruit. And then the next year we did it again, and took top prize including all the white wines in the Show. We actually haven’t shown since [chuckle] – it was time to quit while we were ahead. And I went back into judging, and so you couldn’t ethically do it anyway.

So we did that, and it got us off to a good start. As we got into wine production after our … because there’s a time lag between making the wine and bottling it, we went out to recruit a winemaker, and I had an acquaintance I’d sort of sponsored into travels around the wine regions of Europe, a fellow called Peter Cowley, who we persuaded to come and join us. And Pete’s still with us – he’s still our Technical Director, and we’re going to celebrate in two weeks’ time, twenty-five years of Pete being with us. Hard to believe you know, that he’s been with us all that time. And he’s a participant in the equity of the company. So we got Pete in, and he and I have always got on famously, and have got a similar point of view about what constitutes quality in wine. And I think from the time he joined us I had a sort of a kindred soul there.

And my wife was running the shop and raising the kids, and … really, a lot of what we did I fairly acknowledge we could not have done without her measure of support, because you know, we lived on pretty much a starvation diet for the first two or three years of getting Te Mata up and running. It didn’t make any money, and all the capital we’d accrued from the sale of our businesses and everything had to go back into it. But she’d been kind of raised a bit in the school of hard knocks and self-employment, and so … never seemed to bother her, which was great.  She never sort of said, “How’re we going to pay the mortgage?” It just tended to take care of itself. So that’s how we got it started. We had a funny little shop out there in an outbuilding. And once the house was built, Ath did a grand plan for the winery which we’ve implemented over the years. We’ve still got a bit more to do actually, just as we expand.  We’ll probably do a bit more building in a year or two, and hopefully nobody will object to Athfield being the architect. And so we did all that.

And our philosophy in Te Mata’s been relatively simple, and I’d like to think that in some degree it goes back to originally what … the Chambers’ ideals. I said at the outset that one of the things that impressed me … and as you study their history you get this feeling of this Chambers family and their first generations being these amazingly innovative, resourceful people who got on and did things. They didn’t ask for anything; they just did it themselves. Te Mata was the first (and I use the word advisedly) ‘industrial’ property in New Zealand to be all-electric. Did you know that? First property in New Zealand. You know the old powerhouse … the Chambers’ powerhouse on the Maraetotara … they reticulated the electricity in there. When we got into the place it still had the original switchboard in it, and very shortly one if us was bound to get electrocuted, so it had to go – they wouldn’t let us continue with that. And they’d imported all that generating plant from Italy; dammed the river.  You know, they did – there wasn’t a Resource Management Act in those days, they could actually do something, you know. I was saying to Lawrence [Yule] the other day – I paid a visit because I’d had some family connection to St Paul’s Cathedral in London a few weeks ago – and I said, “Isn’t it a pity that under the current climate, if Christopher Wren wanted to build St Paul’s in the middle of Hastings, there’d be letters to the editor as to why he shouldn’t do it, and then the Resource Management Act would prohibit him from doing it?  And yet, you know, there it is – something quite magnificent.” And it’s a bit of a problem with that kind of constipating legislation that doesn’t encourage innovation.

However – so they had this say … I use the word ‘utopian’, ideal of what Hawke’s Bay was capable of producing. They were smart enough, and they compiled all their years and years of copperplate handwritten diaries; shrewd observers of what went on. It’s not generally know that the Chambers, at the same time that they had vineyards in Hawke’s Bay, also had vineyards in Rutherglen in Australia. They used to commute by sailing ship to check them out. Says a lot for the type of people they were, you know, they were indomitable – they just got on and did it, and plugged away. And I think that kind of contribution was terribly important in Hawke’s Bay.

So when we got to Te Mata we had to make decisions about the type of entity we wanted it to be, and what we believed this province was capable of doing. We came to Hawke’s Bay because we didn’t want to go … I could’ve gone anywhere, from Wellington. I mean I could’ve gone to Waiheke Island, or Marlborough, or Central Otago, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to come here because my professional background told me this was the place to make great wines of the style I wanted to. I didn’t want to make Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  Thank heavens, now … the bottom falling out of it.  I wanted to make classical Bordeaux-style reds and Chardonnay, ‘cause I still think they’re the two greatest combinations of grape varieties in the world. And they are the varieties at the engine room … the coalface of the quality wine industry in the world. They’re the ones that get the highest prices – they get the brand premium, and they have the traction … the horsepower of France behind them, and the Napa Valley and major economic contributors to our industry. And that’s what I wanted to do, but I wanted to do it to the best of my ability, and Peter’s and my wife’s and so on, when there was just the three of us.

