In an industry dominated by large companies and big brands, Canterbury-based Straight 8 Estate winery is a unique vine-to-bottle vineyard that prides itself on producing real wine at real prices.
Nestled in the heart of the Canterbury Plains in the Selwyn district, an area better known for its fat lambs and crops, lies Straight 8 Estate, a small “straight up” vineyard run by James Shand and Mary Jamieson, that aims to deliver consistent, honest, award-winning wines crafted entirely from their own grapes.
But despite their undeniable passion for growing grapes, great sense of humour, and hardworking spirit, they’re realistic. “We all know the industry is run by the big boys and big brands,” says James. “It’s very hard because we are competing with the big boys, the corporates, and they have to sell their product as well. So, every time they get squeezed, we get squeezed. It’s a very tricky formula to market wine and to be successful at it. One day I may get there, but at the moment, it’s a pretty uphill battle.”
When James and Mary turned their backs on 30 successful years in the food industry to buy the vineyard in 2004, they were under no illusion of the challenges that lay ahead.
Both brought up on farms, James farmed with his father for a number of years in Fairlie but left the industry to go into food. To start with they ran the local fish and chip shop for 10 years, before selling up and moving to Christchurch, where they operated a host of successful industrial food bars. Deep down though, James yearned to return to farming.
“I wanted to grow something, something that had a bit of my personality in it, and I wanted a challenge. Everyone can be a farmer, but not everyone can grow grapes. At the time, I joked that I didn’t have the five or six million dollars to buy a dairy farm or the one to two million dollars for a sheep or beef farm. There was also a bit of family history there; my grandfather was a brewer, owning James Shand & Co, who made beer during the prohibition.”
So they went in search for a vineyard, eventually purchasing an 8ha old style planting at Burnham. Although central Canterbury isn’t favoured as a wine growing region today, back in the 1980s pioneering winemakers touted it as the next big thing, with the Giesen brothers planting more than 20ha. Small contract blocks (like this one) were in high demand.
James and Mary’s block was planted over a five-to eight year period initially by Willy Codyre, and later the Gall family, containing a mix of wide plantings of pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling grapes, as well as the southern-most plantings of cabernet franc. As its grapes had only ever been sold on contract, James and Mary had to set about creating their own unique brand. “It was just a vineyard. It had no name and no branding,” explains James.
In an industry that’s dominated by flashy labels and prominent marketing, getting the right name and brand was crucial. Given so many wineries named after their location, being on State Highway 1 just 6km south of Rolleston, James and Mary wanted something a bit more unconventional.
Utilising an expert designer with years of experience in the wine industry, they scrutinised many potential options. But they kept coming back to Straight 8 Estate, named after the ‘straight 8’ engine of their 1935 Light Sports Railton classic vintage racing car that’s been in James’ family for more than half a century. Not just a showpiece, the car is still used to this day, and takes pride of place just inside the cellar door.
“I liked cars and I like wine,” laughs James. “Motoring is just like the wine industry; it’s dominated by the big names - Mercedes, Bentley. We are the underdog, and I’ve always liked the underdog. I liked the car and I felt that there was a lot of family history that it strung together. It seemed like a good fit.”
When James and Mary took over in 2004, admittedly they had a lot to learn. “We didn’t know a lot back then, but I was lucky that I had some fundamental farming skills and I knew about chemicals. I knew the most important thing for making wine, was the soil. It took us 10 years to bring the soils back to where they needed to be after being raped a pillaged for years as a contract block. There wasn’t a worm in the ground when we first started, now they’re everywhere.”
While they can’t be classified as certified organic, Mary says they aim to farm as biologically safe as they can, focusing on optimum soil management to produce healthy crops in a sustainable fashion with minimal chemical use.
They use fertigation to apply dissolved fertilisers directly at the grapevine’s roots, sheep for leaf plucking the vines to allow in more light and prevent fungal infections, and to help keep grass down between the rows, and rely on heavy winter frosts to clean up disease and keep the weeds at bay. But given Canterbury’s penchant for hot, dry summers, coupled with their drier, shingley-soils, they usually can’t get away without the use of any irrigation.
Where needed, they bring in seasonal workers to help at certain times of the year, but in reality, each and every plant is tended, grown and nurtured by James and Mary - all 17,500 of them. “These are the main hands. These are the hands that talk to the bank manager, the hands that grow it, pick the grapes and make the wine, and the hands that sell it,” explains James. “There is a little piece of us in every bottle.”
Growing grapes is a very labour intensive process. In any given season James can make 20-25 passes through the vineyard from mowing, mulching back into the ground, weed spray, vine spray, dragging nets over and off the vines, shoot thinning, significant pruning and harvesting. While the introduction of machine-pickers has decreased the work involved at harvest, they still hand pick the cabernet franc.
