It is not often you come across a situation where the quarry neighbour gratefully appreciates any dust coming their way. ALAN TITCHALL explains.
When not writing about extraction and civil contracting I write about food and wine. Late last year I attended a media lunch hosted by Villa Maria to sample some of the company’s top, single vineyard wines.
Included was the Villa Maria Reserve (Reserve Barrique) Chardonnay from Gisborne. As a venerated Kiwi wine maker, Villa Maria is no stranger to awards and accolades, but this particular chardonnay has picked up more (award) gold than is mined out of Waihi in any given day, without mentioning the numerous prestigious show trophies it has taken home.
Most of the fruit (grapes) comes from a tidy, gently sloping, little vineyard called McDiarmid Hill on the base of Gentle Annie (a bloody big hill to Gisborne’s north-west).
There are many reasons why this chardonnay is consistently one of the country’s most awarded, among then the advantageous position of the vineyard and the skill of the wine making. But you could have knocked me over with a feather when Villa Maria’s company viticulturist Oliver Powrie told me, with a bit of a grin, he is pretty sure the dust from the local quarry also has something to do with the quality of the McDiarmid grapes!
These grapes are grown on eight hectares next to the entrance to Patutahi Quarry that is leased from the McDiarmid family.
The quarry, owned by Rock Products, produces gabion, chip, road stone and agriculture lime from a very hard lime resource on the sides of a valley where the McDiarmid farm starts to get very steep. The pit operation is currently working the steep southern slopes. On my visit in February, when the temperature was hitting 30 degrees, you could see dry lime dust gently drifting down the valley and settling over rows of grapes as they ripened towards their autumn harvesting.
Frank Alderton, Rock Products managing director and son of the quarry’s founder Jack Alderton, laughed down the phone when I mentioned the award-winning neighbouring grapes.
“About time we started charging them for the dust,” he says.
Frank was away on the day of my visit to the quarry so my host was quarry veteran Mike Ross, the operations manager for Rock Products and Frank’s nephew.
Mike has a long affiliation with Patutahi Quarry having started his quarry career there in the 1970s. He rejoined the company in 2005 after “a six-year sabbatical” with Fulton Hogan at Reliable Way in Auckland, and then with the Isaac Construction Company in Christchurch.
“I started here at the age of 12 digging a lime scraper out with an enamel mug,” he says. “I did manage to get a reasonable engineering education when I was younger so I didn’t have to work here and, funnily enough, I am still here.”
The lime on McDiarmid’s farm has been extracted for over 100 years, starting as a Public Works Department quarry in 1915 to supply ballast to the doomed inland railway to Wairoa. The government abandoned it around 1923. In 1946 Jack Alderton bought the site and brought it back into operation with a new crushing plant using a mixture of the old machinery and abandoned rail lines – still in use today. “Stripping on the steep hill was carried out by hand,” says Mike.
“The overburden was thrown downhill with shovels, where it was removed by an Aveling-Barford AG dumper.
“This was loaded by a trackscavator, the company’s first new machine, purchased off Gough Gough & Hamer in 1948.”
[We will feature the old machines still used in this quarry in the June/July issue of Q&M.]
It’s still a tough quarry to work in, Mike adds.
“A bloody lot of work – dust in the summer and mud up to our knees in winter.”
Rock Products is in the process of buying more land from the McDiarmid family and is wading through the inevitable ‘red tape’ that goes with such a large transaction. At the moment the quarry is partly leased and partly owned by Frank Alderton.
“It’s a convoluted bit of dirt,” says Mike. “It was just too hard to work out when we were quarrying lease land or our own, so we agreed to pay royalties on all material.”
Villa Maria set up the vineyard next door in 1998 on a right of renewal lease arrangement and the relationship has been a close one since.
However, the fact the vineyard produces one of the country’s top white wines is lost on the quarry workers. Mike himself is a non-drinker and, typical of most quarry workers, the rest of the staff prefers a cold beer.
“I do appreciate the ‘dark art’ of wine making and that vineyard does collect a lot of awards,” Mike concedes.
“Tony [Tony Green, the viticulturist at McDiarmid] is not getting any smaller, and every time he gets up on stage, to collect another award for his chardonnay, his suit has shrunk some more. We might have to shout him a new one this year.”
Over the phone Tony Green reciprocates the good neighbourly bonding, but plays down the role of the free lime from the quarry.
“It could certainly help,” he admits.
“The soil is mostly light pumice and doesn’t hold a lot of minerals and is very low in lime, so the irony is we still have to buy in lime.”
The neighbourly relationship goes a lot deeper than fertiliser, he adds.
“We get on very well with the quarry and even share the same entrance. In the early days, when they reclaimed land near us, we built a dam together on our vineyard from a spring and a swamp, which was very useful for irrigation when the plants were young. It’s still a good resource for the likes of spraying.”
I mention to Tony that Rock Products is going through a consent process to extend the quarry and is thinking of filling in a little gully between them with (lime overburden), which may be offered to Villa Maria for leasing.
“I heard that,” he says.
“That land would have the same nor-east aspect for good grapes.”
And closer to the quarry operation means more free lime, I suggest?
“Yes – it all helps thanks.”