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Interview with Wayne Thomas – The Viticulturist Who Discovered Marlborough

The Viticulturist Who Discovered Marlborough

Written by Tessa Nicholson 

Wayne Thomas

Frank Yukich’s decision to employ Wayne Thomas in 1973 may well have been one of the most important employment moves ever in the history of the New Zealand Wine Industry.

Last month Marlborough celebrated the 40th anniversary of the modern day planting of grapes. Much has been written about the Frank Yukich decision to plant here, but what of the man who first suggested that Marlborough may be an option for Montana’s planned expansion? Wayne Thomas is someone who hasn’t sought the limelight, yet his role in the emergence of Marlborough can never be underestimated.

At the 30th anniversary of Montana Sauvignon Blanc Frank Yukich had this to say; “What is sad to me is that Wayne Thomas has never been recognised by the Wine Industry for his research and contribution to the New Zealand wine industry.”

So who is Wayne Thomas, and where did he come from to play a pivotal role in this region’s future? The following is an interview with the man himself, now 69-years-old and based in Al Ain in the United Arab’s Emirates.

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I went to Lincoln to specialise in dairy science, because I had milked a lot of cows in Auckland. I was share milking for farmers who went on holiday and decided to pursue an Agriculture Degree. After my second year I applied for a New Zealand Fruitgrowers study award to go back to Auckland. I got the scholarship and worked at the DSIR in Mt Albert for a 14-week stint. At the end of that I was asked if I would come back and work there, while I finished my degree. They gave me a scholarship for my last two years of the undergraduate degree and then gave me a full salary to do my Masters once I had finished the undergraduate course. When I finished my Masters, I went back to the DSIR in Auckland where I was bonded for five years, although I only did four years, because Montana made me an offer. I was released to take that offer up.

How did you meet up with Frank Yukich?

I had heard of the guy, because he rang me once when I was working at the DSIR. Seagram’s had just taken a 40% share in Montana and they were looking to expand. It was probably Segram’s in California that recommended he import high health vineyard material for his plantings and he was told to give me a call. He introduced himself and said he wanted to import large amounts of grapevine material. I told him he couldn’t do that and he said; ‘What do you mean I can’t do that?’ I explained that he could bring in six cuttings at a time of any known named variety and he wasn’t too happy about it.

Then three weeks later Professor Berg was over from California. He was a consultant for Seagram’s and was here to assist in looking for suitable viticulture land for the expansion of Montana. As part of that process they came to DSIR to see what work was being done on virus diseases of grapevines. That was what I was doing at the time, so they spent about two hours talking with me. Then when we were walking down the driveway to the exit, Frank sidled up alongside me and said; ‘You are just the young fellow with the technical knowledge I need. How about joining me?’ I laughed and said he had only known me for two hours, how could he make such a decision? He slapped his hand with his fist and said; ‘When I make up my mind, I make up my mind.’ And having worked with him for long periods of time, he is that sort of person. He makes his mind up and goes for it.

I didn’t take it too seriously as I had just sent all my personal effects on a boat to Scotland because I was off to do my PhD at Invergarry in Dundee, at a Horticultural Research Institute. I was due to go over there for four years, funded by the DSIR.

But the next week Frank rang me and said he wanted to see me at Montana Head Office. When I asked why, he said his offer of a job still stood and that he needed my technical knowledge. So I went and saw him. He sat me down, asked how much I was being paid, I told him, and he said he would double it. I told him I was heading off to Scotland and that my wife was looking forward to that. He said I could go anywhere in the world for six months on a sabbatical and he would pay all expenses, accommodation and airfares, so long as it was to a wine related country. So I decided to join and I never regretted it.

The DSIR released me to fly around the country with Professor Berg and Frank looking at potential land sites for viticulture. They had planned to go into Gisborne or Hawke’s Bay which were the two established areas. Land values though at that stage were about $4000 an acre. Professor Berg went back to California and Frank and I went back to Hawke’s Bay to look at a big block of approximately 800 acres. We flew across to Palmerston North to see the work Massey University was doing in viticulture. On the plane I said to Frank; ‘You know there must be better areas in New Zealand than Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne. You are really looking at cropping land there. Why don’t you look at Marlborough?’ I knew quite a bit about Marlborough because when I was studying at Lincoln I had travelled up there quite a bit. I knew it had the highest sunshine hours in New Zealand, had free draining soils, low rainfall in the summer period. The only thing I didn’t know much about was the metrological data in terms of frost. I said all this to Frank and he asked if I could find out more. I said give me a couple of weeks and I will go through the DSIR library and see what I can find.

The only met station I could find was Woodbourne Airport, so I got 60 years of records and screened those. Everything looked okay. The odd spring frost during the establishment period was a bit of a worry, but once those vines got up to fruiting height, there should be no problem.

