Organic Winery and the Oratia Farmer’s Market
“Like all farming industries, the wine industry has its challenges….you can pay the bills, but it is a long term investment in resources and a way of life,” says Maria Sunde of Artisan Wines in West Auckland’s Oratia.
Rex and Maria Sunde are descendants of Dalmation immigrants to the Henderson Valley, NZ’s historic wine-growing district, at the heart of which lies Oratia. They established Artisan Wines as a family business in 1999 but the first vines went in on their Fantail Island home block in 1994. Artisan achieved BioGro certification in 2010.
Sheep amongst the vines
Rex is an experienced viticulturist trained at Massey University. He uses sheep for leaf plucking around the fruit to let the ripening sun in after the vines flower at Christmas. He says, “Sheep selectively eat the leaves and do a more thorough plucking job than humans or machines… and they’re cheaper. Machinery isn’t selective and damages the berries, and people miss bits, especially the laterals growing around the fruit. Sheep don’t miss anything. You can dial up the level of plucking you want by the length of time you leave them amongst the vines and the number of sheep you allow into an area.
“They’re important on our blocks because our heavy clay soils are fragile, so we can’t run machinery through in winter. Our warm climate sees weeds grow throughout winter and if the weed load is too heavy in spring, the machines can’t cope. Sheep are an essential part of our organic management.”
A family affair
Now with eight acres under vines, the Sundes started the vineyards with their three children who helped from the age of seven. Lauren (27), Fletcher (25), and Cameron (23) no longer work in the business but all earned their way through university on the family acreage, the boys in the vineyard, and Lauren at the cellar door.
Maria says, “We were a small family business so going organic was a way of creating a point of difference and preserving the value in the product.”
Converting to Organics
Rex had worked in Research and Development for a major agrichemical company before working for Nobilos in corporate viticulture. “I’ve long been aware of the environment, and felt there must be a better way, so we decided to convert to organic.”
“That was a strong drive in the beginning, but now it’s about preserving the environment. Our blocks have been farmed for over a 100 years and we didn’t want to leave a negative legacy for others to inherit. Even though copper is organic, we have banned its use on our vineyards because it is toxic to microorganisms in the soil.”
The Sundes expected a major challenge in organic conversion would be managing disease in the vines, but there have been no significant issues. An initial challenge was weed management which sheep have solved. An ongoing challenge is soil nutrition which the Sundes are working to restore as close to its former health as they can. The real learning curve has been in attitude. They assumed that going organic would mean substituting conventional disease control for organic modes.
Wholistic, not substitution
“We had a substitution attitude,” Rex says. “But that’s not what organics is about. It’s actually about creating a healthy growing environment so you don’t have to intervene. We pay attention to soil health, in particular to the microbial health of our soil. Our repair programme consists mainly of compost, and compost teas or extracts, which include microbial stimulants such humic acid and fulvic acid. We introduce effective beneficial microbes, and mircroriser, a fungus that lives in unison with the grape root and expands the area of the root so that the grape can access more nutrients.”
Going organic has worked for the Sunde family, especially amongst locals who are loyal and very supportive. Processing the fruit into wine is done locally under contract with Rex’s watchful eye through the entire process.
The home vinyards primarily grow Syrah, Chardonnay, Viognier, and Flora, and Rex is currently trialling Verdelho, Petit Manseng and Gruner Veltliner, an aromatic Austrian grape that he is particularly enthusiastic about.
Restaurant and Oratia Farmer’s Market
Organic distribution continues to grow nationally and internationally, but small wine businesses struggle and the Sundes have expanded their income streams beyond viticulture and wine-making to provide a cellar door and restaurant.
“We never intended to have a restaurant,” says Maria. “That evolved from the cellar door when we got continual requests for food.”
“We also wanted to put something back into Oratia where our roots were. When we were kids, you got all your fruit from the orchards at Oratia, but a few years ago there wasn’t even a market and no central point to buy produce. Our Saturday trade was quiet, so with our hearts in our mouths, we set up the Oratia Farmers Market which has developed into a popular community meeting spot. The market is comprised of 30 covered stalls built in a horseshoe shape around a green central space, creating a warm community ambience. We have banned inorganic bags except on pre-packaged goods…they’re all either paper, or biodegradable.”
Wine tasting via skype
Another exploratory venture for Artisan is wine tastings via skype. Members of a large wine club in Sweden were keen to experience an organic wine tasting, so the Sundes sent ten cases, and at 6 o’clock one morning, Rex skyped with the club which had 80 members present.
“They asked lots of questions as they sat with our wines and I sat with a cup of early morning tea and conducted the tasting with them through an interpreter. It was great fun and we’re looking at doing something similar in London.”
A chartered accountant by trade, Maria, perhaps surprisingly, is a networker who loves engaging with people and is a consummate hostess, while Rex is a farmer at heart; one who derives pleasure from working with the environment and its climate, and getting the best out of every year. With the exception of a few part-time restaurant staff, Rex and Maria manage their operations as a family concern. Life in the vines is good.
First Published in Organic NZ Jan/Feb 2014 edition