Tauranga may be better known for its kiwifruit than its wine, but one local landmark has a very special place in the Bay. Mills Reef Winery is a local icon that has been the home of the Preston family since 1979. While they may source their grapes from Hawke’s Bay and other vineyards around the country, Tauranga is most definitely home for this winemaking family.
Paddy Preston started the family’s winemaking journey. He had a love of experimenting and making fruit wines, stemming right back to his early married days living in Wellington. Tim Preston recalls many days and nights as a kid watching his father making wine at home. “Dad’s passion for winemaking – and life – passed over to me,” Tim says.
The Prestons moved to the Bay of Plenty in 1979. Mills Reef Winery’s inaugural vintage started years later 1989, created by Paddy in humble facilities located, in the foothills of the Kaimai Ranges on the outskirts of Tauranga, made with Hawke’s Bay grapes.
Despite these modest beginnings, the family’s determination and hard work soon saw Mills Reef receive significant critical acclaim. Several years on, and with a rapidly growing following of loyal wine lovers, there was a need to expand the winemaking facilities and establish a fitting home for the brand. The perfect site was found in Bethlehem and it remains the location of the landmark winery today.
Paddy retired from daily involvement in the winery in 2010 and Tim assumed the chief winemaker role, with long-standing team member Paul Dawick stepping into the support role as senior winemaker.
Today, Mills Reef is known for its Chardonnay, Syrah and a selection of the Bordeaux varietal reds. However, Tim explains how nothing came easily. “It was certainly a humbling beginning, even the development of early fruit wines was a story in experimentation and trial and error,” he says. “But it was the grape we really had our eye on – and all the good things that come from growing the right varieties. “We always knew New Zealand had the potential to produce wines on par with any of the famous wine regions of the world.”
Why did you settle on Tauranga as the site of the winery?
It was an interesting decision, but one that has turned out well. Tauranga is where we began our operation and there is that family and historical connection. But, in practical terms, it has also turned out to be the ideal ‘front of house’ operation for us, with our winery, tasting room, restaurant and function facility, set on beautifully landscaped grounds. It’s a stunning site in Bethlehem – one that is ideal for us.
How did you work together to set up the winery?
It was a typical father-and-son effort. While we each had our respective focus in running the winery operation, there was also regular overlap with sharing of ideas, experimentation and feedback. Being family, you are more direct and get to a solution quicker, but we certainly had our moments!
The Bay of Plenty is known more for kiwifruit than grape growing. Do you grow any grapes in the Bay? Where do you source most of your grapes?
The Bay of Plenty didn’t have the ideal soils and climate for creating the big bold Bordeaux varietal reds we had our eye on. We choose Hawke’s Bay as our preferred region due to the style of grapes that can be grown there and its further potential.
The Gimblett Gravels vineyard now provides grapes for our top-tier Elspeth wines of Chardonnay, Syrah and a selection of the Bordeaux varietal reds, while the balance of up to 300 tonnes of fruit processed per year is supplied from winery-controlled lease vineyards and selected contract growers within Hawke’s Bay.
What do the unique characteristics of the region bring to the winery and wine you produce?
The great thing about Hawke’s Bay is its diversity of sub-regions, each with their own strengths when matched to the right grape varieties. For the full-bodied reds, the warmer, inland Gimblett Gravels is our chosen place. Chardonnay performs well across a range of soils and climates, whereas for the white varietals of Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, we favour the cooler, higher diurnal climate of the inland foothills on alluvial soils. This allows us to produce a wide array of varietal wines, which yield great fruit expression, purity, complexity and, importantly,
What makes Mills Reef wines so unique?
Commitment and dedication to excellence, a focus on the Hawke’s Bay region and targeted site selection (soil-wise and climatically) within each sub-region to match the most ideally suited grape varieties for best possible quality and