Damian Martin, the man rejuvenating Ara with wine

Finally we’re as well-known for our wine as our sheep. Fitting then, that the old Bankhouse Sheep Station is now home to a new kind of Kiwi winemaking. Mic Dover meets the Winemakers of Ara. Plus the dirt and the brands

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Photography by Jim Tannock

To Damian Martin, the Bankhouse sheep station was blank canvas. Now it’s the home of a new kind of Kiwi winemaking, matching new technology, design and branding with the old-world concept of ‘terroir’. Mic Dover meets the Winemakers of Ara

Ten kilometres south of Renwick, near Blenheim, Marlborough. Pulling off the state highway into the long entrance drive of a new winery, the visitor motors past row after unremarkable row of grapevines. Then a sudden bend in the road reveals a massive, futuristic building—the Dart—the shock of the new in the middle of nowhere.

This particular nowhere is called Ara, formerly Bankhouse, a sheep station owned in the 1840s by Sir David Monro, who went on to become Speaker in the New Zealand Parliament. The Dart is the operations centre of a vineyard called Winegrowers of Ara. In 1999, when Bankhouse came up for sale, Damian Martin spotted the land’s enormous potential for viticulture and had his vision backed by a financier rich enough to buy 1,600 hectares of plum Marlborough real estate.

Martin had moved from New Zealand to France in 1987 to gain a PhD in viticulture science from Bordeaux University, studying the eco-physiology of the grapevine, and in particular the relationship between soil moisture and wine quality in the southern Rhône Valley. He became familiar with the concepts of terroir and appellation (see sidebar below) and acquired an in-depth knowledge of Old World winegrowing philosophy. Since coming home in the 1990s, he has held senior roles for both Corbans and Montana, and prior to that, was a viticulture scientist at HortResearch.

Now he’s Ara’s general manager, overseeing a project that is ambitious even by the standards of Kiwi winemaking. In a country devoted to pragmatism, humble ambition and the comfort of the familiar, Ara has a different mindset: quality and scale, ruthless attention to design and detail, and the expectation of a long-term return.

“Ara wines are based on a certain philosophical approach to winegrowing as opposed to just marketing wine,” says Martin, a project champion with a penchant for Kiwi understatement. “We started with this amazing blank canvas and have been able to instigate specific wine management techniques that create a real point of difference.”

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The points of difference are numerous. A tiny but instructive example: the width of the space between the rows of vines. Ara has gone for a European, bullock-sized 1.6 metres, compared with the usual New World tractor-sized 2.4 to three metres. This meant importing French machinery or adapting domestic equipment.

“As well as needing less land for a given number of vines, we also waste less sunshine on unproductive grass between rows,” says Martin. “And the root density is higher so the roots are able to extract more nutrients from the soil, giving us better grapes.”

Currently, less than a quarter of the 1,600 hectares of available land is planted in grapes. The 2007 vintage of 80,000 cases will double in 2008 and when the site is fully planted in 2018, Ara plans to be producing more than a million cases every year.

“We believe that terroir is about people and place, not just soil and climate,” says Martin. “In the Old World, traditional production methods contribute a huge amount to wine styles. Great wines need good locations but they also need visionary people.” No doubt a key visionary is the financier who made the Ara project possible: Greg Olliver, chief executive of Landco Ltd.

Olliver declines interviews, but it’s no secret most of Ara’s finance has come from Landco. The company, valued at around $125 million, manages a portfolio of properties across New Zealand. It is 30 percent owned by Todd Capital, the investment arm of Todd Corp, the $2.6 billion business empire of the reclusive Todd family.

The business model for Ara is not a regulatory route like the appellation system of France but a branding/trademark approach. Other winegrowers are invited to plant vines on Ara’s land and be automatically validated by the vineyard’s certification system. “It’s essentially a quality control system,” says Martin. “The certification panel consists of trusted wine experts who are chosen for their ability to be objective. The idea is that our grapes produce wines that have a distinctive flavour inextricably linked with their origin, so our brand will piggyback on other brands—this is New World terroir.” Any winemaker? “No, they would have to share our philosophical approach to the crafting of wine.”

Ara will be either a complete disaster because they have not taken a holistic environmental approach, or a huge success because they become obliged to take those environmental concerns into account anyway. It’s entirely possible Ara is the beginning of a fantastic future for the New Zealand winegrowing industry

Hawkes Bay’s Craggy Range Winery is one of the first to buy into the concept, producing an Ara-designated Sauvignon Blanc in 2007, mainly for the local market. For its own wines, Ara already has distribution agreements set up in the UK with PLB and Winedirect. Expansion into the US, Australia and Canada is scheduled over the next two years.

