Possibly profitable: Graham Wilkinson's land at Gibbston which he wants to subdivide for up to seven houses

The economics of growing grapes in Gibbston has been sniffed, swirled around, savoured and spat out during Environment Court hearings over the last two years. The conclusion: the economics are more complex than a glass of pinot. MARK PRICE reports on the angst in the valley over houses replacing vineyards

Developer Graham Wilkinson has 8.9 hectares of former vineyard in Gibbston he wants to subdivide for up to seven houses.

Some see that as sacrilege in a valley renowned for growing grapes and making good wine.

During two Environment Court hearings, the experts argued over the valley’s ability to grow grapes.

For those opposed to Wilkinson’s plan to put houses on grape-growing land, the first hearing went well.

Enviro Court judge John Hassan was presented with soil maps from the Otago Regional Council’s GrowOtago website showing the site, along with several others through the valley, as having ‘‘Melanic soils’’.

Landcare Research described them as ‘‘perhaps the most naturally-fertile soils in New Zealand’’, able to grow high-quality pinot noir.

The soil was likened to Burgundy.

But, giving evidence on Wilkinson’s side of the case, Dr David Jordan described the maps as ‘‘inherently imprecise’’, and so it proved.

By the time of the second hearing, late last year, Wilkinson had had soil samples from his land analysed by an expert.

His verdict: ‘‘ … there are no Melanic soils present at the site.’’

Housing plans: Developer Graham Wilkinson

Jordan also rated Gibbston as ‘‘somewhat inferior to other grape-growing areas of Central Otago’’.

Retired viticulturalist Robin Dicey, of Bannockburn, says Gibbston vineyards don’t yield as many grapes as places like the Cromwell Basin, because of its higher altitude and colder climate.

However, he says: ‘‘I do want to stress that that does not in any way impinge on the quality of what is produced.

‘‘Please don’t leave that bit out.’’

He notes a trend among Gibbston wine makers.

‘‘Some of the bigger players opted not to buy land when it was available in Gibbston.

‘‘They instead went to either the Cromwell Basin or Bendigo.’’

His son, James, explained to Judge Hassan a vineyard on the Wilkinson property could be profitable in the hands of a ‘‘skilled and experienced operator prepared to take the investment risk …’’

But, he said, it could take 16 years to reach break-even.

Hassan also noted Jordan’s view there would be ‘‘little or no margin for a vineyard to cover its overhead costs or provide a reasonable return on investment’’.

And, in his evidence, Wilkinson told Hassan the last time the land was used for grapes, the owner went bust.

An anonymous resident using the pseudonym ‘Kinross’ tells Mountain Scene the best way to make a profit from a small Gibbston holding is to do the pruning, bud-rubbing, leaf-picking, frost-fighting, bird-scaring, grape-picking, wine-making, marketing, sales and distribution yourself, rather than using contractors.

He points out to Scene more than one untended, overgrown vineyard in the valley as evidence developers prefer to encourage the view the economics favoured houses over vines.

But, in the end, vineyard profitability is not the main factor that will influence the High Court.

It will consider a planning document unique to the valley entitled the ‘Gibbston Character Zone’, and the fraught matter of reverse sensitivity.

Next week: Conflict between vines and houses in Gibbston was foreseen decades ago, but the conflict lives on