Pioneering Marlborough winemaker Allan Scott on a life of risk and perseverance
Driving across the manicured grass between rows of gnarled grapevines that have slept soundly through a mild, damp Marlborough winter, Allan Scott suddenly brakes his shiny new ute. Then he breaks into a knowing smile.
Scott points towards his discovery; indiscernible to the ordinary human eye. With some focusing, they become obvious – tiny balls of fuzz on the gewurztraminer canes, about to break open with the first soft leaves of spring. This is budburst – one of the most exhilarating times in a vintner's year.
"Budburst brings an air of excitement, because it's the beginning of another round of anticipation that this may be a better season than the last," Scott explains. "Or could it be the beginning of the season that determines the vintage of the century. "We're off on the seasonal merry-go-round."
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This could be the magical year, but then again, it will be hard to top the vintage of 2016. Allan Scott Family Winemakers produced 100,000 cases of wine from one of their best seasons yet, where the grapes were high in sugars and the fruit was clean.
"It was a big one," Scott says, but it wasn't great for everyone in Marlborough, New Zealand's flagship wine region. "There was a block of wet weather, and to be brutally honest, a lot of vineyards panicked and picked too soon. "But grapes have a mind of their own. When you've been here a long time, you know you can sit it out and it will all come right."
At the mellow age of 68, Scott has the clear advantage of experience. He's had a hand in every wine vintage in Marlborough since the very first vines were planted in the arid winter of 1973.
A charming, gently-spoken man, he may not bask in the glory of being a pioneer of New Zealand's sauvignon blanc global success story, but he was there from day one, armed with a bucket, pushing thousands of cuttings into the bone-dry dirt of the Wairau Valley. Though most of those budding sticks withered away because they were planted the wrong way up, he can't deny his place in history.
In spite of his humility and a little shyness, Scott has shared his recollections of an extraordinary era in New Zealand's fruitful wine industry in a new book, Marlborough Man.
He stresses the story is not "a blueprint or a roadmap to success" in the endlessly challenging world of viticulture, nor is it a vanity project. It is a personal, candid account of a family who have survived the highs and lows of the business to create one of New Zealand's enduring wine labels.
Scott is at the centre of this story – a farm boy who hated cows, left school at 16 and accidentally happened upon a bold new venture in the Brancott Valley which would determine the very prosperous course of his adult life. How, through trial and error, and a healthy swig of luck, he helped the Marlborough wine empire to thrive from inhospitable soil. How he took what he learned, as he planted, pruned, picked and pressed, to make his own award-winning wines, selling more than 1.5 million bottles around the world each year. How he gradually built a business that he and his wife could one day safely leave in the hands of their children. Although that's something he isn't quite ready to do yet.
For four days, Allan Scott paced back and forth along the sand below his family's beach house in the Marlborough Sounds, recalling the story of his life.
Alongside him was New York journalist and author Eric Arnold. The pair first met in 2003, when out of the blue, Arnold sent Scott an email asking if he could spend a year working in his vineyard for free.
After 14 months together, Arnold wrote a warts-and-all book of that year's vintage, called First Big Crush. They became friends, with Scott asking him to ghost-write his memoir.
"He doesn't really believe his story is all that compelling or interesting," Arnold says. "He's just gone on living his life, never seeking fame or anything beyond doing a good job for himself, his family and his employees. That's what makes his story so great."
In the days spent together, Arnold discovered how humble Scott's roots were. Born in the small town of Waikari in the foothills of the Southern Alps, where his father Ben managed a farm and excelled at breeding Friesian cows, Scott absorbed his father's work ethic and his mother Isa's thirst for knowledge.
"If there was one thing in my life I could change, it would be to have been closer to my parents. I didn't appreciate what they gave me. My father was really intelligent, an organic farmer, ahead of his time. But he rarely said anything," Scott says.
Easily distracted at school, he left at 16 and became a farm labourer; then a sheep shearer and a truck driver. When he married Catherine, a nurse, in 1970, her father gave them a small block of land in Blenheim, where Scott discovered he had a green thumb – contract-growing vegetables for their seeds and pine trees for forestry plantings. (He still loves gardening).
Then he heard a rumour that Montana Wines had bought nearly 1200ha of land nearby in Brancott Valley to plant the region's first grapevines. Scott doubts he'd even tasted wine before – let alone knew where to buy a bottle – but he was "intrigued by the notion of growing fruit to produce a different product entirely".
In August of 1973, he drove to the barren site hoping to get a day's work. In a way, he never left.
No one on the planting line with Scott had "a lick of experience or training", but each was handed a bucket and told to plant the vine cuttings in long rows. "There wasn't exactly an arrow painted on each one, or a tag reading 'This way up'," Scott says. More than two of every three cuttings planted died. "It really was a case of the blind leading the blind."
