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Ata Rangi is one of New Zealand’s most outstanding international wine brands, driven by a dedicated, passionate team. It’s an inspiring export story 34 years in the making.
 
Late March/early April was not exactly an ideal time to be approaching Martinborough’s iconic Ata Rangi vineyard for a story (or any New Zealand vineyard for that matter!) – they were full-on with the 2014 harvest, working 15-hour days. So full credit, and thanks, to the management team for finding the time in their busy schedule to talk to Exporter.
 
Ata Rangi means ‘dawn sky’ or ‘new beginning’ and that’s exactly what the vineyard symbolised for its founder Clive Paton when he purchased a barren five-hectare paddock on the edge of the town of Martinborough in the Wairarapa back in June 1980.
Clive, a young sharemilker, had come across a scientific report in the late 70s that suggested Martinborough’s climate and growing conditions were very similar to those of Burgundy in France, considered the home of the world’s finest pinot noirs. 
Undaunted by his lack of viticultural knowledge and experience and the fact that his mates thought he was mad, Clive sold his cows to buy that small block of land.
“He knew the dry, windy climate and the stony soils well,” explains Ata Rangi co-owner and marketing manager Phyll Pattie, who takes up the story. “He skinned his knees playing rugby on the harsh Martinborough gravels enough times to know the scale of the challenge he was up for.”
Clive’s vision and enthusiasm proved infectious. In 1983 his sister Alison bought an adjoining two-hectare paddock, which was also planted out; and three years later Clive met Phyll, then working at Montana. Today all three are sole and equal shareholders in the family company – and active in managing and driving the business, along with long-serving winemaker Helen Masters, vineyard manager Gerry Rotman, and, most recently, business manager Pete Monk.
 
“You don’t have to be massive to get your fair share of heart and focus with your distributors. You must ensure not only that they love your product, but they ‘get’ who you are.”
 
In 1986 Ata Rangi won the very first Gold Medal for the fledgling Martinborough region – it would be the first of many for the vineyard.
Clive had given himself ten years to produce a great wine or he’d quit. Pumpkins and garlic grown between the rows of grapes and grave-digging for the local council put food on the table in the meantime. In 1990, exactly ten years after buying the land, the first tiny profit was recorded. “A real cause célèbre,” recalls Phyll.
A unity of vision and a common purpose has played a vital role in the business’s success. Phyll describes it as a “total focus on quality, whatever it takes; plus enormous patience and a relentless refusal to compromise”.  
 
Conquering export markets has been about winning allies and wine competitions.
“Our first foray into export was with Margaret Harvey, New Zealand’s first Master of Wine and the first person to import New Zealand wine into the UK,” says Phyll. “In those days we were one of only 90 registered wineries, so it was much easier to get noticed by the media and the close-knit Masters of Wine group in the UK.”
Ata Rangi’s credibility was boosted by a decade of consistent Golds and trophies at various Australian and New Zealand competitions, she adds, followed by winning the coveted International Wine and Spirit Competition Bouchard-Finlayson Pinot Noir Trophy in London two years in a row – 1995 and 1996. 
“We won that again in 2001, before pulling out of the ‘competition circuit’ altogether, having felt we’d delivered on the purpose of entering them,” says Phyll. 
“The awards had built brand awareness in key markets, especially the UK, Australia and US. The rest from that point came down to building an effective and efficient distribution model in those markets and a platform to spread further.”
 
