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Tim Finn

The presence of these two has always been a source of potential tension in the industry and has influenced many aspects of its organisation including the way that the industry governs itself, initially through the Wine Institute of New Zealand, now New Zealand Winegrowers. Today, as in its growth phase, many of the larger firms rely on specialist grape growers to provide some proportion of their crop. Many of these, like a number of the smaller winemaking firms, are family-based producers.

Growing grapes, making wine and selling it is bound to result in disappointments. Frost threatens, mildews invade aggressively, birds eat the fruit, the ferments get stuck, consumers are lukewarm about the product, and show-pony wines do not win a medal. Such uncertainty might provoke some to gloom, but among the New Zealand grape growers and winegrowers I have known, it has been met instead by a tough good humour, a willingness to learn from experience, and a remarkable resilience – attributes which shine forth in their contribution to the story of New Zealand wine as it is traced throughout the course of this book.

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At the 1958 New Zealand Easter Show, Class 6 of the Wine Section was for an ‘Unfortified White, Hock type, not over 26 per cent proof spirit’. Four medals were awarded from fourteen entrants: McWilliam’s Wines Ltd of Hawke’s Bay won first prize; Josip Babich won second; Western Vineyards won third; and A. A. Corban and Sons won fourth prize.

Of these four firms, only one name persists as a commercial entity today. David, the grandson of Josip, is general manager of Babich Wines and works alongside his father Peter and his uncle Joe at their Henderson Valley winery. McWilliam’s Wines is today represented on the New Zealand landscape only remotely, by the Church Road, Hawke’s Bay winery of the former Montana, now owned by the French company Pernod Ricard New Zealand Ltd. A. A. Corban and Sons (by then trading as Corbans Wines Ltd) was bought by Montana in 2000. Pernod Ricard retains ‘Corbans’ as a brand, and the name also continues to be associated with the wine industry through Alwyn Corban of Ngatarawa Wines and his late uncle Joe who started Corbans Viticulture Ltd in 1979. The vines of Western Vineyards (third prize) are still visible on the landscape of Waitakere but only as a series of swirls on Candia Road about 2 kilometres from the Babich winery. These are the terraces of one of the most elegant vineyards of its time, still sculpted in the yellow Waitemata clays of West Auckland. Its winery is now used for yoga classes.

At nineteen, Dudley Russell began terracing land and planting grapes in the Henderson Valley. By I960, his Western Vineyards was focusing on unfortified wines and vinifera grapes -the industry’s future.

Dick Scott Collection, Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-2008-4

If the people and firms of 1958 are now a faint memory, so too are the dominant wines. Of the 22 classes of wine judged at the 1958 Easter Show, twelve were for fortified wines and ten for unfortified or table wines such as the hock type won by McWilliam’s. Considering the consumption habits of the time, the number of classes for table wine is astounding. In the late 1950s, only 13 per cent of West Auckland winery production was table wine, and among Hawke’s Bay wineries the proportion was just 5 per cent. The remaining 77 per cent of wine produced in West Auckland and the remaining 95 per cent in Hawke’s Bay comprised sherry, port and liqueurs.

Nevertheless, the beginnings of the modern New Zealand wine industry could be seen in faint glimmers at the 1958 show. Dudley Russell of Western Vineyards was one of the people setting the wine trends in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Table wines (‘unfortified wines’ in the language of the time) made up almost a third of Western Vineyard’s production in 1958 – the only large winery in New Zealand to approach this proportion. Some firms made no table wine. Two neighbours of Western Vineyards also figured in the table wine market. Sixty per cent of Paul Groshek’s production at Muaga wines across Candia Road was unfortified wine and almost 20 per cent at the Josip Babich winery.

In the ‘Commercial Classes’ of table wines, the larger companies were also emerging to establish a preliminary pecking order. For dry table wines, sixteen prizes were available in the four classes: Corbans won eight, McWilliam’s won six, and Babich and Vidal managed one each. In the ‘Hock’ type, Corbans won three of the four prizes – a portent of Alex Corban’s Riverlea Riesling of the next decade. McWilliam’s won ‘Best Wine in Show’ for one of their wines entered in the ‘Claret’ type. Their innovative Bakano and legendary 1965 Cabernet Sauvignon orchestrated by Denis Kasza for Tom McDonald were on the near horizon. Neither Villa Maria nor Montana entered wines in 1958. But in 1961 George Fistonich gave up carpentry to get involved full-time in his father’s wine business at Villa Maria. In the same year, Frank and Mate Yukich contributed $250 each to float Montana Wines and develop their father’s business. The transformation of the New Zealand wine industry loomed.

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