John Ashworth used to smash back a beer after taking on all-comers in an All Black test – but now you're most likely to find a glass of vino in his hand. He talked to Neil Reid about his passion for rugby, wine and his family vineyard
John Ashworth savoured the taste of many epic victories during his All Black career – as well as the bitter taste of heart-breaking defeat.
Thirty-seven years after his 52nd and final match for the team, one taste in particular has joyfully remained on Ashworth's palate; an aroma-filled Pinot Noir taste sensation he was introduced to while on tour in the South of France.
And it is a taste which has helped define his wine palate since a rugby function for the touring All Blacks 1977; and helped shape him and his family's life well after he hung up his playing boots.
"The All Blacks were in the South of France . . . there is some of that more arid country where the red wines are quite big [in taste]," Ashworth told the Herald on Sunday while preparing to pour a drop of his own vintage at his Hawke's Bay vineyard, Junction Wines.
"And my palate was struggling with the bigger reds. Brad Johnstone, my sparring partner because we were both loosehead props, said, 'I will get you a bottle that you might enjoy Ash'.
"It was a bottle of Pinot Noir. It was my first Pinot Noir and it blew my socks off . . . it went right down to my toes. And I have never forgotten that moment.
"I am very passionate now about pinot. I am pretty sure they drink it in heaven . . . and they probably play rugby there as well."
Junction Wines is one of Hawke's Bay's most southern vineyards.
About 90km south of Napier – and just past the settlement of Takapau on SH2 – it is also very much a family affair.
Ashworth's wife, Jo, works alongside the no-nonsense former All Black prop in entertaining and educating visitors about the family's wine and her husband's rugby career.
That includes in Junction Wines' rustic Cellar Door tasting room; a room in the family farm homestead which features jerseys, blazers, photos, scrapbooks featuring newspaper clippings that his mother lovingly curated and other items from Ashworth's lengthy rugby career.
"To get up close to the jerseys, and to even put them on and get a photo taken, for some people is something they can relate to this experience," Ashworth said.
"It is something that has just evolved."
Their oldest son, Leith, is also Junction Wines' wine-maker; and a top one at that. To date he has won 13 prestigious gold, silver and bronze wine award medals for a variety of the boutique vineyard's Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Rosé, Syrah and Riesling vintages.
The strong family bond that runs through the vineyard also saw his nephew and All Black lock Brodie Retallick get married there in 2015.
All Black jerseys worn by Retallick – who won the World Rugby Player of the Year award the previous year – plus others he has been given by test opposition also feature in the cellar door's impressive rugby memorabilia collection.
Ashworth made his name initially in Canterbury's powerful front row in the early 1970s. His vineyard is in his adopted Hawke's Bay province; where his family moved in 1985 and who he also played rep rugby for.
The Ashworths initially moved to Hawke's Bay to farm on the Takapau Plains. That expanded to trying to grow wine-quality grapes as a "challenge".
"Seeing, observing and enjoying the French hospitality in the vineyards was an eye-opener," he said. "I enjoyed that atmosphere, so I wanted to recreate a wee bit of that back here in Takapau."
What started as playing a few "experiment blocks" has since bloomed into one of Hawke's Bay's most popular boutique vineyards.
And, speaking with boundless pride, he said it wouldn't have been possible support of his family; including the encouragement and support of Jo and also Leith's wine-making ability.
All three of the Ashworth's children studied at Lincoln University, near Christchurch.
On one of Leith's university leave trips back home to Takapau he helped his father do some near back-breaking digging through "the gravelly red metal" across the road ahead of planting Pinot Noir grapes.
The former All Black laughingly recalled: "He went back to university and rings up a few days later and says, 'Dad, I think you haven't got a clue what you are doing, you need some help. I am going to change my degree to viticulture and oenology'.
"I thought, 'Yes, we are going to have a winemaker in the family, I better keep on planting'."
After completing his studies, Leith's first job was as a "cellar rat" at Hastings' Vidal Estate winery.
"Now he's got his own winery . . . it's been a pretty special journey for him," his proud father said.
The initial focus was creating a winning Pinot Noir.
They have now expanded to seven different types of wine; including reds, whites and sparkling.
But Pinot Noir remains Ashworth's greatest joy; both due to its taste if the vintage is good, and the challenge of growing the grape.
"It is also not the easiest grape to grow . . . it can be a heart-breaker," he said.
"It is the female of the reds . . . it has the thinner skin, can be a little temperamental. That is the challenge of Pinot Noir."
