Published September 20th 2022 BayBuzz Magazine
Things don’t happen slow with Emma Lowe. “I said to Marcelo, if you come to New Zealand and decide you like it and want to stay, then we’re going to have to get married,” she shrugs. “So he came here on a fiancé visa and nine months later we’d had a wedding, had vines in the ground, a winery about to be built and babies a few years later.”
Located on the Crownthorpe Terraces, 40 minutes drive west of both Napier and Hastings on the quiet vastness of Matapiro Road, the entrance to Monowai Estate sits just past the stately, historic, Charles Natusch-designed Matapiro Station Homestead and directly opposite the stately, historic, Natusch-designed St Georges Memorial Chapel. It’s the westernmost winery in the region and it’s pretty much the middle of nowhere.
There are lots of ways to describe Monowai Estate. Quiet achiever might be one. ‘Under the radar’ would be another. While it’s true that in the 20 years since they launched, Kiwi winemaker Emma and her Chilean husband Marcelo Nunez have notched up an impressive array of awards and an increasing presence on restaurant wine lists around the country, it’s also true that many Kiwi wine lovers have never heard of them. They are so far under the radar they’ve been practically subterranean.
The first thing I notice walking into Emma’s office is an old, well-worn, La-Z-Boy, which Emma says has soothed many a tired body during the 20 years of long harvest shifts. “It’s the most important piece of furniture here,” she says. Marcelo bursts into the room, frantic from prepping for an upcoming sustainability audit and hurls himself into the chair. Crack! Something inside the old seat gives way, but there’s no time to grieve.
Monowai began in the early 2000’s when Emma’s beef-farming parents, Norman and Lynette Lowe, looked to lure their daughter home from abroad by purchasing land to grow a vineyard. She’d trained in Adelaide and California then began working in France, South Africa and Switzerland before meeting Marcelo in Chile while working for an English wine consultancy. “They liked hiring Kiwis because we’re detail-oriented and good at doing the paperwork” she says, glancing at Marcelo. “Always on about the paperwork!” he laughs, rolling his eyes.
They both worked (as friends) at a 5 million litre winery in Colchagua in an isolated community. So, with not much to do outside of work, romance soon blossomed. When Lynette called with a ‘vineyard at home’ proposition, “The offer was too good to not do it,” smiles Emma. “I had no idea where I was coming to,” shrugged Marcelo, “but I follow her.” Much to the sadness of his very close-knit family. “It was very hard on my mother. I had been away before when I joined the army for a year’s service like most young Chileans, but it was still hard for her.”
The task of turning the 25ha property into 22ha of vineyard began instantly upon arrival. “First we had to clear the stones from all the earthworks that’d taken place,” Emma says, locking eyes with Marcelo in a split-second acknowledgement of a shared trauma. These weren’t just any old stones. Out here in the RD9, the Ngaruroro River, carving its way oceanward from the Kaweka Range, has left terraces littered with large boulders that locals not-so-lovingly refer to as ‘Matapiro swedes’.
Tonnes of stones cleared from the property are stacked alongside the winery and serve not only for sculptural effect, but as a painful reminder of the spine-straining effort it took to build their dream. “It wasn’t just rocks either,” adds Emma, “a large shelter belt had to be cleared, and the tree roots, my god, we had to dig them out and it literally took …” Marcelo finishes her sentence, “Weeks and days and months.” “Mum drove the tractor pulling a big tip-trailer and we followed her, clearing the rocks and roots by hand.” The vines were planted in the heat and the dust. “We wore ski masks. We were scarred for life,” Emma adds. “We love the idea of experimenting with inter-row cover crops, but we can’t bring ourselves to cultivate the ground for fear of all the extra stones that’d appear!”
Emma designed the winery herself. It was completed in just 5 months back in 2005 and it’s perfectly purposed for their needs. Perfectly except for one tap, which Marcelo firmly points out, is in the wrong place. “Let’s not dwell,” I say, diverting to other challenges.
Marcelo’s biggest mission was learning English. “So hard,” he laments. “Despite having an amazing English teacher in high school, I was actually a terrible student, but he believed in me when I didn’t. He told me one day I’d do amazing things and possibly travel far away from my country. I wish he could see what I am doing now. He would be proud.” To force him to improve his English, Emma assigned him all winery related phone calls. “Suddenly he had to have conversations and it worked. But when I went to Chile, I had no choice!” she laughs, “Nobody spoke English.”
Extremely house-proud, Marcelo loves it when the vines have all been trimmed, the rows mowed, and it all looks neat as a pin. His other loves are horses (he has two), chickens, “I’d farm chickens if I wasn’t growing wine because it has great cashflow, plus I love chickens.” And (because the mighty Ngaruroro River borders their entire property), trout fishing.
Emma’s favourite gadget is her crossflow filter. Very geeky, but also essential when you’re pumping an average of 240 tonnes of fruit through your winery each year. “The most we ever did was 270 tonne but ended up fermenting merlot in the picking bins!” she laughs.
They’re also passionate compost makers, blending wood chip, pea hay and grape waste together to spread around the base of the vines to keep them healthy. Speaking of health, an extensive, native regeneration plan is also underway along the bank between the vineyard and river where invasive blackberry was cleared, and flaxes, kōwhai and mānuka planted to complement existing natives. The winery is also cloaked in flaxes, helping it blend into the landscape. And what a landscape it is. “We sometimes forget how lucky we are to live somewhere so stunning.” Emma locks eyes with Marcelo and they both nod. “We’re reminded every time visitors come here and say ‘wow’”.
With new labels designed by Havelock North firm Font, Emma is working on expanding their domestic distribution and upping their game on social media. But after 20 years, together with children Anita (14) and Lucas (11), they now have a dynamic, sustainable, expanding business and the hard graft is paying off. “It had to work. We had no choice,” shrugs Marcelo. “I used to think it was all so hard, hard, hard, but looking back, I’m so proud of what we’ve made.” He hoists himself out of the old La-Z-Boy, ready to launch back into a wintery afternoon of pruning. “It’s no chicken farm, but I love it. Some days I can’t believe it.”
Explore the Monowai wines and the story at monowai.co.nz