Touch of Bordeaux in retirement dream

Touch of Bordeaux in retirement dream - Dominion Post


JAN AND WARREN HAWORTH: 'We want to give people something special they can take with them to a good restaurant or to a friend's house.'

A couple worked hard building houses and milking cows to realise their dream of creating their own winery.

When Feilding dairy farmer Warren Haworth reached 50 he decided to reward himself and his wife Jan, for 30 years of hard slog and take their first overseas trip.

They cashed in an insurance policy and had a big blowout over six weeks travelling around Europe.

One day, in the French winegrowing region of Bordeaux, Mr Haworth, a glass of the distinctive local red wine in his hand and a warm glow spreading through his body, turned to his wife and said, "Now I know what I want to do in my retirement".

Someone else might have laughed and dismissed this as holiday whimsy, but Mrs Haworth knew her husband was not a man to make idle statements.

A living advertisement for the virtues of hard work, he had spent 13 years singlehandedly building 44 flats and two motels in Palmerston North, laying every block, hammering every nail, digging drains, plumbing and painting. The equity and income from this property staked 10 years of farming, sheep at first, and then a dairy conversion and years of 4am starts seven days a week.

It was time for a change, time to start planning for retirement. They had a vision of sun-drenched days tending their vines and entertaining visitors with a drop or two of their own wine.

The couple went home and began planning to turn the dream into reality. With only their own resources to draw on, it has taken a while, but almost 20 years later they have finally made it.

Their Abbey Cellars winery is on 13 hectares of prime Hawke's Bay grape-growing land at Bridge Pa, on the ancient Ngaruroro riverbed. A thin layer of soil sits on 30 metres of free-draining river gravels known locally as red metals. Just three metres down is the upper layer of a deep aquifer. The cold nights and hot days provide diurnal extremes that are perfect for the production of ripe flavourful grapes.

They focus on making red wines in the Bordeaux style, blends of classic cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and malbec, from grapes they hand pick. They follow the practice of established overseas wine regions and have only released their wines for sale after three years, at the onset of maturity. So far, just two vintages are available and are quietly gaining the appreciation of the wine world.

Mr Haworth has used his building skills to produce a stylised French gothic abbey that provides cellar door tastings and will become a winemaking centre. At 69, he is still hammering nails.

Mrs Haworth and daughter Natarsha have split the North Island sales between them, travelling between a selection of liquor stores and supermarkets, and son Dermot is taking a break from his information technology career to organise marketing. They are working on opening export markets in Asia and the United States.

Mr Haworth grew up in Whanganui and after a joinery apprenticeship joined the 1960s building booms in Whangarei and Tokoroa. He saved hard and in 1967 moved to Palmerston North to take advantage of the growing demand for student flats with the expansion of Massey University, the Teachers' Training College and Manawatu Polytechnic.

He bought old houses on big central-city sections and demolished the ones too dilapidated to save and renovated the others. Some sections took four new houses, some went into blocks of two-storey flats. He worked into the night seven days a week to get them completed as soon as possible so they could be tenanted and start earning the income needed to repay loans and finance the next project.

A local law firm became a regular financier. "Fronting up to them for my first loan was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," he says. "They wanted a 50 per cent deposit from me which I was able to provide in the form of my labour. It meant I was working for free till the flats could start earning."

He did all the work except wiring the houses and wallpapering. He married Jan in 1970 and her nursing pay helped keep them afloat in the early years. She showed skills in matching colours and fabrics and took over the interior design as well as the accounts.

Finding tenants was never a problem. "Once a flat was advertised the phone never stopped ringing. One night we had 100 calls," Mrs Haworth remembers.

By 1978, Mr Haworth was tiring of the hard physical work of lugging buckets of cement up and down scaffolding. One day, out of curiosity, he called into the Feilding saleyards to watch the animals being sold and met a friend who told him his next- door neighbour's farm was for sale. "So, I thought I might see if I liked farming."

He did. It was a rundown 85ha sheep farm at Mt Biggs, near Halcombe, and he worked on getting it into shape. He put in 16 kilometres of fencing and 1200 fenceposts, dug dams and cleared gorse.

But sheep weren't making much money and the farm had to be subsidised by their rental earnings. In contrast, his dairying neighbour was doing well with just 120 cows and he decided to change tack.

