The Prestons of Mills Reef Winery

Paul, Paddy and Tim in the cellar, Mills Reef

THROW BACK! Mills Reef were on the FIRST EVER cover of UNO back in autumn 2005. Read our cover story in issue 40 to find out what they are up to, now.

Mills Reef cover UNOMutual respect and regard between father and son are often gauged by actions not words. There’s a chemistry which can be palpable to the observer even although few words are spoken. The Prestons are like that. Respect I suspect has evolved through upbringing and later through hard work together in establishing one of Western Bay’s highest profile and most successful businesses, The Mills Reef Winery.

Founder Paddy (Warren Mills) Preston was one of a family of six boys all channelled through a good Presbyterian background at Scots College in Wellington. There is a large extended family in the Capital including the butchery shops Prestons, and Paddy’s own building family. He’s been known by his Irish nickname from childhood and with wife Helen they have four children – daughters Karenza and Melissa, and sons Warren and Timothy. Tim has worked closely with his father for some decades and as the company’s winemaking team. The Prestons moved to the Bay of Plenty in 1979.

When the building business dipped in the late 70’s, they sold up their assets in Wellington and opted for the climate and favourite holiday beaches of Western Bay. The family started with a motel business, then bought a block of land at the bottom of the Kaimais in Belk Road and eked out a living grazing cattle and turning young pine trees into fence posts, among other things. Paddy continued with his lifetime love of experimenting and making fruit wines. This was the flush of the kiwi-fruit phenomenon, and son Tim split his time between studying horticulture, bringing home fruit from his place of work, then peeling by hand individual kiwi fruit and squeezing them for the wine base for his father’s closer attention – and continuing shoving pine saplings through a frightening machine to produce fence posts. Young Tim played rugby for the Tauranga Old Boys Club as a more than useful flanker and represented the Bay of Plenty as a regular fixture on the side of the scrum under coach and former All Black Graham Crossman and later Gary Jones between 1983 – 1987 before heading off for his OE and a season’s rugby in the United Kingdom. Tim has now been involved in winemaking with his Dad for 20 years and was groomed for his future career by a Professor Malcolm Reeve while studying at Massey University. The academic had a particular penchant for wine-making and was an expert in growing and processing various grapes, and the whole chemistry of winemaking. The professor ran courses through the holidays for a group of 20 students from throughout the country and Tim got his grounding under this tutorial.

Paul, Paddy and Tim in the cellar, Mills Reef

THROUGH HARD WORK

“I’d rate Dad as a workaholic and someone with an absolute passion for wine”, he said. “It is his life. He’s no good at golf, but is a seriously good cook, especially when trying out new things to do with fresh produce, and when he does take a holiday, he can’t wait to land back in Auckland and head home to his great love – the estate here in Tauranga. However in his time he was a useful rugby and tennis player – I guess you could describe both of us as the rugby, racing and wine type of kiwi”! The old Royal Air Force motto ‘per ardua ad astra’ could apply equally to the Preston philosophy – ‘through hard work, the stars’. Tim explains that nothing came easily. “Even the development of fruit wine was a story in experimentation, trial and error, and additional activities to maintain some semblance of a cash flow while Dad struggled to perfect and to get acceptance for this new brew of his”, he said. “He is no stranger to hard work, and when eventually the industry took off, acceptance of Preston’s fruit wine took off with it – especially in Japan where a taste for fruit wine is much more of a tradition that here”. Even today it remains a success story with some 15,000 cases, still with the Preston label, exported to Japan each year. But it was the grape that Paddy really had his eye on – and all the good things that come from growing and processing the right varieties. “I always knew New Zealand had the potential to produce wines on a par with any of the famous wine regions of the world”. And he set out to prove it.

PROVING A POINT

In 1989 he purchased a fully producing Hawkes Bay vineyard and from an initial plot of 20 acres, the vineyard at Mere Road has grown to 40 acres with the purchase of an adjoining property in 1995. The winery owned vineyard now provides the grapes for its top Elspeth wines of chardonnay, syrah and a selection of the Bordeaux varietal reds while the balance of up to 1,000 tonnes of fruit processed per year is supplied on long term contracts with Hawkes Bay growers for the winemaking operation in Tauranga. The family purchased the current estate in Bethlehem in 1991. Tim recalls that, at the time, there was a lull in the fortunes of kiwifruit so it was a propitious time to buy, even although it was a ‘huge stretch’ economically at the time for the Prestons. “It’s hard to believe now but here was hardly a house in sight then. It was a couple of years later we decided that the brand needed a home on this site. We introduced a little bit of Hawkes Bay to the Bay of Plenty by engaging architect Trevor Jones to design an art deco building for the headquarters and winemaking operation.
The ancillary activities such as the restaurant, shop and tasting facilities were all designed to augment the Mills Reef brand”. The rest is history. The building is now a familiar landmark in the region, set in lush grounds of lawns, trees and shrubs and dominating what is now an intensive up-market housing suburb of Tauranga. BUSINESS STABILITY The company itself has gone from strength to strength, due in no small part according to both Paddy and Tim Preston, to the recruitment of a good financial controller in 1996 to provide the operation ‘with a bit of backbone’. Nick Aleksich, although born and bred in Taumarunui, has Croatian parents and his father still visits the family property there regularly each year. He studied business management and accountancy at Waikato University and after a stint working with the New Zealand Dairy group, moved to the Bay of Plenty as a lifestyle choice.
He introduced to the Preston’s company a more disciplined approach with effective financial management systems and business stability. He is now the general manager of Mills Reef Winery. The status of the Preston family and their Mills Reef Winery was reinforced with the recent accolade accorded them of New Zealand Winemaker of the Year, following on from the 2003 award of New Zealand Champion Winemaker from the New Zealand Wine Society.