As Martin drives visitors around, he points out the huge man-made reservoir they have nicknamed Lake Pinot, half a million cubic metres of water shimmering in the sunshine. He parks his truck on a nearby hill to get a better perspective, not only of the scale of the vineyard but also its integrity as a landmass—bordered by the Wairau and Waihopai rivers on three sides and steep hills to the west, beyond the Wairau fault line.

“Sixteen hundred hectares is about the right size for a piece of land to become an appellation,” explains Martin. “The geology of this land dates back 20,000 years to the Otira Glaciation, so it’s much older than the alluvial plains normally associated with Marlborough soils.”

One downside of land surrounded by hills is a tendency towards frosts. “We chose to use a ‘wet ice’ sprinkler system rather than windmills or helicopters. When water freezes it actually generates small amounts of heat that are enough to protect the vines from frost damage. The downside is you need a lot of water—11 litres per second per hectare.”

Currently Ara can pump enough water for 600 hectares of vine plantings, a target it should reach in 2010. “By 2018 we will need to be pumping 4,000 litres of water per second on a frosty day.”

Another pumping station is already planned to cope with this. The water in Lake Pinot is distributed by sophisticated pumping technology controlled by a network of on-site sensors and valve nests. Since the system went live, Ara says it has successfully dealt with a number of severe frosts.

“Vines become addicted to sprinklers,” says Martin. “But our raised sprinkler system mimics light rain, producing wider spread root systems that allow vines to survive longer in arid conditions. So we’re spending water now to invest in young vines that need less water later—and produce wine that tastes unlike traditional Marlborough wines.”

But what makes Ara’s nouveau approach really different is its early adoption of a multi-company, multi-disciplinary design and planning team. Invited to join the project were key players such as Geoff Suvalko of brand identity and design firm Designworks, John Coop of architects Warren and Mahoney, Richard Priest of Hillery Priest Architecture and Rachel de Lambert of environmental planning consultancy Boffa Miskell. Seven years later, these experts in their fields are still involved and meeting every few weeks to keep the project on track.

“Damian came to us in 2002,” says Suvalko, “with a brief to help launch a family of brands that would create a sense of place and origin around the land they had bought. The team asked questions like ‘what are the social and community values of this landform?’ and ‘what are the stories we want the name of these wines to be known for?’ Once decided, these narratives drove all aspects of design and marketing.”

In a nutshell, the original brief was to brand the land in human terms—not just a winery on that land. Hence Winegrowers of Ara, not just ‘Ara Winery’.

“We had a series of workshops that established a set of design values to inform the brand strategy and shape the naming process,” says Suvalko. “The name Ara means pathway or stepping-stone in Maori and altar or shrine in Latin, so it conveys fusion of Old and New World language. The word Ara as a logo graphically conveys a river terrace between two mountains. It is easy to pronounce internationally and avoids the parochialism of some wine names, and it is timeless—important for a project with such long timescales.”

Suvalko says the process of benchmarking the name and the logo against the project’s established design principles has been applied to every aspect of Ara, whether it be a physical building, a landscaping brief or the wine manufacturing process itself. The design principles included ‘complex not complicated’, ‘substance not show’, ‘confident not arrogant’, ‘passionate yet principled’ and ‘crafted not manufactured’. “So each wine has its own individual story. The name of Ara’s pinot noir, Resolute, relates to the toil involved in breaking the back of the land for this first vintage.”

Suvalko is full of praise for Olliver and Martin. “To create a story-led and brand-led winemaking enterprise on this scale requires a lot of money and a lot of patience over a long period of time—it’s an approach that’s rare in New Zealand business generally, not just the wine sector.”

Coop, a senior architect at Warren and Mahoney, is equally positive, describing the area with an architect’s eye. “We were approached in late 2001 to have a conversation about the site. I knew the area—it’s a harsher Marlborough landscape with a heroic quality about it, different to the romanticism of the Cloudy Bay aesthetic.”

Coop found being a member of the planning and design team exciting and challenging. “We were being asked to transcend the mere physical elements of the landscape and buy into a philosophical approach to all aspects of the project. The process was enriched by the creatives having to learn about winemaking in great detail, in order to understand the philosophical vision of the client.”

“I am convinced this project will fulfil its vision,” says Coop. “For me, the Ara project has been a career highlight. The Dart was a unique brief, a ‘chic shed’ if you like. On the one hand a sophisticated operations centre, on the other an environment where staff can relax, eat, socialise. Most people would have separated these functions into two buildings, but we combined them and still adhered to the agreed design principles. Ara wanted something that was graphically recognisable from the air. I was sitting on an airplane from LA to Auckland, folding bits of paper when I came up with the dart idea.”

At the core of the Dart’s design is the idea that Winegrowers of Ara’s buildings are as much about function as form, and have an intimate and direct relationship with their landscape and environment. The Dart’s roof folds down and over to shelter the courtyard from the prevailing winds. At the same time, the site rises up to cradle the building’s western end. Beneath this arrowhead, large areas of storage and workshops are housed.

