Monty Knight : A Passionate Winegrower
An avid storyteller, businessman, entrepreneur and viticulturist, Monty Knight is the proud owner of Kaitaia-based vineyard Okahu Estate. Located at the southern end of Ninety-Mile Beach and a ten-minute drive from Ahipara, the Estate features a small vineyard, cellar door and Monty’s home, where he nurtures a veggie garden and an exquisite range of palm and banana trees which, paired with the warm climate, make you feel like you’re in the tropics.
Monty has been living on the Estate for almost 40 years, starting his vineyard journey in 1984. A big advocate for promoting vineyards in the Northland region, Monty flies the flag for Kaitaia, saying it is a beautiful place to live with its diverse, mixed population, despite what some people might think. Monty has had a multi-faceted career in the entertainment industry and several business ventures, including purchasing the family business Knights The Jewellers in 1986, which he has since sold to his daughter Adeline. With stores in Kaitaia and Kerikeri, the business is a well-established family operation that is celebrating its 92nd birthday this year. “I’ve only got to live for a few more years and I can go to the 100th anniversary – wouldn’t that be great?” Monty said.
Okahu Estate is Northland’s most awarded winery, and is the first of its kind to grow grapes in the Far North. What started out as a passion project eventually led to overwhelming success; something that Monty never anticipated. “I got very passionate about drinking wine at a fairly early age and I was chastised by a friend of mine for buying wine from South Africa, France and Spain; this friend of mine, who happened to live in Rānui in West Auckland, said ‘why don't you start drinking New Zealand wines, you should be supporting New Zealand’. I thought I probably should, so I started looking for, and buying, beautiful New Zealand wines that had won awards and I followed the award system. Eventually, I thought, why can't I just grow some wine for myself?” he said.
From that moment, Monty started trialling grapes on a few acres at his Okahu Estate property. He planted his front paddock in vines with 50% of them proving unsuccessful. With little experience at the time, that didn’t stop Monty from continuing his vineyard. “I was very lucky because I had a Swiss friend whose family had been cidermakers. He lived in New Zealand and he helped me quite a bit in the early days. His name is Jack Burkhardt and he helped me to understand how I needed to spray, when I needed to spray and what sort of things I needed to do to get the right grapes. We had a few difficult years at the start, but slowly the vines grew, and with more knowledge, eventually I got a crop."
Abel Estate's winemaker Nick Chang helped Monty to make his fi rst batch of wine, and he even bought gear from Malcolm Abel to get him started on his winemaking journey. “I began to work out that I needed to grow something that really suited Kaitaia, the Far North and its environment. Prior to planting the vineyard, I ran a series of seminars in Kaitaia and Kerikeri to try to persuade other people to plant a vineyard. There were quite a lot of people in the kiwifruit industry in the 1980s who weren't doing too well and some of them pulled out their kiwifruit vines and planted a vineyard."
"One of those companies is a vineyard called Marsden Estate, which makes absolutely wonderful wine, and Rod MacIvor and his wife, Cindy, became good friends of mine. So I built a collection of people that decided they'd like to grow vines, with the idea of having people throughout Northland growing vines so there would be a reason for visitors to come to the Far North and try our wines. This has been largely successful because there are now about 50 members of the Northern Winegrowers and Grapevine Improvement Association,” Monty highlighted.
When the time came for Monty to extend his knowledge and improve the quality of his wines, he went over to the Hunter Valley in Australia and was introduced to a wine called Syrah which he used to grow in his vineyard, and it has easily become one of his favourite wines. “Syrah comes from the Rhône Valley in France and it came there via the Parisian kings and princes who had holiday homes in the Rhône Valley. They came from Shiraz and they brought their grapes with them, and that's how the wine industry got established in the Rhône Valley. So, I went to Australia, found Shiraz and I thought I'll come back and plant some here. With the help of the Business Development Board, I planted a crop of Shiraz and eventually, by about 1994, I managed to produce a gold medal-winning Shiraz. In fact, the original consultant that worked for Abel Estate said to me that this is going to be your first gold medal wine, and it was! It was a fabulous wine,” Monty said.
