A dreamer's wine story

04:55, Oct 24 2010
Alan Brady
RICH LIFE: Gibbston vallery winemaker Alan Brady at home.

Legendary Central Otago winegrowing pioneer Alan Brady has finally put pen to paper with the incredible tale of how it all began launching his book, Pinot Central - A Winemaker's Story last week. SUE FEA profiles the man behind the vision.

"I'd like to think this could be the Rhine of New Zealand, Gibbston Valley" winegrowing pioneer Alan Brady says, looking out over dry briar and rocks in a 1980s NZBC television clip.

"I just feel the place says to you 'Come on, have a go'."

Have a go he did, and the rest is legend. But ask the man who started Central Otago's now flourishing and highly successful winegrowing industry if he ever imagined the extent of his vision's success and he is adamant that he didn't.

"I'm a dreamer, but I never dreamed all this would happen," he says.

"People say, `what a great visionary', but I never saw Central Otago covered in 1700ha of grapes and over 100 wine producers."

Advertisement

As the sceptics of the 1980s said when he boldly proposed to grow grapes in the Gibbston Valley, "It's too cold, too high and too far south, and in any case what would an Irish journalist know about making wine?"

The former NZBC television journalist was first to admit: "Absolutely nothing."

He was regional editor for the then big TV One newsroom in Dunedin, in charge of at least 10 reporters, editors and camera crew running The South Tonight and Network News for Otago and Southland. Prior to that Brady had worked on the ground-breaking Inquiry series.

He hailed from an Irish publishing background in the village of Rathfriland, in County Down. His father had a newsprinting business, The Outlook, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last month.

"I'm a born and bred journalist."

Describing himself as "a young tearaway" he left Northern Ireland in 1960 heading to New Zealand to work on newspapers, ultimately stumbling into broadcasting. "I needed to get out and see the world."

He had planned to return in two or three years as "a more mature adult", but he never went back, apart from a few years working on daily newspapers in England.

"I was very ordinary at school, I just wanted to play sport, academically I was very average... I was a dreamer with a vivid imagination."

Ironically, many years later, Brady ended up giving his father a job for six months as a columnist during a stint as editor of the Mountain Scene newspaper in Queenstown.

"I'm a winemaker by accident. I just bought the land wanting to do something different, goats and deer didn't appeal."

Initially it was merely a weekend escape for him and then wife, Denise. They bought a few dusty acres of briar and rocks and a stone stable, just off the Gibbston highway. It had been a staging post, where the coaches changed horses on their way to the goldfields 100 years ago.

But Brady kept being drawn back to the dry Central Otago valley. "I just loved the landscape – I don't believe in reincarnation, but when I drove through that valley I felt like I'd been there before."

Central Otago, he says, is the antithesis of where he grew up in Northern Ireland.

"I thought, `I'm home'. It was the similarity with the Mediterranean that really got to me, I loved the landscape, the buildings and the architectural similarity."

The landscape, climate and altitude was the same as the famous French winegrowing region of Bordeaux and he got to thinking, "grapes could grow here". "`We were romantics driven by a theory it would work."

But this was far from A Year in Provence as this excerpt from his book explains: "Rotting straw, animal manure and the carcasses of opossums and other deceased creatures carpeted the concrete floor ..." of the cottage.

The land was rough, 3.5ha of their plot was "steep hillside covered in thorny matagouri and prickly briar rose and topped by cliffs of schist rock". The remaining 3ha of long, sloping lucerne paddock, bordering the Queenstown to Cromwell highway, was the only arable land on the property – this was where the region's winegrowing industry would be born.

But there was much work and many heartaches ahead.

Brady had absolutely no experience with the soil. A country boy, but one with no farming experience: "Where I came from I'd only seen grapes grown in a glasshouse."

The "mindset" of the day, that grapes couldn't possibly grow this far south, just made him more determined to try. Brady resigned from his television career and became a builder's labourer, helping to restore the couple's stone cottage into a home.

"It was not a difficult decision, there was never a regret."

In fact it was the beginning of what would become his driving passion for 30 years.

He began keeping climate readings and visiting other wine regions – at the time the nearest of which was Canterbury. An experimental half acre of grapes was planted in 1981 and "it all happened from there".

His wife could see the sacrifices that would be necessary ahead, but Brady says he was purely infatuated with the region, the valley and growing wine. Pinot noir certainly put its hand up very early and grew more consistently than the other varieties. "Pinot noir chose us, we didn't choose pinot noir."

The Bradys teamed up with Ann Pinckney, of Taramea Vineyard in Speargrass Flat, near Queenstown, one of the first to plant grapes in the area, Rolf and Lois Mills, of Wanaka's Rippon Vineyard, and Sue Edwards and Verdun Burgess at Black Ridge, near Alexandra, to compare notes and results.