They found an 80ha finishing farm near Feilding and decided to convert to dairying. It was 1982, the industry had hit a sudden downturn and the costs of a conversion were considered to be prohibitive.

"Everyone said we were mad," he recalls. "They told us we were doing it the wrong way round - we were getting in when people were getting out." He wrote to the local dairy company and asked if they would accept his milk. "They welcomed me with open arms. It was the best thing I ever did."

He built his own 24-a-side herringbone milking shed and put on a sharemilker while they built up their own herd through calf-rearing on their Mt Biggs farm.

When it came time to take over, they had the herculean task of breaking in 230 cows at once. "It was a hard winter, it didn't stop raining. I just remember my hands being continually black with dirt."

The Palmerston North rental income was needed for 10 years but gradually the farm began to pay for itself. They took the opportunity to buy more land and ended up with 263ha and 500 cows. The cows were sold three years ago and a sharemilker now runs the farm.

* * *

The trip to Europe was the first of many in the gap between seasons as the cows were dried off. Everywhere they went they tried the local wines, looked at the wineries and began to form ideas. They found California's Napa Valley to be the best model, for wine style, vineyard layout and winery design.

In New Zealand they looked for land in Martinborough and Marlborough and even in Australia's Yarra Valley, before settling on Hawke's Bay. Mr Haworth also took a course on grape planting and growing.

They finally bought at Bridge Pa in 2002 and planted 33,000 vines. Once again, their sanity was questioned. What did dairy farmers know about winemaking? They'd soon run out of money without a big corporate backer.

But they had finance from the sale of their Mt Biggs farm and from the last of their Palmerston North flats and also had the support of viticulturalist Brian Smith, of nearby Waikahu Vineyard.

"He was just what we needed," Mrs Haworth says. "He was a perfectionist. His philosophy was to aim for the quality end of the market and the way to get there was through low cropping - reducing the number of grapes on a vine and hand-picking the best."

The biggest danger is frost and Mr Haworth remembers for the first five years, when they stayed milking at Feilding, having to drive over in the dark to turn on the water spray protection.

They found winemaker Emma Lowe at Crownthorpe and took the first grapes to her in 2005 to be pressed and aged in oak for nine months before being blended and bottled. She has worked on five vintages now and with recent droughts, which ripen the grapes faster, much is expected of these wines. They also sell a proportion of their grapes to other winemakers.

Their aim is to make a wine similar to the best of the Bordeaux styles they have tasted overseas, and to sell it only when it begins to taste at its best. "That's what makes us unique," Mrs Haworth says. "We don't want to sell a new, tannic wine that's virtually undrinkable. We want to give people something special they can take with them to a good restaurant or a friend's house."

* * *

They make 4000-5000 cases a year and the two vintages released so far have been well received. The 2006 reds were recommended by Winestate and a large proportion of the merlot-dominant blend was bought by an airline for its business class passengers. Around the $28 mark, the wine is not as expensive as many of its competitors.

They hope eventually to do their own winemaking and have left room for barrels and vats in their winery.

The Haworths now live next door and the vineyard and winery has their full attention. The winery isn't financially viable yet and they expect to spend a lot more money before it is. But they still have their farm as a backup and aren't concerned.

"Every new venture needs time and investment to make it work," Mr Haworth says.

Marketing and branding are new skills they didn't need as dairy farmers but they are learning. The name Abbey Cellars is a case in point.

Mrs Haworth explains it was inspired by old churches they had seen on their travels. She points to their brochure which adds: "For us the feelings invoked by these beautiful buildings of the past - beauty, mystery, tradition and romance - are not dissimilar to what we can draw from a fine glass of wine."

However, Mr Haworth is still learning - he maintains he chose the name because of its easy recognition at the start of the alphabet.
The winery also has a motto Mrs Haworth saw on a television programme: "He who tastes knows."
Asked if he ever stops to ask himself if he has done the right thing, Mr Haworth recalls his building days. "You were head down bum up with no other option. It's like that now. We're committed, there's no turning back. We do what we have to do."

He says he has had a "fantastic" life. "Having wonderful health, that's the key. Your health is your wealth." Mrs Haworth says a Zen saying she saw recently sums it up for her: "Act as if and soon you will become."

Jon Morgan, Jan 2010

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