Nestled between the West Coast and the Tararua Range, Ōhau Wines is “seriously unusual,” says Marketing Director Jo Scully.
“Everything we do is a bit of a risk and a bit of a challenge, and finding things for this site.”
“There’s just nothing normal about us,” agrees Managing Director Donna Riley, speaking of tailor-made solutions for growing grapes just outside of Levin, recruiting and training the workforce. local labor, navigating in abundant precipitation, salty sea breezes and fertile soil amid gravel and rocks. remains of a glacial river.
The Horowhenua region is known for its rich Maori history, moa hunting and flax mills; for market gardens and fertile farms; and, increasingly, for real estate near Wellington. Today it is also home to a 36 hectare vineyard, separated from its nearest wine regions by the Cook Strait on one side and a mountain range on the other.
The story of Ōhau Wines begins around 2006, with the development of a dairy farm for housing, and the desire for a green culture in the middle of the sections, to give the feeling of rural idyll. The developers tapped winemaker Kate Gibbs, who owns a rootstock nursery in nearby Te Horo, and she recommended fewer houses and more grapes, seeing great potential in the soil and microclimate, explains. Jo.
Kate recommended Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris for the first 10 ha of vines, and the Gris immediately exceeded expectations, with the first vintage in 2009 winning the Salon Pinot Gris at the Bragato Wine Awards. This first Pinot Gris Ōhau Gravels was made by Jane Cooper in Wairarapa, who remains the company’s winemaker, and Ōhau continues to earn high accolades for the variety in each vintage, says Donna. “It has been a constant winner for us.”
Jo says they have unique soils, thanks to the Ōhau River that once crossed, leaving gravel and boulders and an “interesting land” in its wake. “And we have a little microclimate here that’s good for the grapes.”
They also have “very, very fertile land” and high rainfall, with harvest levels that are somewhat “naturally balanced” by coastal winds during flowering, explains Donna. “We have learned to manage our canopy according to vigor and rainfall. We have to do a lot more work in the vineyard than in a lot of other areas.
This workload is another area where Ōhau has innovated out of necessity, with results they believe could provide a model for others in the industry. “All of our wine team are locals,” says Jo. “We didn’t bring anyone in and none of them had any experience in viticulture … They’ve all been in training from the very beginning.”
When Donna joined the team in 2012, she considered bringing in a pruning team from Wairarapa, before travel and accommodation issues derailed the plan. “At one point in my very diverse career, I had been a teacher, so I kind of took that and looked at how we could create a process to get people onboard quickly, so that we could get people. productive at a high skill level very quickly from the local community. “
Two of their current core team were stay-at-home moms before coming to the company. Libby Brick started weeding around the cellar door, as part of her work with a local gardening contractor, then went up to pruning in the winter. When her youngest child was settled in elementary school, she joined the business as a causal, explains Donna. “We put her through the ITO Primary program, and now she’s running the vineyard.” Another full-time employee, Gill Jamieson, apprenticed in her 50s after all of her children had left home, and her son Jordan is now another full-time member of the team.
All full-time staff are native to the region and have been trained on the job, understanding the unique challenges and opportunities of the site. And in pruning season, they form a team of 30 casuals. “Some of them have been with us in previous years and others are new,” explains Jo, explaining that the processes they have in place mean that those with no experience are quickly trained to do the job. work with a good standard.
Gill Jamieson at Ōhau Wines
It’s good for locals looking for seasonal work between other horticultural crops like strawberries and cabbages (“we have to do our size before we lose people to asparagus,” Donna says) and c t is good for full-time staff, who develop their skills each time they share their knowledge. “Each year they have learned more and more and developed expertise on our individual site,” explains Jo. It has become very necessary in a vineyard isolated by its situation and its challenges, because no one else is faced with the particular challenges it has, she adds.
And it looks like the team are taking “seriously unusual” status very seriously. Within the vineyard, the crew speak of “thoughtfulness” in their work with the vines and operate under a rainbow-designed tender and loving care (TLC) program. In addition to numbering the rows of vines, they mark their vines using light markers, with one of the colors of the rainbow on every fifth post. This means they can easily record the location of individual plants that appear dull, so they can receive a bit of TLC, Donna explains. “It’s also totally against the prevailing norm,” she says. “These are our babies – each of them – and you want to pass each plant.”
They are just as careful about where these plants grow, always trying to “recognize the whenua,” says Jo. It started with the addition of the macron – or tohutō – to their brand in 2012, and focusing on correct pronunciation. It continues with their relationship with the local iwi and their desire to celebrate the stories and history of the place they now call home. When they look at the old tōtara stand in the middle of the vineyard, for example, they think of Ngāti Toa rangatira Te Rauparaha, who allegedly offered wood from the Ōhau forest for a missionary church in Ōtaki, Donna says. They tell visitors about the kainga cave that stood along the banks of the Ōhau River and about the moa – and moa hunters – who once roamed here. “It’s like a pretty special place,” says Jo. “We couldn’t do this without the land and the people who took care of it before we came here.”