Babich Wines: Semillion and the city
Nestling between the McDonald's and the petrol stations of downtown Auckland, New Zealand is a small vineyard with some big wines. David Robertson talks to Joe Babich about the potential of green fields co-existing with the urban brown fields.Off the highway in any suburban sprawl and the signs of city-life are usually the same across the world. KFC, Burger King, petrol stations and the odd shopping mall are all lined up at regular intervals. But what you don't expect to see is a sign indicating a vineyard and, through the gaps between the fast food outlets, vines crammed between houses.
"Zoning is a political minefield but it seems they are listening and we will stay as long as we can afford to"
But as suburbs migrate further and further into rural lands, particularly where cities are built around access to cars, agricultural operations are inevitably swallowed.
The Americans, particularly in California, experienced this first and have passed a number of planning and zoning laws to keep areas like the Napa Valley green rather than concrete grey. But Australia and New Zealand are now struggling to deal with the same problems. Vineyards established early in the 20th century many miles from cities, are now surrounded and the cost of keeping that land has caused many operators to up roots and move to cheaper areas.
"The urban sprawl is really gobbling up a lot of very good land but it is not economically viable for vineyards to stay," said Joe Babich, chairman of Babich Wines in Auckland. "We cannot make it gel to have a large amount of land in the city. We would rather see the land with cattle on it but hopefully we can co-exist."
Joe & Peter Babich
With massive Asian and Pacific Island immigration, Auckland now has over a million residents but the population has spread out across a huge area (Auckland easily covers the same area as London or Paris).
The wine industry in West Auckland has been devastated as the city has grown. Misty Valley, West Brook and Lincoln grow their grapes elsewhere with their land being sold for housing.
Babich, Nobilo's and Matua Valley still have city vineyards but have much larger estates in other parts of the country. West Auckland, which once produced 40% of the country's wine now accounts for just 1%. Action, however, is being taken to keep the wineries and vines in place. West Auckland councils became interested in helping the wine companies when it realised that the 20 wineries in the area employ 300 people and contribute $335m to the local economy.
Babich has housing all around its Henderson vineyard but has successfully managed to keep its 40 acres zoned as rural and it will pay less rates than the surrounding residential land. "Zoning is a political minefield but it seems they are listening and we will stay as long as we can afford to," said Babich.
"We have land in the Hawke's Bay and Marlborough and take grapes from contractors as well so the Henderson site is not vital to the operation but we'd like to keep it." While local councils are now moving to protect their inner city vineyards the wine companies themselves have not yet realised one of the obvious benefits from city-living - lots of neighbours.
Babich admits that cellar door sales are not a significant part of the business, although neighbours often wander in. If wineries are to survive in cities they will need the help of local government but they will also have to help themselves by making it an economic opportunity.
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