Joint Venture into Vines

Organic NZ Magazine: November/December 2001
Author: Valerie Cowperthwaite

A shared passion for wine and commitment to Organics has brought about an intriguing business partnership between Kingsley Tobin, award-winning winemaker, and John Hawkesby, late of TV news. Valerie Cowperthwaite talked to them both. (First printed in Soil & Health Nov/Dec 2000 issue.)

When Kingsley Tobin came back to New Zealand in 1990 he was ready for a new challenge. Having run sophisticated restaurants in California and being fascinated by good wine, he realised his challenge was likely to be in the same field, especially given the potential in New Zealand.

The decision to put his energies into making fine wine combined with his interest in environmental and health issues to create an organic vineyard. In fact, Kinglsey goes beyond organic and uses many biodynamic techniques.

Kingsley grows cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec in his Gimblett Road vineyard. These are ideally suited to Gimblett Road’s free-draining riverbed shingle.

“I’m in the business of making quality wine,” says Kingsley. “For the consumer, the fact that it’s grown organically is a bonus – another mark of quality. But it has become more important as people question the effect of conventional wine on their systems. For them, Organics is a health issue, not an environmental or ideological one.”

As a maker of award-winning wines, Kingsley realised he had to lift and streamline production if he was to increase his market share and meet demand. That meant more land to grow more grapes, and working with other growers in other regions not only to increase volume but to spread the risk of a bad season and reduced or inferior crop. He would also eventually need his own winery – currently he uses a neighbouring winery.

“The economics of production are critical to commercial success,” says Kinglsey. “There has to be an efficient relationship between vineyard and winery – a big enough volume to employ a winemaker.”

With a wonderful stroke of synchronicity, the last remaining block of land in Gimblett Road came up for sale just as he was debating what to do next. Kingsley made a bold move on it. It is indeed a bold move, but levels of interest from growers and investors make him confident it will work.

In the meantime, old friends John and Joyce Hawkesby were interested in coming on board. The friends had met several years previously when John had been making a TV programme in Hawkes Bay. They all “clicked” and the friendship deepened over several years and many bottles of good wine savoured in local wineries and restaurants.

John’s investment has allowed Kingsley to lift production from 350 cases of wine a year to 1500. Other growers are now being contracted to grow for Kingsley Estate and the new vineyard will come into production in three to five years.

 

The Hawkesby connection

Cloistered behind a solid wall in a busy Epsom street lies a beautifully laid out garden, one of those individual gardens, full of character, that go on revealing themselves the longer you look; serene and restful to the eye even if the ear can’t ignore the ceaseless drone of traffic.

The garden John and Joyce Hawkesby have created over the years is a hint of what’s to come. The elegant villa and its garden are soon to be left behind for four organic hectares on Waiheke Island.

The Hawkesbys’ involvement in organic wine represents a lifelong interest and a determined change of lifestyle.

“Organics is quite strong in our family,” says John. “My daughter buys almost all organic, especially for her young son – I often have to dash out for more organic milk when we babysit. And Joyce’s father, Dr Will Miller, was a homoeopath and osteopath way back in the 50s, so we’ve always had an interest in natural foods and remedies.”

“Soil & Health used to be on the table in my father’s waiting room,” Joyce recalls. “I always used homoeopathy when the children were young, and now Kate’s doing the same with young Jack.”

Added to this is an interest in good food – and wine. Supermarkets are not the first shopping port of call for the Hawkesbys.

“I’m a regular at Huckleberry’s,” says John, “I spend far too much money there! And we’ve been going to the same fruit and vege shop for years. We can be sure of the quality there, even if it’s not organic. But the owner tells us more and more customers are asking for organic produce and he can’t always keep up, especially now the supermarkets are buying up large quantities.”

And what about the wine venture? Over one of their customary winery lunches, John asked Kingsley about his plans. When he heard about Kingsley’s need for expansion, he saw a mutually beneficial opportunity – given his own career circumstances that were making headlines at the time.

“I’ve always been passionate about wine,” John reveals. “I especially love the elegance of the French wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. And I firmly believe that great wine is made on the vine. It’s a wonderful natural process, the integration of soil, water and air. I agree with Kingsley, the grapes shouldn’t be artificially stressed, so I’m right behind the way he manages the vines. The ultimate test, of course, is the taste and Kingsley’s wines are excellent.”

Despite pictures of him with secateurs in hand, John says he’s essentially a passive investor. He buys the grapes and carries most of the production costs. Kingsley supplies the grapes, the growing know-how and the wine-maker’s expertise. Having enjoyed Kingsley’s wine over the years, John wants to help him increase volume without decreasing or compromising quality. John and Joyce will also grow grapes for Kingsley on their 4 ha Waiheke property.

“We’re building over there,” says John, “and we’re putting in grapes – cabernet merlot – together with olives and avocados, all organic of course!”

John sees Organics as a major contributor to New Zealand’s future prosperity.

“We’re poised to become a major organic market-garden. We’re not going to compete in many other areas, other than perhaps information technology. Organics can create meaningful employment for people and it will enable us to play to our strengths. We’ve got what a lot of other countries want but money can’t buy – our climate and our “clean, green” environment. It may not be perfect, we do need to improve, but other countries are spending a lot of money just to get to where we are already.”

 

KINGSLEY ESTATE – GROWING REGIME

Vineyard: 6a in premium vineyard area – Gimblett Rd, Hastings, Hawkes Bay. Free draining, river gravel.

Grapes: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec.

Vines: planted at 4m – longer cordon, less canopy/more fruit growth, trimming needed only once annually: trained on Scott-Henry system – canopy split into upper and lower sections, allowing variations in ripening/harvesting/flavour. Canopy kept open with leaf plucking, shoot thinning – reduced humidity, less chance of botrytis.

Fertilisers: foliar – fish, compost teas, liquid seaweed: on ground – natural rock, ground seaweed, compost.

Sprays: sodium silicate to strengthen berry skin, enhance disease resistance. Minimal copper for fungal control.

Weed control: Clemens weeder cultivates under vines, mulch, rotary hoe.

Harvesting: hand harvesting allows quality control.

Cover crop: organic orchard mix, 13 species provide flowers all year round. Improves soil structure, provides food and refuge for predator insects, bees etc.

 

Kingsley pointers

“Choosing the right grape variety for the land is the vital first step in successful organic growing. Understand the soil structure and makeup before you plant.

“Work with the plant’s growing cycle and its pressures. My vines aren’t bothered with powdery mildew, but I have to watch out for botrytis. A preventative spray, like sodium silicate, can motivate the plant’s immune system on a cumulative basis by challenging it so that the plant develops a stronger berry skin in response. Pressure comes on the plant toward the end of the season and rain, humidity etc. can add to this. At this time, natural immunity tends to drop away but if we’ve previously strengthened the plant’s immune system with organic techniques, it’s better able to resist disease.”