For 100 years, the Babich family have stayed true to the ideals of their patriarch.

David Babich has a view from his office window to die for. Twenty minutes after battling through traffic from his home in Auckland's bustling suburb of Pt Chevalier, he is relaxing at his desk at his family firm in a lush city oasis.

The 47-year-old is general manager of Babich Wines, one of New Zealand's oldest family-owned wineries.

Today he is raising a glass to the company being in business for 100 years.

The firm has operated from its headquarters on the outskirts of Henderson, West Auckland, since founder Josip Babich made and bottled his first wine there in 1916.

Josip Babich, founder. Photo / Supplied
Josip Babich, founder. Photo / Supplied

Four years earlier, when the trailblazing young Dalmatian immigrant planted his first vineyard on the terraces above the Kaikino Swamp gum field, he would have had no idea he would spawn a thriving concern that has sustained three generations of his family.

From humble beginnings, Babich Wines now produces four million litres of wine every year from its 11 vineyards in Auckland, Marlborough and Hawkes Bay. It is sold in 40 countries.

Babich makes a variety of wines and over the years they have been recognised around the world. The 2000 vintage Marlborough Riesling was a winner at at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in 2001.

Influential wine magazines have also awarded accolades, in particular for the company's Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Black Label Sauvignon Blanc and Hawkes Bay Chardonnay.

"We have never abandoned the values established by my grandfather Josip," David Babich says. "Respect, integrity and the needs of customers were important to him. A hundred years later, these values are still at the core of what we do."

When Josip died in 1983 at the age of 87, his sons Peter and Joe took over and remain as chairman and managing director, respectively.

Peter's middle son David is a third generation Babich. He cites Josip as an ongoing inspiration.

"Back in 1920, Grandad took an order for six bottles of wine for a wedding and delivered it himself by horse," he says. "It was an 80km round trip and he ended up staying for the celebrations.


"That is the sort of commitment and dedication we still try to apply today."

Export income from New Zealand wine production has seen a phenomenal increase in the past 20 years, growing nearly 24 per cent each year. The industry supports more than 16,500 full-time jobs.

Horses work to make Babich Road in Henderson Valley in the 1930s. Photo / Supplied
Horses work to make Babich Road in Henderson Valley in the 1930s. Photo / Supplied

Australia is New Zealand's biggest market, followed by Britain and the United States. Exports to Canada and Asia are rising.

Our annual wine exports are valued at $1.46 billion. This is expected to increase to $2b a year by 2020, after it was revealed last week Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiators have reached a final agreement, offering improved access into key TPP markets.

The news bodes well for the Babich clan, which has boxed on through some difficult times.

The business survived the Great Depression of the 1930s, two world wars and post-war decades of strict government regulations that were not always friendly to the wine industry.


That all changed in the mid-1980s when the world developed a serious taste for New Zealand sauvignon blanc and sales exploded internationally.

"Until that point it had been difficult for wine makers here and many family-owned firms had gone out of business," David explains. "One of the reasons we survived is we have always been very conservative.

"We have never rolled the dice on a regular basis or taken a lot of big chances and that has got us through the booms and busts."

Philip Gregan, chief executive of New Zealand Winegrowers, said the story of Babich Wines in many ways reflects the story of the country's wine industry.

"It is a classic tale of Kiwi success through hard work. The family has made an immense contribution to the industry for many decades," he says. "Very few family business of any description are still going after 100 years."

The company's credentials were rubber-stamped when David's dad Peter was an awarded an MBE in 1989 for Services to New Zealand Viticulture and Wine Industry. This year, Joe was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

As a family, we get everything we need in our lives from this.

David Babich

Babich Wines now has 70 people on the payroll and also employs seasonal contractors.

But before a wine goes to market it first has to get the approval of Joe's wife Judy. To know if a new wine will make the cut, he takes it home for her to sample. If that bottle stays on the kitchen bench unfinished, he knows he has more work to do.

"Aunt Judy is not operationally involved but she is critical in the sign-off process," David says. "In that respect she still fulfils an important position."

Over time, many family wineries have also moved into corporate hands, leaving Babich as the oldest family concern in the country that exports. Those changing times mean competitors for Babich are now multinationals.

"Our rivals used to be guys like us," David says. "Over the years we have been made several offers to sell but it doesn't end up being a long conversation.

