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General Blog

Book Review- The Next Vintage, By Michael Bassett and Judith Bassett


Josip Babich first harvested his grapes in Northland to make wine in the autumn of 1916. This book was written by historians Michael and Judith Bassett to commemorate and record a century of winemaking by Josip Babich and his descendants. The book is sub-titled ‘The Babich Family and 100 years of New Zealand Wine’. The book recounts the trials, tribulations and triumphs of one the great and remarkable families of the New Zealand wine industry.

Beginnings in Dalmatia
The story starts in the village of Umljani in Dalmatia where Josip’s parents Petar and Iva Babic decided to send six of their teenage sons into the wide world in the hope of better lives. Josip and his brother Stipan left Dalmatia in February 1910 to join their brothers Jakov, Mate and Ivan who arrived in New Zealand earlier. The Babic brothers joined a population of gum diggers in the Far North. There they established a family business that grew into a provisions store and then a gum broking based in Auckland.

As a sideline, Josip developed a vineyard and produced his first wine from vines planted in Kaino in 1916. The family had concurrently acquired land at the top of Metcalfe in Henderson, 72 acres in 1911. From then, they made further purchases of property nearby, planting crops, fruit trees and vines and establishing a dwelling. From the grapes here began a commercial winegrowing and selling business in full swing by the 1920s. It did not take long before Josip Babich (the family name Anglicised) and his brothers became integral with the Dalmatian winegrowing scene in Henderson.

Josip married Mara Grgich in 1929, and grew their family with Ivy, born in 1930, Peter in 1932, Shirley in 1936, Maureen in 1938, and Joseph in 1940. Following Josip’s brother Stipan’s marriage, the family holdings were divided so that Josip ended up with the vineyard, and Stipan the orchards and horticultural land. Josip continued to grow the business and became part of the next generation of wine industry leaders, including George Mazuran, Peter Fredatovich, Mate Selak and Mate Brajkovich.

Peter and Joe Babich Join the Business
The Babich story takes another step with Josip’s sons Peter and Joe joining the business in 1948 and 1958 respectively. From the founding of the business, the company saw through a remarkable history which included Prohibition, the Second World War, the struggle for acceptance of wine as a beverage and the change from primarily fortified wine production to table wine making. Peter, and Joe in particular raised the level of technical quality of their wines, so that Babich became very highly regarded. Sister Maureen also became fully involved in company administration.

Babich Wines underwent considerable growth in the 1970s, as part of the increase in the New Zealand wine scene, expanding vineyard and enlarging the winery. Peter was integral in the formation of the Wine Institute of New Zealand in 1975. His role for Babich was primarily in sales. Joe took a greater responsibility in the technical side of the business, becoming recognised as a talented wine judge. Babich began purchasing fruit from outside their Henderson vineyards, from Gisborne in 1977, this region supplying 60% of the company’s fruit by 1982. By then, exports had become a significant market for Babich Wines.

1984 saw the first purchase of Hawke’s Bay fruit, from the ’Irongate’ vineyard, and the company soon invested in Hawke’s Bay land in 1988 on Korokipo Road in Fernhill, then in 1989 with 25 acres in the Gimblett Gravels. The wines from Hawke’s Bay performed exceedingly well in wine shows. The 1980s were a mixed time for the Babich family, with the expected growth pains. 1983 marked the passing of founder Josip Babich. The decade also saw a consolidation of the business in all aspects, from exports, marketing and production, with increased staffing with focussed roles. This included the likes of Michael Cooper, Martin Tutty and Neill Culley. This period no doubt has contributed to the solidness of the company today.

The 1990s saw the rise of Sauvignon Blanc as one of the most important wines for Babich, especially in export markets. In 1998, Babich Wines purchased the 42 ha ‘Wakefield Downs’ property in the Awatere Valley. Other purchases of land in other sub-regions followed, and the company’s Marlborough vineyard holdings now form the major part of the land owned by Babich.

The New Generation
From the late 1990s, Peter Babich decided to reduce his wine involvement, remaining as chairman, with Joe stepping up to general manager. Neill Culley took a greater role in business and as chief winemaker, and introduced Adam Hazeldine, who joined the company in 1996, who would eventually become senior winemaker on Culley’s departure in 2001. In 2001, Peter’s son David came to Babich Wines as assistant general manager. Other members of the Babich family are closely connected to the business, and it will not be surprising to see their greater involvement.

The last decade and a half has seen further additions to the Henderson winery and land acquisitions in Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough. With Marlborough as the largest source of grapes for Babich, the company became involved in Vintech and then Rapaura Vintners to solve logistical issues with winemaking. However growth and the desire for full control of the winemaking process led to the commissioning of Babich’s own Marlborough winery in 2014. This is typical of the family’s meeting current and future challenges. The company celebrated 100 years of winemaking in 2016. This is indeed an incredible achievement. This long history of tradition and experience will no doubt see Babich carry forth with great confidence and success.

I’ve spent much of this review highlighting the important markers for Babich Wines since its inception over a century ago. I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the stories that the book covers and which can be told. The authors have shown their understanding of the Babich history with plenty of detail, demonstrating the thorough research, as well as their four decade connection with the family. Their writing style is historically based, but is very readable due to their capture of the personalities of the people.

The Bassetts have also faithfully recalled the culture of the time, and noted the greater picture in both domestic and world events, putting the Babich story in its place. Reading the book, one easily gets a feeling for and understanding of the social and political forces operating at the time. The Babich Wines story reflects the evolution of the New Zealand wine industry, and also the development of this country. For a person such as myself, who is fascinated by how the New Zealand wine industry came about, it’s an excellent overarching publication.

The Next Vintage, By Michael Bassett and Judith Bassett
David Ling Publishing Ltd, Auckland, 2015, ISBN 978-1-927305-10-2
RRP $49.99
Copyright © 2011 Raymond Chan Wine Reviews
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