They were very isolated from the rest of New Zealand's wine industry. "We had no-one to help us, we had to work it out for ourselves, in terms of viticulture, winemaking and marketing. We thought it was a disadvantage, but in the end it worked to Central Otago's advantage."

This group of Kiwi do-it-yourselfers was definitely "swimming against massive odds", but Brady says this glued them together.

Winegrowing regions around the country still acknowledge that Central Otago is the most unified. "Our timing was right, as there was very little pinot noir in New Zealand in the early 80's – it wasn't a very well-known variety and we were about to become part of a surge."

But it was far from the romantic notion many would envisage.

"I think it's an illusion, the romantic notion to make wine, sit on the verandah and sip it with friends. Before there's any wine in the bottle there are a lot of heartaches."

Brady worked as a freelance journalist for 13 years in television, print and magazines to support his family, heading out into the vineyard every spare moment he could.

It was 1987 before he produced Central Otago's first commercial vintage, Gibbston Valley Wines, a brand that would becoming internationally acclaimed and win the world champion prize for pinot noir 14 years later.

Fortunately Kiwi chemistry-graduate-turned winemaker Rob Hay arrived back from some hands-on vintage experience in Germany right on cue to step in as Gibbston Valley's first winemaker. In 1990 Brady built the winery. Rob Hay and brother Greg, who later formed Peregrine Wines, planted their own grapes down the road at Chard Farm Winery, but Rob Hay made wine for Gibbston Valley until 1992.

Brady says when he embarked on his dream he had the same level of wine appreciation as the average New Zealander. However, he was "project driven".

"I blame that on journalism – as a daily journalist you get into an assignment every day and move on."

"I have a short attention span and I'm driven by new ideas – I have to be able to visualise something before I can do it."

He repeated this process when he embarked on his second successful winery, Mount Edward, also in the Gibbston Valley.

He had formed a company at Gibbston Valley Wines and built up a business, raising the capital needed to build what has developed into an iconic winery/restaurant. Brady remained there as general manager until he felt he had become the head of a large business and staff of 30, too far removed from his passion of making wine.

"So I reinvented myself down the valley in my 60s – I was the cleaning lady, cellar manager, winemaker and grower. I put into operation all I had learnt as a winemaker/helper at Mount Edward, until it became a victim of its own success."

Demand for the boutique label exceeded supply so he brought in partners Duncan Forsyth and John Buchanan in 2004. He had achieved all of his goals but the second time round he became a "hands-on winemaker" – the most satisfying phase of all.

From day one Mount Edward exported 70 to 75 per cent of its wines to Britain and Europe. Brady has now stepped back in a retirement role, although he is still a shareholder, but the label is breaking into Asia, North America and other major European markets.

However, old habits die hard. He is now making his own wine, Wild Irishman, at Mount Edward as a "small scale, retirement project".

The pleasure these days isn't commercially driven, it's about exploring the essence of the two very different sites where he grows his grapes, Bannockburn and Gibbston. "I make the wine the way nature gives me the grapes."

Nowadays when he travels it's not to pound the pavements of London's distributors and hold a hectic schedule of wine tastings, it's to visit his three daughters, living in New York, Singapore and Wellington - Susan, Jenny and Tara, he says, are his greatest supporters - and his two teenage granddaughters.

So far winegrowing hasn't emerged in the blood, but his American son-in-law Terrence Vallelunga is showing leanings toward working in the industry back on his wife's home turf.

"My only regret is that I didn't fall into this business sooner to have a winery business to pass onto my children," says Brady.

This year he rented an old farmhouse in Provence, France, joined for the most part by as many as 10 wineloving friends.

Sounds idyllic, but Alan Brady will never truly retire.

"My exit visa papers say `retired' but I wake up every morning and wonder, "how the heck am I going to fit everything in today?"

Awarded an MNZM Queen's Service Medal for services to the wine industry in 1996, he has served on the executive board for the New Zealand Winegrowers Association, one of just two South Island board members, and was instrumental in getting Central Otago recognised. He founded and was the first president of the thriving Gibbston Valley Community Association and was a founding member of the Central Otago Winegrowers Association and a past president.

His list of industry and community work is immense.

In fact until now he has been too busy tending his vines to write his long-awaited autobiography, a colourful and beautifully written and illustrated portrayal of the journey, featuring photographs by Queenstown's Dale Gardiner.

The publishers approached him 10 years ago with the idea – a `Year in Provence' genre set in a New Zealand context.

"But I spent the advance and missed the deadline!" grins Mr Brady.

It seems Penguin Publishing knew that like good wine, good books mature with age, so they waited patiently.

"Last year I ran out of excuses."

The Southland Times