Land deals first inkling of the future
Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of Marlborough's commercial wine industry.
The small group of farmers, lawyers, engineers and orchardists who pioneered viticulture practices to suit the region's climate talk to reporter Kat Pickford about the journey that led to the phenomenal growth and international success of Marlborough wine.
Blenheim businessman John Marris had his feet up by the fire on a typical Marlborough winter evening in August 1973 when he took a phone call from his boss looking for 200 hectares of bare land on behalf of a mystery buyer.
The freshly minted real estate agent immediately sensed something was up. Rural property was not selling in Marlborough, and he wanted to talk to this guy to find out how serious he was.
In 1973, the value of bare land was about $550 a hectare, and there was not a lot of it on the market.
Testing the waters, Mr Marris told him for $1000 an acre ($2200 a hectare), he could get him as much land as he wanted.
Without a pause the mystery buyer said he wanted the 200 hectares within 24 hours.
When Mr Marris delivered on the request the next day, the mystery man asked for another 900 hectares.
That short conversation in his small home with six young children underfoot kicked off 10 frantic days where he worked around the clock on what he reckons was one of the largest rural property deals done in New Zealand.
"I'd had to, to cover the ground, talk to the owners, line up the properties and eventually take these guys around to choose the property," he says.
"I remember very clearly sitting around the table with lawyers and their clients, hashing out deals at 2 o'clock in the morning, but we finally did the deal."
It was not until they were very near the end of negotiations that he discovered the buyer was the Auckland wine mogul Frank Yukich, of Montana Wines.
In total, 1173ha from nine properties changed hands for slightly more than $1.3 million, an average of $1100 a hectare, double the market value of the day.
It seems a snip by today's standards, but 40 years ago the farmers did very well out of it, Mr Marris says.
The commission of $26,279 was eye-wateringly high to the 33-year-old agent, who was on an annual salary of about $4000. But he did not get one cent of it.
"I remember going to my boss and asking him if I could upgrade my tyres because I had done a huge amount of driving to get round the region, and was wearing them out every 7000 miles (11,000 kilometres) - I had a terrible reputation, I used to drive like you wouldn't believe - but he flat-out turned me down.
"I walked out of that office thinking you friggin miserable bastard, I've just made a bloody fortune for this company," he says.
With the taste of success still fresh in his mind, work to prepare the ground for planting started immediately with the purchase of 21 tractors, a shining beacon to the region of the economic benefits to follow.
Led by two Montana viticulturists, they had only six weeks to hire the workforce, decide on the best sites and which direction the rows should run, and prepare and shape the dry, stony soil.
August 24, 1973
There was much fanfare made of the first official vine planting by first Montana chairman Justice (later Sir) David Beattie on August 24, 1973.
A story on the front page of the Marlborough Express showed more than 200 people attended the first planting, where Mr Yukich famously predicted "wines from here will become world-famous".
After the vineyard was blessed by Rev Father John Sloane, everyone enjoyed a meal that included 16 lambs on a spit, at what has become known as Brancott Estate.
A conversation between Blenheim officials reported by the Express showed Montana, which changed its wine label to Brancott in 2010, may have always had some uncertainty about its identity.
"To the Blenheim vineyards", Justice Beattie said. "Raise your glasses to the Blenheim vineyards."
"Did you hear that Sid?" whispered Blenheim magistrate "JP" Watts to mayor Sid Harling as they raised their glasses. "Don't let them forget that name - Blenheim vineyards."
The mayor, never a man to let the grass grow under his feet, summoned Marlborough's public relations officer Sandy Beverley.
"You heard the judge's toast," he said. "You go get hold of Montana's public relations man and make sure that name sticks - we want that name. Cloudy Bay is a terrible name. Blenheim vineyards it is."
Blenheim officials were chuffed when the Montana office was registered as Blenheim Vineyards, rather than Cloudy Bay Properties or Wairau Valley Estate vineyards as they had formerly been known.
During the following months, Marlborough men, women and children helped plant the cuttings of mainly muller thurgau vines, a bulk wine variety. It was "easily the biggest single planting of grape vines ever undertaken in New Zealand or Australia," the Express reported.
But the summer of 1973-74 was one of the driest on record, Mr Marris says. They had tried to convince Montana that irrigation was critical in the drought-prone Wairau Plains but to no avail. The plantings were a disaster and many of the vines had to be replanted.