I wrote a full report for Frank about the sunshine hours, the soil, the rainfall, the heat summation and then all the met data, especially the frosts and submitted it. I was back working at the DSIR and he rang from Wellington and said there was a plane ticket at Montana’s Head Office. I was to pick it up and meet him in Wellington, we were off to Marlborough. We flew to Blenheim, met with John Marris and he took us around about 20,000 acres in two days. We went down to the Awatere Valley and looked there as well. But when we went there it was pretty bloody windy and I said to Frank we won’t look at this option at the moment, it’s too windy. There is plenty of scope in the rest of Marlborough.

We had a good look, then flew back to Auckland and two weeks later went down with the Montana team. Frank’s brother Mate was there and a lot of other people who had worked in the field for Montana for a few years. I was trying to convince Frank to buy all this stony land in Rapaura, around where Cloudy Bay and Corbans later bought, but the established people put him off because of the wear and tear on equipment, like tractors, rotary hoes and tillers like tractors. I said to them, they had to remember that we were going to be growing grapes, not sweet corn or tomatoes. But because I was the new kid on the block and only 29 years old, I was over ruled. Frank, no doubt was apprehensive as well as he still had to convince the board of the change in plan.

Looking back I think the biggest mistake I made was not to buy 2000 acres of those stony Rapaura soils for about $50 an acre. I knew that land would come into vogue eventually. I could have just sat on it. When we first went to Marlborough, it was a bit like Ashburton, growing a few fat lambs, small seeds, cherries and apples. It was pretty marginal farming land, but perfect for grapes.

Instead Frank bought nine properties and we paid an average of $600 an acre, which was double the market value really. But what people forget is, nobody knew we were planting grapes. If they had, the price would have gone even higher. It was much cheaper than Gisborne or Hawke’s Bay, but imagine if we had bought those Rapaura soils. They were selling for about $50 to $100 an acre. If I had had my way right from the start, I would have planted where Cloudy Bay is. When we went back down and got growers for Penfold’s, we mainly looked at that type of land as being the most suitable for wine grapes.

The interesting thing was when it was announced in the press that we had bought 4000 acres, I remember Alec Corban said to me; ‘Wayne what are you doing? Why didn’t you buy 50 acres and prove the area first?’ I said that was all very well, but we would have proved the area and then he and a whole lot of others would have jumped in and the price would have soared and we would have lost our advantage.”

Frank paid the deposit for the land out of his own pocket when we were down there, then we went back to Auckland. I took off to California and Frank went to the board and said he was taking Montana into Marlborough. He explained he had paid the deposits on the land and he needed board approval to settle. They thought he was going to give in and move to Hawke’s Bay and they turned the deal down. Partly on the basis that they thought I was too young to make such a strong recommendation. Frank rang me in California and told me the board had turned down the proposal. He was really concerned because of the personal investment he had made. He wanted to know if I had all the information with me and said I had to get a document signed by the Professors over there, that the land was suitable for viticulture. So I sat down with Professors Berg, Lieder, Kliewer and Cook, put all the data before them. We had a discussion and they signed it off. I faxed that back to Frank.

Knowing the way Frank operated, he probably hadn’t told the board a lot about the proposal before he presented it to them. I said he needed to present all the data, plus the fax. He duly did that and once the fax arrived there was no objection, no discussion. They approved it.

When I came back from California, they had already started planting, but the only planting material available in bulk in New Zealand in those days was cuttings. In Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay you got a 90 – 95% strike. But in Marlborough we were dealing with a very different climate and the driest summer in 30 years. We had about a 35% strike rate, which cost the company a lot of money and must have been a worry. But in hindsight it was a blessing because they were planting the wrong varieties like Muller Thurgau, Baco 22A and Palomino.

I knew about the French and German wine industry through my work with the DSIR. They were based on vinefera varieties, but the New Zealand industry was based on hybrids. Muller Thurgau came in and proved a very useful variety to the industry , but the majority of it was based on those hybrids. I hadn’t realised that until I joined Montana and travelled around the wine regions. In 1973, the industry was really just treading water. In fact most of the product being sold was fortified. Every winery in the country had a huge still to make spirits from cane sugar.

So I sat down with Frank and asked him what he was trying to do. He said he wanted to put New Zealand on the world wine stage. I told him he couldn’t do that by planting those varieties. ‘You will have to get the traditional European vinifera varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Rhine Riesling, Pinot Noir. I suggested we plant 50 acre nuclear blocks of each and see which one suited the area. When he asked about planting material, I said I had access to the material at DSIR, although I didn’t have any Sauvignon Blanc. But I knew where I could get some.  Ross Spence gave me three cuttings, which we bulked up to 50,000 plants in six months.

