Cabernet Franc from Hawke’s Bay and Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. Their Chardonnay grapes came from several vineyards on what locals now call the ‘Golden Slopes’, including, in some years, the Tietjen and Witters vineyards. ‘Golden Slopes is a tongue-in-cheek take on the Cote d’Or, the name of the French departement and wine region of Burgundy. Bill summarises the locality’s qualities succinctly: ‘facing the afternoon sun, inland enough to get away from the sea breeze, well drained, quite light soil type, sort of limestone underlay’. In the 1970s and 1980s the qualities of the Chardonnay fruit from the Tietjen and Witters vineyards were already sufficiently celebrated that Auckland wine companies were pleased to identify the name of the grape grower on their wine label, while Bill Thorpe suggests that Longbush popularised the name Golden Slopes in their publicity. Geordie Witters, on Gisborne’s Back Ormond Road, has since registered his grape-growing and tourist enterprise as ‘The Golden Slope Ltd and captured that intellectual property.
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Towards the end of the twentieth century several subtropical crops grown in Gisborne could outbid grapes for use of the land. Mandarins were generating gross returns of NZ$60,000 to $65,000 per hectare. Persimmons were close behind. Grapes could not match these returns and attracted additional costs for pruning, canopy management and disease control. It took some time for landowners to realise that vines could thrive, and require less intensive care, if grown on some of the less fertile soils of the Poverty Bay flats. Yet, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Bill Thorpe found himself questioning his continued involvement in the wine business:
‘I’ve got to say that when John withdrew, I really thought hard about do I want to keep going as well. He was frank in admitting that Longbush had ‘made very little money out of making wine’, while recognising that he had become involved in it because he ‘saw it as a possibility of turning grapes into higher value in a similar way to his achievements marketing other crops. Moreover, with Longbush and Thorpe Brothers Wines, they had already put ‘a huge investment into developing our brand, developing our reputation, developing our infrastructure’.
Having already taken some difficult decisions to keep production costs to a minimum, while not compromising the quality of grapes purchased in Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, he decided to make maximum use of the distribution network for wine that he had set up. Longbush already stored and distributed their wine from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in an arrangement with a transportation company. Bill decided to accept the approach of the large Chilean winery MontGras to be their New Zealand representative and distribute these wines through the same network as their own. However, in 2004, Bill reluctantly decided to close Longbush Wines down. In the early years of the twenty-first century, a small-scale producer without their own established vineyards, who was both buying grapes in competition with larger companies and attempting to compete with them in the supermarkets, found it very difficult to thrive.
Meanwhile, younger brother Geoff Thorpe had founded Gisborne’s Riversun Nursery in 1982. In that year, New Zealand had 5900 hectares in vines.