Thursday, 29 December 2016 08:59

Family vines - Pegasus Bay

Written by 
Ivan Donaldson with wife Chris (left) and Matt Donaldson. Ivan Donaldson with wife Chris (left) and Matt Donaldson.

Ivan Donaldson is renowned for establishing the first modern vineyard in Canterbury back in the 1970s.

A few years later, he and wife Chris purchased land further north and established Pegasus Bay, a family owned and run vineyard, winery and restaurant that is at the heart of the burgeoning Waipara region.

Ivan began his winemaking career making what he describes as horrible fruit wines, in his garage. While he was an Associate Professor and Consultant Neurologist, wine was his out-of-work passion. Trips around vineyards and wineries in Europe cemented his love of fine wine, so much so that he began looking at how he could be involved in the industry here in New Zealand. He and Chris with the help of their four boys began planting vines at Pegasus Bay in 1986. He was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to neurology – but could also have received it for helping establish the Waipara wine region.

His eldest son Matthew (Matt) is the winemaker, having completed his 25th Pegasus Bay vintage this year. Another son, Edward is Marketing Manager and the youngest Paul is the General Manager.

This issue, Family Vines discovers the story behind Pegasus Bay’s dynasty, with Ivan and Matt.

Ivan Donaldson, 75

When Chris gave me Hugh Johnson’s book Wine, I looked at it and I fell in love with wine. It wasn’t really falling in love with drinking wine, it was falling in love with the concept of wine. Shortly after we were married we saw this advertisement for people interested in starting up an amateur winemaking club. We didn’t realise at the time it was going to be fruit wine, although that was all it could be because there were no grapes in the South Island at that time. Winemaking is part science and part art. You can be very knowledgeable in terms of medicine but an absolute failure as a doctor if you don’t have the art of medicine as well as the science background. It is the same with winemaking. I think it is the marriage of science, art and craft that excited me to the subject of wine and winemaking.

I don’t think either of us knew what we were getting ourselves into when Chris gave me that Hugh Johnson book. When we came back from London, I and several nutters started what effectively was the first modern vineyard in Canterbury, Mountain View Vineyard at Halswell, which we called Pleurisy Point, (because it was so cold). I was the winemaker for that, but I could see that it was possible to do something more serious than what we were doing there, because that was just a hobby. I was making the wine, but it was taking a lot of time and the rewards weren’t all that great. We decided we had to become professional, get serious about it, or get out. That was a watershed period for us. We had a year sabbatical from the University I was working for at Christchurch Hospital, so we went back to the UK and tripped around Europe. We decided when we came back we would go the whole hog and buy a bigger bit of land and develop it. That is what we did. We chose Waipara because the hills separate the valley from the cooling easterly winds. It is considerably warmer in the summer than it is further down on the Canterbury Plains. It was the mirco climate that put us in that area.

We put our first vines in a nursery up there in 1985, along with Danny Schuster and finally settled on a piece of land in 1986.

Basically the trips we did in Europe were related to going to vineyards, looking at vineyards, tasting the wines, going to the wineries and talking to the winemakers. So yes, the boys probably have wine in their blood. (When I was making wine at home) the boys were well used to helping me. I would get their assistance at various times. They learned to hate it at times. I think they enjoyed it to start off with, but after you are standing on one end of a pipe while it is being siphoned from one vat to another, if it is not over within a minute, it becomes boring for them. There were plenty of complaints about that. But I think it can’t have been too bad, because three have joined us.

We didn’t push any of the boys toward the vineyard or the winery or anything like that. Actually I tried to encourage all of them to do medicine. I was very keen for them to do that. But none of them wanted to. They said, we can see what you have done Dad and we don’t want to do the same thing. There is a lot of night work in medicine and a lot of long hours. It is a bit ironic, because in a sense they probably let themselves in for more night work over vintage and in spring with the risk of frosts.

We were quite surprised when Matthew said he wanted to be a winemaker. It came about because he worked with Danny Schuster during one holiday. He came back and said “I want to be a winemaker”. We tried to talk him out of it, because it seemed to us at that stage that we hadn’t produced any wine and we didn’t know if the whole thing was going to fall on its face. He was good at chemistry and science, so we suggested he do a chemistry degree or something else and get a general qualification and then if he still wanted to, train as a winemaker. We thought it would be better to do it from there, rather than focus on wine in particular when there might not be a job available. He wasn’t going to have a bar of that. He said I want to be a winemaker!

I think that really focused him. Before that time, he like so many young people didn’t have a particular aim and he was drifting a bit. Like I was at school I have to say, before I decided that I wanted to go into medicine. So it was a surprise to us that he wanted to do that and he was lucky enough to get into Roseworthy College in Australia.

We were possibly surprised that he wanted to come back and be Pegasus Bay’s winemaker. But he never left any doubt at the time he left, that he would be coming back. From the time he went there, (Roseworthy College) he had the determination that he was going to come back to us, so we didn’t discourage him. In fact, we were delighted.

Matthew is very much an individual. Surprisingly there are a lot of winemakers who don’t actually have good palates. I think Matthew has a fantastic ability to assess wines and I think he is self-critical. He has also got a flair and passion for wines.

