How a Lebanese immigrant pioneered one of NZ's most dominant wine companies

by Karl du Fresne / 28 February, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Corban wine industry

Assid Abraham Corban in 1892. Photo/Corban family

The trailblazing West Auckland wine family, the Corbans, has sold its last wholly owned operation, but the name will live on.

Assid Abraham Corban came to New Zealand in 1892. A formal photo taken after his arrival in Auckland shows a slim, dapper man, wearing the traditional garb of his homeland: pantaloons, embroidered waistcoat, pleated shirt and fez. He would have attracted curious glances in Queen St. Arabs were not exactly thick on the ground in late 19th-century New Zealand.

Corban had left his native Lebanon partly to escape religious strife. Although born and raised in a predominantly Muslim society, he was a Christian – a “mountain Protestant” from the village of Shweir, high on the slopes of Mt Lebanon.

A few years earlier, the country had been torn by a civil war in which an estimated 11,000 Christians were massacred. Tens of thousands emigrated. Most went to America, but a British missionary urged Corban to try Australia or New Zealand.

He was married with one young son and another child on the way, but he emigrated alone, as was often the way. He roamed the Coromandel gold towns as a pedlar and by 1897 was ready to send for his wife, Najibie, and children.

By then, he and two cousins were conducting business as general merchants in Upper Queen St, but Corban wanted land. To be precise, he wanted to plant a vineyard and make wine, as his family had done for generations.

In 1902, he found the site he wanted: a 4ha patch of scrub-covered gumland on Great North Rd in Henderson, in the shadow of the Waitakere Ranges. He planted about 1.5ha in grapes and called it Mt Lebanon Vineyards.

A dynasty was in the making. Mt Lebanon Vineyards would become Corbans Wines and would be, for much of the 20th century, dominant in the New Zealand wine industry, and a company whose identity was inextricably interwoven with the family who ran it.

Assid Abraham Corban and Najibie in the vineyard. Photo/Corban family

Assid Abraham Corban and Najibie in the vineyard. Photo/Corban family

A citation in the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame says Assid Corban didn’t start the New Zealand wine industry, but he and his family did more than anyone to commercialise it. As historian Dick Scott put it in his book A Stake in the Country, “Assid Corban created a remarkable human engine – a family commune that swept aside all obstructions in reaching its goal.”

One hundred and sixteen years after those first vines were planted, I’m having lunch in a Napier cafe with two of Assid Corban’s descendants. Brian Philip Najib Corban, at 71 the older of the two, is an Auckland lawyer and company director and a former chairman of TVNZ, Radio New Zealand and Genesis Energy, although he’s now winding down his legal and business career. With him is Alwyn Corban, founder of Ngatarawa Wines in Hawke’s Bay. Although only a few years separate them (Alwyn is 65), they represent different generations. Brian is a grandson of Assid Abraham Corban, Alwyn a great-grandson.

Another difference is that Brian, although a second-generation New Zealander, is 100% Lebanese. His father, Najib Assid Corban, married a Corban cousin, while Alwyn’s father, Alexander Annis Corban – Brian’s first cousin – married into a family from Gisborne.

Cousins Alwyn and Brian Corban. Photo/Tim Whittaker

Cousins Alwyn and Brian Corban. Photo/Tim Whittaker

The two cousins (which is how they think of themselves, although technically they’re first cousins once removed) have an easy rapport, although in some respects they’re quite dissimilar. Brian’s the talker of the two and literally looks up to his much taller cousin, who is reserved and quietly spoken. But both are instantly recognisable as members of the Corban clan, with distinctive facial features that persist through the generations.

I’ve arranged to interview the two Corbans because a family milestone, of sorts, has been reached, and it’s one that seems worth recording. Midway through last year, the cousins announced they were selling Ngatarawa Wines, the company Alwyn established in 1982 and in which Brian later became a partner. The Ngatarawa brands have been bought by Mission Estate Winery, which will lease the Ngatarawa winery and vineyards.

When I first put it to Alwyn that this meant 2018 would be the first year in more than a century that someone from the Corban family wouldn’t be making wine in New Zealand, he gently corrects me: his youngest brother, Jeremy, and Jeremy’s wife, Kate Jacobs, own the Big Sky winery in Martinborough. (By coincidence, one of Big Sky’s wines, a grüner veltliner, is on the wine list at the cafe where we have lunch; naturally, we try it, and it’s excellent.)