And so what you have to do when you look at the world of fine wine as opposed to wine in general … it’s quite easy to analyse what it is that great wineries do that other wineries don’t, and all the great ones have things in common. The first thing they do is, they totally own their own source of grapes. They don’t have growers; they don’t move outside of their own area of one hundred percent control;  they don’t want to have to debate it with people as to whether you should do this or do that – you’ve just got to be able to do it ‘cause sometimes you’ve got to be pretty ruthless to maintain absolute quality. You have a very simple range and style of what you do, and you focus on that to the best of your ability. You don’t turn yourself into an entertainer; you don’t have concerts; you don’t have a restaurant;  you don’t do any of those things. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but none of the best ones do it, simply because they know that in so doing, they lose their focus. Their focus is tight on being the best at what they do, which is growing grapes and making wine. The disciplines are not mutually compatible between, say, running a restaurant with its immediacy of demand, and the annual cycle of wine. It just … they’re not easy bedfellows. So you can do one or the other, or you can be all things to all people and finish up being nothing to anybody, or you can be a specialist.

So we chose to be specialists. We knew that our two vineyards weren’t everything we wanted; they were a huge foundation for what we wanted. So over the years we’ve acquired another seven bits of land in Hawke’s Bay. It’s interesting, we’ve never once bought a piece of land through a real estate agent. We’ve gone and found the block of land we wanted and persuaded the owner to sell it to us. We haven’t bought anything for ten years or something, or more … fifteen years. So we own (I’m still old fashioned) seven or eight hundred acres rather than hectares, of land, and we’ve got a couple of hundred acres we can still plant. So we’ve got a land bank, and we grow double the amount of grapes we need, so we sell fruit off so we’ve always got the pick of the crop. Again, it’s part of this ability to focus on premium production. And that’s exactly what our counterparts in Europe or Napa or wherever, do, so we follow that model quite slavishly. We also have cultivated very strong networks and interchange with the people we most admire in the world of wine, so we can go and talk to them, and sit there.

And my son, Nicholas, did what’s called his … he’s in charge of our marketing now … did his Stage (his trade apprenticeship) in France, at one of the great wineries in France called Chateau Margaux. And he said, “What am I going there for, Dad?” He said, “I’m not going to be a winemaker – what am I going to learn?” I said, “What you’re going to learn is, you’re going to spend a year living there learning how you do things properly – no compromise, in [a] place that’s properly bankrolled;  and how there is no compromise. And how to talk to the customers, and how you have to be appropriately groomed, and all that kind of thing.” And these properties don’t have a … they’re all owned by people whose surname is Rothschild, so they’re not short of a bob, and they don’t have a blade of grass out of place. And they make the world’s best wine. So I said to him, “You know, we’ve got to learn to play in that ballpark.” So I think that’s been an important part of what we’ve done.

It’s always a long time coming in wine – you need vine age to make really serious wine. To foot it with the best guys you’ve got to have a … for red wines you’ve got to have an average vine age of twenty to twenty-five years, so that means the minimum contributor’s got to be close to twenty. We’ve got that now.  I think the accolade we got the other day for our ‘07 Coleraine … which is quite nice for me as I’m retiring at the end of the month and giving it to the kids and Pete. Well my children query my expenses now, and claim I cheated them on their pocket money when they were kids so they’re getting their revenge. A reviewer said that the ‘07 was the best wine ever made in New Zealand. Well that’s great, but it’s the overseas accolades and the ability to play in the top playing fields that’s terribly important to us. Because [as I] say, it’s important because that’s where you get the brand premium.

And I think the thing that originally brought me to Hawke’s Bay, and I say it … for a number of years we would get … people doing sort of theses at university would send you in … students … their questionnaires, and always in it was, “Don’t you regret not having gone elsewhere?” And I always used to take mild offence at that … I used to think, ‘well I didn’t really come here on a wing and a prayer – it’s a lot of hard work’. And I’d go back and say, “No, I’m totally convinced”, and they’d say, “Oh, but Cabernet Sauvignon’s not fashionable, and Chardonnay’s not fashionable”. And I’d write back and say, “Well they were around three or four hundred years ago, and they still will be in another three or four hundred years when you and I won’t be here.  And they’ll still be commanding the top prices, so don’t get fooled by the kind of … this week’s marketing hype.”

So wine’s very traditional, and you have to cater to those things. One of the beauties of our industry is its focus on tradition, and the place of wine in society. And the evolution that [I] believe contributes to the ills of society is trying to get that message through to the blocks of people who are anti our industry.