Paddy and Tim Preston, Mills Reef

A QUESTION OF PRIDE

Paddy Preston smiles with an undisguised look of satisfaction when asked to comment on such awards and the outstanding success of
his company. “I’m very proud” he says humbly. This pride is reflected in the strong sense of history and family associations which have become an integral part of the winery. Paddy Preston’s birth name is Warren Mills Preston. The Mills part refers to his great grandfather, Charles Mills, a sea captain before pursuing mining interests in New Zealand and becoming a member of Parliament under Dick Seddon from 1890 – 1808. Mills Reef is a reference to him and his exploits both watching for reefs at sea and seeking that elusive reef of gold with his mining pursuits. The other family connection is the brand of the company’s premium wines, fondly named in honour of and as a memorial to Paddy’s mother Elspeth, a Scottish version of Elizabeth. “She was the sheet anchor of the family – the matriarch if you like” he recalls. “She held the whole family together and was one of those people that never even failed to remember the birthdays of her great grandchildren. Everyone loved her very much. She died just over a year ago and her memory is a treasured one and nicely captured in the Elspeth range of fine wines – our very top of the range and the best we can make”. She also produced a pretty smart son!
Paddy Preston will forever be the innovator, the experimenter, the seeker of perfection and the believer that the New Zealand wine industry is still young enough to indulge all these traits while still producing a product which can foot it with the best. THE HAWKES BAY CONNECTION It sounded a bit like a war zone. Gas induced explosions echoed from the surrounding hills, sirens ‘wheeped’ as though some hapless speeding motorist was on the run somewhere on Highway 50, and loud speakers broadcast to those who would listen sounds of birds in distress. These were all part of the constant battle between grape loving birds and the crop shepherds tending vast acreages of valuable vineyards using a variety of electronic and computer controlled scarecrow devices to protect the vines until harvest. We met up again with Tim Preston at the south-west corner of the 40 acre block which is the Mills Reef Hawkes Bay connection – the company’s own vineyard. It looked like rows of vines growing in a river bed of gravel with little signs of soil and that’s just what it is. This is the now famous Gimblett Gravels region and home of some of New Zealand’s ‘big reds’ including the company’s own premier line, the red Elspeth range. Next door is an even bigger acreage owned by the Craggy Range Winery, another company to gamble on the potential of the former river-bed in the Flaxmere district. Gimblett Gravels is now a familiar and world-renowned wine growing success story. It is an area running either side of Highway 50 for a couple of kilometres just south of Hastings and formed a hundred or so years ago when the Ngaruroro river changed course and left the stony silt-bed there for the taking – or ignoring. Some innovative and imaginative types decided it was worth a punt. “There has been a lot of hard work and some risk involved in getting this area into successful production, but it’s now proving its worth especially with the quality of the merlot, syrah and even pinot at the river end of the block”, said Tim. REALIGNING THE VINES “When we purchased this block one of the first tasks was to realign the vines from east to west to north and south to take full advantage of the sun for our comparatively long maturing and ripening period until harvesting between March and April. That was a major mission in itself so our plants range in age from nine to four years old because of this replanting programme”. In this ground the roots of the plants go deep looking for silt beds underneath – sometimes up to 60 feet – and nutrients, organic fertilisers plus irrigation are also applied to help them on their way. Tim pointed out that the longer ripening period in many parts of New Zealand, including Hawkes Bay, put the whole wine-making process ‘right on the edge’ compared with the hot and comparatively short maturing times leading up to harvest in parts of Australia or places like Spain. “But it is also our point of difference, giving a climate and time-frame to achieve special and unique flavours in many of our wines especially some of the reds”, he said.

FULL OF SMILES

It was raining heavily in mid-March when we visited the vineyard, not the most propitious weather conditions approaching the harvest, but the long-term forecast was all good news through until the end of April. In fact the province was full of smiles in anticipation of one of the better grape harvests for some time. Tim took us from variety to variety, explaining the special qualities of each and the expectations in terms of the upcoming harvest.
He pointed out, for instance, that the pinots had only a single bunch per stem, so while the volume looked surprisingly light to the layman, these were the top quality varieties harvested by hand, as opposed to machine harvesting for some of the middle of the range produce. “Although machines are getting more sophisticated and effective as technology improves, there is still the likelihood of some stalks or leaf being pressed with machine-harvested grapes which affect taste and the quality of the wine. If you look at the economics, you would machine harvest every time, but when you’re seeking absolute quality with the ‘no expense spared’ approach, hand harvesting does afford you the maximum control over the wine-making process from the outset”, he said. The company’s home vineyard of 40 acres is only part of the supply needed for the winery at Tauranga. Mills Reef buys product from ten others growers in the region to make up the one thousand tonnes of grapes made into a range of wines including chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, gewurztraminer and the range of reds. The chardonnay is 100 percent fermented and, along with the reds, aged in French oak barrels – and at about $1,500 a throw, these are not cheap!

INTENSIVE MANAGEMENT REGIME

There is also a special ten acre block where the Mills Reef team is experimenting with an intensive management regime – vines planted closer together with lower canopies. Tim is confident about the eventual successful outcome and potential productivity increase without any sacrifice to quality. Finally, in response to the question: “why is the vineyard situated in Hawkes Bay and the factory in Tauranga”? Tim said it was an interesting decision but one which had turned out well. “Tauranga is where we began our operation and there is that family and historical connection. But in practical terms it has also turned out to be the ideal ‘front of house’ operation for us with our winery, point of sale, restaurant, hospitality facility catering for up to 250 guests, conference facilities, and 20 acres of landscaped grounds all together on what is a quite stunning site at Bethlehem – one that is ideal for through traffic and tourism. It is working well for us”, he said.

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