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Remembering William Hill Grant (14 August 1931 - 13 February 2017) - one of Central Otago's great wine pioneers

A trip to Europe, a 25 hectare block of land on Dunstan Road and a question, “Why can’t we grow grapes in Central Otago?” are what inspired William (Bill) and Gillian Grant to experimentally plant grapes on their land on the outskirts of Alexandra in the early 70s. Having considered other uses for their land including breeding pigs and growing asparagus, Bill and Gillian were keen to see if grapes would be the answer for their sandy soils.

In 1973 the Grants planted the first vines on their land (sourced from cuttings) which included some Muller Thurgau, Chasselas and Riesling to see “what might happen”. At the time Verdun and Sue Burgess were also interested in growing grapes on their Black Ridge property across the river. There were also other pioneers in Central Otago at the time dabbling with the idea of creating their own “liquid gold” including Ann Pinckney at Taramea Vineyard, Alan Brady at Gibbston Valley Wines, Rolfe and Lois Mills at Rippon and Rob Hay at Chard Farm.

After an initial meeting with the other Central Otago winemaking pioneers it very quickly became apparent that the way forward was to work collaboratively together. From the sharing of ideas and knowledge to collectively purchasing key items such as vineyard posts, both Bill and Gillian were very involved in the initial establishment of a wine industry in Central Otago.

This group then set up the Central Otago Winegrowers’ Association which was formed at Olivers in Clyde in 1986 with Rolfe Mills as President and Gillian being appointed as secretary.

Whilst many grape varieties had been planted as trials in the region, the group collectively decided that Pinot Noir would be the way forward. Interestingly enough, one of the successful early crops at William Hill was Sauvignon Blanc, however Marlborough had already firmly established itself as the Sauvignon Blanc mecca of the South and our similarities with Burgundy convinced the group that Pinot Noir would thrive in Central Otago.

In the early 80s the Grants received a mixture of two-year-old vines from Akaroa near Christchurch and in 1982 they went to work planting out William Hill Vineyard . A winery soon followed and the first commercial vintage of William Hill wine was bottled in 1987 under the watchful eye of winemaker Rudi Bauer.

Initially the wine was taken to Rippon to be bottled and it was a real “community effort”, involving a labour intensive chain gang. Quality control was always of the upmost importance and involved a very technical analysis of drinking copious amounts of the wine regularly.

Always looking for their next project, the Grants could see another opportunity and commissioned a purpose built mobile wine bottling operation which would be housed in an 11m truck and semi-trailer. It was the first of its kind in Australasia and was designed to tour boutique-sized wineries in the South Island bottling wine and still beverages.

Charnwood Estate Bottling Company was established in 1993 with partners Peter and Kirsty and Morley Hewitt . The speed of the system and quality of the bottling process improved the overall quality of the Central Otago wines and was a key turning point in the success of the Central Otago wine industry.

A second mobile bottling truck was constructed but by 2000 the demand for the mobile bottling service had become too great and the company decided it needed a base and Vinpro Limited was born. The Grants have remained shareholders of VinPro Ltd as the company has continued to grow with the region’s wine industry.

Bill was an entrepreneur, a forward thinker and had a huge love of life. Always looking for his next project, Bill was never scared to take a risk with a “we can do it” attitude.

We remember Bill Grant as someone who has made an enormous contribution to the establishment of the Central Otago wine industry.


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