However, it’s been a pretty good journey, and it’s got a long way to go yet, so the kids are really going to take it to the next step. But it’s proven that Hawke’s Bay, without any shadow of a doubt, no matter what people may say about new areas – Hawke’s Bay is the best wine making region in New Zealand. It’s an unequivocal statement, because it makes the high quality styles of dry table wine that improve in the bottle. And that is the definition, ultimately, of quality of wine … stability to improve in the bottle. And all the stuff that you can buy for $7.99 at the supermarket with a screw cap on the top of it, doesn’t. It’s that simple, really, and New Zealand has now just got this emerging one or two percent of production that in the world standards is regarded as premium, and it’s going to become far, far more important. But this region is at the vanguard of it, and I think that’s terribly important.

So there you go – that’s enough from me.

Question: [Inaudible]

John: Yeah, I’d looked at that land. We’ve never gone to Gimblett Gravels – we’ve had the opportunity – for reasons that are our own idiosyncrasy. I quite like it. We actually prefer the soils in the Triangle rather than the Gravels. There is a bit of a propensity at the moment when people have bought a block of land … in my industry … the first thing they do is say God directed them to it. It’s amazing how he directed all the same people to the same block of land – it’s all part of the marketing thing – and that it’s the hottest place in Hawke’s Bay. I’ve got all the figures; we’ve got temperature instruments out there, and it is not. The middle to lower slopes of Te Mata Peak are the hottest, for very obvious reasons – largely ‘cause the cold south and south-westerly winds don’t get on them. So – in a larger area it is. But we like the slightly … the Gravels you have to use a large amount of watering to keep the fruit growing right through to ripeness, whereas on the older soils of the Ngatarawa area … actually we’re not allowed to call it Ngatarawa because that’s a brand name out there, of the Triangle … greater water retention in the soil and therefore, in my view and according to my palate, better tannin structures in the wines.  I think the Gimblett wines have always got slightly hard tannins, and it’s great blending material but I don’t like it on its own – but that’s one man’s quirkiness. Yeah.

So we looked, and … I was very much part of that fight, as you’re probably aware, with Alan Limmer. I think I had $5 more than Alan, and he took it off me to put into the fighting fund. It’s interesting who funded all that you know – it was Alan Limmer, Te Mata who isn’t there, Babich’s from Auckland, and Chris Pask. Nobody else who sings the praises of it, and what they did, put one dollar into it, despite the fact that we asked them to. And we had no lawyer for the first round. So we had to do it all [chuckle] – we were our own advocates. God knows … just as well I had an Irish upbringing, I mean it enabled me to get through.

The wine industry in Hawke’s Bay is going to be regarded as the most classical in New Zealand by international authorities. Because we came off a legacy of cheap fortified wine because we’ve been around a long time, a lot of the newer areas that’ve started in the last fifteen or twenty years didn’t have that legacy of inappropriate production. And we’ve had to put that behind us, and I inherited some of that at TMV. And certainly it was a predominant part of the old companies like McWilliams and Glenvale and Vidal’s and so on. When we re-opened Te Mata I think there were seven wineries here, and one of them, Jim McLeod in Taradale, closed about the time we opened. There’s now over sixty here, and they’re of varying standard and capital structures. But I suspect that Hawke’s Bay is just … in the last eighteen months to two years, I’ve seen some of the more noted critics from round the world, one or two who’ve been here on private rather than industry visits and are friends of ours, really picking up on what’s happening in Hawke’s Bay. Look, I’ll tell you, there was a piece in the paper that was … I can say this in front of you, James, ‘cause you’re no longer there … with its true standard of inaccurate reporting our local paper published a piece in which I’m quoted, on Saturday night – which was never run past me – and so it’s in part accurate, and in many parts grossly inaccurate.