The only man with experience was Jim Hamilton, who'd already developed one of Montana's largest vineyards in Mangatangi, south of Auckland.
Hamilton became Scott's mentor in the vineyard, and as the sauvignon blanc vines slowly began to take root, so did Scott's career. At work, he became manager of the Fairhall vineyard; at home, he ripped out the veges and began planting muller thurgau grapes around the house, becoming one of the first contract growers for Montana.
By 1980, Scott had moved on to work for rival Corbans, developing a new vineyard in Rapaura, on the edge of the Wairau River. Eventually he became Corbans' national vineyard manager and launched the Stoneleigh brand – a demanding job that often took him away from his young family.
Allan and Catherine had been buying blocks of land by the river to further their own vines, and finally went out on their own in 1988; the first vintage of Allan Scott Wines was a Riesling in 1990.
Today the Scotts own 80ha of the best wine-growing land in Marlborough, warm and sheltered from the fiercest frosts.
"It's grown like topsy," Scott says. "We grow, make, bottle and market all the wine from here, which is a bit of a rarity. But that way, we have full control."
But business hasn't always flowed smoothly. A deal to create a publicly listed company with other Marlborough wineries and a salmon farm turned sour. The horror harvest of 1995 – beset by the ash cloud from an erupting Mt Pinatubo – taught the Scotts valuable lessons, like needing a truck to quickly ferry rain-swollen grapes from vineyard to winery.
"When he gets knocked down he's very quick to find a way to dust himself off and try something different," Eric Arnold says of Scott.
"There's a resilience that a lot of us don't have, but could have by following his example. He makes it clear that it's okay to fail."
THE GENERATION GAME
It's not unusual for families to be intrinsically bound by grapevines. There are the Brajkovichs of Kumeu River and the Fistonichs of Villa Maria in Auckland; the Donaldsons of Pegasus Bay in Christchurch and the Seifrieds in Nelson. And the Scott's neighbours in Blenheim, the Roses of Wairau River and the Ibbotsons of Saint Clair.
It may appear that the children of winemakers are put to work in the vineyards as soon as they can toddle, but the now-adult children of Allan and Catherine Scott say they've chosen to work in the family business.
"None of us were forced into it. It just happened organically," says the Scotts' eldest daughter, Victoria, who heads marketing for Allan Scott, the business. "The vineyard will always be a part of who we are."
Victoria's teenage children are already involved. Jemima works there in the holidays, and son Ollie wants to be a winemaker or brewer, like his uncle
Josh – the family's winemaking director and founder of craft beer company Moa Brewing, which sits across the road from the winery.
He is New Zealand's first qualified cicerone (a walking encyclopaedia on beer). Allan Scott's youngest offspring, Sara Stocker, is in charge of the vines. As kids, Sara and Josh could tell the difference between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc vines by looking at their leaves.
"As soon as I had my full driver's licence, Sara and I would head over to the West Coast and hold wine tastings. I was 16, she was 15," Josh recalls.
Their infinitely proud father believes you can taste "something special" in the wine his family collaborates on.
"The nice thing is that the next generation want to be here. They all accept it as a lifestyle," Scott says, as we share a bottle of his favourite drop, the Generations riesling, over lunch in the winery's Twelve Trees restaurant (opened by Catherine in 1991).
But life isn't always corks popping and bubbles flowing. "Oh, we fight all right," says Josh, recalling the harvest of 2014, when Marlborough winemakers were challenged with a huge crop of grapes.
"I was smashing calculators, swearing at my sisters. But those rip-roaring arguments are forgotten the next day."
The Scott children describe their perceptive mother as the backbone of the family; their father is the forward thinker who fastidiously keeps the winery in order.
Allan Scott is also legendary for being generous – chatting to visitors at the cellar door, working with charities and helping other winemakers get established. He rises before dawn to start working – but to his mortification, is renowned for nodding off during important functions, his head resting on the rim of his wine glass.
While the new generation of Allan Scott Family Winemakers are constantly evolving the business, some things stay the same. Sauvignon blanc is still their bread and butter, but pinot noir from their Scott Base vineyard in Cromwell now has a strong following, and the riesling ("the noblest of the noble wines," declares Scott) is making a comeback. To please Catherine – "a bubbles drinker" – they also produce sparkling wines. "Bubbles are the most complex, but the most satisfying to make," Scott says.
He speaks half-heartedly of retirement; of maybe turning their home in the vineyards into a lodge, and travelling for pleasure instead of work. His children aren't convinced.
"Dad will never retire – he will always be the patriarch of the business," Josh Scott predicts.
"But that's important. We had our biggest sales last year because of him. People love the history and hearing his stories."
As long as he stays awake for the telling.