The rugby links are also strong with the names of some of Junction Wines' vintages; including Front Row, Corner Post, Possession, Off Side, Late Charge, Red Card and Side Step.
The 2018 Reserve Front Row Pinot Noir – which won a bronze medal at the 2019 Hawke's Bay wine awards – features a photo of the legendary All Black front row of Gary Knight, Andy Dalton and Ashworth.
Annual payment for his great front row mates – who along with Ashworth were the subjects of the 1986 sports biography The Geriatrics – is a few bottles of wine.
There's no mistaking Ashworth's passion for his vineyard, the product it sells and the painstaking journey it takes for fruit grown on his vines to make it into a bottle.
The passion also still runs strong for rugby, what he accomplished on the field and what the sport did for his life.
His biography on the New Zealand Rugby Museum's website remembers him as being a "hard and rugged player".
That includes being involved in two controversial incidents while on All Black duty. Time hasn't dulled the bittersweet memories of either, which he regularly shares with visitors to Junction Wines over a glass or two.
The most notorious was the facial injuries his sprigs inflicted on Welsh great JPR Williams' face when the touring All Blacks played Bridgend in 1978.
Williams and others who witnessed the aftermath of the incident claim he was a victim of a wild act of thuggery. The star fullback had 30 stitches inserted to his wounds – by his father who was a doctor – before returning to the match.
But Ashworth maintains he never acted in malice, also repeating what he said in The Geriatrics that he would never kick one of his farm dogs, let alone another human.
"It was unfortunate. JPR was on our side of the ruck with the ball tucked in under his arm. And somehow with me trying to dig it out I made contact [with his face] and things sort of went pretty crazy for a while after that," is Ashworth's take on the mishap.
The controversy which erupted had two post-scripts which Ashworth now laughs about.
Senior All Blacks lead a team walk-out of the official aftermatch after Williams' father grabbed the microphone and "started to ramble on about the disgrace of the game we played".
Ashworth tried to join them until he was ordered not to go anywhere by Bridgend's tough front row.
"The Welsh guys said, 'You are not going anywhere. We are going to drink a bit of piss together'," he recalled.
All Blacks manager Russ Thomas didn't realise the player who had become Public Enemy No 1 in Bridgend was missing until the team bus returned to the hotel.
"Russ Thomas came rushing back thinking I was in some sort of situation, but there I was sitting with the Bridgend opposition having a few beers," he laughed.
Then, in 2008, an Irishman tourist – who was enjoying the hospitality and rugby memorabilia in the cellar door – informed Ashworth that he now worked alongside Williams at Bridgend Hospital.
If Ashworth was hoping the gift would serve as an olive branch, he was wrong. Williams' later told Welsh media the vintage was not to his liking.
In 1979, Ashworth was again in hot water, this time for taking out Argentina star Hugo Porta with what media reported as a "forearm jolt" when the All Blacks played the Pumas at Carisbrook.
Revenge was sweet for Argentina on the field, Ashworth said.
"A few minutes later I was spat out the back of an Argentinian ruck and had to have stitches after the game inserted into my mouth."
But that wasn't the end of the controversy. The president of the South Canterbury Rugby Football Union, Harold Smallridge, called for Ashworth to be axed from the All Blacks. Meanwhile, the prop received a letter from a Catholic college in the South Island complaining about his conduct.
Looking back, Ashworth said of his non-nonsense on-field demeanour: "With the effort I had to put in to be an All Black, you become quite focused and quite channelled. And if you put that much energy and passion into it, you are not going to back off.
"If you gave a little, you had to take a little. I was driven by the fear of losing, the fear of not being a good All Black."
His favourite place to play – whether for the All Blacks or Canterbury – was Lancaster Park where friends and family would be in a ground, as opposed to a test match in Auckland where none of your family were there".
He said one of the greatest things that being an All Black gave him was "touring and enjoying the camaraderie, the eating, the occasional drink".
"It was great to tour with a great bunch of buggers."
Now aged 72, he still keeps in touch with various teammates from club, provincial and international level. That includes at various ex-All Black reunions where he poignantly says "every year our numbers drop away . . . so it's important we keep in touch while we can".
But just don't expect to see a beer in his sizeable hand.
"I guess some people have an image of a stereotype of a certain player [who only drinks beer] and I might disappoint one or two," Ashworth said.
"To have a cold beer after being in the vineyard all day to quench the thirst is still quite appreciated, I still enjoy a quiet beer . . . but I do tend to move on quite quickly to a bottle of wine, and probably a Pinot Noir."