"If we did take the money, we would just start another winery and what is the point of that when we already have a perfectly good one of our own?


"As a family, we get everything we need in our lives from this."

Another secret of longevity is the family rarely rows.

"Croatians have a reputation for being hot-headed but fortunately that is not the case with us," David says. "We don't fight among ourselves and prefer to talk things through.

"We don't bring emotion to our discussions and Dad and Joe are very reasonable people, just like my grandad Josip was, so there have never been any major fallouts."

As the centenary celebrations approach, dad-of-three David has a succession plan in place.

His eldest son Peter, aged 10, is already showing an interest in the business. "He comes out on the tractors during the school holidays and the wine-making process has been explained to him," David says.


"My role is about taking over from my father and Uncle Joe and running the business through the prime of my working life.

"I aim to hand it over to the next generation in good shape and in turn get them interested in running it for their lifetime.

"It is the way we have done things for the past 100 years and although the industry is constantly changing, there is no reason why Babich Wines couldn't be around as a family concern for another century and beyond."

Pour yourself a glass and share a story ...

Babich Wines 2014 Hawke's Bay Cabernet Merlot Franc. Photo / Michael Craig
Babich Wines 2014 Hawke's Bay Cabernet Merlot Franc. Photo / Michael Craig

To mark its centenary, Babich Wines is sharing 100 stories from the family archives on its website. Here is a selection of their unpublished tales.

Late night sale leads to trouble with the law

In the 1910s, tough liquor laws controlled who you could sell to, when you could sell, and how large the vessel needed to be. But when a local man knocked on Josip Babich's bedroom window in the middle of the night, asking to buy a half gallon of wine, he wasn't going to refuse. Unfortunately, the local cop wasn't far behind. Josip and his customer were brought before the court. But when the late-night buyer was asked to identify the wine vendor, he said it was impossible. It had been dark and all he had seen was an unidentified hand passing him the wine through a window. The judge dismissed the charges.


Experience matters, even for a horse

For the first few decades, horses provided the power for ploughing the Babich vineyard. But by the late 1940s only two were left: Old Bob, an ageing half-clydesdale who liked to take his time, and Trigger, a younger gelding who had energy to burn. When the two horses were yoked together for the bigger jobs, the older horse cleverly made sure he was half a step behind Trigger, letting his smaller companion take most of the load.

8800 miles from New York, the GIs could still spot a good old family business

New Zealand in the 1940s was a quiet, beer-drinking kind of place, until thousands of American GIs rolled into town for a little rest and recreation. A few boys with more European tastes went looking for a good bottle of wine. After a bone-shaking Jeep ride up the Henderson Valley, they found it at Babich Family Wines.

When you start out with nothing, you find riches in unlikely places

Having arrived in New Zealand with nothing, Josip Babich had an interesting view on wealth. One day he saw a man on a bicycle and thought, "If I ever have the money to buy one of those, I'll be a millionaire". The day came when he bought the family's first bicycle and although he wasn't a millionaire, he told his boys he felt like one.


From onions to the world's best sauvignon blanc

Babich Wines started small in the Henderson Valley but expanded over the years into one of the best wine regions in New Zealand. Where once farmers struggled by growing onions and other crops, Marlborough is now a world-famous wine region that makes a heavy contribution to the Babich portfolio, with 320ha spread over six vineyards throughout the Wairau, Waihopai and Awatere Valleys.

Despite all the successes, one Babich side venture was a bit of a lemon

In 1918, the influenza pandemic hit New Zealand. The demand for vitamin-rich citrus was high so the Babich brothers planted rows of lemon trees on their Henderson land. But the flu ran its course before the trees had fruited and Josip went back to the grapes he knew would always be in demand.

Meet Bert, the corker who saved the day

In preparation for its 100th year, Babich has bottled wine from its 100th vintage in 100 special magnums. But the extra long corks were too much for the corking machine. Luckily, they still had Bert. The trusty old corker, a Bertolaso, had been in happy retirement for years. Bert was hauled out of storage, an electrician gave him a once over, and got him back on the job to save the day.


If you thought starting a vineyard was no easy task, try doing it 100 years ago

In 1911, the Babich brothers' land was covered with bush and scrub. They worked hard to clear the site and soon had grazing cows and their own vegetables. When reminiscing about his hard work in the early days, founder Josip often said, "For 11 years, the sun would never see me in bed."

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