Te Mata Estate is preparing to unleash a "secret weapon" in the vines, as its handpicking team trades retirement for harvest.
Cabernet and Chardonnay vines were planted back in 1892, and ever since then wine has been produced from this special piece of land. While the current owners – the Buck family - cannot say they have been on the land for quite that long, they can lay claim to creating a new dynasty within the burgeoning New Zealand wine industry, as Tessa Nicholson discovered...
Te Mata Estate was an auspicious find for John and Wendy Buck. The year was 1974, and the couple were parents to two young sons – Jonathon and Nick. Their third son Toby was born shortly after the purchase. Eldest son Jonathan is now the vineyard manager at Te Mata’s Woodthorpe Terraces. Nick is now CO and Toby has recently come back into the business as Marketing and Communications Manager. The eldest grandchild, Zara, is the third generation working on site, in the cellar door and packaging department during school holidays and weekends, while her brother Henry and sister Tamzin help pick grapes each vintage.
John represented his region on the board of the then New Zealand Wine Institute, holding the title of Chair for a number of years. He represented the New Zealand wine industry at international trade negotiations, gaining access to the European Union. He also established the Hawke’s Bay Charity Wine Auction in 1991. Awarded an honorary Doctorate and an OBE for his services, he was also inducted into the New Zealand Hall of Fame in 2012.
Toby meanwhile has made his mark in a completely different field, as a writer, publisher, editor through his work in London and at Unity Books in Wellington. He has a degree from Victoria University, a Post Graduate Diploma with Honors from Penn State University in America and a Masters with Distinction from Edinburgh University. In 2014 he was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Prize at the BNZ Literary Awards for his short story ‘Islands in the Stream’.
This is John and Toby’s story of an emerging wine dynasty.
John Buck, 74
We had looked for a number of years at a vast array of properties in Hawke’s Bay, when Te Mata came up for sale in a private and unpublicized way. A friend of mine rang me in Wellington and said; “I am not getting any interest. I need a valuation on this property.” So I came up and did it, but at the end of it all I said I might be interested in it myself.
It was a lengthy process, but the outcome was that in May 1974 we concluded an agreement to buy it. But it was subjected to a tenancy. So we got the vineyards within a matter of months, but we didn’t get the winery until the tenancy expired three years later. Unquestionably it was the vineyard sites we liked. I had used a viticulturist at the Mission, Brother Joe to help me. And I talked to Tom MacDonald whom I knew well. When this property came up he said; “those two vineyards are terrific”. They still are. The fact there was a winery with it was an added attraction. But basically it needed a major amount of work. The winery was filthy, just awful. It was the old concrete fermenters and all we could do was demolish them. We kept all the original buildings and have added a lot to it.
It was hard work though. There were a whole series of bureaucratic difficulties and impediments to a wine culture. (Think licensing laws, a market based on fortified wines and all the dubious cocktails that went with that. Plus the objections to vineyards from farmers who were not allowed to use hormonal sprays within an 8km radius of a vineyard.)
So it wasn’t a welcoming climate.
At the time the plantings were a dog’s breakfast. There was some Cabernet, a bit of Pinot, some Palomino and then in the middle of it all there were red and white hybrids. The old Siebel reds, 5437 and 5455 and a white hybrid called Baco 22A. You don’t even want to think about it, it was so awful. Even the birds wouldn’t eat those hybrids. So we pulled everything out. That was an advantage of the purchase though, that we could apply a scorched earth policy.
In those early years I was coming down from Auckland every second week and living in the winery, which was a somewhat horrible experience. It wasn’t equipped to live in, but it was free. The family didn’t leave Auckland until we could get a permit to build the house we live in. All the neighbours objected to us building the house, so we didn’t get a permit until May 1978 and it wasn’t until then that I was prepared to relocate my wife and family from Auckland.
Toby was about 18 months when we came down here, so he is the only one to fully grow up on the vineyard.
All three boys were good at working, they have always had a good work ethic. Because of where we live in proximity to the winery and the fact they had their primary schooling in Havelock North, they were always available to help on the bottling line or clean something, run errands or help me in the vineyard. It is a great culture being part of a family business and working in it. It teaches you things you can’t learn in a textbook.
