Denis remains nostalgic for the early years of the winery when the oldest vines were almost a decade old, the varieties that were to make his reputation were producing promising fruit, and he was a talented, articulate and colourful winemaker and innovative marketer of Matawhero Wines:
The raw enthusiasm of life when I didn’t have any pressureI had my father looking after the running of the finances, and we had staff in the vineyard and it was copingIt was only just a hobby. I mean, I’d come over in the weekendsBy 1977 we were serious. We had this building here up and I was 37. But it was always serious, it was always extremely serious. Anyway, we were getting right, and then I had this bloody car accident.
New Zealand On A Map Photo Gallery
In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Denis Irwin was the Elvis Presley of the rock-star winemakers. It is unlikely that any other New Zealand winemaker will again quite command the respect that he held in that period. He approached winemaking as an art and was untarnished by the practices associated with making fortified wines of the previous era. He made exciting wines and was unquestionably cool, even in the language of that time. When the surf was up on Waikanae Beach, the cellar door went unattended. Wine buffs and winemakers alike sought his Gewurztraminers, Chardonnays and Cabernets. He was in the table wine tradition of Alex Corban, Denis Kasza, Bob Knappstein, Joe Babich and his contemporary, Nick Nobilo, who made New Zealand’s first outstanding Pinot Noir from grapes grown in Huapai in the immaculate West Auckland vintage of 1976.
Doug and Delwyn Bell, winegrowers, Ormond Road
When Corbans and Montana let contracts in the late 1960s, grape growers came from many directions carrying many skills. Doug and Delwyn Bell have been grape growing in Gisborne since 1983, prior to which he was a design engineer in Auckland and she was a travel agent. Initially, the couple knew nothing about grape growing, but both came from dairy farming backgrounds and were adamant that they wanted nothing to do with cows. Doug’s parents had just sold their dairy farm in Auckland and were looking to purchase a vineyard in Gisborne and put a manager on the property. When they suggested that perhaps Doug and his wife would like to buy one of the 10-acre titles in the vineyard and run the whole operation as one unit they agreed and soon found themselves caring for ‘22 acres of net canopy of grapes, in two varieties, Muller Thurgau and Flora’. They spent about a month learning from George Evans, the previous owner, who ‘showed us just basically how to mow and how to trim and we saw that first vintage’.
However, 1983 was not an auspicious year to begin any horticultural enterprise while carrying high debt alongside aspirations to extend the vineyard. The neo-liberal reforms of the fourth Labour government were imminent, followed by global economic difficulties and high, fluctuating interest rates from 1987. Moreover, the two varieties on the property were for bulk wine still being grown at high yields and bought by the wine companies at low prices per tonne. Their contract was initially with Penfolds, owned by Frank Yukich at the time, but in 1986 Montana bought Penfolds. As Doug points out, ‘we tried to develop a good working relationship with our wine company because they had viticultural staff who were assisting us in terms of learning about the industry’. Decisions over price were not individually negotiated:
A small group of elected members of the grape growers committee basically went to Montana, Corbans and Penfolds and all sat down around a table and negotiated a price for the different varieties so there was a price by variety and a price per brix [sugar] level.