Between Bill Thorpe’s Longbush Wines and brother John Thorpe’s Gisborne Wine Company, the Thorpe family grew a significant wine enterprise out of their business and horticultural expertise. Strike Photography with 1920 hectares, was the largest regional vineyard. The vine pull of 1986 saw the national vineyard fall to 4390 hectares by 1989. This same year, Riversun won its first Marlborough contracts to produce grafted vines. With Marlborough now expanding rapidly, opportunities abounded for specialised enterprises to supply grape growers and wine companies with certified cultivars. Riversun was one of the nurseries to grasp this opportunity. By 1998, Riversun was grafting more than one million vines annually. At a density of 2000 vines per hectare, this enabled it to provided sufficient grafted cuttings for 500 hectares of new vineyards – about one third of the total vines being planted each year of the late 1990s. Nurseries were finding it difficult to keep up with the demand.
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In 1999, Riversun launched a subsidiary, Linnaeus, with the objective of providing a virus-testing and diagnostic programme concentrating on viticulture and avocados. They wished to ensure that its propagation practices produced plant materials ‘of high health and known virus status’. In addition to its skilled viticultural team led by Nick Hoskins, in 2000 Geoff employed molecular biologist Dr Rod Bonfiglioli who, as technical director, quickly became involved in developing a certification system for grafted grapevines and set up a sophisticated diagnostic laboratory. Bonfiglioli used his extensive experience and scientific contacts in Europe and Latin America to join Geoff Thorpe in a new round of importation of cultivars to suit New Zealand conditions. Over 100 new varieties, clones and rootstocks were brought into the country.
When, in 2008, Bonfiglioli set up his own consultancy business he designed an ambitious and innovative research programme in conjunction with the scientific committee of New Zealand Winegrowers. It involved mapping the diffusion of one of New Zealand’s debilitating viruses in the red-grape varieties of Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay and in Martinborough. These locality studies were to be followed by a planned removal and replanting of infected vines and act as a model for other parts of New Zealand. Although Rod Bonfiglioli died in May 2009, his virus project continues. The commercial objectives initiated at Riversun are having spin-offs for New Zealand winegrowing at large.
For James and Annie Millton, coming back from their OE to Gisborne grape growing of the late 1970s must have been a rude shock. Their story encapsulates the tensions faced by farmers on the Poverty Bay flats as they transformed themselves into grape growers when their immediate predecessors were pastoral farmers or smallholders.
Annie Millton is the great-granddaughter of the owner of one of the largest sheep and beef runs on the East Coast of the North Island. Her great-grandfather
At Riversun Nursery, every year Geoff Thorpe produces more than a million grafted cuttings for vineyards around New Zealand.