“Hawke’s Bay province is, in my opinion, the most suitable for growing vines I have visited,” said Italian wine expert Romeo Bragato at the end of a six month tour of New Zealand in 1895. “The wine industry is an immense source of wealth to a nation.”
Bragato’s enthusiasm for Hawke’s Bay viticulture was influenced in large measure by his visit to the Greenmeadows vineyard of Henry Tiffen. There, Bragato found a “magnificent” Pinot crop, “the finest grapes” he had ever seen.
Tiffen’s vineyard, established in just six years at cost equivalent to $5m today, was “the premier vineyard in New Zealand.” Thirteen kilometres of wire trellises supported ten hectares of Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot blanc, and Pinot meuniere. State of the art production facilities in a mechanised press-house meant the only handling after picking was when the grapes were shoveled on to an elevator to begin the stemming and crushing process.
Henry Tiffen travelled widely bringing many different crops back to Hawke’s Bay including tobacco and sugar beet, and when he died in 1896 he had established not only the biggest winery in the country, but also the largest fruit orchard in the North Island, producing apples, peaches, apricots, pears, plums, persimmons, and figs.
His wine and fruit holdings were inherited by his niece, Amelia Randal, who by 1905 had expanded the vineyards to fourteen hectares. But, being a devout Baptist, and pressured by a prohibitionist farm manager, Amelia uprooted all the vines and replanted in fruit trees. In 1921 she sold the entire contents of the winery to the Corban family, who transported the equipment back to their base in Henderson.
The balance of Henry Tiffen’s land holdings was subdivided and sold. The Society of Mary purchased 260 acres which would become the final home of the what is now the Mission Estate and Winery in Taradale. And, in 1897, a small plot of 5 acres was purchased by Bartholomew Steinmetz who had been working at The Mission for several years.
Steinmetz established a winery producing sherries, ports and muscats. Probably his greatest accomplishment was the hireing in 1921 of a 14 year old boy who, in the following 60 years, would make a lasting contribution to wine making in Hawke’s Bay. His name was Thomas Bayne McDonald and he, more than any other local viticulturalist, would keep alive Romeo Bregato’s aspirations for the region.
Tom McDonald’s family home was on the boundary of Henry Tiffen’s vineyard. As a child he watched the grapes being picked, and in his school holidays he washed bottles at the Mission. Within 5 years of joining Bartholomew Steinmetz he had leased the business. He was only 19 years old.
Despite his prodigious capabilities, the early years were tough for Tom McDonald. During the Depression wine sales slumped, but still he was able to buy neighbouring land when it became available: seven acres in 1931, and a further five acres in 1938. Plantings were Pinot Meunier, Chasselas and Cabernet Sauvignon.
When Bartholomew Steinmetz died in 1943, McDonald bought the original five acres, and a year later sold out to Christchurch based Ballins Breweries, staying on as manager. Thanks to new capital, land holdings were expanded and a modern winery, McDonald’s Wines, was built on the Church Road site. The operation was an industry leader. Its 1965 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, “the finest commercial red wine ever produced in New Zealand,” was matured in French oak barriques for a year then bottle-aged for a further three years.
In partnership with Australian wine producer McWilliams, who bought out Ballins Breweries in 1962, McDonald’s Winery grew to be the dominant player in Hawke’s Bay wine making. Tom was influential in establishing the Wine Institute of New Zealand in 1975, an initiative which Romeo Bragato had heartily recommended 85 years earlier.
Tom McDonald retired from wine making in 1976, but stayed on as a director and consultant at McWilliams until the company was purchased by Corbans in 1981. He died in 1987, two years before the vineyard established by Batholomew Steinmetz passed into the hands of Penfolds Wines, a subsidiary of the now substantial Montana Wines conglomerate.
Montana renamed the winery Church Road, and in the spirit of Henry Tiffen spared no expense in creating an excellent, state of the art operation. In honour of the past, “Tom” is their premiere Bordeaux style vintage red wine; and the Tom McDonald cellar forms part of the complex of sensitively designed buildings which today include a restaurant and museum.
It’s over 100 years since Romero Bragato said, ‘the wine industry is an immense source of wealth,’ and today Hawke’s Bay’s wine culture and economy lives up to his words.