Montana’s entry into this traditional pastoral farming and cropping region was not universally applauded. Within a week of the announcement, Marlborough Provincial Federated Farmers had met and staked out its position. Its president, Mr F. J. Murray, raised two main concerns with the Marlborough Express – hormone sprays and corporate farming: he drew attention to the restrictions on the use of chemicals near vineyards and their disturbing economic and farm management effects on the lucerne, pea, fruit and grain growing industries in the district near the vineyardOnce this company is established, the second bad feature of this land venture is that corporate farming is going to completely oust the family farm unit from this worthwhile economic venture.
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Neal Ibbotson of Saint Clair Family Estate and Allan Scott of Allan Scott Family Winemakers, two of the first ten grape growers, confirm the vehement response of the existing landowners when the scale of the Montana purchases became evident. Ibbotson recalls the chairman of the county council telling him at a subdivision hearing that ‘the land in Marlborough had been used for sheep and wheat ever since his grandfather had been a boy and as long as he was chairman it would continue to be used for that purpose’. Long-term Marlborough resident and experienced crop farmer Allan Scott, one of the first of the Marlborough grape growers to export wine to the United Kingdom, captures the concern of the mixed crop and livestock farmers who saw the possibility of their land being bought and planted in vines:
All of a sudden you had a huge company coming in, pulling fences down, running roughshod over the locals and putting these sticks in the ground. Everybody was laughing and saying frost will wipe everything out, too cold for grapes, and all these funny things. All in all, the wise people were saying it’s not the frost that’s going to get you, it’s the dry weather – the nor’westerly.
A late convert to grape growing, Ian Gifford, maintains his view concerning the original debates and makes a cogent argument from his own perspective. When the Gifford family finally planted grapes on their property in the late 1990s, the father and son chose the least suitable parts of their property for growing crops for seed. The vineyards of the Southern Valleys ‘were in a water-short area and we and everyone else were saying that is where the grapes should grow. Anyway, they don’t want to be encroaching on this good, arable land.’
Such concerns gained little immediate traction. The mayor of Blenheim came out strongly in support of Montana’s initiative and the Marlborough Express was full of praise. The boldness, size and likely economic impact of the project received most attention. Montana had foreseen and partly finessed these local concerns by having discussions with central government – notably the Minister of Lands, Matiu Rata -before they took options over the properties they acquired. Nevertheless, the views of Federated Farmers continued to influence the Marlborough County Council.
In 1973, the same year that Montana planted its first vines, John Forrest was leaving his hometown of Blenheim to attend Otago University:
I flew out of here in mid-February ’73 – my first plane flight. We turned right over this property and I looked down and it was one sheep per hectare and brown and stony and dusty. I said, ‘I’m never coming back to this bloody backwater!’
In 1988, disenchanted with his career as a research molecular biologist in the restructured DSIR, he returned, and with his wife Brigid, a general practitioner, started Forrest Estate Wines, one of the most successful medium-sized vineyards and wineries in Rapaura. This family enterprise is also multi-regional, becoming a partner in the Cornerstone vineyard on Gimblett Gravels, where John could realise his passion for growing and vinifying Cabernet Sauvignon in addition to his attraction to Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.