He is not frightened to make wine styles that are different to other people. He has his own ideas and brings that flair and passion that I could never have done. He has an individuality and he has the courage to do something that is different. He has a streak of stubbornness and a streak of perfectionism. I think Chris and I both tend to be like that. I know I do. And I think some of the other boys are perfectionists, sometimes to a fault.

We never really considered that any of the boys would be involved in the business. We thought once Matthew decided he wanted to be a wine maker that yes he would be involved. Then Edward just seemed to fit in naturally. But we never thought the others would join. But I think it has been very good for us. Everyone has to think about succession, especially in the wine business. Chris and I would have sold up and gone and done something else if it hadn’t been for the boys coming along. So it has saved us having to think about that and that has been good for us.

Matt Donaldson, 46

I can remember those trips around vineyards in Europe. It was a big adventure for us. We were living in the UK at the time and going to school. So it was nice to get out onto the Continent and just have a holiday in the camper van. Us kids weren’t specifically interested in the vineyards, but it was a great holiday.

We came back to New Zealand when I was about 14 and Mum and Dad helped set up Mountain View Vineyard, just south east of Christchurch. I got conned into working there, we all went up as a family. Before we went back to the UK (on Ivan’s sabbatical) it was more just playing and having fun. When we came back I was helping more with the pruning and training of the vines. Around the same time we were taking cuttings for the new vineyard that we were planting in Waipara. As I recall we were paid in scoops of chips or lollies. We would get the cuttings from St Helena and Kaituna Valley, bring them back to the garage in a trailer and then we would cut them into bundles. We got paid in lollies or scoops of chips, depending on how many bundles we did in a day.

When we were setting up Pegasus Bay I was helping Danny Schuster a little bit with his operation. I went out there and drove some posts for Danny in his vineyard and about the same time I was driving posts for our vineyard. It was quite stony land, so we had to put a big metal spike into the ground first to make sure the posts didn’t go off course. It wasn’t the most fun job, but we got there in time.

Dad wanted us all to get into medicine, but it didn’t look like my grades were going to be good enough. So winemaking seemed like it would be the logical step. I was about 15 at the time and had worked with Danny one holiday. It seemed to be an exciting industry. Alcohol is always a factor to a teenager I guess. I was a Lion Brown man at the time, but I did drink the odd flagon of port and the odd bottle of Pink Chardon.

But winemaking kind of made sense, given we were going to be running a commercial vineyard as a family. At that time there was no under grad course in New Zealand, and as I was starting straight from school, it was either going to have to be California or Australia. Australia was the better option because it was closer and because of CER, we had the same rights for education as we would have in New Zealand.

I was lucky enough to have quite a few older people in my year and they were opening some really nice bottles of wine. I quickly developed a taste for better quality plonk than I had been drinking back at school.

I hadn’t done any home brewing growing up, apart from helping Dad press his ferments and helping him rack off barrels in the garage. It came close to putting me off. When I wanted to go out on a Friday or Saturday night with my friends, Dad would have me trapped in the garage. “We’ll just rack one more barrel Matt and then you can go out.” It definitely wore a bit thin a couple of times. But in retrospect, I find myself doing that to the guys at work now, so I guess it has gone full circle.

I remember the first vintage at Pegasus Bay very vividly. We had 18 tonnes of grapes and 50 acres planted then. But the vines were really struggling because the soils are quite bony. It was quite fortunate that we ramped up production quite slowly. Eighteen tonnes that first vintage in 1992, then we got 35 tonnes in ’93 and then slowly up from there. It was quite small but perfect for someone straight out of wine school to play with. Dad was helping on that vintage. He was a huge help all the way through. It is only in the last 10 years that he hasn’t been involved with the blending part of it, but he always was before then.

It was never awkward working with Dad, in fact it was most appreciated. He has a really good palate and obviously he had a lot more experience than I had. I valued his opinion and we worked together really well. It wasn’t always like that before I left for Australia. I probably wasn’t the favourite son, but three years away from home, meant when I came home I had grown up a bit and I was able to relate to my parents a lot better. We found we had a lot in common, rather than the nothing in common before I left.

Ivan is a very nice guy, quite conservative. Not particularly concerned about what people think about him I guess, but conservative in his habits and finances – which is a good thing. My Mum is more of a doer. Dad is more of a perfectionist, more thinking everything through before he makes a decision. Whereas Mum just gets in and does it. That is why they make such a good team.

I’m not surprised that three of us are involved, I’m just very happy that the others are. As they have come on board it has shared out the responsibilities. Particularly when Paul (GM) came on board, it took a lot of jobs that I didn’t like doing away from me. He came along at the right time and has taken over a lot of stuff, like deciding how much wine to bottle for a particular vintage, or how many grapes to buy in of a particular variety. It is the stuff you have to do, but I would rather not have to work with numbers and that sort of thing. It has freed me up and it means I can do more of what I enjoy.

I don’t think any of us would like to do the other person’s job, so it is has been fortunate the roles we have fallen into.

Working together as a family may not be the norm in New Zealand, but that is because the New Zealand wine industry is very young. It is just the norm in Europe, for wineries to get passed through generations, or people marrying into different families. I guess it will become more and more like that here. If you are working with your family, you always put in the extra hours. You are not just doing if for yourself, you are doing it for the rest of the family.


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