But Big Sky is a small, boutique operation, not in Ngatarawa’s league – and certainly not the major industry presence that Corbans Wines was for decades. So, in its own way, the sale of Ngatarawa is the end of an era for the Corban family, although another family link with the wine industry continues in the form of Corbans Nurseries, a propagator of vines that was founded by the late Joe Corban.

The parents in 1916 with, back row, Corban, Khaleel, Wadier and Annis; middle row, Zealandia and Zarefy; front row, Helena, Najib and Annisie. Photo/Corban family

The parents in 1916 with, back row, Corban, Khaleel, Wadier and Annis; middle row, Zealandia and Zarefy; front row, Helena, Najib and Annisie. Photo/Corban family

Sowing the seed

Before we go any further, a bit of compressed history. Being a Christian (he was a practising Anglican in New Zealand), Assid Corban apparently took seriously the biblical injunction to go forth and multiply. He and Najibie had 10 children; all five sons worked in the family vineyard and winery.

Mt Lebanon Vineyards made its first wine in 1908. It couldn’t have been a less auspicious year: prohibition fervour was sweeping New Zealand and Assid Corban was forced to become a vigorous advocate of the benefits of wine consumption.

The vagaries of licensing law also called for some lateral thinking. When the Henderson electorate voted to go “dry”, Corban was prohibited from selling his wine from the winery. But the railway line that bordered his property marked the electorate boundary, so he set up a sales kiosk just across the tracks. His customers included local Dalmatian families who would go on to establish well-known wineries of their own.

Corban also had to overcome anti-competitive practices of liquor merchants, who refused to stock his products in their brewery-owned shops, regarding wine as a threat to their beer and spirits sales. He did this by establishing a wine shop in Queen St.

By the 1920s, the company was prosperous enough for Corban to build a homestead that would later become the gathering place for generations of family members. Today, the house is the centrepiece of the trust-owned Corban Estate Arts Centre, which occupies the site of the original winery.

Assid Abraham Corban in the Henderson vineyard.

Pioneering days

Assid Corban died in 1941, aged 78, after collapsing at the side of the road while walking home at the end of a day’s work in the vineyard. He was found by Alwyn’s father, then a teenager. Brian never knew his grandfather, but he knew all “the uncles”, as he calls them, and is old enough to recall the last of what he terms the tough pioneering days.

“We were still planting our Henderson Valley vineyard then and still pulling up massive kauri logs. As kids, we would go around picking up kauri gum.

“I was the last one in the family who had first-hand experience of working with the old boys, and they were tough, I tell you. During the vintage, they would work all night in the winery and when they felt tired they would throw a couple of sacks on the floor and sleep for an hour.”

Brian says that generation of Corbans, like many immigrant families, was intent on assimilating into New Zealand society (although when Assid’s widow, Najibie, died in 1957, she was still speaking to her grandchildren in Arabic). But the younger Corbans were curious to know more about their roots, and for him personally, the Lebanese heritage was very powerful.

He eventually went to Lebanon in 2004 and found he had a “massive” clan still living in Shweir. “I met a cousin who could have been my twin brother.”

He says the New Zealand Corbans grew up imbued with a strong sense of obligation to family and community. Several family members were active in community affairs – among them his cousin, the second Assid Corban, who became mayor of Henderson and later of Waitakere City. Now in his 90s, Assid is the family patriarch. Brian Corban, too, has been active in public life, and was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008.

Tight family solidarity was a given. The Corbans often argued volubly among themselves – Brian recalls cowering under a kitchen table as a child during one volcanic disagreement during morning smoko – but they closed ranks if any family member came under attack from an outsider.

Khaleel, Zarefy and Annisie carry the message to Taranaki. Photo/Corban family

Khaleel, Zarefy and Annisie carry the message to Taranaki. Photo/Corban family

Industry leader

Iin the 1960s and 70s, with Alwyn’s father Alex as the company’s winemaker, Corbans cemented its position as the New Zealand industry leader with popular brands such as Liebestraum, Riverlea Red, Velluto Rosso (“red velvet”) and Premiere Cuveé.

It was a period of expansion and innovation. Wine companies were planting vines in new regions, adopting advanced technology and shifting from the production of fortified wines (port and sherry) to more sophisticated table wines. They were also introducing classical European grape varieties such as chardonnay (first planted by Corbans in 1965) and sauvignon blanc to replace the hardy but inferior hybrid varieties that had previously been the industry mainstays.

