James and Annie Millton are to organic wine what cocoa is to chocolate. The two are inextricably linked and today the name Millton is a by-word for organic wine certification.
Millton Vineyards began life in 1984 and it didn't take long for the company to become the first producer of certified organic wine in this country; in 1989.
"The health of our workers was on the line," recalls Annie Millton, who once told me in an interview about her and James' journey into organic wine production at their now iconic Gisborne winery.
Their vineyard workers had rashes that came and went but were particularly pronounced whenever they used the man made sprays that were deemed part of the necessary routine to get grapevines to grow and remain disease free.
"I started putting two and two together and we decided to stop using sprays, which meant that we had to find another way to work with our vines," says Annie Millton.
It also meant working with the environment instead of fighting against it - "We work for ease rather than dis-ease," is one of James Millton's often repeated refrains.
The Milltons became New Zealand's first vineyard and winery to have Bio-Gro certification in 1989 and the rest is history, so to speak.
Today the Millton Vineyard is fully certified as biodynamic too with Demeter certification, which was gained in 2009.
“It is the penultimate form of growing things,” says James, who is a member of the Renaissance des Appellations; a French biodynamic group, to which he has belonged since 2004.
The English translation of the name means ‘return to the land’, which is exactly the aim - to look after the land rather than merely take what it provides.
Young James' and wine
By the time he was 14, James Millton was picking all the fruit he could find from the scrubby blackberry bushes growing in the wild near to where he lived on the South Island's west coast.
It picked the fruit so that he could ferment it because he was fascinated by the process. And yet it was a book, rather than a sip, that set him on the path to making wine. ‘The Boot’s Home Brewing Guide’ was given to him by his father.
“My father passed on ‘The Boot’s Home Brewing Guide’ to me and said ‘I think you should read this’. That was the beginning of the end. I believe now that you get one piece of information in your life, which becomes a major lead.
That was mine.”
The real beginning of the end – of his childhood at least – was being expelled from high school for fermenting fruit. He then became “a pest” to wineries, writing to every one he could find, asking to be taken on as a trainee.
The chief executive of Montana Wines was then Russell Gibbons, who relented and offered Millton a cadetship, after his fourth letter.
“By that stage he realised I was quite determined, I think,” says Millton, adding that “by that stage I had written so many times and finally told him that ‘I got booted out of school for making wine - how about it?’ that it worked. I was taken on as a cadet.”
The rest is history in the making.
Organic wine tastings in store...
Join the team at Regional on Saturday 14 September from 1pm in store and on Wednesday 18 September from noon for our two organic wine week tastings.