I have to say I never saw that all three boys would be working in the company. Funnily enough, none of them came to the business early in life. They all went overseas for different reasons. The shortest time any of them was away was either eight or nine years. Then they duly came home.
Nick came back to New Zealand from the English Wine Trade and worked for Matua Valley in Auckland. Then he went to France and did a cadetship in the wine industry which involved living and working at Chateaux Margaux. I said to him he needed to get the culture of quality and he wouldn’t get that in New Zealand. You need 24 hours a day living and breathing the culture of how to behave if you run a first growth.
Jonathan, the eldest, farmed in Australia at Yellowglen Winery and he worked on building sites in London, had two years in France playing rugby and living with friends of ours in a vineyard near Toulouse, before he came home.
Toby only came back to Te Mata Estate two and a half years ago when his brothers said; “look you are going to get a third of this, you had better come in and make sure it is worth having.”
So they have all eased into it. It kind of grew on them and having canvassed other opportunities, I like to think they thought this was all pretty good and there was a foundation for life that was available to them. We consider we are so blessed, it is just amazing, having our children and all our grandchildren right here with us.
I wasn’t surprised that Toby ended up following the literature path. When he went to primary school the headmaster was really into English literature and he triggered something in Toby at a very early age.
Winning the Katherine Mansfield Award.
We didn’t even know he had entered, he didn’t tell anyone. It was one of those weird, weird things. The day the bank (BNZ – major sponsors) rang to tell him, he had had a scammer on the phone wanting to get into his bank account. He told me around lunchtime that there were these people pretending to be from a bank and wanting all these details. So when the BNZ rang that afternoon to tell him he had won, he thought; “Oh no, I’ve got another one.”
So none of us knew he had entered, let alone seen the story. I finally got to read it and realised I feature in it early on – well my behavior in public does. Whenever I am in a restaurant I end up going out to the kitchen and talking to the chef, that sort of thing. I like talking to people, particularly strangers – and that comes up with one of his characters. I thought, I hope the rest of it isn’t about his father and it wasn’t. I loved it and picked up instantly on his slightly off the wall sense of humour very quickly.
What does Toby bring to Te Mata Estate?
His principal talent is his ability to speak and write. He is a tremendous user of the English language, which manifested itself in him winning the Katherine Mansfield Award. He was always on the debating team at Kings College. Communication is something that is very important, and something that the wine industry doesn’t do very well. It has all the PR type activity, but it lacks people who can get up in front of an audience and communicate their enthusiasm for the good side of wine to an audience. Toby however can do that.
He has got my willingness to get up and do it, which Wendy isn’t so keen on. But then she is very good at worrying about the outcomes. She won’t do anything without knowing what the end point is that you are trying to achieve. Toby is a bit like that too, so he is a good cross section of the two of us.
He is willing to deliberate in order to get the outcome we want.
But I couldn’t have done any of this without Wendy. She was brought up in a family where you backed your own judgement and did it yourself. You didn’t cry if it went wrong, you just gritted your teeth and got your head down and went harder. When we set up the winery, she wasn’t the sort of woman who said “how are we going to pay the mortgage”. She said, “well if I have to drive a truck to pay the bills, then I will”. She has been incredibly staunch about the development of the business and ploughing her abilities and resources back into it.
I guess I had hoped that we (would create a dynasty). It is all about leaving things better than you found them and members of a family supporting each other. I think that is a wonderful ethic to have, quite frankly.
At the end of the day we could if we chose to, sell Te Mata Estate for a lot of money. But then the simple question is – what do I do with the money? As long as I have everything I want out of life, I have everything I need. At the end of the day the emotional pleasure we have got from the wine business is far greater than any financial reward. I want the future generations to experience that as well.
Toby Buck, 37
I just happened to be the only one of us three boys who grew up entirely in the Coleraine Vineyard. Mum and Dad were planting Cabernet there together until August, and I was born two months later. It was a luxury in some ways, in that it provided an after school, holiday and university job. A lot of people see wine as being quite glamorous and romantic – but the reality is very similar to any working farm. If anyone slept in past 8am you’d be in trouble. Everybody had to be up and working almost every day, no exceptions. Christmas Day and New Year’s Day were the only days in the year Mum and Dad didn’t work.