Corbans Wines was at the forefront of this charge into the future, but it was the beginning of the end for Corbans as a family company. Keen to retain industry leadership over the Yukich family’s up-and-coming Montana Wines, and needing additional capital for expansion and equipment, the Corbans turned for assistance to the tobacco company Rothmans.

An uncharitable analogy is that it was like selling their souls to the devil. What began as a foot in the door by way of a loan soon turned into management control by the big multinational and eventually a majority shareholding. The Corbans transferred their last shares to Rothmans in 1977, although key members of the family – including Alex and his brother Joe, who looked after the vineyards – remained with the company.

The last chapter in the Corbans Wines story was effectively written in 2000 when the company was absorbed by its old competitor Montana, although the Corbans brand was kept going under the new owners.

Striking out

Alwyn Corban had completed a master’s degree in winemaking at the University of California in the 1970s, and realising there was no future for him at the company that bore the family name, he struck out on his own. In the process, he became almost as much a trailblazer as his great-grandfather.

Alwyn was working at the McWilliam’s winery in Napier when a winemaker friend told him of a farmer, Garry Glazebrook, who was interested in planting vines on his family’s Washpool Station southwest of Hastings.

The land was on an ancient riverbed, dry and stony. Alwyn liked the look of it. He and the Glazebrook family went into partnership and planted their first grapes in 1981.

Brian Corban, who was then secretary of the Corbans’ family company, remembers Alex Corban asking if the firm would back his son’s plan to start his own winery. “In the end, the old uncles, who were all directors, said, ‘Okay, but it has to be in Auckland.’”

Corbans Longridge Vineyard near Napier. Photo/Alamy

Corbans Longridge Vineyard near Napier. Photo/Alamy

Alwyn recalls with a gentle smile: “They’d even picked the bit of land in Kumeu that they wanted me to plant on.” The uncles were still firmly anchored by sentiment in West Auckland, although it was fast falling out of favour as a grape-growing area: too humid, too fertile.

Alwyn stood his ground, knowing that the trend in the industry was to plant vines in dryer, more marginal regions. In the end, he went ahead with the help of a loan from his grandfather’s trust, some free vines from his uncle Joe and lots of family advice. But he was literally breaking new ground: no one else had grown grapes in the area now known as the Ngatarawa Triangle. It was, Alwyn says, a steep learning curve that forced him to adopt new viticultural techniques.

Long story short: Ngatarawa Wines became a quietly impressive success story, with an annual turnover now approaching $20 million. Several other wineries followed Alwyn into the previously untried area, while not far up State Highway 50, more pioneers were soon planting vines in another arid area, once considered virtual wasteland. It would become famous as the Gimblett Gravels.

Brian Corban later became involved in Ngatarawa and the two cousins eventually acquired the Glazebrook family interests, making Ngatarawa a wholly Corban-owned operation.

Signing off

So why sell now, after all those decades of hard work? Alwyn says it comes down to age. Running a successful winery requires passion and commitment and there’s no one in the family to pass the business on to.

Alwyn, a widower, never assumed that his only child, Abraham, would take over the business and he doesn’t think such expectations are fair. In any case, Abraham is happy running his own digital marketing company.

That meant looking around for a compatible buyer, and Mission Estate seemed an obvious choice. “We asked ourselves who would benefit from the brands we had built up and who would look after them,” says Alwyn, “and Mission appeared to be a good fit.”

The historic Greenmeadows winery, owned by the Catholic Marist order, is the oldest New Zealand winery still operating. Its heritage factor appealed, says Brian, and another point in Mission’s favour was that it’s a “perpetual institution, unlike a corporate buyer who may go out of business or be taken over”.

Asked if it was an emotional wrench to sell the Ngatarawa brand and thereby end a significant chapter in the Corban history, Alwyn replies that the real wrench was when the family lost control of Corbans Wines in the 1970s. “So many family members were involved in the business then, but decisions were taken out of their hands.”

He’s too diplomatic to say so, but the Corbans brand hasn’t always been treated well by its corporate owners. It went down-market for a time and almost disappeared from view altogether, but Alwyn was pleased to see the family name recently restored to prominence on a redesigned label. Assid Abraham Corban’s legacy may still have some way to run.

This article was first published in the February 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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