Ata Rangi's new beginning
Ata Rangi is Maori for dawn sky or new beginning and it's the perfect description of how Clive Paton felt when he decided to ditch a career in share milking to follow his heart into winemaking in 1980. Paton was one of the first to plant grapes in Martinborough and was a solo father with a young daughter in tow when he first moved there. He has since been joined by his partner in wine and life, Phyll Pattie; a winemaker in her own right, who shifted to Martinborough in 1987; and also by his sister, Alison Paton. Today Clive’s focus is on conservation as much as wine and Ata Rangi’s winemaking reigns are now held by Helen Masters.
Paton sees his biggest achievement as building a successful international business from scratch, with a family-friendly work culture and making one of the New World’s leading Pinot Noirs.
"Playing a part in the revitalisation of Martinborough has also been pretty satisfying, as has being involved in establishing the Aorangi Trust, a conservation trust.”
“I made a mental note early on that I wanted to be in the top five red winemakers in New Zealand. If that sounds ambitious, maybe it was, but it seemed like the natural thing to aim for. I didn’t say that to anyone. It was like making a mental note that if, in 10 years’ time it hadn’t worked out, I’d change tack. I couldn’t see the point in trying if I didn’t aim for the top,” says Paton.
Clive Paton describes himself as a quiet sort of bloke but his determination speaks volumes.
From the second he set foot on his vineyard in Puruatanga Road, Martinborough, in 1980, he wanted to make one of the top five red wines in New Zealand. Since then, he has three times won the trophy for top Pinot Noir at the world’s largest wine competition – the Bouchard Finlayson Trophy for Champion Pinot Noir at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London – but his thoughtful, quiet focus is on the grapes; the soil in which they grow and caring for the environment rather than oiling the wheels of the PR machine.
Like many who work in wine today, he grew up knowing its taste and he found that intriguing. It was his father’s enjoyment of wine that first exposed him to it and made such a profound impact that, even with an entire farming career mapped out in front of him, the lure of making wine drew him in at a time when few others in New Zealand made it, drank it or gave it so much as a passing thought.
He was a share-milker in the southern Wairarapa when he first heard a fledgling wine industry was underway half an hour’s drive up the road in Martinborough, so one weekend he went to investigate. It was 1980. He liked the piece of land he’d driven to look at, decided to buy it and, within a matter of months, he had moved there to plant grapes.
“It was fast. It was one of those moments in life when I knew it was the right thing. It was exactly what I wanted to do.”
He arrived debt-free, momentarily. By selling the cows he owned in the southern Wairarapa he was able to buy the property without any initial debt.
A report by scientist Dr Derek Milne of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) wrote that Martinborough had the potential to be prime wine country because of the similarity it bore to Burgundy, France, in terms of climate and soil conditions. This affirmed his gut feeling that the decision to buy land and join the only other grape-growers in Martinborough was the right thing. Not that it was easy. A single father at the the time, he moved himself and his daughter, Ness, into a house plonked in the middle of a paddock on their new land and began to plant grapes. It was, he says, a highly unusual thing to do in that environment at the time – and the locals certainly made that clear to him.
The small town of Martinborough was relatively run down around 1980. Forget the characterfully restored buildings, cafes and wine community which exist there today.
Back then, the hotel’s weatherboards were boarded over, there was one pub and the only place to buy food was a lone fish ‘n’ chip shop. Today the fish ‘n chip shop has been joined by a string of restaurants, including a French-style bistro; a cheese shop, a wine centre, boutique cinema, two boutique hotels and an eclectic fashion store which stocks many of New Zealand’s top clothing design labels. While these trappings of success appear to thrive in this once little known country town, Paton’s aim has remained constant: to make one of New Zealand’s top red wines.
When he planted his first vines, Paton also grew vegetables between the rows as a back-up to earn a little income while he established the vines - and tried to figure out how to derive an income from them.
As things panned out, the reality of trying to establish a new vineyard while running a market garden of pumpkins and garlic, albeit a small one, proved too much for a one man band. The vegetable growing venture was really a way of making enough money to pay for petrol to get to rugby practices and games because at the time the locals weren’t exactly familiar with wine.
“The making and drinking of wine was still a totally foreign concept in the region. Nobody really drank much wine in the Wairarapa back then, so why on earth would anyone make it? It just didn’t sit easily with most people living here.”
Despite the sceptical local farming community, there were three other wineries in the region at the time; Chifney Wines, Dry River Wines and Martinborough Vineyards.
“All of us felt we were up against the New Zealand beer drinking culture which wine really wasn’t a part of. It was difficult tapping on that door when few people could relate to what we were doing,” he remembers. “But it still felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Paton’s early life
Wine first appeared in front of Paton whe he was a child.
“My father loved wine and we often had it at home, growing up in Tawa; an outer suburb of Wellington city which sprawled across the hills and was semi-rural when I was a child.”
His father was stationed in Italy as a soldier during World War II and had fallen in love with the country and its wines. The experience left an imprint on his life which he couldn’t shake. The idea of a glass of wine always appealed more than a beer, to Paton.
