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Kate Radburnd grew up in Australia and did her oenology degree at Roseworthy in Adelaide. After being interviewed there by George Fistonich the 21-year-old accepted the job as assistant winemaker at Vidal:
It was a mixture of cellar work, lab work, plus of course there’s the overview of Villa as well -we were involved in all Villa’s wine tasting, planning, management. From day one at Vidal, we were making Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot – although we had lots of Muller as well. My first vintage was ’84 and we were making all those wines then.
Rod McDonald, who followed Kate at Vidal as assistant winemaker, captures the emphasis on bulk wine and large fermentations that persisted into the 1990s:
We had six 140,000-litre silos on site at that stage – and they each take about 180 to 200 tonne of fruit. We had one of Gisborne Sauvignon Blanc, one of Gisborne Muller Thurgau, one of Hawke’s Bay Muller Thurgau and one of Hawke’s Bay Chenin Blanc. The change [since then] is incredible – next vintage, we’re probably not taking any Gisborne fruit. All the tanks we’ve bought in the last five years have been less than 10,000 litres except for one. But we have about 1400 barrels here. When I started in 1994 we had 130.
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In 2002, George Fistonich grasped the opportunity to get access to a large parcel of land on the Gimblett Gravels. Steve Smith, who had formerly been responsible for relations with Villa Maria’s grape growers, had identified the possibility when Milburn Cement had decided to sell. At the time, Steve was assembling the viticultural land for Craggy Range, the Peabody family’s new enterprise. When working for Villa Maria, he had also been involved in the development of Seddon Vineyards and Terra Vitae in the Awatere Valley so was in a strong position to judge the characteristics of the Gimblett Road site. Like Kate Radburnd, both George Fistonich and Steve Smith knew the qualities of the fruit that they had earlier bought from Chris Pask, although the parcels of land they were buying were on more gravelly soils.
The three large companies of Hawke’s Bay – Glenvale, McWilliam’s and McDonald’s – were not aggressive initiators in the rapid transformation into producing table wines during the 1970s and 1980s. Individuals such as Tom McDonald remained important figures in the New Zealand industry and McWilliam’s in particular produced some striking Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays, but these companies were nowhere near as influential as might be expected from their initial scale and especially the access to markets they had secured through close association with the beer and liquor marketing channels. It was the rapidly expanding companies based in Auckland – Villa Maria and Montana – that took advantage of the surplus wineries that became available in Hawke’s Bay. Contemporaneously, the distribution of beer, spirits and wines in New Zealand was being transformed and these existing and emerging enterprises were beginning to take financial positions in the major wine companies.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Montana and Corbans had emerged as the two largest wine companies. As a duopoly they were competing strongly, because they needed New Zealand retail and wholesale outlets for their increasing wine production. Montana had entered into an agreement with Campbell and Ehrenfried, while Corbans had involved a selection of regionally based wine and spirits wholesalers by offering them shareholdings in their family company. In the maelstrom of takeovers and mergers beginning in the mid-1980s, McWilliam’s, the last of the large Hawke’s Bay companies to remain independent, merged in 1984 with Cooks Wines, the Auckland and Te Kauwhata enterprise of David Lucas. In turn, this new entity merged with Corbans Wines Ltd in 1987, itself having already had its family shareholding diluted by inviting the participation of various liquor merchants in a private company before being bought by Rothmans then Brierley who also controlled Dominion Breweries, one of New Zealand’s two main brewing companies at the time. Corbans remained under brewery control until it was sold to Montana in 2000.