John helped represent New Zealand’s wine industry throughout periods of major change, including geographical diversification, growing exports, and the “intense” time of Covid-19.
“It’s easy to be wise afterwards. But when I think back to March 2020 it was huge,” says the 2021 New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW) Fellow, recognised for his service to NZW and the New Zealand Grape Growers Council (NZGGC).
Following 12 years as Gisborne Mayor, John became President of Gisborne Winegrowers. Five years into that term, in 2007, he joined the executive committee of the NZGGC, of which he was President for the last two years of a seven-year commitment. He was an alternate member of the NZW board from 2007, becoming a full board member in 2012 and Deputy Chair from 2013 to 2018, while also Chair of the Advocacy Committee.
John became NZW Chair in 2018, before stepping down from the board in 2020. “I decided at that point of time it was time to give that side of the world a miss,” he says. “I had done my time and I was of the view that if we were going to get new people into governance then some of us needed to get out.”
The last period was “intense”, John says, with Zoom meetings in lieu of a board table, as the wine industry grappled with running vintage as an essential service during a Covid Alert Level 4 lockdown.
He recalls two or three phone calls a day with NZW Chief Executive Philip Gregan as the wine regions – and particularly Marlborough – managed the complicated business of a Covid harvest.
“By and large” the industry did a great job adjusting their businesses to comply with regulations, “so grapes could be harvested and wine could be made”, he says. Beyond the hard work from individual industry players, “that was part of a huge effort from the NZW team to get information out”, he adds, crediting the wine industry for adapting swiftly, while other primary producers grappled with the challenge.
John grew up on a farm in Gisborne, and returned to the region after studying agriculture at Lincoln, and working five years on farms around the country. He and his wife Barbara bought a 25-hectare farm in 1972, grazing cattle on the hills and planting crops on the flats, until the potential of a permanent vineyard crop caught his attention.
John planted his first 4ha of Müller-Thurgau in 1982, choosing potted grafted vines in lieu of the phylloxera vulnerable sticks being planted by most, “which was a bit of a new experience, planting those in a stinking hot summer”.
Gisborne was growing as a wine region, with Montana, Corbans and Cooks all in place, and the Clarkes grew for Nobilo, “on a drive to expand their area of Müller-Thurgau”.
The vines thrived in the deep Gisborne soils. “The first decent crop we had off the 4ha was 40 tonnes to the hectare, which I think contributed a hell of a lot to what happened then”, he says, referring to the “famous or infamous” vine-pull of 1985, “when the industry got a little bit ahead of itself”. That was “a challenge”, he admits, but unlike many around them, the Clarkes didn’t choose to take the money and pull their vines to replant. Instead, they sold the fruit (“more or less gave it away”) at $250 per tonne, riding out the storm.
Then an actual storm hit, with Cyclone Bola tearing through Gisborne in 1988, leaving their vineyard damaged by silt, while their home was written off. In 1989, with a growing vineyard, a new house build, and four young children at home, John satisfied the “governance gene” lurking within him, becoming Mayor at “a satisfying time to be in local government”, he says, 32 years on. “I wouldn’t want to do it now.”
When the mayoralty role ended in 2001, the Clarkes began switching all their vines to Chardonnay, and these days the home vineyard, and an expansion across the road, are dominated by that variety, alongside a small amount of Gewürztraminer.
There’ve been plenty of other changes, with Gisborne now a small portion of the New Zealand wine package, and increasing land competition from kiwifruit and apples in the region. Meanwhile, John remains trustee of the Bragato Trust, the Chair of Trust Tairāwhita and a member of several other Gisborne boards, including one for a group of Kiwifruit investors. “Although, I’m conscious that it’s probably time to be spending a little bit less time on the tractor thinking about governance, and more downtime with our eight grandchildren.”
This story was first published in New Zealand Winegrower magazine issue 131 and is republished with permission.