While red wines were often on the table, it was the northern Italian Piedmontese grape, Moscato, which left the strongest impression of grapes on Paton’s young taste buds.
“I remember the reds but I particularly remember Asti made from the Moscato grape, which I still love. When you’re drinking Asti, you can feel the grape in that wine. It opened my mind to the power of wine to transport the taste buds and mind to another place.”
“I remember reds but I particularly remember Asti – made from the Moscato grape, which I still love. When you’re drinking Asti, you can feel the grape in that wine. It opened my mind to the power of wine to transport the taste buds and mind to another place.”
When he left school, he first took on farm-hand work for a few years before studying at Massey University in Palmerston North. The plan was to complete a Diploma in Agriculture, gain practical experience and then move north to the Waikato to manage a family-owned dairy farm. But even in his student days, he would slink off from the pubs his beer drinking mates were at, in search of red wine.
“There wasn’t much on offer, usually just a very basic red available by the glass in a hotel bar somewhere; something none of my mates at the time would have related to – they would have laughed. But I just had this desire to seek out and taste and learn about red wine. I felt a connection with it.”
That connection remained with him when he later graduated and then found himself in the southern Wairarapa farming community; a place in which he felt ill at ease.
“It wasn’t that I’d grown up in anything other than a semi-rural environment, it was just that I had this longing in me to drink wine, to be around it and to be involved with it somehow. Perhaps that’s why it was so easy to make the decision to move when I saw that land in Martinborough.”
Pioneering at Puruatanga
While his first six to seven years were largely alone in Martinborough, Paton did work a couple of vintages further north – one with the late Malcolm Abel, the other at Delegat’s. Both helped gain much needed practical winemaking experience in his early days.
The first grapes he planted in Martinborough included Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, a mystery red he nick-named Super Siebel and over the years he has also experimented with the Italian grape varieties, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.”
Part of his plan was to make a red combining the best of both Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley in France; Ata Rangi Célèbre is that wine. Originally Cabernet-dominant, Celebre has become Syrah-dominant and remains a relatively unusual wine for Martinborough, in that it combines an unconventional blend of red grapes in a region where most winemakers have hung their red hats entirely on the Pinot Noir hook.
When he decided to plant Pinot Noir, he asked neighbour Dr Neil McCallum (now retired) from Dry River Wines for advice. This led him to the late Malcolm Abel from whom he bought the ‘Abel’ Pinot Noir clone; often referred to in wine circles as the ‘Ata Rangi clone’, or Gumboot clone.
This clone has remained the mainstay of Ata Rangi Pinot Noir.
Is this legendary clone, widely regarded as having originally been obtained from a Romanee-Conti vineyard in Burgundy, the reason behind Ata Rangi Pinot Noir’s consistent success and high quality?
“Partly yes, but I think there are a lot of factors that go into making any wine really good. We’ve worked hard in the vineyard to get consistency with Pinot Noir, especially in the vineyard,” says Paton.
It helped meeting the woman who was to become his future partner too. In 1986 Paton met winemaker Phyll Pattie at a visiting winemakers’ social weekend in Marlborough.
She had a food technology degree from Massey University and had worked in the dairy industry before falling for wine, when working in a ski village in the north of Italy on her own overseas travels. When she returned to New Zealand she found a job at Montana Wines (now Pernod Ricard New Zealand) in Auckland where she worked as cellarmaster - a daunting role at the start. “I couldn’t tell much of a difference between white wine varieties initially, but within just a couple of weeks I was hooked.”
The job involved organising transport of wines from the company’s Marlborough and Gisborne wineries; blending, cold stabilising, filtering and preparing wine for bottling.
Within two years Pattie was working in the laboratory and cellars at harvest time in each of the company’s Gisborne and Marlborough wineries. In 1984 she transferred to Marlborough to take on a role as winemaker at Montana’s Blenheim-based winery. It was here that she and Paton first met, and immediately clicked.
They kept in touch and Pattie moved to Martinborough the following year, selling her Blenheim house to buy out the shares of John Stephen, a friend of Paton’s who had helped keep the business going, in terms of cashflow.
“It was a leap of faith and something of an adjustment moving from a 12,000 tonne winery in Marlborough to a 10 tonne one in Martinborough with a few barrels in an old shed,” she says.
By now Paton had won Martinborough’s first gold medal for his 1986 Pinot Noir but there was still no net income, so Pattie took on a product development role at the New Zealand Dairy Board in Wellington. She commuted daily for more than three years, travelling to the Middle East and South America for market and product research, while setting up the labobatory at Ata Rangi in Martinborough, making the white wines and looking after marketing and finance.
“It was a crazy, madly busy time, but I was able to leave the Wellington job and focus full time on Ata Rangi by the middle of 1991.”
It was that year that she made a Chardonnay which the couple still regard highly. As Paton says, while his winemaking street cred’ comes predominantly from Pinot Noir more than any other varietal, his Chardonnays have also received consistent high praise.
