Phyll Pattie and Clive Paton: Champions of Pinot Noir

02 Aug 2022

Clive Paton and Phyll Pattie have a knack of knowing when something feels just right. That intuition has seen these partners in life and business grow the Ata Rangi brand into one of New Zealand’s top Pinot Noir producers, with a global reputation and following.

Joelle Thomson

Phyll Pattie & Clive Paton

Their inauguration as 2022 Fellows of New Zealand Winegrowers – recognising their ambition for Pinot Noir and strong focus on environmental sustainability – has led them to reflect on their lives. “We have to say ‘wow’ at being able to be part of the journey of New Zealand Pinot and the sense of belonging it has given us,” they say. “Both in this country’s wine industry and in being members of the Family of 12.”

“We have to say ‘wow’ at being able to be part of the journey of New Zealand Pinot and the sense of belonging it has given us.”

One of Clive’s earliest ‘just right’ gut feelings was the day he went to Martinborough in the late 1970s to look at a piece of land he had heard might be suitable for a vineyard. “As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to buy it. The timing felt right.” He was a single dad, raising a young daughter alone and feeling like “a round peg in a square hole” in his work as a sharemilker. He had always liked wine, “so I felt a natural attraction to the fledgling Martinborough wine scene”. The region’s climatic conditions were on his side. “The influence of Martinborough was so strong in terms of giving us good Pinot from the start that most of the job was done, which made some things easy,” says Clive, who entered winemaking without any scientific training. “I was a farmer but found it really interesting going up to Hawke’s Bay and talking to winemakers up there, learning about spraying and, most of all, being validated for having a hard work ethic, which is something I already knew plenty about.”

“I made a mental note early on that I wanted to be among the top five red winemakers in New Zealand. If that sounds ambitious, maybe it was, but it seemed like the natural thing to aim for.

The El Nino vintages of 1981, 1982 and 1983 made life difficult, but Clive learnt fast how to get vines growing. One of his early successes was the purchase of 3,000 cuttings of Abel clone Pinot Noir from customs officer Malcolm Abel, who had a vineyard in West Auckland. “One morning he confiscated a gumboot with half a dozen Pinot Noir cuttings in it. We still don’t know who he took them from or what year it was, but I had heard about him and bought the vines.” Clive worked a vintage with Malcolm in West Auckland in 1981, and, with little time to talk, was invited to return the next year. But Malcolm died soon after, leaving the Abel mystery unsolved.

The first vintage of Ata Rangi (Māori for new beginning) in 1984 was Pinot Noir blended with other red grapes planted at the time, so the first varietal Ata Rangi Pinot Noir was made in 1985. “That wine was noticed,” says Clive. It also reinforced his unspoken aim to make the best. “I made a mental note early on that I wanted to be among the top five red winemakers in New Zealand. If that sounds ambitious, maybe it was, but it seemed like the natural thing to aim for. I didn’t say that to anyone. It was like making a mental note that if, in 10 years’ time it hadn’t worked out, I’d change tack. I couldn’t see the point in trying if I didn’t aim for the top.”

In 1986 there was another ‘just right’ moment, when Clive met Phyll at Montana Wines in Marlborough. “I remember thinking ‘this could be it’,” he says. Phyll, who has a food technology degree, had her first job with Peter Hubscher at Glen Innes, where she was responsible for receiving wine from Marlborough. “Then I got offered a job as a winemaker in Marlborough and went down to Montana and took over the team there,” says Phyll. “I bought a lovely little house there and met Clive when he came down with a group of Martinborough winemakers in 1986 and we met at the winery and then at a party. It all happened pretty quickly.”

“Martinborough is dry, hot and windy in spring and summer followed by warm, long autumns with typically low rainfall, despite this year’s unseasonally high rainfall. It works,”

Within a matter of months they were swimming down the Tauherinikau River together, ticking one another’s mental check lists of what they were looking for in a partner, which included, among other things, a love of tramping and walking. It was the moment the couple fondly refer to as the “Tauherinikau River test”.

Phyll moved to Martinborough in 1987 and began making Chardonnay and Riesling, while Clive looked after the reds. They worked together to build the brand, with Phyll driving Ata Rangi’s marketing. “When we look back at our lives, we have to say that was a pretty amazing time,” says Clive. Ata Rangi was New Zealand’s 90th winery, “now we’ve got this huge $2 billion industry and there are so many things the industry has achieved”, he says. “Such as the Family of 12, which has been one of the greatest things to be part of.” Meeting and developing close relationships with others in that collective of wineries spread across New Zealand, “made us feel part of something much bigger than ourselves”, he adds.

They both attribute much of their success to the now famous Abel clone of Pinot Noir and the region’s growing conditions. “Martinborough is dry, hot and windy in spring and summer followed by warm, long autumns with typically low rainfall, despite this year’s unseasonally high rainfall. It works,” says Clive.

Self-described as a mad tree planter, Clive purchased a 121-hectare block at Tuhitarata, 18 kilometres south of Martinborough, in 2002. He’d discovered the land, nestled into the Aorangi Forest Park, when asked by a real estate agent to evaluate the suitability for grapes of a gravel terrace in front of it. Clive wanted a place he and Phyll could go to for a break. “It’s very good living and working in a village, in terms of being able to sell wine, but you’re in demand all the time. I needed a place where I could plant trees too; it was in my bones, and we needed somewhere to get away.”

Native plantings are a passion at Bush Block, but eucalypts are also integral, because he sees them as the best answer to replace the chemically treated pine posts that currently dominate New Zealand’s vineyards. “Other than a love of planting trees, the post issue is an area that I thought needed addressing. In general as an industry we are not thinking 50 years or 100 years ahead and sustainable trees are the best resources to use, which include such trees as eucalypts.”

The couple’s succession of good choices has led to a long string of accolades. These include Clive being made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2012. He was also awarded the inaugural Tipuranga Teitei o Aotearoa, or Grand Cru of New Zealand, in recognition of the long term consistency of Ata Rangi Pinot Noir. And Ata Rangi Pinot Noir has been the three times winner (1995, 1996 and 2001) of the Bouchard Finlayson Trophy for Champion Pinot Noir at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.

The environment is close to his heart, and Clive also won a Wellington Region Conservation Award for his outstanding contribution to conservation; the Supreme Award at the Ballance Farm Environment Awards; the Innovation Award at the Habitat Improvement; and the 2006 Hills Harvest Award for soil and water management.

He notes that budburst and harvest dates have moved forward, and that shift is likely to continue. “If I was starting again, I’d probably go to Waitaki, if I wanted to focus on Pinot,” says Clive. But there’s still
a future for it in the Wairarapa: “We have later ripening varieties that are going to help us through, if it comes down to getting too hot for Pinot.” They are also offered some protection by the east coast “which doesn’t give us the heat of a continental climate, thankfully”.

One of Clive’s earliest environmental influencers was his grandfather, who planted trees like there was ‘no tomorrow’ on the family farm in the Waikato. Meanwhile Clive’s father planted the wine seed, having been stationed in Italy during World War II. “I remember that we sometimes had wine on the dinner table when we were growing up. I can remember a bottle of Moscato and you can taste the grape in that wine. It made a lasting impression.”

This was first published in New Zealand Winegrower magazine issue 136 and is republished with permission. 

 

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