Initially, grapes were treated as just one of the crops in the Thorpe family’s portfolio. They signed a long-term contract with Corbans in the early 1970s, and as Bill recounts, ‘we got quite good at growing very big crops of Muller Thurgau. You know, 10, 11, 12 tonne to the acre and 5, 6, 7 tonne [of] Pinot Noir. In retrospect, I guess we ran a reasonably efficient grape-growing activity. In the vine pull of 1986 they replaced their Muller Thurgau with Clone 6 Chardonnay. Grapes were not high on the list of the most profitable crops grown by the trust, and by 1988 some of the beneficiaries began to express concern that it was not producing ‘anything very flash in the way of net revenue’. Over a three-year period the family came to an agreement to progressively realise capital. Given the intense competition for land at the time, prices were favourable. Some of the transactions were within the family. Richard took the whole of the persimmon area and John got all the grape-producing land. The rest – three kiwifruit properties and the navel orange property – were sold.
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Winemaker and restaurateur John Thorpe became owner of the 50-acre vineyard in Manutuke growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. With local lawyer Ross Revington he started the Whitecliffs winery in a converted maize crib producing primarily Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay and some Muller Thurgau from his refurbished vineyard and a small one owned by Revington. The name Whitecliffs was challenged legally by a Hawke’s Bay enterprise and became Thorpe Brothers Wines with Landfall as a brand. Selling grapes to Corbans continued to be one source of income until John sold the Manutuke vineyard in the late 1980s.
Bill Thorpe remembers John and his father coming to see him in 1991 and asking, ‘What chance do you think there is of setting up a more commercially focused wine marketing company? Bill was surprised by his own decision to become involved, especially when wearing his management accountant’s hat: ‘I’ve got to say, it was slightly misguided, particularly when it came to producing things like Muller Thurgau, because the margins, for a small winery, just do not stack up. But he tempered this doubt by recognising that he already had a basic involvement in growing, packing and marketing fresh fruit and produce, and saw this new venture as a ‘possibility of turning grapes into higher value’. And Muller Thurgau was not their main target.
Bill set up Longbush Wines and increased the working capital to expand John’s winery and equipment because at that stage it was producing only about 1500 cases of wine. Longbush contracted John, who as the Gisborne Wine Company produced the wine for it. ‘We buy the grapes, we buy the barrels, John basically provides the winemaking expertise and the infrastructure. Bill took the view that Longbush should build its volume quickly and for five years they incremented their production by about 2000 cases per year until by 1997 the winery produced 18,000 cases of which 14,000 cases were Longbush. Part way through this growth, Bill, as owner of Longbush, decided to represent their own brand nationally and employed a small staff rather than using agents.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century Longbush was buying most of its grapes from six growers. Vineyards in Gisborne were their main source but they also bought