Abandoned wine growers taking new approach

By BERNARD CARPINTER – The Dominion Post

A wine company with just one employee is steering the industry in a whole new direction in Gisborne.

GroCo is a co-operative with 34 grower-shareholders, most of whom lost their supply contracts in 2009 when wine companies, including Pernod Ricard and Constellation, decided to cut back their Gisborne operations.

With a shortage of other potential buyers, given the current glut, the growers faced a tough choice – pull out their vines, or do it themselves.

They formed GroCo and hired Warwick Bruce, former Pernod Ricard viticultural manager for Gisborne, to look after the viticulture, act as general manager and indeed be the outfit’s sole employee.

He has 30 years’ experience in Gisborne wine. Wine co-operatives are common in France and Italy, but nothing like this has been tried in New Zealand before.

“We harvested 2200 tonnes in 2010, which is getting towards being a medium-sized winery,” Mr Bruce said.

“The whole concept is that growers are not likely to get any return till we start selling the wine, which is happening at the end of 2010 and early 2011.”

When all the 2010 wine is sold Mr Bruce expects GroCo will be able to pay its growers a little over the going rate for their grapes.

“In 2009 they were getting about $550 a tonne but we’d like to think we can pay $700-$800 or even $1000 a tonne,” he said.

The winemaking took place at the GisVin plant, carried out under the technical direction of Kim Crawford.

Chardonnay makes up about 55 per cent of the 2010 harvest, while other varieties produced include pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, merlot, pinotage, semillon and viognier. There will also be a sparkling wine.

“It’s a challenge,” Mr Bruce said. “We always said the easy part would be growing the grapes and making the wines. Selling it is the hardest part – it’s tough.”

Marketing and sales for GroCo are in the hands of an independent company, Fletcher Griffin.

Marcus Griffin, who runs the company with Reid Fletcher, said a small part of the harvest had been sold as grapes and more was being sold as bulk wine.

“We’ve sold some domestically and some in Australia,” he said. “We have shipments going to Europe and we are looking at exports to the United States.”

Selling wine in bulk was the logical thing to do in the present, over-supplied market, and it brought in cashflow.

While some see bulk wine as cheap and nasty, Mr Griffin emphasises that quality standards have been kept high. Indeed, growers’ returns are linked to the quality of the grapes they supplied.

Some wine is being bottled under the East Cape label and Griffin is putting a lot of effort into marketing in China, and making sure the wines suit Chinese tastes.

Source: www.stuff.co.nz

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