Frank Yukich: pioneer of Marlborough wine industry

10 Nov 2020

Until the 1970s, the conventional wisdom was that the South Island was too cold to grow grapes. In 1973, Frank Yukich sparked the modern wine industry in Marlborough when he went against the grain and bought up farmland for vineyards. His decision ignited one of New Zealand’s most famous wine regions and awoke the world to New Zealand wine. Nearly fifty years on, we look back at Frank’s remarkable life.

Frank Yukich

Frank grew up with wine in his blood. He was the son of Ivan and Mandica Yukich who purchased land in Oratia, in the Waitakere Ranges to establish a vineyard, just two years after they immigrated to New Zealand from Dalmatia.

The family moved onto land they purchased in 1937. Frank’s son Fabian says, “It would be generous to call their first house a cottage. It had no power and no running water and had been converted from a former life as a hen house. None of the children could speak English when they started school.”

Ivan Yukich worked hard to plant the vineyard and other crops. In 1943 he built a new brick house at the other end of the property. Behind that house was a small wine cellar where the first wine business operated under the name of I Yukich & Sons.

In 1944, I Yukich and Sons sold its first wine. At 12 years of age, Frank left primary school and went to work on the family farm with his father and older brother Mate. Frank was not given any choice about leaving school, so he started correspondence school which he continued at nights for 6 years to improve himself.

By the late 1950s the wine shop was under the house of Frank and his wife Elsie who he married in 1955. West Auckland was dry back then and crowds would flock in for their ‘samples’ on a Friday night, says Fabian. “In those early days for the wine industry, it was a social thing.”

The area was known to be “quite bohemian”, with more than its fair share of artists, photographers, and it was also home to a community of Croatians, many who were in wine. “Between our house and Henderson, there were 10 wineries.”

As Fabian’s father Frank and uncle Mate grew the wine business – living on the vineyards with their own families – as other crops were replaced by vines. A little further away at Mangere, Frank’s brother in law George Fistonich had just established a wine label called Villa Maria in 1961.

Frank Yukich Montana Winery Auckland
Frank at Montana Winery

The same year, Frank and his brother set up their own company, Montana Wines Limited, and by 1973 the Titirangi winery was “huge, with a million gallons of storage and a bottling line running 24 hours a day.

As a boy, Fabian would watch his father building big five-year plans with a spreadsheet, a pencil and an adding machine. Once the numbers were down, Frank set to work fearlessly, no matter how “brazen” the plan, says Fabian.

“Frank had this amazing energy about him and he dragged people along with him.”

“What was extraordinary about Frank was that he was a dreamer. He dreamt in truly big scale, far beyond where he came from.”

In the early 1970s, Frank put a deposit on 1,600ha of farmland on Marlborough’s Wairau Plains, on the advice of DSIR scientist, and later Montana viticulturist, Wayne Thomas. Wayne had investigated Marlborough as a viable winegrowing region and recommended it due to the climate, sunshine hours, and soils. Frank purchased the land secretly, “paying the deposit with his own money,” says Fabian. “He took a massive risk.”

By that time Montana Wines had taken on outside investors to fund expansion, and when Frank told the board what he had done, they initially refused to support the move based on the young viticulturist’s review. “If they hadn’t changed their minds, he would be been bankrupted there and then.”

On 24 August 1973, in front of a crowd of local media, politicians and business leaders, the modern Marlborough wine industry was born. At the time, Frank made the statement that “wines from here will become world-famous” – and indeed they have, receiving many prestigious awards and accolades around the world.

Frank Yukich (right) receiving the Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the wine industry at Government House.
Frank receiving the Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the wine industry.

Establishing a new wine region took a lot of experimenting as they learned how to harness the southerly environment. Some of the original vines were replaced with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir in 1975.

This decision proved to be an inspired one, setting the scene for a global phenomenon unprecedented in the wine world, with the release in 1979 of the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Acclaim quickly followed and other iconic brands were established in the region. Montana’s role was recognised in 1989, when Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II visited Brancott Vineyard.

Today, Sauvignon Blanc is New Zealand’s most widely planted variety, famous around the world, Marlborough is our biggest wine region and New Zealand wine exports are worth nearly two billion dollars.

Frank brought together a place and variety that combined to produce one of the great global wine styles. It was a decision that forever changed New Zealand wines' place in the world. 

“He changed the whole landscape of the New Zealand wine industry…. and he changed himself from an uneducated, unsophisticated Oratia farmboy to a well-read and well-presented businessman equally comfortable in the company of vineyard workers or prime ministers.”

Fabian Yukich

It’s hard to guess what the New Zealand wine industry would be like today without the bold decision of a remarkable man.

Read more stories

Back to top