I grew the cutttings Ross gave me and cut them down to two bud cuttings, grew green plants. Then we took two bud green cuttings off the mother plants and mist propagated them using bottom heat and mist on top until they rooted and then we potted them. We had a nursery at Avondale and set up two of the of the 5000 sq. ft. glass houses as mist propagation units and all the other glass houses were for growing on the two budded plants. I learnt the technique in San Diego. It is very quick and you can bulk up planting material very easily and very quickly.

I had put a plan together with Frank to bulk up 50 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, Rhine Riesling, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc I think. Sauvignon Blanc proved to be the winner.

Would the New Zealand Wine Industry be where it is today if Frank had gone to Hawke’s Bay or Gisborne?

If we had gone to either of those places, Frank would probably have planted high yielding varieties like Muller Thurgau. It would have taken another 15 – 20 years for the industry to consider Marlborough because of the sheer bulk coming out of Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay. That would have put anybody else off.

Once Marlborough was discovered, I don’t think anyone would have gone at the pace we did. They might have bought 50 or 100 acres and then eight years down the track proved the region which would have seen others joining in. I think if we had gone to Hawke’s Bay it would have held the industry up for at least 10  to 20 years.

It wasn’t until the 80s that we became a country to be recognised on the world stage. Leo Berti was the head wine maker at Paul Masson in California and was also an international wine consultant for Segram’s. He ended up on the board of Montana. When he first came out here in 1975, he tried every single New Zealand wine he could get his hands on. Then every year when he came back he would do the same. In 1983 he told me that he had been trying the wines since 1973, and back then not one of them was of an acceptable standard to compete on the world stage. But in 1983 he said there were a number of wines that were now world class, and that had happened in just eight years.

‘This country has made more progress in 10 years than any wine country in the world,’ he said. ‘I think New Zealand is lucky because it didn’t have a tradition of traditional winemaking and people like me with a science knowledge had come along, and then people like Randy Weaver and Danny Robertson had come out as winemakers (from America), and we took all those ideas and put them in place. Without letting tradition get in our way.’

That was nice to hear.

But the euphoria didn’t last, as within 18 months Frank had lost his job.

The one thing that never really came out was when Frank lost his job as Managing Director in 1975. A few people thought we had made the wrong decision going into Marlborough. There were people that thought my and Frank’s decision was flawed. There was talk that Montana was going to pull right out of Marlborough, cut its losses. But Augustine Hunneus was a viticultural consultant to Segram’s and a Montana board member. He knew my info was right, so he managed to convince the board at that stage that Montana was not leaving Marlborough, they were gong to stick with it. He convinced the board that Marlborough did have potential. At this stage Frank was still on the Board of Directors. I had left because I felt marginalised by the new Management, and returned to my research position at the DSIR that was offered to me.

He continued in that role  for 18 years. I guess the financial strain of those first two years, the poor take in that first year meant it was pretty tough for the board. But they got there eventually. Under the astute leadership of Graeme Stormont and his team, the Marlborough vision was achieved, highlighted by the release of the Montana 1979 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, being the catalyst for the development of the biggest and most successful wine region in New Zealand.

Wayne linked back up with Frank Yukich in 1979 with the formation of Penfold’s New Zealand. He played an integral role in attracting contract growers here in Marlborough, with many relying on his knowledge to diversify into grapes, including one farmer living on the outskirts of Renwick, John Roughan.

He asked me if he could plant grapes on is land and I told him of course he could, no problem what-so-ever. He was only grazing one sheep to 8 acres, which wasn’t very economic, but I could see that he could get far more if he planted grapes. However he needed help to convince his bank manager, so the next time I came down he arranged a meeting and the bank manager looked at me in horror. ‘Are you sure this land will grow grapes?’ he asked. I said of course, he will get about five tonnes of Sauvignon Blanc to the acre. The bank manager told me I was a brave young man putting my head on the line. But he finally agreed to lend the money, although he wouldn’t let the guy plant unless he put in a block of Muller Thurgau. I didn’t want Muller Thurgau, I could get that from Hawke’s Bay or Gisborne, I wanted Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. But the bank manager was adamant that there had to be 10 acres of Muller Thurgau as well. So we went ahead and did that. That land was very stony, big boulders and we had to pre drill all the holes to put the posts in, because you couldn’t ram them in, they would just shatter. But it was good grape land.

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After Montana bought out Penfold’s, Wayne became a consultant and broker, buying grapes for 26 wineries spread around New Zealand.

“As a broker the main thing people wanted was Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, they couldn’t get enough of it.”

For four of the last five years he has been involved in educational reform for the Abu Dhabi Education Council. His contract finished last year, and he says in 12 months when his wife’s contract finishes he will be returning to New Zealand, where he is looking forward to spending more time with his children and grandchildren.

A retirement well deserved.

 

 

 

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