“Both Phyll and Helen (Helen Masters is the present winemaker) have a great feel for the variety. Phyll made the early Chardonnays; the 1991 is still an amazing wine. And Helen’s gentle touch with Chardonnay is legendary.”
CRIMSON - note to designer: please feature this as side-bar
The Ata Rangi team’s passion for Pinot Noir is now beginning to pay powerful new dividends in other ways too; environmental ones, thanks to a wine called Crimson.
Launched in 2005, Crimson was named in homage to Paton’s association with Project Crimson - a charitable conservation trust.
The trust is focused on the protection and restoration of rata and pohutukawa, New Zealand’s red-flowering native trees. Pattie suggested to the Trust that they create Crimson; a wine with a portion of the proceeds from sales of which go towards the Project Crimson Trust each year. The trustees liked the idea, not only because they already knew of Paton’s commitment to conservation in the region, but because the message carried on each bottle would help to spread the word of their work.
Paton estimates he has planted 50,000 trees at the Ata Rangi bush block in the past decade and he also works closely with the Project Crimson Trust on its tree planting work. The trust is helping to slowly but steadily transform the Tinakori Hills in Wellington city, progressively removing aged pine trees and replacing them with the red-flowering Northern Rata that once graced the area.
Martinborough’s trump cards
Unlike other nearby towns in the Wairarapa, Martinborough lies in a rain shadow; sheltered by the Rimutaka and Tararua ranges to the west and the Aorangi Range to the east. A stony, ancient river bed meanders through the region, defining the Martinborough Terrace appellation with its alluvial gravel deposits, providing reliable drainage for vines grown there. Wind is a factor and it comes from two main sources. Drying winds come from the north west and cold winds come from the southern coast. The latter are often accompanied by rain. While this can inhibit the number of grapes which set on the vines early in the season, the cold wind also contributes in a positive way by creating the large temperature variation between day and night; also known as a wide diurnal range. The fungal disease pressure in the region is relatively low. Martinborough is the driest grape growing area in the North Island, with an average of 700 mm of rainfall a year being one of its trump cards for grape growing.
LOOKING AFTER THE LAND
The dry air and cool nights in the Wairarapa region meant that vines growing in and around Martinborough didn’t need to be sprayed as often as many of Paton’s counterparts suggested in West Auckland, Gisborne or Hawke’s Bay.
“The first sprays I used were recommended and supplied by a stock and station agent and were based on what was then used in Auckland and Gisborne, but it didn’t take long to figure out that we didn’t need to do the same amount of spraying here. It started me on the sustainability path, which we’re now strong advocates of.”
Paton has never used insecticides at Ata Rangi but does use sulphur, allowed under organic regimes and used to control powdery mildew.
“We’ve changed shelter belts into mixed native plantings to encourage biodiversity in what is otherwise essentially a monoculture. One of the reasons that Ata Rangi has more trees around the vineyard than probably any other vineyard I know of in New Zealand is so that there is a lot more activity in terms of the natural environment, so everything keeps itself in balance.”
The two key environmental factors for Paton are the dry air in Martinborough and the timing of rainfall.
“Most of the weather comes from the west, so it drops any rain on the mountains and ends up in Martinborough as warm, very dry wind. When it does rain, the air is usually very cold; there’s really only risk of botrytis when there’s warm rain. For temperatures below 10 degrees, which is typical when there’s a southerly, we don’t have problems.”
“The nature of Martinborough is that it naturally produces low cropping vines, so you have to make sure you get the best from the little they produce. Maybe money’s never been that important to us, so we set a goal to be a quality operation rather than saying ‘We want to be millionaires’. My feeling is that if you can stay afloat and become a top winery, then the financial benefits will hopefully follow,” Paton says.
One of his joys comes from making the decisions to care for both the vineyard and the environment in their own way. “It means we take the pluses and the minuses on our own shoulders. It’s the same with the winemaking to a degree. We end up making the wine we want to drink ourselves because it’s our business and the decisions don’t have to go to a committee; they are ours to make and live by.”
The winery today is run by three equal family shareholders. In July 1995, the Paton-Pattie partnership was replaced by a private company, incorporating two more family members - Clive’s sister Alison Paton and her then-partner at the time, the winemaker Olly Masters. Ali Paton had purchased a five-hectare adjoining block of bare land in 1984 before moving to the United Kingdom to study the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Diploma and work in the London wine trade in London. In the meantime, Clive planted her vineyard and it is now leased to Ata Rangi. Ali Paton returned home in 1989 and she is now the Ata Rangi business manager while Pattie looks after export marketing.
Despite changes within the business structure and Paton’s passion for conservation initiatives, his wine aim remains the same: to make one of New Zealand’s top five red wines.
“Why try to make something that’s merely ‘good’ when you could make something great?”
Clive’s go-to wines
Aged German Riesling and the best of Kiwi Rieslings, Italian reds, local Pinot Noirs and burgundies for special occasions.