Story: Wohnsiedler, Friedrich

Page 1 - Wohnsiedler, Friedrich

Wohnsiedler, Friedrich

1879–1958

Butcher, orchardist, viticulturist, wine-maker

This biography was written by Michael Cooper and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

On New Year's Eve 1914, inflamed with anti-German hostility, a crowd of about a thousand people ransacked Friedrich and Anna Wohnsiedler's butchery in the main street of Gisborne. The couple fled with their three young children out a top-storey window and across planks to an adjacent building. Pork lovers' loss was to be wine lovers' gain, for the Wohnsiedlers retreated to Waihirere and there established Poverty Bay's first significant winery.

Friedrich was born on 23 November 1879 at Eberbach-am-Jagst (now Mulfingen) in Baden-Württemberg, southern Germany, the son of Lutheran parents Katharina Magdalena Fuchs and her husband, Johann Friedrich Wohnsiedler, a farmer. Baden-Württemberg is a region of tiny vineyards where grape-growing has typically been a hobby or part-time occupation, with most of the crop processed in co-operative cellars.

Arriving in New Zealand around the turn of the century, Wohnsiedler at first worked in the meat industry at Lower Hutt and Woodville. During a trip to England in 1907 he met Anna Stein, the daughter of another Eberbach-am-Jagst farming family. After some time back in Germany, they settled in New Zealand, marrying in Auckland on 14 May 1910; they were to have three daughters (one of whom died soon after birth) and two sons. Several years later the family moved to Gisborne, where they opened a pork butchery and delicatessen. Following the 1914 assault, Wohnsiedler worked as a farm labourer near Matawhero. By 1917 he had bought 10 acres of land at Waihirere, where he built a house and was joined by his family in 1921. They kept bees, raised pigs and poultry, grew fruit trees, maize and vegetables, and planted a vineyard.

Aided in his new venture by Peter Gurschka, an Austrian-born blacksmith at Manutuke who grew grapes and made wine in his spare time, Wohnsiedler built a partly subterranean, double-storeyed, 1,200-square-foot cellar. His first vintage, a sweet red, was labelled simply as 'Wine', with his own name beneath. Soon after, 'Waihirere' was adopted as a brand name.

For the first decade the Wohnsiedlers sprayed the vineyard from two-gallon containers in knapsacks on their backs, until in the early 1930s a barrel and pump mounted on a horse-drawn cart eased the toil. By 1935 Friedrich was able to afford a car for his 18-mile return delivery trips to Gisborne. Waihirere port, Madeira and sherry was sold for between £1. 6s. and £1. 10s. per gallon, plus an extra 1s. or 1s. 6d. for the jar. In December 1936, a busy month, sales totalled over £150; a decade later the figure had almost doubled.

An indefatigable worker, Wohnsiedler placed heavy demands on his wife and children, who all contributed to the growth of Waihirere Wines. Anna Wohnsiedler died in 1946. During the 1950s Friedrich's health declined, and he died at Gisborne on 10 February 1958, survived by two sons and two daughters.

At the time of his death Wohnsiedler owned a 10-acre vineyard, and was selling mostly fortified wines. His son George expanded the winery, modernised its equipment and arranged grape-growing contracts with neighbouring farmers. The other son, Fred, was vineyard manager. In the early 1960s new capital was injected and production skyrocketed, but by 1973 the family had lost control of Waihirere to Montana Wines. The old winery was demolished in 1996 and Wohnsiedler's wine-making equipment is now on display at the McDonald Winery's museum in Hawke's Bay. A plaque mounted on a pohutukawa tree marks the spot where the Waihirere winery stood for three-quarters of a century.

Under Friedrich Wohnsiedler's direction Waihirere earned a reputation for sound, reliable wines. In a period when wine production was largely confined to west Auckland and Hawke's Bay, Wohnsiedler pioneered commercial wine-making in the Gisborne district and thus played a pivotal role in the emergence of one of New Zealand's foremost wine regions.