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Tiritiri Estate, New Zealand – Duncan & Judy Smith

January 31, 2012

Why do you do what you do?

We bought a barren piece of farmland that had been a sheep and cattle farm since the 1800’s when the land was originally cleared using “slash and burn”. My wife and I wanted to give back to the land something that was sadly lost i.e. a heart. We planted myriads of fruit and nut trees and lots of native New Zealand trees. We turned what was once sterile grassland into a healthy, sustainable, thriving farm with lots of wildlife returning. We put in a small lake that provides a habitat for all sorts of birds and plants. It is now a beautiful sanctuary for not only wildlife but for us too. We grow all our own vegetables too.

We chose to grow everything organically as we both felt that was the real way to live and not pollute our land or ourselves. Having spent 15 years as a manager for a multi-national agrochemical company carrying out pesticide research and development I knew both sides of the story so chose to live in harmony with the earth instead of trying to play god and upset the balance of nature.

Why do you choose to do it the way you do?

We’re stubborn and we believe in what we are doing.

What obstacles have you overcome?

Many!! Some of our neighbors are very parochial and couldn’t believe that “greenies” had moved in. However, all but one realize just how much work we have put into our farm and are now very supportive indeed.

We weren’t sure if we could grow grapes where our farm was. All the farms around us were sheep and cattle.  A viticulture expert assessed our site and recommended that we didn’t grow grapes, especially organically.

We went ahead anyway and planted a modest 250 plants of Mendoza Chardonnay. When we planted our grapes the original intention was to produce enough grapes for one barrel of wine a year for us to drink. The first two years our grapes were attacked by grass grub beetles every night for 6 weeks. This left the vines looking as if they had been attacked by locusts. There was literally nothing left on the vines. However, after that period the vines recovered but they never produced a crop. In the third year we put 50 ducks into the vineyard and they ate all the beetles as they emerged from the ground at night. We got our first crop on the vines – but we forgot about the birds and they ate the crop at the other end of the year as we couldn’t afford bird-netting! The following year we got netting and got a great crop and made two barrels of wine. We then realized that we couldn’t drink two barrels so decided to see if we could sell some of it. So, as we had no idea of the quality of our wine, we sent some off to two wine writers, Bob Campbell MW and Michael Cooper. Both of them really loved it and both gave it four stars. This gave us great encouragement so we planted a further 250 plants of Clone 15 Chardonnay. Our vineyard is now probably New Zealand’s smallest vineyard at around 0.27ha.

Rain is also another challenge for us particularly around harvest time. Our vineyard is in the ranges that surround Gisborne on the East coast of New Zealand, so we get a lot more rain than they do on the flats of Gisborne where the majority of grapes are grown. Rain can cause us to get lots of rots and in some years it is so bad we don’t crop our vines. However, when we do get crops our wines are really beautiful and regularly win gold and silver medals all over the world.

Late spring frost was a big problem too. In one year we lost the whole crop to frost, getting three very big ones in a row down to minus 8 degrees C. Since then we have installed frost protection and overhead irrigation from the river that surrounds our vineyard; costly but very necessary. In the first year we installed it we got a huge crop of 10 barrels of wine, which more than paid for it.

Birds have been encouraged with all the plantings of trees we have made over the years, so the vines have to be protected every year against them.

Wasps are also a problem. We lost a crop to German wasps in one year as they ate the crop two weeks before harvest! You couldn’t see the crop for these wasps. I managed to destroy about 60 nests within a 200 meter radius of our vineyard, but they kept coming from further afield and we couldn’t control them.

We haven’t had many successful vintages; such are the vagaries of our vineyard site: 1998(2 barrels), 1999(6 barrels), 2000(2 barrels), 2001(6 barrels), 2002(6 barrels), 2004(10 barrels), 2008(3 barrels), 2009(3 barrels). We did get 12 barrels of wine from our 2007 vintage, the best we have ever done with superb fruit and looking like being even better than the stunning 2004 vintage we had. Sadly our winemaker managed to ruin the whole vintage and oxidized the lot! We now make our own wine.

Are you happy with your work?

Yes very much, but it is exhausting! I work part-time two days a week and my wife works full time as the cider maker for Bulmer Harvest here in Gisborne. She doesn’t do much on the farm now as she is much too busy making cider. We also moved off our farm a few months ago to be nearer my wife’s work which means I have to drive the 30km to the farm every day or two to work on the vineyard. We also crop olive trees (300), pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts, so there is plenty to do when I get on the farm. Our farm is a beautiful place to live and work and we have made it our own. I get great satisfaction when we get a good crop and see the juice pouring out of our grapes when they are pressed. We also sell our wine on farm, having a cellar door. We both love showing people from all over the world around our farm and get a great buzz when they see and appreciate what we have done on our piece of land. Some get very inspired and want to do something similar themselves one day. The wine we are producing is one of the top ones in New Zealand and we have a great following now. We even had a request from HRH Prince Charles to try our wine and we sent him two bottles over to Buckingham Palace. The Duchess of Bedford once came for a visit and took home two cases back to UK with her, saying it was the best Chardonnay she had had in her life!! We also get e-mails from people in Europe saying how nice our wine is (we export to Belgium). These accolades are a great thrill for both of us and make it all worthwhile. We have also had great success in wine competitions in UK, America and New Zealand.

Is it worth the effort?

Yes when we get a crop! There’s nothing better than sitting on your own verandah, with friends, drinking you own wine, especially if it is a great vintage like our 2004. Our last bottle of that sold for $135 at auction. Our wines now sell at many outlets in New Zealand including some of the top restaurants The French Cafe in Auckland, The Huka Lodge in Taupo, Ora Ora luxury Lodge in Kerikeri and Tiritiri Lodge (no connection) in Wanaka.

website:  www.tiritiriestate.com

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