With a view
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.