Manawatū is known for its green grass, stockcars and Massey - but grape-growing?
The book Grape Expectations by Fiona McMorran documents the story of Pohangina Valley Estate, Manawatū's only vineyard. McMorran owned the business with Bronwyn and Nick Dymock, her sister and brother-in-law.
As their grape-growing plans took shape there was much curiosity in the valley and some considered the trio mad hippies. People pooh-poohed the venture, saying grapes can't be grown in Manawatū. McMorran recalls it was a proud moment when they did their first tasting, with locals "absolutely gobsmacked" by the wine.
"It was with great delight we watched cases going down the driveway."
It could have all been so different. 2004 wasn't just the year of the first harvest but of the destructive Manawatū floods. Water flowed through the vineyard and Jack the dog was in danger of being drowned in his kennel.
Thankfully Jack was rescued and the land was free-draining. There was very little damage but the trio were understandably still apprehensive about their first crop. "We joked that if the flood had ruined the wine, we could always sell it in milk cartons to Massey University students and call it Massey Milk," McMorran writes.
They found Martinborough winemaker Chris Buring, who was happy to work with small producers, and took the grapes to Buring's winery on Nick's ute and trailer.
They were invited back to hand-bottle the vintage. McMorran remembers her first taste of the pinot gris. "We were just blown away because it was just so nice. We thought 'wow, we've done something good'."
The book charts the growth of the business with chapters on events, olives and truffles. McMorran says they tried all sorts of things to get people to come to the estate. Producing wine was easy, selling it was a different issue. "That was the hard thing."
They received a Cuisine Magazine silver medal for their first vintage. Getting awards became important as the kudos helped with the selling.
McMorran initially started writing the history as a record for family. She was inspired by her friend Angela Robertson, a Paraparaumu writer, to think about getting the book published. She found Adrienne Charlton of Palmerston North business AM Publishing and now has a book that documents the ripening and withering moments of doing something different.
The business was retired in 2020 and McMorran has converted the tasting room into a farmstay. The vineyard land has been leased to a contractor/farmer who is taking out the posts and wire to use in his fencing business, and is grazing sheep there.
McMorran continued in fulltime employment while working at the vineyard, as did her vet sister. They have now both retired - McMorran from Massey University where she was employment relations manager.
Born and educated in Wellington, McMorran has a Bachelor of Arts majoring in history from Victoria University of Wellington. She later got a Bachelor of Laws from Victoria.
After completing her BA she ended up on a Project Employment Programme (PEP) writing a children's book about the history of policing in New Zealand. The Long Yarn of the Law, published in 1983, was used in schools for the police's law-related education programme.
She has also had poetry published and written many research and conference papers.
Fiona and Bronwyn's brother Graham was a winemaker in Marlborough who had trained in Australia. They had talked with him about buying land in Marlborough but the prices were exorbitant. The sisters were inspired by a trip to Italy and Turkey where they saw small places producing wine.
Nick was made redundant from his DSIR job and he and Bronwyn were looking for something bigger than their Aokautere property so he could farm fulltime rather than as a hobby. The Valley Rd land they bought in 2000 was sheltered, north-facing and on a former river terrace.
Pohangina has its own micro climate. In the summer it gets into the 30s, but with cool evenings. They put in some 16,000 plants by hand, used 2700 posts, and laid nearly 64km of wire.
McMorran was facing restructuring in her job in Wellington. She had been visiting at weekends to help the Dymocks and soon decided she needed to move to Pohangina.
McMorran says there were several factors behind the decision to close the business. The trio were getting to a stage in life where the physical work was getting too much. She has a permanent disability from a 2002 car accident that affects how far she can walk. After such a full-on period, they were looking for time for themselves and the chance to do other things such as travel while they still could.
McMorran says they have no regrets about establishing the vineyard despite it not being a big money-making venture. "It was a good experience, what we had, we don't regret a single day of it."
People would comment it was a shame the vineyard was closing. McMorran would reply "you come do the hard work then".
Selling the vineyard was not an option. It is so far removed from other wine areas commercial growers would not be interested, she says. McMorran and the Dymocks had both built houses on the land and wanted to continue living there as they love it.
McMorran says she has got her garden and animals and can enjoy the property without spending all weekend putting nets on vines or harvesting.
Grape Expectations is available from Paper Plus and Bruce McKenzie Booksellers in Palmerston North, or directly from email@example.com for $39.99.