Winery ready for next step

By Colin Taylor

Ascension's core business is wine, but it has many other sources of income, including its restaurants.
Ascension's core business is wine, but it has many other sources of income, including its restaurants.

Ascension has been built into a top entertainment venue - and now it is on the market.

A pioneering winery and hospitality venue which has become one of the biggest hospitality operators in the Rodney area north of Auckland is for sale for the first time.

Ascension Wine Estate at Matakana, was established in 1996 by husband and wife team Darryl and Bridget Soljan as one of the earliest wineries in the valley - a gateway to the upmarket coastal seaside resorts of Omaha and Leigh..

Branching out from the original winery, Ascension quickly became a popular weekend brunch and lunch venue for Aucklanders and one of New Zealand's most awarded wine and food businesses.

In 2000, it was expanded to include a large restaurant, and a 300-person function venue was added in the mid-2000s.

Using wine and food as a cornerstone attraction, the venue began presenting large-scale outdoor music and entertainment concerts.

Acts have included the Hollies, Jimmy Barnes, Toni Childs, The Irish Rovers, Dave Dobbyn, Sir Howard Morrison, Dragon, The Winery Tour and Rhys Darby, attracting thousands of patrons.

But with the business firmly established, Darryl Soljan is looking to capitalise on its success and move on.

The Ascension business is being sold through Bayleys Real Estate by Michael Pleciak and Mark Macky, and international tenders close on June 14.

"We've had 16 wonderful years at Ascension since we planted the first vines and the lifestyle has been all we could have asked for," said Darryl Soljan - part of a wine-making dynasty with roots in Croatia and West Auckland.

"Starting from bare land the business has evolved beyond all we ever dreamed of, but we have taken Ascension as far as we can.

"I have an entrepreneurial spirit and at 42 years old, I need a new challenge. The whole experience has been an incredibly rewarding journey and a lot of hard work - but it now requires and deserves someone with a new burst of energy, contacts, and resources to take it to a new stage. There is plenty of untapped potential.

"I have also promised the kids an African safari before they finish high school and time is running out."

Ascension Wine Estate is a four-time national winner at the Hospitality New Zealand Awards for Excellence, six-time winner at the local Manaakitanga Awards, winner of the New Zealand Beef and Lamb Hallmark of Excellence award every year since 2004, and has received numerous other accolades in wine, food and lifestyle publications.

The wine estate has also been recognised by the Ministry of the Environment with a Green Ribbon Award for Sustainable Business, presented to enterprises which show respect for their environment.

Pleciak says the profitable Ascension business benefits from its diverse income sources.

"The wine production, the restaurant, which operates all year round, the well-patronised wedding and function venue, the corporate retreat amenities, and the entertainment venue which attracts huge crowds over the summer months, have confirmed forward bookings of almost $1 million.

"Each of those income streams has further growth potential - building on the existing platform of a decade of consistent income which has broadened across non-competing sectors within one location. The wine production in particular benefits from being part of a vertically integrated business that sees Ascension booked virtually every weekend throughout the year.

"This business model ensures that Ascension's events and wine production sell out directly to guests at the property or over the internet. The business has a VIP database of more than 12,000 active customers.

"Weddings are big over the summer, with good growth in 'off-peak' months, and indoor entertainment ensures strong patronage on weekends over winter.

"Ascension's repeat-business corporate clients use the facility for one and two day conferences, dinners and Christmas functions.

"Ascension is now one of the biggest hospitality employers in the Rodney region with some 55,000 visitor numbers last year."

Ascension is on 7.6ha of north-facing land on the main road into Matakana from Auckland.

The land has 4ha planted in vines, surrounded by mature gardens and lawns.

Because all wine sales are direct to the public in one aspect or another on site, Ascension has been an innovator with unusual varieties such as viognier, flora, malbec, pinotage and tannat which are all grown on site. They sit alongside the more familiar chardonnay and sauvignon blanc labels, for which grape juice comes from Marlborough.

The associated winery includes production equipment such as a basket press, crusher, pumps, tanks, and a barrel aging facility.

Nearby, the restaurant and commercial kitchen are licensed for up to 120 guests, with additional open and covered courtyards allowing for several private functions to be catered for simultaneously.

Entrance to the dining area is through the tasting room and retail shop.

The venue's 710sq m fully air-conditioned function centre with full audio-visual facilities is named The Belfry and can be configured into multiple spaces to host up to 300 guests in various seating styles. Within The Belfry is a VIP dining room suitable for intimate dining occasions of up to 20 people.

Ascension Wine Estate's construction comprises 2800sq m of solid concrete, natural timber and imported terracotta tiles in the style of the Spanish Mission at San Luis Obispo in California, which is one of Darryl and Bridget Soljan's favourite haunts.

Included in the land and business for sale is a small winemaker's cottage set among the vines, and a large implement shed to house the tractor, vine trimmer, mowers, and leaf removal machine.

About $500,000 worth of wine stock is available for purchase separately from Ascension's other business assets and chattels.

Ascension's various commercial activities employ 28 fulltime-equivalent staff. This number swells to 45 over the Christmas and New Year holiday periods when holiday homes in Omaha, Leigh, and Matakana are at their peak occupancy.

- NZ Herald

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