Pioneer looks back with pride

18:05, Jan 27 2014
John Marris
In at the start: John Marris had his first inkling of the wine industry boom in Marlborough 40 years ago when working as a real estate agent.

Marlborough Research Centre chairman John Marris has stepped down from leading the organisation he helped set up 30 years ago.

Mr Marris told the Express he was filled with pride at how the organisation had flourished since its early beginnings.

Mr Marris, who is seriously ill with cancer, made his last public appearance for the centre in September.

In an interview late last month, Mr Marris said he supported the establishment of the centre because he could see a need for research.

When working for Montana in the early days of the Marlborough wine industry, he realised there was not enough knowledge and understanding about how to make the most of the industry. That led to expensive mistakes, he said.

Mr Marris, who is also well-known in Marlborough for property development, was the agent who bought the farmland that Montana converted into the first commercial vineyards in 1973.


He also developed the Westwood retail centre, which houses large box retailers Pak ‘n Save and Bunnings, with Robinsons Construction chief Phil Robinson and sold Wither Hills Wines, the winery he owned with son Brent Marris, to Lion Nathan for $52 million in 2002.

While the Marlborough Research Centre took on a role as a "wine centre of excellence", Mr Marris said he fought to keep at least 40 per cent of its research on pastoral agriculture.

He did this in recognition of the farmers, particularly those in the Marlborough Sounds, who were generous in their support of the centre when it was set up.

He took pride in the power the centre had gained. By contributing even relatively small amounts of money to seemingly speculative projects, it had prompted other organisations to fund much larger amounts that led to successful research, as happened with an early grant of $10,000 to an eucalypt project proposed by Marlborough man Paul Millen.

Mr Marris said that turned a small amount of cash into a major asset for Marlborough.

But the centre didn't make rash decisions, he said. The research programme was discussed each year and the board had to approve it. "We've always stuck to the knitting. We've always been conservative . . . we try to keep plenty of money in the bank."

Centre chief executive Gerald Hope said Mr Marris had been a significant force behind the centre from before its opening in 1984.

His departure as chairman of the centre's trust and leadership team would be an enormous loss.

Marlborough's pastoral and horticultural sector should know that Mr Marris was a pivotal figure in establishing the research centre, fundraising for its opening and battling for its financial stability, he said.

"John was never frightened of new ideas or new ways of thinking - but he was also able to see, and resolve, the practical challenges that would get in the way."

A large part of the success of the centre could be attributed to Mr Marris' unwavering support since 1983 when funding and buildings were put in place, Mr Hope said.

He always held vigorously to the original purpose of the first Research Centre Trust, Mr Hope said.

That was to "maintain a research station to investigate the whole range of primary production within the region, committed to both pastoral and horticultural research", he said.

"But he has always urged us to keep an open mind about our research programme on the grounds that Marlborough's primary production economy, and our market requirements, will evolve over time."

Despite the strong growth of grapes and winemaking in the region, other research was not forgotten, Mr Hope said.

The Marlborough Express