Unlike the majority of vineyard operators, James works everything out on a plant value basis. “If you ask most vineyard proprietors, they can’t tell you how many plants they have, but I’m always working out volumes, what we want on a crop level. Spraying, various other things. It’s the numbers at the end of the day that make the vineyard basically. Everything goes back to the plant value.”
Straight 8 Estate’s first vintage, hit the open market in 2006 with a mixed response. Over the past 14 years they’ve updated their label three times, keeping up with current trends.
For the first 10 years all its wine was made by a contract winemaker, but in 2014, James and Mary brought the entire production back to Straight 8 Estate and with the help of an expert winemaker, James assumed the responsibility of principle winemaker.
“It was the only way for us to have control of our wine,” says Mary. “It gave us the flexibility to be able to try and make as much variety out of what we actually grow as we can. Out of the four varieties, we can make nine to 10 different lines of wine. Now, it’s 99 per cent of our grapes in the bottle.”
However, to produce successful single vineyard wines is more of an art than the larger scale commercial operations. “It’s been a steep learning curve. It’s really difficult to make wines that are seriously drinkable and consistent in a marginal area for growing grapes (like Burnham),” explains James.
“We are like the humble peasant winemaker. We make wine from growing grapes, not, make wine from grapes. We have to deal with what the season gives us. It’s crafted from what we grow, allowing for the particular characteristics of the soil and vines to be expressed, season to season. If it’s a bad season we have to use our ability and skills to craft a decent wine as we don’t have a lot of blending options. Depending on the season, sometimes it’s not worth even picking the grapes; in 2017 we left some of the varieties on the vines.”
Straight 8 Estate produces a range of different wines to suit all tastes including chardonnay, two styles of award-winning Riesling, pinot noir, and Rosè all priced between $18-$22. They prefer to stick to a simple natural winemaking process, crafting it in small batches from 500l- 5,000l tanks and basic filtration.
Since their inaugural vintage, Straight 8 Estate has developed a loyal following. Aside from online sales, a presence in some supermarkets, and attending regular trade events, wine and food festivals and A&P shows, most of their sales come through their cellar door. Operational since 2012, the cellar door is open from 9am-6.30pm daily offering free wine tastings and while numbers through the door have steadily increased, it’s still not enough.
“If we could sell a bottle of wine for all those who having been meaning to stop, we’d be creaming it. But those that do stop, tend to buy. Quite often it’s not what they’re expecting, but once they’ve got over the fact that we don’t have any sauvignon blanc or pinot gris, they’re pleasantly surprised. You are never going to please everyone but getting people to taste your wine is half the battle,” says James.
In New Zealand, sauvignon blanc makes up more than 73 per cent of all grapes harvested. At the other end of the spectrum, riesling only made up less than 1 per cent, but James and Mary are committed to sticking with it.
“It’s under-rated; it would beat a sauvignon blanc hands down,” says James. “We don’t have a problem hand-selling it if we are selling it through the cellar door, but liquor shops have a problem selling it to the mass public. There are a lot of people trying to do a whole lot of things with Riesling in the wine making situation.”
James and Mary jumped on the bandwagon, choosing to carbonate a proportion of their Riesling. Named Fizzy Flappers, it’s a ritzy, refreshing, low-alcohol bubbly made from a blend of medium and dry Riesling that’s great for all occasions. “It’s been quite successful for us and it’s quite fun. We call it the lawn mowing special, when you have mowed the lawns at 4.30pm it’s something you can drink pretty quickly and not particularly alcoholic.”
While they can’t afford to put out a $10 bottle of wine in the shop (cellar door) for too long, they always try to have something on special. James says for a small producer like them with limited volume, $10 is about breakeven point by the time you factor in all the costs including taxes (government gets about $2.43/per bottle), the bottle, growing, pressing, making, labelling and boxes.
“The bigger volume, the cheaper it gets, but we don’t want to get bigger. This is all we need for what we want to do. We’ve just got to produce consistently better wine.”
On average Straight 8 Estate makes between 20-30,000 bottles of wine each year. “That’s only 7,500 people buying four bottles of wine each to sell it all, which is completely do-able,” says James.
James and Mary are in the same boat as many sheep, beef and crop farmers, struggling to get a revolving cash flow, but it’s multiplied because everything hinges on one, single crop which is hugely seasonally dependent.
“Our problem is that cash goes out and not much comes back in. We have one crop and it pretty much takes 18 months before you get a saleable item, and sometimes it can take two or three years to sell the bottles of wine. We also have to carry a lot of stock as well,” explains James. “To sell half a million dollars’ worth of stock, you need to have 1 million dollars’ worth of stock.”
“People think owning a winery is a hobby, but it’s serious. We still have bills to pay,” says Mary.
Many wine lovers have been seduced by the romantic ideals of owning a vineyard, but the reality is, it’s dam hard work with little in the way of financial reward, says James.
But at the end of the day, this is their life. They don’t have any children, they’re in it for the long haul and they remain wildly passionate about growing grapes to make seriously drinkable, award-winning wine.