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Is Ara itself substance or show? Idealog asked wine critic Keith Stewart for his views on the Ara model.

“Damian Martin is a fascinating guy, and he’s done all the homework for Ara—theoretically, it’s a very interesting idea that amounts to the industrialisation of craft,” he says. “But their take on terroir may not be comprehensive enough. Terroir is about the complete range of activities involved in land occupancy, whether it be farming, cheesemaking, olive growing or winemaking—these all combine in unique and unexpected ways when it comes to wine flavour and styles. Ara has a piece of land that is physically very identifiable but I wonder just how much they are working in harmony with it.

“Ara is intellectually quite stringent in its approach and the wines taste good—but wine quality and wine character are not the same thing. Like every other Kiwi winery, they’ll still be spraying pesticides like Roundup into their soil.”

Stewart hedges his bets: “I feel the Ara project will be either a complete disaster because they have not taken a holistic environmental approach, or a huge success because they become obliged to take those environmental concerns into account anyway. It’s entirely possible Ara is the beginning of a fantastic future for the New Zealand winegrowing industry.”

Asked about Ara’s use of Roundup, Martin is unapologetic. “Roundup has a very small and temporary residual chemical footprint compared with the organic synthetic pesticides. We never say never but I much prefer sustainability to pure organics. The natural products associated with organic growing can be more toxic than synthetic pesticides. For instance, the use of copper sulphate in organic fungicides is putting heavy metals into the soil that are far more toxic than Roundup.

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“Ara is about lower yields and higher quality. Despite the amount of land we have, our goal is about quality rather than scale.”

What can possibly go wrong? Martin says their two main business risks lie at each end of the supply chain. The first is shortage of labour. This explains the no-expense spared decor and facilities of the Dart building—keeping staff happy and productive. The other perceived risk is possible loss of access to distribution channels at the other end, where Ara has no control over market forces, such as the power of behemoth retailers like Wal-Mart and Tesco.

Asked about climate change as a business risk, Martin is calm. “New Zealand wine regions are much better placed globally than elsewhere—we’re buffered by the oceans so that change will be much more gradual here than in, say, Australia or Spain. Also, we’re taking an inter-generational view that says it might take 50 years to build an origin-based brand to rival a European terroir—but that’s nothing compared with a thousand-year history of winemaking in the northern hemisphere.”

Ara’s long-term investment horizons are impressive. “Our forecast vineyard development programme will last till 2020 with another five years before we reach steady state in terms of total production and sales,” says George Hulbert, Ara’s communications manager. “A positive operating cashflow is forecast for the financial year 2011. Obviously the returns are good otherwise the investment wouldn’t be happening, but we can’t provide exact details.”

Thanks to the early involvement of key people from outside the company, a design-led approach has been built into the Winegrowers of Ara’s DNA from day one. The branding/trademark approach has made the marketing function an integral part of the company’s activities, not something tacked on at the end when the wine is ready to go to market. An example of this key point of difference lies in the wine’s labelling.

“New World wine labelling rarely says anything about the philosophy behind the winemaking,” says Martin. Each wine has its own distinctive label design, its own marketing point of difference, even its own website—but all come under the same Ara appellation.

Winegrowers of Ara is all about difference. Whether it’s the width of the rows between its vines, the different taste of its wines or its audacious plan to become a New World terroir, not just another winery, difference is the lifeblood of this project. And it is already being noticed. Ara’s wines are receiving positive reviews. Composite Sauvignon Blanc 2007 received a five-star review in Decanter magazine—and was one of Decanter’s wines of the year for 2007 (the only Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc chosen).

It’s too early to say whether Winegrowers of Ara has picked a winning vision. It could be a pathway and stepping-stone to a bright new future for Kiwi winemaking or just as easily be sacrificed on the altar of market forces or climate change. But be sure of this: the founders won’t die wondering.

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The brands

Winegrowers of Ara’s Composite Sauvignon Blanc, Composite Pinot Noir and Resolute Pinot Noir were awarded silver awards for brand design at the recent BeST Design Awards, New Zealand’s premier design awards programme. These are the brand narratives:

Composite: the wine is a fusion of grapes sourced from all areas of Ara, considered its most complete expression, year on year delivering true consistency in terms of style, flavour and balance. The brand design therefore comprises a geometric mosaic pattern to represent both the blocks and interdependence of the wine source. In essence, it is a melding of old and new, much like the wine style.

Resolute: as the first block to be forged within the heart of the Ara vineyards, the brand was designed to encapsulate the grit, effort and tenacity that made this highly sophisticated wine possible. This is the culmination of a long and difficult journey from bare land to fine wine. Enduring extremes of climate, both grapevine and winegrower have overcome the challenges or rock, dust and mud to forge a wine of great complexity and finesse; an iron fist in a velvet glove.

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