100 years, 100 stories

David Babich

If you believe wine advertising, the wine world is a place where it’s always summer. The flowers are always in bloom, the table is always laden with food, and the landscape is bucolic.

But the Babich family, the owners of one of New Zealand’s oldest family-owned wineries, had a very different history. They endured harsh poverty, the Great Depression, two world wars and post-war austerity – and now, 100 years later, they’ve decided to celebrate it.

Centenary

“We were wondering how we could get people’s interest that we were turning 100,” says David Babich, third-generation family member and general manager of the company. “Selling wine is about telling stories, so we thought we could tell 100 stories. It would just be a matter of dredging them up.”

And the company has a lot of good stories to tell. In 1910, at just 14 years of age, Josip Babich and his brother Stipan left Dalmatia (in modern day Croatia) for New Zealand, knowing they would probably never see their parents again. “They wanted the opportunity that only the New World offered, and what they could offer was labour,” says Babich. “Hard, physical work. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat.” Once he arrived, Josip joined his three brothers who were already in New Zealand, and worked as a gum digger, pulling kauri gum – fossilized amber, used to make varnish – out of the ground. The brothers bought land in Henderson Valley, Auckland, in 1911, and planted vines, producing the first wines in 1916.

But a century ago, New Zealand wasn’t a welcoming place for wine producers. The population mostly came from the British Isles, with no tradition of drinking wine unless it was fortified. In 1919, Josip and his brothers finally moved to their property, though David Babich says, “They were paying 2% on the mortgage, but it was so tough, they could barely pay the interest bill. It took them 24 years of work before they could take a pound off the mortgage.” He adds that times were so difficult, especially in the 1930s, that his father can remember people knocking on his door to ask for a meal. “My grandfather described the first 40 years as the hardest. There were things coming at you all the time: after World War I, so many men were maimed; the Depression; another war, and a crippled economy.”

Things did change for the better during World War II. As luck would have it, American soldiers who were wounded fighting in the Pacific were sent to convalesce just two miles from the winery. “For about two or three years we had 1,500 guys camped nearby and a lot of them were Italian or from the Mediterranean, so they were used to drinking wine,” says Babich. “And they were well paid. We had Americans visiting all the time.” This, says Babich, was why his grandfather could start paying back the mortgage.

Things eased further when David Babich’s father Peter joined the business in 1949. Then, at last, came a wine boom in the 1960s. Josip Babich, aged 84, finally got to watch as a container of Babich wine headed to Europe. Today, Babich Wines not only remains family owned and operated, but is recognised as one of New Zealand’s leading wineries, producing 4m L of wine a year, from 12 vineyards in Auckland, Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay.

Tracking the tales

Fortunately, there was a ready supply of stories, thanks to the company tea break. “As an organisation, we stop at 10:00 am and at 3:00 pm for a cup of tea or coffee,” explains Babich. “It’s a historical thing from when my grandfather was working in the vineyards.” Everybody gathers in the coffee room, and “my father, who is 84, will tell stories about things that happened in the Depression, or when they used horses.” Babich says that, thanks to his father, there were 25 good stories ready to go.

But how to tell the stories in a way that would make sense to consumers? The company engaged Auckland creative agency Goodfolk, which came up with the idea of creating a single visual for each story, and then reducing the story down to a few lines. A picture of a lemon was used to represent the time Josip and his brother planted citrus trees, for example, because the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 had created a demand for citrus. For the story of the American soldiers, the picture was a World War II jeep.

The first 25 stories were easy, but then, “we had to start thinking a bit harder,” says Babich. “We wanted some of them to be amusing, some to be serious, and some to be thought provoking.” Soon, everybody in the company was coming up with memories, which were pooled in the coffee room. Eventually, the story tally reached 96. “We’d sit around pondering about who else had a story, or whether we’d got all of Dad’s.”

Eventually, the magic 100 was reached. The company website became full of stories, while a neck tag was added to every bottle. Wine cartons, point-of-sale material, posters and coasters were also produced. Throughout 2016, dinner events have been held in key export markets and a big event is planned in December for staff and their partners.

Babich says that doing the campaign has helped to bring the whole company together. “We only hire people who fit with our values, like respect and integrity,” he says. “The 100 Years 100 Stories campaign has allowed us to reflect a lot. We’ve had 100 years to create this culture, and this has cemented that.” Babich says that his grandfather still informs his choices today. “He lived in a completely different environment, but the basic questions are always the same.”

You truly appreciate the summery family banquets when you remember the days when there was no food on the table – and that’s a marketing message that will have resonance for consumers who value authenticity – and good stories.

This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2016 of Meininger’s Wine Business International.

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