The pioneers It was not until eager young berry fruit grower Henk Ruesink and Mr Marris developed their own vineyards in 1976 that Montana saw the benefits of under-vine watering. Within two short years, the Ruesink-Marris vines were harvesting spectacular yields compared to Montana's average crops five years later.
By 1976 Mr Marris was working fulltime as Montana's operations manager and was advertising for contract growers. The small group of people who responded included Judy and Neil Ibbotson, Chris and Phil Rose, Pat and Don Cromarty, Philippa and Neville McCallum, Kaye and Errol Hadfield, Marita and Max Gifford, and David Dew and John London.
They knew nothing about viticulture but became a "tight knit bunch" as they forged their way into the industry.
"When we started out we knew nothing about grapes - we all ran our vineyards separately, but met regularly and would organise visits to each other's properties to see what they were doing, and bounce ideas off each other," Mr Marris says.
They also ran research and development trials, gleaning the expertise of other viticulturists and the Ministry of Agriculture to find the best irrigation, spray programmes, engineering practices and grape varieties suited to the Marlborough soil types and climate.
"We didn't want to do it the same as everyone else did. It was exciting, trail blazing stuff."
Neil Ibbotson, who founded Saint Clair Family Estate in the early 1990s, warmly recalls Mr Ruesink from the first meeting of the Montana contract growers.
"[He] was the first grower to introduce trickle irrigation to Marlborough," he says. "He became our mentor and we gained immense knowledge from him. Henk was one of the unsung pioneer heroes of the Marlborough wine industry."
Growing grapes gave them the opportunity to try something new, and they were willing to give it a go with the possibility it could increase the productivity and profitability of their small rural block, he says.
The large vineyard developments suddenly cropping up around the region also provided women with work for the first time in years.
Judy Ibbotson and "a great team of ladies" planted and helped establish their first vineyard in New Renwick Rd, he says.
Blenheim lawyer David Dew, who bought a vineyard very soon after it was planted in 1977, says Marlborough would have struggled economically without viticulture during the past 20 years.
"The traditional farms that made up the bulk of the industry here in Marlborough, such as the cropping, fattening and seed production, have a far less yield per hectare and are poor performers compared to grapes," he says.
Prior to vineyard development there was very little opportunity for women, but as the industry has grown, it has drawn more people here, increasing the population by 25 per cent during the past two decades, he says.
"There are a lot more young people, too, aged 25 to 40, who just weren't here before because they had to move elsewhere to get a decent job.
"But with the growth of the industry there's been a growth in all the support services and a lot more accounting, finance and marketing jobs."
The traditional farming families who had sold their land to vineyard developers were among those to benefit the most, he says.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about the sudden growth of viticulture.
Huge opposition from farmers and foresters cropped up because government regulations prevented them using hormone sprays within 8 kilometres of vineyards.
Initially the then-Marlborough County Council tried to "ring fence" existing vineyards and limit the growth of vineyards.
Phil Rose, who first started producing wines under the Wairau River Wines label in 1991, was the first person to test the district plan in 1976 when he approached Montana about growing grapes.
"As a consequence they turned us down because there were 57 objections submitted by some very powerful people, mainly foresters, who thought we were interfering with their land use."
Eighteen months later, the council's decision was overturned by the appeals board and they were the first people to develop vineyards on the stony soils close to the Wairau River.
"There was a lot of suspicion about grapes in those days. The council had no plan for vineyards - I suppose they were just trying to be cautious, they had no idea it would become what it has now."
"No-one could have imagined what an important industry viticulture would become for Marlborough," Mr Rose says. "It's been an amazing story for Marlborough."
While the incredible success of sauvignon blanc helped put the region on the map, Mr Ibbotson says more recent successes of pinot noir have shown there is a strong future ahead for Marlborough.
The most important thing to remember was "nothing stays the same".
"We believe we have only scratched the surface and we will see continual wine quality improvement as we continue to apply the new knowledge."
Mr Marris, whose home is still on the same plot of land where he took that phone call four decades ago, hopes the next generation of growers and winemakers matches the passion of the trail blazers.
"When you consider what we've achieved in 40 short years, it's incredible to think it's taken some countries hundreds of years to get to where we are today."
- The Marlborough Express