Monday, 14 August 2023 15:25

Accidental Pioneer: 50 years in Marlborough wine

Written by  Sophie Preece
Allan Scott. Photo Credit: Jim Tannock. Allan Scott. Photo Credit: Jim Tannock.

Allan Scott took a punt on a new job in August 1973, joining 90 bewildered workers in the dry and dusty Brancott Valley.

A few months later few of the team remained, toiling to plant Montana’s first Marlborough vineyard, with little idea of what they were doing or why. “Having to carve out a whole new life I didn’t know about was probably one of the best decisions I made,” says the recipient of the 2022 Wine Marlborough Lifetime Achievement Award 50 years on.

In that time, Allan’s life story has run in parallel to the extraordinary development of Marlborough wine, punctuated by the hurdles and highlights of a transformative industry. It’s a story of good luck, good instincts, strategic risks and a lot of hard work, starting with knocking down fences and digging posts on Montana’s first 400-hectare development, amidst “a great deal of uncertainty”.

Allan’s stubborn work ethic and enquiring mind stood him in good stead, and Jim Hamilton, sent by Montana to manage the development, became something of a mentor. “I thrived off his experience and knowledge and developed a much keener interest for the future,” Allan says. By the time the Fairhall block was being developed later that year, Allan was supervisor, on a wildly different path to the stock work, shearing and truck driving he’d done until then. Not bad for a boy who’d attended one school in a rural town near Hawarden in North Canterbury, then learned a whole lot more working alongside his stockman father and in shearing sheds, gleaning insights into people and their interactions.

When Allan and his wife Cathy left the tiny town to move to Blenheim in 1972, aged in their mid-20s, “everyone said ‘you’ll be back. You won’t go far’,” he recalls. When we speak he has just returned from an international sales trip with his son Josh, visiting some of the 29 markets Allan Scott Family Winemakers is now sold in. So it turns out he went very far indeed. That’s thanks to auspicious timing, an appetite for opportunity, “and taking the chances that are a hallmark of my life”, he says. “You take a punt and think, ‘oh that’ll work’.” Meanwhile, there’s been a hell of a lot of work, says Josh, who bought the family company with his sister Sara Stocker two years ago, with the duo having managed the business for the past four years. “Both mum and dad worked so bloody hard all their life. Not only for us, but also helping Marlborough establish itself as one of the most well-known regions for wine in the world.”

Despite his stockman career path, viticulture work “suddenly gelled” for Allan, who’d spent his childhood planting the gully behind his family home, delighted with the ability to grow trees. By 1975, he and Cathy were planting their own Müller-Thurgau vineyard on Old Renwick Road, among the first 10 Montana winegrowers and industry pioneers, three of whom worked for the company.

In 1985, the Scotts planted Sauvignon Blanc on Jacksons Road, growing fruit, raising a young family, and working day jobs to pay the bills. By then Allan was working at Corbans, where another stroke of good timing saw him visiting Auckland when the company’s winemaker was looking to avoid a meeting with an Australian wanting some grapes. Allan agreed to take the meeting with David Hohnen instead, and went on to organise the purchase of Marlborough land that would soon become Cloudy Bay. “That was a wee bit life-changing,” says Allan, who negotiated for a slice of the property, across the road from the Scott’s own vineyard, where he and Cathy would build their beautiful home.

In 1990 they forged their label, with Allan somewhat reluctantly agreeing to use his own name. Three decades on, he says Cathy was right to push for the eponymous label, but is still embarrassed when he is asked for his name when ordering a coffee. If the meeting with David in 1984 was a memorable “coincidence”, then the chance encounter with their first UK importer a decade later was another, says Allan. In the early 1990s a Lay & Wheeler rep was staying at The Shack at Cloudy Bay, and paused at the Allan Scott wine shop while out on a run. The Scott’s eldest daughter Victoria, in her late teens at the time, came running out to the vineyard to say, “there’s a man here who wants to take our wine to the UK”, recalls Allan, who’s remained friends with the dropin runner ever since. “Relationships are the key thing,” he adds, noting that the recent trip with Josh was in part, “passing on the baton” for some of the fast friendships forged over the years.

Allan says his kids grew up with the business and have it in their blood, comparing that to his own experiences with his dad on their farm, mesmerised by his work. ”You learned things and it became a natural instinct. You could pick a good sheep or pick a good cow or pig or whatever. And Josh and Sara have that same natural inherited instinct.”

“It’s been a 40-year apprenticeship for Sara and me,” says Josh, who took his first sales trip with his dad when he was 16, “learning about the sales and relationship side”. Part of that equation is never burning bridges, says Allan. “You just never known when it will come back and haunt you… There might be something you really need and you can’t go back because you’ve burnt a bridge – and it’s hard to eat humble pie.” He sees the Lifetime Achievement Award as recognition of the people who have worked alongside him, including workmates, mentors, advisors and family, and “especially Cathy, Victoria, Josh and Sara, who have been unfailing support through thick and thin”. Looking back at that “punt” in 1973 and the subsequent stellar success story of both Allan Scott and Marlborough wine, it’s hard to imagine his alternative path as a farmer, which he says would likely have been on a high-country station. “That would have been a disaster”.

This story first ran in Winepress Magazine.

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