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Chris and Judy Simmonds, grape growers
Marlborough grape growers came from many different backgrounds but most have one characteristic in common: they are enthusiastic about their metier. Chris and Judy Simmonds are no exception. Their opportunity arose when a Blenheim real estate agent and friend visited them in 1985 to let them know that ‘some crazy Australian who was buying land from Corbans had to get rid of 60 acres because the government of the day would only let a foreign company own so much land’. The Australian was David Hohnen buying land to plant grapes for his new enterprise, Cloudy Bay. He was selling 60 acres in three 20-acre parcels. Their real estate friend suggested that they might ‘perhaps get someone else in partnership to run it for them to grow grapes. So we bought 20 acres. Contemporaneously, Ivan Sutherland was setting up his own, much larger, grape-growing enterprise. He also bought 20 acres of land from Hohnen as did Kevin Judd, Cloudy Bay’s first winemaker. Ivan was keen to establish 50/50 partnerships with relations, friends and acquaintances. Chris and Judy Simmonds also took up this opportunity.
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Chris, who had worked in banking for most of his life, had many people asking him ‘what do you know that I don’t? Four thousand dollars an acre is an awful lot of money to pay for poor land in Matthews Lane, which runs off Jacksons Road. When they met with Hohnen, who was going to buy their grapes, Chris and Judy almost had second thoughts. He told them he had found a good name for his company: Cloudy Bay. Chris remembers replying: ‘You’re crazy – no one would put the word “cloudy” on a bottle of wine! Hohnen, owner of the highly successful West Australian company Cape Mentelle, replied: ‘Well, we put “mental” on a bottle of wine and it’s done pretty well! Chris and Judy Simmonds served their grape-growing apprenticeship on this 20-acre property they bought from Hohnen and were fortunate to have Ivan Sutherland as their 50/50 partner. He managed the vineyard and was committed to producing Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc – indeed all grape varieties – to the highest possible standard. In 1987, Hohnen offered him the opportunity to run the viticulture at Cloudy Bay. Ivan had begun planting the Sutherlands own vineyard, Dog Point, in 1979 and it had become one of the largest family-owned vineyards in Marlborough. For their part, Chris and Judy were also prepared to experiment with the latest ideas on managing the vines canopy on the variable soils of the Wairau Valley. They were sufficiently confident that they were ‘always looking to buy something bigger, because the numbers just looked so good’.
They found the larger property they were seeking in 1992. It was 60 acres. Chris ‘was able to bail out of banking completely and became a full-time grape grower at that point’. Over the next eight years they gradually replanted or top-grafted the half of the new property that was growing vines and developed the rest. By the millennium, the 60 acres were in vines. Half of the new vineyard was in Sauvignon Blanc with the remainder in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and 3 acres of Gewurztraminer. Developing such a vineyard was a considerable accomplishment, especially when the family were living in Christchurch until 1997, where their youngest child was in fifth form and their twin daughters beginning university. They built a cottage on the property, and as Chris says, ‘I was coming up here every second week and spending the other week recovering! During this period, a nearby grape grower, Philip Walsh, was managing the property for them. Chris admires Philip’s knowledge and considers that we keep each other going quite well, because he’s been in this game for a long time and has different skills and we work well together. One of the things I set out to do right from the beginning was to be able to do every job – and I’ve done everything it’s possible to do on a vineyard, I think.
With the new vineyard, Chris was keen to experiment with a variety of ground covers and irrigation techniques to even out the vigour of their vines. On this southern side of the Wairau Valley the soils are heavier and more clayey. Because the Wairau River drains to the east, and Chris wanted his rows to be north to south so that berries on both sides of the row get their share of sun, the rows are at right angles to the alluvial deposits that change with distance from the river: ‘We’re trying to do different things down the same rows to try and balance the performance of the vines. He familiarised himself with the work of Dr Peter Dry at the University of Adelaide and was lucky enough to have him visit and assess the 3 acres of vines that Chris was trialling.
The irrigation technique involves watering each side of the vine alternately. In the new Simmonds vineyard the roots appear to have responded by going deeper rather than spreading, as the research by Dry suggested. Chris is particularly impressed by the results he has achieved with Pinot Noir where the vines are producing fewer short shoots. With his Sauvignon Blanc, he has managed to keep yields at a level of about 5 tonnes to the acre, and for the best-quality Pinot Noir about 3 tonnes to the acre. With their Marlborough Riesling, they produce two qualities of grapes – one as close as possible to 4 tonnes per acre for the best quality, and the other at about 6 tonnes to the acre. As with all vineyards, the vagaries of the weather, when combined with the difficulty of pruning to a particular yield, means that the number of bunches per plant must be reduced closer to vintage when the level of the yield can be assessed more accurately.