Fine wine, fine achievements
There’ve been many standout moments for Ata Rangi. In the early years one memorable achievement was shifting the mindset of controversial American ‘wine guru’ and critic, Robert Parker who had long been openly scathing of New Zealand ‘attempts’ at producing quality reds. That all changed when he tried the 1995 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, describing it in The Wine Advocate as “an amazingly complete wine with a complex Burgundian personality that made me rethink my position concerning the potential for classy red wines from New Zealand.”
Nowadays, being listed in some of the world’s finest restaurants represents achievement. Phyll reels off names such as Rockpool in Melbourne and Aria in Sydney; Per Se, Gramercy Tavern and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in New York; Zuma in London and Hakkasan in London and Shanghai. 
“The recognition of Ata Rangi Pinot Noir as one of only two ‘Grand Cru’ in New Zealand with the ‘TipurangaTeitei o Aotearoa’ honour from our industry peers in 2010 was another defining moment,” she says.
A major achievement for Clive came in 2012 when he was appointed an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit for his contribution to viticulture and conservation.   
For 15 years Ata Rangi has supported major conservation initiatives, including Clive’s planting of more than 50,000 trees at the Ata Rangi Bush Block, south of Martinborough. This project led to the support of Project Crimson, the rata and pohutukawa charitable trust. More recently, Clive was instrumental in establishing the ambitious Aorangi Restoration Trust, encompassing over 40,000 hectares of the Aorangi Forest Park and surrounding privately owned hinterland. 
2013 was a big year for Ata Rangi (and supporters from the Wellington region) when the vineyard won the Global Gold category and Supreme Award at the Wellington Gold Awards. “I guess its just further recognition of the depth, breadth and strength of our business,” says Phyll.
 
Export lessons   
Slowly dipping their toes in export waters meant Ata Rangi could experience markets with minimal risk.
“We’ve been canny, I think, in realising the importance of choosing like-minded, quality-focused importer/distributors to work with; people whose company we enjoy,” says Phyll. “Open, honest communication and mutual respect is vital, as is experience in handling the ebbs and flows of both volume and vintage variation. 
Allocating wines fairly across all 26 markets is important when, for example, there’s a big crop shortfall due to spring frosts,” she says.  
A huge bonus of being small and ‘fine-wine’ focused is that you’re part of an informal but mutually supportive global ‘club’, adds Phyll. “This means you can check other producers’ experience of a particular suitor or marketing partner you’re considering working with. With Google, it’s also dead easy to check with restaurants and retailers on how well they’re serviced by a particular distribution company.”  
 
Ata Rangi is also part of a collaborative export marketing collective known as ‘The Family of 12; New Zealand’s Wine Family’ – six North Island and six South Island producers who’ve worked together for ten years. They share the cost of co-promotions in offshore markets; openly cooperate on market intelligence, viticulture and winemaking field days; and exchange information and advice on a raft of industry-related matters. 
“The second generation of many of these family wineries are now getting to know and support one another which is a whole new, interesting and rewarding phase,” says Phyll.
 
Her advice regarding overseas distributors is to be exacting of your needs – obtain timely and accurate sales, customer and stock-on-hand data as well as general market information. 
“Train them well, not only [in our case] about the wines, but also on our unique ‘terroir’ and what makes our tiny region so special. 
“We’ve found you don’t have to be massive to get your fair share of heart and focus with your distributors. What you must do is ensure not only that they love your product, but they ‘get’ who you are; your brand, your people and what you’re trying to deliver. 
“Keep them informed of what’s happening at home. Treat them as true marketing partners, share in successes and welcome them as family when they visit,” she says.
 
Industry outlook
Ata Rangi’s three founders  believe 2014 and 2015 are shaping up as interesting years for the industry. For anyone hoping China would be the answer to surplus stocks, their government’s recent austerity measures have definitely curtailed sales of premium wine, says Phyll. 
The unstable political situation in previously promising emerging markets like Russia and Thailand, growth-inhibiting tax hikes on wine in other Asian markets and the strong Kiwi dollar can all be added to the list of challenges.  
 
On the plus side, there are signs of economic recovery in the UK, parts of Europe and the US.  Both the 2013 and 2014 harvests have gone extremely well across almost all wine regions which means excellent quality wines are now coming through. 
“Our own goals are to maintain our overall export income at just over 60 percent of total sales, and increase demand for our wines in strategic markets,” says Phyll. 
The reality is that we’ll be delivering on the industry norm of working a little harder every year, with further pressure on the things that aren’t necessarily linked to pure production. 
 
“For example, our talented winemaker Helen Masters is in ever-increasing demand internationally as a speaker and Ata Rangi brand ambassador, yet still has a huge job at the winery. We know that presence in markets by her, or other team members who share the offshore calendar, is a critical component of future growth. 
“However, the one thing we won’t be doing is allowing that to dull our focus on the stand-or-fall aspect of our business – producing outstanding wine.”
 
Glenn Baker is editor of Exporter.
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