Hobby vineyard demands a lot

Gary Marsh and Marg Eton-Marsh are producing wine from their Little Domett Estate vineyard, in...
Gary Marsh and Marg Eton-Marsh are producing wine from their Little Domett Estate vineyard, in the Waitaki Valley. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
For many, the thought of owning a vineyard is a romantic proposition, living the dream even. But visions of supping wine under the vines is about as far from reality as it gets for an Otago couple who spending their weekends toiling on a previously abandoned vineyard in the Waitaki Valley. Sally Rae reports.

Last year, it took Gary Marsh and Marg Eton-Marsh 36 long days to get through pruning 12,000 grape vines.

It was winter in the Waitaki Valley and the couple would wake to minus 3deg temperatures before attaching their head-lights and heading out into their vineyard. It was anything but glamorous.

They joke they are "accidental viticulturists", or "weekend warrior viticulturists"; every Friday, the couple, who live near Waitati, drive to Otiake, near Kurow, to spend the weekend at Little Domett Estate.

On many occasions, the outdoors-loving pair have taken their mountain bikes, to traverse the local countryside, but the wheels have stayed on the back of the car, because they were committed to "getting the work done".

They slept in a tent for the first three summers, through to the end of April, but about a year ago, they added a 10sqm cabin to their block, which had made life a little more comfortable.

Mr Marsh, who is now secretary of the Waitaki Valley Winegrowers Association, and Ms Eton-Marsh "fell accidentally" into owning a vineyard.

A view of Little Domett Estate, in the Waitaki Valley. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
A view of Little Domett Estate, in the Waitaki Valley. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Both were working full-time, and looking for somewhere to go in summer as a weekend retreat. The pair had both done a lot of running over the years and they wanted to go somewhere they could get into the hills and go running and cycling.

There was a property for sale in the Waitaki Valley with a small vineyard around it and they went back several times and came very close to buying the property but eventually decided it was not the right time to be buying a house.

The couple were also looking for something they could do in their retirement or, more to the point, a pre-retirement venture, "because we didn’t want to leave it until we literally were 65 and start something completely new that was outside our comfort zone completely", Ms Eton Marsh said.

The real estate agent mentioned there was a vineyard next door to the property they looked at that was not on the market but could be for sale. The couple bought what is now Little Domett Estate in September 2017.

"We didn’t really go looking for a vineyard, we just fell into it because it was there. We saw a challenge, I suppose. We were always up for a challenge because Marg and I have done quite a bit in our short time together," he said.

Marg Eton-Marsh and Gary Marsh at work in their vineyard. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Marg Eton-Marsh and Gary Marsh at work in their vineyard. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Mr Marsh is operations manager for the Dunedin region for Fulton Hogan’s industries division while his wife works for Swim Dunedin, looking after the administration.

The couple have been together since 2008 and met through swimming, when their children trained under the late coaching great Duncan Laing.

They married in Santorini in 2014 on their way to the world surf life-saving championships, where Ms Eton-Marsh’s son Andrew McMillan, also an Olympic swimmer, was captaining the Black Fins.

The vineyard had 3.3ha planted with pinot gris, pinot grigio, riesling and gewurztraminer varieties in 2006.

But it had been abandoned for four years and was an "absolute mess".

All that was there was an overgrown vineyard, a pump shed with a frost-fighting pump and an irrigation pump and a dam for water.

Marg Eton-Marsh and Gary Marsh serve their wines at the Twizel Salmon and Wine Festival in...
Marg Eton-Marsh and Gary Marsh serve their wines at the Twizel Salmon and Wine Festival in February. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
While the couple acknowledged they were probably naive about what they were getting themselves into, Ms Eton-Marsh had a "wee idea" as she had been involved in establishing a cherry orchard at Cromwell in the 1990s.

Initially, they thought they would just sell their fruit to a winemaker. They had fleeting thoughts about creating their own brand and label but thought that would be down the track "when we worked out what to do with everything".

A viticulturist and his team came in and barrel pruned the whole vineyard and then it was severe pruned. In 2018, the fruit set was very poor and they ended up with "very, very little fruit".

Of the 3.3ha, they only netted 0.5ha of riesling and got one tonne out of what became their 2019 riesling, which has since sold out.

Last year, they yielded 4.4 tonnes off the same half-hectare, and it looked as if there could be even more fruit this year.

Their first vintage, a dry riesling, was still Ms Eton-Marsh’s favourite wine. Because it was such a small vintage, the couple decided to create a brand because they did not have a lot to deal with.

Mr Marsh met Firebrand founder Bex Twemlow at a leadership course at the Otago Chamber of Commerce and he was taken with her story. So they went to Firebrand and starting on the path of creating a brand.

They ended up with Little Domett, as they felt that was the best representation for their brand. After all, the vineyard lay beneath its namesake Little Domett, next to Mount Domett, collectively the easternmost peaks in the St Mary’s Range.

Despite the romantic notions of owning a vineyard, none of it was glamorous. The couple — who spent last weekend leaf plucking — had about three weekends off since about mid-May last year.

But, as Mr Marsh said, everybody was "in the same boat" and under pressure of seasonal conditions.

"The Waitaki Valley ... is on the edge for growing grapes and producing wine. You’re at the mercy, at the peril, of the terroir and it’s not an easy region to grow grapevines in there. But when you get it right, it can produce some of the most stunning wines," he said.

Vivian Haderbache started a small wine consultancy last year and Little Domett was the first vineyard he started working with, creating a sales network for its wines.

The story behind the wine had struck a chord with people and was fitting in with what consumers wanted — "bloody good wine made by bloody good people", he said.

A key challenge for hobby wine growers was realising that it took time, both to learn the ropes and to establish a market for wines, Mr Haderbache said.

It was "incredible" that their first vintage was sold out. Their wines were now stocked in cafes, restaurants and taverns throughout New Zealand, including the luxury Wharekauhau Country Estate in Wairarapa.

In 2018, the couple planted half a hectare of pinot noir grapes, with three different clones, and they hoped to get something from those plantings next year.

Despite the hard work involved, the couple were committed to their venture.

"We’ve put so much effort to get where we are now ... we are committed to it. We’ve got unfinished business," Mr Marsh said.

"I think there’s probably easier things to do. Now we’re in it, we’ll give it our best shot for as long as we can.

Our mantra always has been we have to produce quality wines, otherwise there’s no point in being in it. We have to make sure we just do our utmost to be consistent," Mr Marsh said.

On the viticulture side, they could do everything that they could but it "really comes down to the seasons".

Life in the vineyard was also getting a little easier because of the methodologies they were now employing. While it took 36 days to get through their pruning last year, that was 13 days less than the previous year.

Eventually, they would like to build a house on the vineyard and, if they were living there, there might be potential to have a small cellar door-tasting room.

In the meantime, they needed to take it in stages. The past three years had been "massive", he said.

One of the drawcards of the Waitaki Valley had been the climate and Ms Eton-Marsh liked how the area still had "a bit of old New Zealand" about it.

The couple agreed they worked well together, with a similar work ethic and mentality about "getting the task done".

Just like running and training for an event — which they had both done a lot of — they had to have a focus and be committed, Mr Marsh said.

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

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