The Fonterra board needs real farmers with their own skin in the game, says would-be director John Nicholls.
But founding partner Alwyn Corban says he and his cousin Brian, the company’s co-owner and chairman, “just thought it was the right time to sell”.
Both men were looking to retire, Corban said, and with his son Abraham and Brian’s son Ben pursuing their own business interests, there was no heir apparent waiting to take over the reins.
“You can look at succession plans in two ways. One is passing the business on to family, and that’s very European in its approach. But the other is to pass the brands on to someone who is going to be in stewardship of them and I think that’s equally valid. So I think this is a good solution.”
Having made to decision to quit the wine business, Ngatarawa’s co-owners considered who might be a suitable purchaser. Comfortable with the Mission’s long tradition of winemaking and operating ethos, they approached the Hawke’s Bay-based company.
The outcome was Mission Estate taking over the Stables, Stables Reserve, Glazebrook and Alwyn brands as of the end of June and it is leasing the winery and 20ha vineyard at Bridge Pa.
“That’s where we built the value over the years,” Alwyn Corban says of brands developed over 30-plus years. “They’ve all got value, they’ve got distribution, and they’ve got growing sales.”
Ngatarawa nurtured a strong sense of family among its staff. Those who worked for the company for many years included winemaker Peter Gough, public relations and Hawke’s Bay sales manager Jo Smith, who retired in June, and cellar door manager Karen Inglis. As of mid-July, Mission had offered jobs to at least eight of the 19 staff.
Alwyn Corban founded the company with his then business partner Garry Glazebrook in 1981. Pastoral farmers, the Glazebrook family leased the land and former racing stables to establish the vineyard and winery in what is now known as the Bridge Pa Triangle, west of Hastings.
Meaning “between the ridges”, Ngatarawa was the first winery to establish in the area and as others followed the Corban lead, the triangle has developed a reputation for top quality wines.
“We pioneered it and it’s proven to be successful,” says Corban of the sub-region. He considers that and New Zealand household recognition for the Stables brand to be Ngatarawa’s two greatest achievements.”
Another is the addition of a significant chapter to the Corban winemaking narrative.
The fourth generation of their family to make wine in New Zealand, the cousins extended a Corban legacy of service to the industry, innovative winemaking, generosity of spirit and steadfast commitment to community.
The first in the New Zealand line of Corban winemakers, Assid Abraham Corban emigrated from Lebanon in 1892. He initially worked as a hawker, and his wife and two children joined him in New Zealand in 1898. The couple set up shop in Auckland’s Queen Street and subsequently moved to Henderson where they established a small vineyard and orchard.
The vineyard, like the family, flourished.
“They had another eight children in New Zealand, so that made 10 in the family. And so the second generation just grew with them, and then the third generation included Dad, Alexander Annis Corban.”
Alwyn Corban started his career with a first vintage in Gisborne in 1973. Having gained a maths degree from Auckland University, he then studied for his postgraduate diploma in biotechnology at Massey University.
That, he says, “was really to get some prerequisites out of the way before I went to UC Davis and did a master’s there. I then came to Napier and worked for McWilliams for four years with Evan Ward, and Bob Knappstein was our boss.
“So I was there four years and then Kim Salonius [of Eskdale Winegrowers] introduced Garry Glazebook and we set up a partnership and started at Bridge Pa in 1981. We leased the land and buildings off the Glazebrooks to start with. We owned the posts and the wires and the vines and the tanks and all that sort of stuff.
“The partnership continued for seven years. We then formed a company and bought the land and the buildings. When we formed the company, Brian became involved as a director and minority shareholder and then in 1998 the Glazebrooks sold their shareholding to Brian and myself.”
As Corban points out Stables has become a household name in New Zealand. The company has also developed its exports, focusing mainly on China, the USA, Ireland and Australia. Corban was the driver in establishing the Hawke’s Bay Wine Marketing Group to promote the region’s wines into China.
The eight wineries still involved were in China in May, holding master classes and showcasing their wines alongside the NZTE and New Zealand Winegrowers stands. Three comparative tastings have also been held in China, successfully pitching Hawke’s Bay styles of Syrah, Chardonnay and, most recently, Merlot Cabernet against top quality French equivalents.
Although the market has been up and down in the four years they have been involved, members of the group continue to see its potential.
Ngatarawa has also been active at a national level, with Alwyn Corban representing Category 2 medium-sized wineries on the board of the New Zealand Wine Institute for four or five years in the mid to late ‘90s.
A long-time supporter of efforts to promote the region’s wines, he recalls the first Hawke’s Bay Vintners meeting being held in the Lovedale Room at McWilliams in Napier in 1979 with all of the eight Hawke’s Bay’s wineries at that time making up the committee.
He became actively involved in 1982 and continued to be so apart from about four years in the ‘90s.
“There was a very proactive group right from the start and I’ve always believed in the benefit of working together and the results you get from that,” he says.
“And that has been a family thing too. If you look at Dad’s uncles, they were very involved in industry organisations in the ‘20s and ‘30s and Dad carried that on, culminating in the formation of the Wine Institute in 1975.
“So I’ve been passionate about that and very committed to it. I felt in the ‘90s Hawke’s Bay Vintners was starting to split and splinter groups were coming through, which is why I got involved again. Because I think it has to be cohesive.
“ If there are differences you still need to work together and at the moment the regional industry is really working together and is strong.”
As an example of that, Corban points to the Hawke’s Bay wine auction, launched in 1991 as a fundraiser for Cranford Hospice and now encompassing 40 wineries as “a fantastic Hawke’s Bay wine celebration”.
Another example of local cooperation, he says, are the Hot Red Hawke’s Bay Wine Shows, now renamed as The Hawke’s Bay Wine Celebration, where 35 or so wineries come together each year to stage tastings in Auckland and Wellington.
Ngatarawa has itself been a generous supporter of Hawke’s Bay activities, organisations and charities. It routinely donated as much as a barrel of wine to the charity wine auction and Corban, having rejoined the auction committee about three years ago, says the event continues to do really well.
The Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival, Horse of the Year, Creative Hastings, the MTG and the Hawke’s Bay Cancer Society have also benefitted from Ngatarawa sponsorships.
Although no longer involved in the winemaking business at Ngatarawa, Corban continues to live on the property, in the villa he once shared with his warm-hearted late wife Paula. And not having firmed up his retirement plans, he is looking forward to exploring future opportunities.