When I was seven or eight it was my job to check that the drip irrigators were working on the young vines. I’d ride my BMX up and down the hills, and the only way to unblock those was to suck any dirt out. Hard to see the glamorous side of wine in that one. I cleaned lots of tanks and gutters back then at Te Mata, in fact I don’t think there is a thing in the winery that I haven’t cleaned at some stage or another.
Mum and Dad worked the Cellar Door at first, and me or my brothers would be in the shop too, sniffing wines, talking to people and sometimes selling walnuts in winter to hopefully save enough money for a ski pass.
Dad had a very strong connection to the Chamber’s (original owners) vision of what Te Mata was – a world-class producer of dry, European-style fine wine. When they bought it the buildings were becoming almost derelict, and that original vision somewhat lost. A huge amount of shoulder-to-the-grindstone work was required to re-establish that idea, and bring everything up to date. Dad was able to identify that, know what had to be done, get just the right team of people to make Te Mata what it needed to be, and just get on it and do it.
That wasn’t always a straightforward road of course. I remember being at school in Auckland when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991 and there was ash in the atmosphere for the next couple of years. That really affected those vintages and I remember Dad saying to me there was a chance I might not be going back to that school the following year. But that’s part of the reality of rural life - weather is everything. It’s small talk, but also one of the darker jokes about winemaking – you have to control everything you can, since at the end of day you simply can’t control the weather. There’s a lot of hard work and a lot of risk.
A lot of people refer to Te Mata as a family winery, which it very much is. But it’s really three or four families at least. Michael and June Morris have been involved since the very start. Claire and Ian Athfield left a lasting impression on the place. The Cowleys, Peter and Gail, have been here for 30 years this year, and their kids James and Eden have both worked here too. Then there’s Larry Morgan and his son Sam, and Michael Bennet, and his family, a key winemaker in Te Mata’s past. There’s a lot of interconnected family culture in the place, and it permeates the way Te Mata operates.
Mum and Dad both shared an ambition to make wines of an exact standard and style, without compromise. It’s not a complex statement, it’s just one that’s never wavered. The whole approach of Te Mata wines is a result of that – the finest wines this team can possibly make from the very best sites available.
Being a part of Te Mata was something of which I was always very proud. Mum and Dad were smart in the sense that they never put direct pressure on any of us to be involved. It made my brothers and I cautious. We knew the continuity of the winery and its standards were so important to our parents, none of us would want to take part unless we were 100% on board.
I was overseas for about nine years but came back regularly to work vintages. Even when I was working on the development of the Unity Books store in Wellington, my boss Tilly Lloyd would very kindly give me March off to come back here and work.
I studied Art History and English at Victoria, did my Post Graduate in America in Fine Art and then a Masters of Literature in Scotland. After that I studied Contemporary Arts at Christie’s Auction House in London while managing a photography gallery there, and completed a Diploma in Editing in Publishing while working for Random House Publishing back in New Zealand.
In 2013 I was working vintage initially in the cellar and everybody knew that year was something really spectacular. My brother Nick was taking over as CO, as Dad was retiring from that role. Te Mata was growing into a new stage of its business. Coleraine had become this luxury item, and we knew the demand would be massive. At the same time, the Te Mata Special Character Zone - a great piece of policy by the Hawke’s Bay Council which marked out the road we lived on as the first legally-protected vineyard area in New Zealand - was about to come up to its 20th year. We were looking at how we could celebrate these things as well as 120 years of Te Mata Estate. I felt then I had something I could justifiably contribute to Te Mata, and that the timing was right.
Dad comes from a pretty tough background, which a lot of people might not realize, because he can talk to anybody in this very cheery ‘Hail fellow, well met’ kind of way. It’s a surprisingly down-to-earth thing for someone who also happens to love well-made, classical Bordeaux. He cares about all the staff here, about wines from all over the world and from Hawke’s Bay in particular, and is endlessly, boyishly, enthusiastic about these things. I think that’s the gift my parents really gave us. They made us realize that our little corner of the globe was something worth celebrating - that it’s special and has its own character.