Four weeks ago I was at a master class on Chardonnay from the whole of the world, at the Lancaster Hotel in Bayswater Road in London, and there was one New Zealand wine in there which we had made. And it was hosted by a man called Steven Spurrier, and Steven’s a great mate of mine. And he’s played by an actor in this film that’s going around at the moment about the French versus the … what’s it called? Bottleshock. Well, the real Steven Spurrier, he does exist [chuckle] and because his wife is a horse fanatic, they come here most years to the Horse of the Year Show. And Steven’s always been a huge fan of Hawke’s Bay. Anyway, he moderated this tasting, and when I got there he said, “Oh, there’s one other winemaker here, and I’ve put you two at” … they’re all tables of two … “I’ll put you with him; you know him.” And it was a man called Bruno Prats, and – that doesn’t mean a lot, but Bruno until recently was the owner of a very famous chateau in Bordeaux called Cos d’Estournel, and Bruno has wine making ventures in various countries around the world. And we each had to speak to our wine – and he makes a Chardonnay in Chile called Sol de Sol, in partnership with the winemaker from Chateau Margaux, where Nick did his Stage … it’s all these networks. When Bruno had to speak to his wine, he got up and said, “Chilean Chardonnay is all produced in this area near the sea, and it’s far too far north, and far too warm, and because of the topography and the way it’s made, it’s like so-and-so and so-and-so.” He said, “And when we went to Chile, we had a clean slate as to where we planted. And we looked at Chardonnays from all round the world, and the area that most impressed us was Hawke’s Bay.” He said, “And we have a site in Chile that’s way south of everything else, and we looked for topography and latitude as closely approximating Hawke’s Bay as we could get. And here’s the wine.” And it was terrific stuff – far better than anything I’ve ever tried out of Chile, and he and Paul know what they’re making. Paul Pontallier has been here several times, again on private visits. And that’s what’s going to give us the reputation; it’s that kind of accolade from the serious – these guys aren’t wine commentators; these are hard-nosed wine businessmen playing at the top end of the world’s wine markets where the money’s big. And their considered commercial judgment is – that’s how good Hawke’s Bay is.

That’s still to filter through to the masses, but it will do … inevitably it will, because he said, “I wouldn’t have made that comment five years ago … couldn’t have made it.” So I’m eternally optimistic, and in fact more buoyed up than ever with the prospects of Hawke’s Bay as a quality wine making region, but not a volume wine making region. We don’t want truckloads of Pinot Gris, and … what did somebody in Australia say to me the other day?  “Like painting on white canvas with white paint?”  We don’t want anything that’s that boring – we want serious top stuff, and we can do it. We’ve got some huge natural advantages here too, climatically, that nobody else has got – the high ultraviolet light, and the wind, so you don’t have to spray – this is the best climate in the world to grow horticultural crops. ‘Tis, because you don’t have agrichemical intervention, because nature does it all for you in Hawke’s Bay – absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah – James?

Questions and comments, inaudible, but referring to the name of the winery:

From 1919 ‘til 1974 it was TMV – Te Mata Vineyards, abbreviated to TMV, and given other names which play on those letters. But when we came here in ‘74 we were keen to resurrect Te Mata as a name. And when I’d been involved with Graham Kerr, a strange thing had happened. He’d done a television programme where he cooked something modelled on a famous dish in New Orleans, where you get a loaf of bread on the way home, and you sort of scoop out the middle and they fill it full of oysters … fried oysters. And it’s a local sort of late-night snack, like going to the hamburger bar – bit better than that. And Graham did a variation on this on television, and being a Brit and not thinking it through, gave it the name of a Māori. He called it Tamati Wakanaenae – I always remember this. And all hell descended on him when he went to air, because he was considered to be eating that person. And he hadn’t thought about it;  and he was a very gracious man and made every kind of apology, but wasn’t able to make the financial recompense, I don’t think.

And so when we came to Te Mata and wanted to reactivate the name Te Mata, and being mindful of the story of the Peak – and there is a human element in it, Te Mata having been a person, albeit a mythological person – I went to the trouble of getting it formally verified … it cost me $100 in those days … and got it all formally authenticated that we did have the rights to use it, and that was the end of it. And it was very well done, very thoroughly done, and I’ve got all the documentation to that effect, so we reactivated.  I think Te Mata’s a huge landscape, and the story around Te Mata is wonderful telling in the northern hemisphere. The use of Māoridom is a promotional tool for New Zealand as long as its done with good taste and discretion, and you ask people’s permission. That is a wonderful selling feature for Hawke’s Bay.

And the Chambers of course, in having bought their land and dealt with everybody fairly, there’s never been any argument or legacy of ill feeling about their transactions. And we would like to think that we continue that to the extent that although I’m a pakeha, I’m a member of Matahiwi marae, and you know, I quite rejoice in those things. I think they’re part of our culture and the way forward in New Zealand. Yeah – so that’s why we’re Te Mata.

Thanks very much; been a pleasure. Know most of you; good stuff.

Michael: So I’d like to thank you, John, and I can see the same passion that you bring to wine making you do in explaining and talking about the history of your winery, Te Mata.

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Landmarks Talk 9 June 2009


  • John Buck

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