This year marks 40 years since Neal and Judy Ibbotson began their grape growing venture, after answering an ad by Montana looking for contract growers in Marlborough.
“We didn’t know a lot about it, really, but our land was free draining, and situated in a good climatic part of Marlborough. So I guess that was the basis of it. But we really didn’t know a lot about grape growing at the time,” Neal says.
With a hands-off background in horticulture and agriculture through his work as a farm consultant, Neal, with help from Judy, set about turning their pig farm into a vineyard.
“I continued doing farm consultancy during the week and worked on developing the vineyard in the weekends. It was hard work, with a steep learning curve, but it was fun establishing a new enterprise,” Neal says.
“We learned by experience, but we were also fortunate in that we were contract growing for Montana Wines and they were very good about supplying practical information for establishing grapes. We also attended short courses at Lincoln College to expand our knowledge.”
First planting two hectares, Neal and Judy went on to purchase more vineyard land and vineyards, and now have 14 vineyards in Marlborough, as well as one in the Hawkes Bay.
The couple made the transition from growing for Montana to owning and operating their own winery in 1994, when they established Saint Clair Family Estate.
Their success over the last 40 years, Neal says, is merely a reflection of the success of the Marlborough wine industry as a whole.
“I think our success, if you could call it that, has really mirrored the success of Marlborough, and the success of the other family wineries that started at a similar time to us and that includes Hunter’s, Allan Scott and Wairau River Wines,” he says.
“It’s been a lot of hard work, but we have been very fortunate because of the quality people that we have worked with. Any success has been due to quality people, quality vineyards, quality in the winery, quality distribution and quality in everything we do.”
Neal sees knowledge building as one of the keys to quality building, and points to a collaborative effort from their team, both in the vineyards and the winery and entire wine industry for being able to build that knowledge.
“More knowledge gives us higher quality wine, which results in more markets, and better distribution, and more sales of high quality wine as a result.”
“I think the most exciting thing moving forward for us is as we gain new knowledge, we make higher quality wine, and our aim is to be the best we possibly can and continue to be driven by quality. We have a business strapline of HDWDIB, which is ‘How Do We Do It Better’ and this drives the wine quality and it drives the business,” Neal says.