A vine­yard

With a view

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Down On The Farm -

Eric and San­dra Shack­le­ton live high on the hills over­look­ing the southern end of Te Oneroa a Tōhō, Ninety-mile Beach. Their huge win­dows show the beach sweep­ing up the Aupōuri Penin­sula into the dis­tance and the dis­tinc­tive mounds of To­ho­raha (Mt Camel) at Houhora and Puheke on the Karikari penin­sula. Kaitaia is in the mid­dle dis­tance. Closer are the shel­ter belts of the lo­cal mar­ket gar­dens and the dairy farm flats to the west of the town.

Their 4.8 hectare block gen­tly slopes from the en­trance gate down past rows of grapevines, be­fore drop­ping steeply down a 2ha hill­side along­side which flows the Waitapu Stream, af­ter which the property and vine­yard are named.

San­dra and Eric both work full-time in Kaitaia, where they own the town's long­est-run­ning phar­macy. San­dra has lived here since early child­hood; Eric ar­rived in 1973 for work, in­tend­ing to be here only for a short while. But he proved to be one of those peo­ple on whom the Far North works its magic and he stayed. With nu­mer­ous com­mu­nity in­volve­ments, they are well-known and well-liked peo­ple.

In 1999, San­dra's mother – a land agent at the time – brought San­dra up here when Eric de­cided he wanted to grow grapes and needed more land than the 1.8ha where they then lived. San­dra care­fully picked her way across the

bare, wet, pugged pad­dock in un­suit­able shoes. She wasn't look­ing at the view, but when she stopped and looked up she knew this was the place for them.

"We bought it on the Mil­len­nium, 1999, sat up here and saw in the New Year with wine and food in the early hours of the morn­ing." "And there was a fog,” Eric adds. "And the sun, which we thought was go­ing to rise here, ac­tu­ally rose over there," says San­dra. "But we had cham­pagne ..." "...and we were all gig­gly by that time!" The first thing they did, with fam­ily help, was to plant karo ( Pit­tospo­rum cras­si­folium) around the en­tire bound­ary to pro­vide some shel­ter. They bought 5000 karo plants for about a dol­lar each be­cause the plants can han­dle wind and salt, and when ma­ture, their seedlings grow up un­derneath. Fif­teen years on, the plan is to go through and top them by about a me­tre to al­low other species to come up through them and so the orig­i­nal plants can thicken out.

The first grapes were planted in 2003, cham­bourcin and caber­net sauvi­gnon, but nei­ther va­ri­ety was very suc­cess­ful. The caber­net didn't grow well and they didn't know then how to make good wine from the cham­bourcin. Those vines were pulled out and re­placed with pino­tage.

"Pino­tage is a great wine for here,” says San­dra. “A won­der­ful grape."

Cur­rently they grow syrah, tem­pranillo, pino­tage and san­gio­vase and they've re­planted some cham­bourcin. There are three ar­eas of vines cov­er­ing an area of around 2ha. The ground con­di­tions are of­ten not ideal with a hard

pan be­neath the top­soil caus­ing prob­lems with drainage when the weather is wet. But the en­vi­ron­ment is gen­er­ally good, with the tem­per­a­tures about two de­grees warmer than down on the flats.

To learn about viti­cul­ture and wine-making, Eric com­pleted a diploma course at the East­ern In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in Hast­ings over three years, both on cam­pus and on­line.

By 2007 they'd also built their house and were ready to open for cel­lar door sales of their own la­belled wine. Eric has al­ways liked a glass. "I spent five years in Europe, I went to France and Spain, Italy and Greece and I liked the way wine was part of their life. You'd go to lunch or din­ner and you'd have a wine, but you never saw drunk peo­ple or got drunk be­cause you just en­joyed the flavours and the en­hance­ment of the food that a suit­able wine pro­vided. I really en­joyed that and I still do to­day."

He and San­dra ran a lo­cal wine club for a while to in­tro­duce peo­ple to new va­ri­eties of wines. "I'd still like to do that in the fu­ture, that was fun." Waitapu Es­tate main­tains cer­ti­fi­ca­tion by Sus­tain­able Wine­grow­ing New Zealand, which en­sures a 'best prac­tice' model of en­vi­ron­men­tal prac­tices in the vine­yard and win­ery.

"Whilst we're not ul­tra-gree­nies, we like to think we're do­ing ev­ery­thing as eco­log­i­cally soundly as we can."

But Eric is now talk­ing of giv­ing up on the grapes, com­ment­ing that wine-making costs him too much money to be sus­tain­able once he re­tires from paid work.

I had imag­ined it was one of those high re­turn ven­tures

but it's an in­ten­sive and ex­pen­sive en­ter­prise. Eric and San­dra do a lot of the work them­selves, but be­cause they both work full-time, they have to em­ploy oth­ers to do the ma­jor­ity of the vine­yard work such as spray­ing, prun­ing, net­ting and some of the pick­ing.

Once the grapes are picked, they're trans­ported to the Karikari Es­tate Win­ery 50km away. There, Eric and Alan Collinson (who did the same diploma course as Eric) make the wine. It re­mains there in bar­rels for a year, for which the win­ery charges stor­age. They check the wine dur­ing that time and ad­just as nec­es­sary with ad­di­tives like a lit­tle potas­sium car­bon­ate to con­trol the acid­ity. Af­ter a year in bar­rels the wine is de­canted into blad­ders and trucked to Auck­land to be bottled. The cost of cartage, bot­tles and la­bels all adds up and then it is an­other three years be­fore the wine can be sold.

But it doesn't sound like Waitapu Wines will sud­denly dis­ap­pear.

"We've got 2014 in bar­rels ready to bot­tle, the 2015 is there wait­ing for an­other six or seven months to come, so we've got to think ahead as to what we're go­ing to do with them,” says Eric. “2014 and '15 were good years, so we have some really good wine to come."

"It's not just 'shut the doors',” says San­dra.

An al­ter­na­tive to pulling out the vines and re­turn­ing the land to a less in­ten­sive use would be to con­tract the crop to a larger win­ery which could add their grapes to its own range. The economies of scale of a larger op­er­a­tion would make the propo­si­tion fi­nan­cially vi­able and Eric and San­dra could still enjoy wines from their own vines.

It's hard to tell whether Eric is more proud of the wine or the couple's bush project (right). But he and San­dra have good rea­son to feel ex­treme sat­is­fac­tion with both.

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