Exporter - - FRONT PAGE - By Glenn Baker.

Late March/early April was not ex­actly an ideal time to be ap­proach­ing Mart­in­bor­ough's iconic Ata Rangi vine­yard for a story (or any New Zealand vine­yard for that mat­ter!) – they were full-on with the 2014 har­vest, work­ing 15-hour days. So full credit, and thanks, to the man­age­ment team for find­ing the time in their busy sched­ule to talk to Ex­porter.

Ata Rangi means ‘dawn sky' or ‘new be­gin­ning' and that's ex­actly what the vine­yard sym­bol­ised for its founder Clive Pa­ton when he pur­chased a bar­ren five-hectare pad­dock on the edge of the town of Mart­in­bor­ough in the Wairarapa back in June 1980.

Clive, a young sharemilker, had come across a sci­en­tific re­port in the late 70s that sug­gested Mart­in­bor­ough's cli­mate and grow­ing con­di­tions were very sim­i­lar to those of Bur­gundy in France, con­sid­ered the home of the world's finest pinot noirs.

Un­daunted by his lack of viti­cul­tural knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence and the fact that his mates thought he was mad, Clive sold his cows to buy that small block of land.

“He knew the dry, windy cli­mate and the stony soils well,” ex­plains Ata Rangi co-owner and mar­ket­ing man­ager Phyll Pat­tie, who takes up the story. “He skinned his knees play­ing rugby on the harsh Mart­in­bor­ough grav­els enough times to know the scale of the chal­lenge he was up for.”

Clive's vi­sion and enthusiasm proved in­fec­tious. In 1983 his sis­ter Ali­son bought an ad­join­ing two-hectare pad­dock, which was also planted out; and three years later Clive met Phyll, then work­ing at Mon­tana. To­day all three are sole and equal share­hold­ers

in the fam­ily com­pany – and ac­tive in man­ag­ing and driv­ing the busi­ness, along with long-serv­ing wine­maker He­len Masters, vine­yard man­ager Gerry Rot­man, and, most re­cently, busi­ness man­ager Pete Monk.

You don’t have to be mas­sive to get your fair share of heart and fo­cus with your dis­trib­u­tors. You must en­sure not only that they love your prod­uct, but they ‘get’ who you are.”

In 1986 Ata Rangi won the very first Gold Medal for the fledg­ling Mart­in­bor­ough re­gion – it would be the first of many for the vine­yard.

Clive had given him­self ten years to pro­duce a great wine or he'd quit. Pump­kins and gar­lic grown be­tween the rows of grapes and grave-dig­ging for the lo­cal coun­cil put food on the ta­ble in the mean­time. In 1990, ex­actly ten years af­ter buy­ing the land, the first tiny profit was recorded. “A real cause célèbre,” re­calls Phyll.

A unity of vi­sion and a com­mon pur­pose has played a vi­tal role in the busi­ness's suc­cess. Phyll de­scribes it as a “to­tal fo­cus on qual­ity, what­ever it takes; plus enor­mous pa­tience and a re­lent­less re­fusal to com­pro­mise”.

Con­quer­ing ex­port mar­kets has been about win­ning al­lies and wine com­pe­ti­tions.

“Our first foray into ex­port was with Mar­garet Har­vey, New Zealand's first Mas­ter of Wine and the first per­son to im­port New Zealand wine into the UK,” says Phyll. “In those days we were one of only 90 reg­is­tered winer­ies, so it was much eas­ier to get no­ticed by the me­dia and the close-knit Masters of Wine group in the UK.”

Ata Rangi's cred­i­bil­ity was boosted by a decade of con­sis­tent Golds and tro­phies at var­i­ous Aus­tralian and New Zealand com­pe­ti­tions, she adds, fol­lowed by win­ning the cov­eted In­ter­na­tional Wine and Spirit Com­pe­ti­tion Bouchard-Fin­layson Pinot Noir Tro­phy in Lon­don two years in a row – 1995 and 1996.

“We won that again in 2001, be­fore pulling out of the ‘com­pe­ti­tion cir­cuit' al­to­gether, hav­ing felt we'd de­liv­ered on the pur­pose of en­ter­ing them,” says Phyll.

“The awards had built brand aware­ness in key mar­kets, es­pe­cially the UK, Aus­tralia and US. The rest from that point came down to build­ing an ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient dis­tri­bu­tion model in those mar­kets and a plat­form to spread fur­ther.”

Fine wine, fine achieve­ments

There've been many stand­out mo­ments for Ata Rangi. In the early years one mem­o­rable achieve­ment was shift­ing the mind­set of con­tro­ver­sial Amer­i­can ‘wine guru' and critic, Robert Parker who had long been openly scathing of New Zealand ‘at­tempts' at pro­duc­ing qual­ity reds. That all changed when he tried the 1995 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, de­scrib­ing it in The Wine Ad­vo­cate as “an amaz­ingly com­plete wine with a com­plex Bur­gun­dian per­son­al­ity that made me re­think my po­si­tion con­cern­ing the po­ten­tial for classy red wines from New Zealand.”

Nowa­days, be­ing listed in some of the world's finest restaurants rep­re­sents achieve­ment. Phyll reels off names such as Rock­pool in Mel­bourne and Aria in Syd­ney; Per Se, Gramercy Tav­ern and Char­lie Palmer's Aure­ole in New York; Zuma in Lon­don and Hakkasan in Lon­don and Shang­hai.

“The recog­ni­tion of Ata Rangi Pinot Noir as one of only two ‘Grand Cru' in New Zealand with the ‘Tipu­ran­gaTeitei o Aotearoa' hon­our from our in­dus­try peers in 2010 was an­other defin­ing mo­ment,” she says.

A ma­jor achieve­ment for Clive came in 2012 when he was ap­pointed an Of­fi­cer of the NZ Or­der of Merit for his con­tri­bu­tion to viti­cul­ture and con­ser­va­tion.

For 15 years Ata Rangi has sup­ported ma­jor con­ser­va­tion ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing Clive's plant­ing of more than 50,000 trees at the Ata Rangi Bush Block, south of Mart­in­bor­ough. This project led to the sup­port of Project Crim­son, the rata and po­hutukawa char­i­ta­ble trust. More re­cently, Clive was in­stru­men­tal in es­tab­lish­ing the am­bi­tious Ao­rangi Restora­tion Trust, en­com­pass­ing over 40,000 hectares of the Ao­rangi For­est Park and sur­round­ing pri­vately owned hin­ter­land.

2013 was a big year for Ata Rangi (and sup­port­ers from the Welling­ton re­gion) when the vine­yard won the Global Gold cat­e­gory and Supreme Award at the Welling­ton Gold Awards. “I guess its just fur­ther recog­ni­tion of the depth, breadth and strength of our busi­ness,” says Phyll.

The vi­sion­ar­ies: (L-R) Ali­son, Gerry, He­len, Phyll and Clive.

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