Monty is a retail businessman and entrepreneur, and for that reason, many people were sceptical when he started expanding into the wine industry. “I got an opportunity to speak upon getting the Champion Award for Okahu Estate’s Kaz Shiraz 1994 wine. I was even calling it Shiraz then, but we've now changed the name to Syrah which is the proper name. I got up and said, you know when we think about all those people who said, ‘what's he doing planting a vineyard up in Kaitaia, he must be mad’ or ‘Syrah, Shiraz, what does he think he's doing, that's never going to work'. Well, now we know we can tell them to blow it out their ass,” he said.
The key to producing great wine was not only through hard work and trialling different layers but also through connections with other winemakers within the industry. Monty developed great relationships with those who helped him to create award-winning wines, including Okahu Estate’s Chardonnay. “I was very lucky to talk to a guy who'd won winemaker of the show for his Chardonnay. He told me what the secrets were about making great Chardonnay; a lot of it was about different layers and having different layers in the wine, making it more complex and interesting. So I came home and I worked on my Chardonnays, and the next year I won four gold medals for my Chardonnay and one of them, in particular, won the Cuisine Chardonnay awards – it was a pretty good wine and we're pretty proud of that.”
With the current climate in Northland, Chardonnay is not viable anymore so Monty planted a grape called Flora, a Californian varietal that is a mixture of Gewürztraminer and Sémillon grapes. “We make a wine that's a little similar to a Pinot Gris but it's got more palate weight and spicier on the finish, and it’s got a lovely fl oral taste and smell to it, so they've been quite successful wines for us. I'm so proud of what we've done for the industry, getting it going here in the Far North, and there are other people now younger than me who are taking over and suddenly do an even greater job of it.”
In 2010, Monty was inducted into the Northland Advocate Hall of Fame, alongside Tom McKay and Michael Hill, and believes that his contribution to the wine industry had something to do with it. “Okahu Estate is in our exit years now, but we've currently still got wine to sell and we have lots of fabulous customers all over New Zealand who send us their orders or ring me up, and I know most of them by first name. It's been a great industry to be part of."
"I work out in the cellar door and you would be surprised by the number of amazing people who come and visit to taste some wine; some of them become regulars and some of them are from overseas, but I mean there are lots of wonderful people in the wine industry,” Monty said.
When he was at his peak, Monty planted seven acres with 5,000 vines – growing Syrah and Chardonnay. He is currently growing Flora and Chambourcin (a French-American variety that features dark purple grapes). Monty also bought grapes from Hawke’s Bay, Te Kauwhata, Gisborne and further north to supplement their growth as they used to produce wine onsite.
“It's a great industry to be in because people help each other. So, if you're a farmer in Kaitaia and your hay fails or your haymaker breaks down, your neighbours come and help you. With the wine industry, it's about the same. People help each other even though they are competitors, we've all got to help each other to build the industry. We've got a quality ethos and people are making good quality wines, and we're getting a good name for our products out on the market.”
Monty is now downsizing his vineyards to reduce the amount of work he’s doing, but he is still producing wonderful wines along with many others within the Northland region. He doesn’t want to retire, and with his spritely personality, you’ll find that he’ll always have a project on the go. During 2020, Monty and Joe Lewer, who has been the vineyard manager of Okahu Estate since 1992, pulled all the posts out and removed vines in their extended paddock with plans to cut up the land into four-acre blocks. They will then sell it off so that people who want to move or live in Kaitaia can have the opportunity to live on an ex-vineyard that looks out over the countryside. If you’re thinking of heading to Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough, Gisborne or Central Otago for wine tasting, Northland is becoming a thriving metropolis for the viticulture industry and is another humble and unique location to visit.
For more information about Okahu Estate, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website, https://okahuestate.co.nz/.