House – Autumn
Grant Taylor has turned an old, ramshackle woolshed on his Gibbston vineyard into a comfortable pad, Charmian Smith discovers.
At first glimpse the old woolshed in Valli’s Gibbston vineyard looks much as it must have done early last century with its rough weather boards and rusting tin roof.
However, closer inspection reveals a deck with an outdoor table, sun umbrella, and french doors, all shielded from the main highway to Queenstown by a long mound of earth planted with natives.
As we approach, Phoebe the black Labrador greets us. She is also known as Thiefie because she steals things – during our visit she emptied logs from a wheelbarrow, and spread them round the lawn!
The french doors open and Grant Taylor comes out to welcome us. These days, with 57 vintages (often two or more a year) behind him, he proudly sports a large curly grey beard to match his curly grey hair. Born just north of here in the Waitaki, he worked in California for several years before returning to Otago in 1993 as winemaker for Gibbston Valley Wines. Over 26 vintages in Central Otago he has watched the region expand from about 20ha of vines to more than 2000ha and is one of the region’s longest serving and most respected winemakers.
Back in 1998 he bought this land along the Gibbston highway, planted vines a couple of years later and started his own label named after his great-great-grandfather, Giuseppe Valli, an Italian winemaker who settled in New Zealand.
About 10 years ago he started renovating the dilapidated woolshed on the property, intending to turn it into his cellar door. With the help of a cousin he worked on it at weekends for about three years.
“I thought the council might have been a problem but they were very much in favour. They wanted old buildings like this to be done up. The only consent I needed was for the wood burner. The building was here already, I just tidied it up,” he said.
“When I finished I thought I could just live here. So I sold the house in Queenstown and now live in the vineyard which is perfect. Why would you live anywhere else?”
Inside, the compact kitchen is to the left of the french doors, and to the right, tucked in an alcove, is a small office where he works when not in his vineyards or at his winery in the Cromwell industrial area.
He points out marks on the floor where three shearing stands once stood and shows, a few steps below the kitchen and office level, where the sheep pens were. With a new floor and large windows it’s now a simple but comfortable living and dining area.
Someone told him he would never get rid of the smell of sheep manure but they cleared everything from under the pens and used it in the vegetable garden. There’s never been a problem with a smell, he said.
He took the corrugated iron off the roof, installed a new ridge truss, “insulated the hell out of it”, and relaid the old iron. The ceilings and walls are lined with Gib-board, big corner windows came from an Invercargill school, and they laid tongue and groove rata floorboards in the living area. That was the hardest thing, he said.
Rata is a very hard, heavy wood and difficult to work.
“If it was a millionth of a millimetre off – you can’t move this wood, it’s got no give. Each piece had to be squeezed in and jacked together and holes drilled for the nails. You couldn’t just hammer nails in. I don’t know how many packs of Chinese drill bits I went through to drill those holes. But you just take your time. It was a labour of love – it was fun and kept us out of trouble. It will never wear out,” he said with a laugh.
The timber, milled by a friend in the Catlins, was intended for a big building in Queenstown but the whole consignment was rejected because some of it was bowed. Grant was happy to take the timber as only a few pieces were actually bent, he says.
He also used the rata to make the kitchen bench tops and the large table with banquettes on two sides in the corner by the windows. Above the table is an unusual lighting feature, a riddling rack decorated with greenery and large preserving jars containing lightbulbs hanging from it. The greenery echoes the plants elsewhere in the room.
With art on the walls and arrangements of antiques and other decorative objects, it’s an inviting space.
Underfloor heating in the bathroom keeps it cosy in winter, and a wood burner heats the rest of the house.
Because it was a small woolshed there is only one bedroom but that doesn’t worry Grant.
“When I moved to Queenstown people said when you buy a house don’t buy one with a spare room because everybody wants to come and stay,” he quipped.
“There’s lots of good accommodation here [in Gibbston] now. I recommend people stay at Kinross - most of my friends are no longer 20-year old students with no money. They are retired and don’t want to stay in your house anyway.”
However, beside the house is what he calls his “host responsibility sleep-out” for friends who have enjoyed too much wine to drive home.
A winemaker needs a good wine cellar which the woolshed couldn’t accommodate so he buried a container under the mound outside. It naturally keeps a cool stable temperature but there is no electric light so he takes a torch to show us his wine collection inside.
It’s already full and now he wishes he’d got a bigger container, he said with a laugh.
At the far end of the house, where the wool used to be baled and loaded, are vegetable gardens, a glasshouse, and, tucked in a secluded corner, a hot tub.
Behind the house is a cosy outdoor seating area with a table, bbq and a pizza oven where pickers congregate at harvest time.
Further up the vineyard, more insulated containers are stacked, some for wine storage, and one, with french doors, is his partner Nicole’s jewellery studio.
Surrounding the house are native plantings including flax and kowhai that attract native birds – tui, kereru, fantails and bellbirds which sometimes make an almost unbearable noise, he says.
However, unlike waxeyes and sparrows, they don’t eat grapes so are no problem in the vineyard.
Near the gate Grant has planted six truffle-inoculated oak trees that he hopes will produce next year. He had a trained dog go over it last autumn but it found nothing, he said.
Unlike many Central Otago wine producers who focus on the warmer Cromwell basin at the other end of the Kawarau Gorge, Grant is a champion of the cooler Gibbston sub-region.
“Now the vines are getting some age, those green herbal characters that used to be in Gibbston [wines] don’t exist any more. You can pick quite early and you still don’t have green flavours – they are more floral. Vine age has a lot to do with it, also vineyard management, not overcropping, and leaf plucking, without question. There’s not much you can do in winemaking to change the flavours. It’s more viticulture and vine age – I know that from working this vineyard,” he said.
He’s also a strong advocate of the even cooler Waitaki area where he grew up long before vineyards were even imagined there.
“In Waitaki too, the vines are getting older. When they were young and struggling people didn’t know how to manage them, but now the management’s got a bit smarter over there. People realise they are smaller bunches and the canopy is going to be slightly different, and maybe lay an extra cane down.”
Living in the vineyard gives him a more intimate knowledge of the place and its moods. As he walks round the rows with Phoebe in the mornings and evenings he notices things that might have been overlooked – an irrigation outlet blocked or a cane that needs tucking, or which vines are ahead or behind the rest, he said.
His fascination with the unique characteristics of each Central Otago sub-region has grown over the years and his wines, several pinot noirs, a chardonnay, a couple of pinot gris and rieslings, and an orange wine, are each from single vineyards in different parts of Otago.
Over the past couple of decades, Valli has grown organically, he says.
These days he employs eight staff and owns or leases vineyards in Bannockburn, Bendigo, Lowburn, Gibbston and the Waitaki.
Having chosen to live in the renovated woolshed rather than turn it into a tasting room, Grant has his cellar door at Kinross bistro just down the road. There, people can taste and compare all his wines as well as those of several other nearby small wineries.
With its bar, cafe, outdoor pizza oven and seating area as well as accommodation, Kinross has become the social hub of the valley where locals meet on Friday evenings. Having a beer or glass of wine together makes for a friendly community, Grant says.