Urban vineyard thrives on the sunny slopes of Mt Eden

Angela and Mike Sparks prepare to harvest with son Douglas - they are proving you don't need acres of rolling hills to ...
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Angela and Mike Sparks prepare to harvest with son Douglas - they are proving you don't need acres of rolling hills to grow enough grapes for a cellar full of wine.

For Mike and Angela Sparks there is immense satisfaction to be found looking out over their vineyard while sipping a glass of syrah made from the grapes they've grown there.

Not such an unusual thing in a winemaking country you might think, except the Sparks' family vineyard is right in the middle of Auckland city, planted in the backyard of their home.

Where other people might have shrubs, trees and vegetable beds, they have vines staked in neat rows, growing up a high wall and over a pergola, covering a large part of their steep section on the slopes of Mt Eden. 

Since space is at a premium on the steep Mt Eden section the vines have been grown as bushes but they still require ...
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Since space is at a premium on the steep Mt Eden section the vines have been grown as bushes but they still require regular pruning to keep them in shape and allow the sun to reach the grapes to ripen them.

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Mike and Angela had an urban vineyard in mind right from when they first bought the rundown old house about 15 years ago, and set about renovating and trying to tame the overgrown, hillside section.

"It was like the top ten noxious weeds of New Zealand out there," recalls Mike. "There was ginger, datura, bamboo, big decorative banana trees that had gone crazy. I sprayed it all so many times I worried I might be developing Round Up-resistant varieties."

Mike Sparks enjoys knowing the story behind the wine he is drinking
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Mike Sparks enjoys knowing the story behind the wine he is drinking

When it was tidy, he set about terracing his plot with sturdy retaining walls, constructed in part with rocks found there.

By the time council requirements and an antsy neighbour had been catered to, they were more than five years down the track and there was still no sign of any vines in the ground. But Mike was determined to keep going. 

"In a way I was trying to push back on the commercialism of everything being done to add dollar value to a property," he explains. "I wanted something that didn't have a financial aspect to it but was just cool and fun."

Having spent a part of his upbringing in Napa Valley, a Californian wine region, Mike knew people who were involved in the wine industry and had worked on vineyards himself. Still, when it came to planting his own, he called in a local expert, West Auckland winemaker Stephen Nobilo.

"I told him I wanted a single varietal that wasn't prone to lots of diseases, because who wants 350 dead grape vines in their yard," says Mike. "He came to look at the area then suggested a syrah he thought would be good."

Mike Sparks called in West Auckland winemaker Stephen Nobilo to advise on varietals; they sourced the syrah stock from ...
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Mike Sparks called in West Auckland winemaker Stephen Nobilo to advise on varietals; they sourced the syrah stock from Riversun Nurseries in Gisborne.

Mike sourced his stock from Riversun Nurseries in Gisborne and there was great excitement the day it arrived, with all the family gathered for planting. 

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"There were these little bundles of sticks with one bud and a root ball the size of my hand," recalls Mike. "We dug our holes and put them in, then stood back and realised basically we had what we'd had before except every metre there was a little stick. Talk about anti-climactic."

But the vines started budding and Mike began assiduously cutting off their flowers to encourage them to send down stronger roots. After three years carefully tending them, he was rewarded with his first harvest, which he sent to Stephen Nobilo to be turned into wine. Stephen's comments on that first vintage were incorporated into the label that graced the 180 finished bottles. "A good first attempt" it reads.

The labels on the Mt Eden 2014 vintage proudly display winemaker Stephen Nobilo's critique: “a good first attempt”
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The labels on the Mt Eden 2014 vintage proudly display winemaker Stephen Nobilo's critique: “a good first attempt”

Since then there have been two more harvests and Mike has continued to learn that, while growing your own wine is fulfilling, it certainly isn't low effort, particularly when your vineyard is steep and all the work needs to be done by hand.

"I try to keep it tidy so I'm out there most days doing something," he says. 

Through the growing season vines have to be trimmed regularly so air can circulate and sunlight reach the fruit to ripen it. Plus the plants are prone to mildew and black spot so need to be sprayed with protectant fungicides.

Angela Sparks picks grapes from the pergola of her Mt Eden home.
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Angela Sparks picks grapes from the pergola of her Mt Eden home.

"The spraying is definitely the hardest part," says Mike. "I do that pretty faithfully every fortnight with copper sulphate or sulphur – both if appropriate – and a seaweed extract that's good for them. I have a backpack spray but it's heavy and I've taken a few head dives."

Even on Christmas Day, Mike was out there, abandoning a family party to manage one last spray before they headed off on their summer holiday. "I felt obligated… I'd have worried about them otherwise," he says.

When they returned from that month-long break it was to discover the warm, wet weather had sent growth into overdrive, and you could barely tell where the rows began and ended. Only their children, Douglas and Sydney, were thrilled. 

Douglas and Sydney harvesting the grapes.
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Douglas and Sydney harvesting the grapes.

"There were these giant green tunnels they could run down and they loved it," says Mike. "But of course the grapes weren't getting any sun under that mass. I had to pay Douglas to come and help me and it took us several days to get it back into shape."

Since space is at a premium, most of Mike's vines are trained to grow as bushes. "It's interesting to watch them," he says. "They're changing all the time, so every day it looks a little different.

"They're incredibly versatile plants and there's a lot to be learnt from them I think. They've always got a plan B – if you cut this bud, another little one will grow. Stephen told me that when you're pruning you start recognising particular vines and it's funny but he's right. You'll recall trying to decide whether to take off a particular cane and visualising what might happen, and to see what did happen is really interesting."

Passers-by on the nearby walkway often stop and chat to Mike about his unusual garden project.
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Passers-by on the nearby walkway often stop and chat to Mike about his unusual garden project.

Mostly these city vines have been pretty healthy, although this year there has been an issue with uneven ripening of the fruit, which might be due to nutritional issues in the volcanic Mt Eden soil. Mike intends to try a foliar spray next season to see if that helps.

It's been a steep learning curve so far but the plan from the outset was to be invested in the whole process so, once Mike's grape-growing skills are established, he hopes to take over the winemaking side of things too. 

"Then there is a story behind what you're drinking," he explains. "It's a whole different experience to going down to Pak 'n' Save and throwing a bottle of wine into your trolley."

It might have taken a certain amount of grit to get this far but Mike would encourage other urban winegrowers to give it a go.

"It's fun and I would say it's doable for anybody. There are other people around who will make the wine for you, which is really the part that requires a lot of equipment.

"I've had so much interest from everybody," he adds, "even walkers going by. So there's been a lot of positive feedback to keep me going."  

 - NZ Gardener

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