The sturdy figure of Assid Abraham Corban, with his magnificent walrus moustache and trademark waistcoat and chains, gazes sternly down from a wall in the entrance to the head office of Corbans Wines Limited. For much of the first half of the twentieth century the winery Corban founded dominated the New Zealand wine scene.
Assid Corban was born on 25 August 1864 at Shweir, a Lebanese village perched on the flanks of Mt Lebanon. He was the son of Abraham Hannah Corban, a vigneron, and Helene Hannah Bousader. In his youth Assid worked principally as a stonemason but he also pruned and ploughed the family vineyard. On 22 October 1887, at Shweir, he married Najibie Tanyus Ataia, the daughter of another respected Shweir family. Their first two children were born in Lebanon.
In the winter of 1890 both of Corban's parents died. Spurred by tales of the riches amassed by Lebanese emigrants to the New World, he set out alone in 1891 for Australia. After roaming the outback as a pedlar he crossed to New Zealand in 1892 where, still carrying his pedlar's pack, he travelled around the mining towns of the Coromandel Peninsula, Waikato and Bay of Plenty. He then worked for a time as a haberdasher in Waihī, and later in Thames. In 1895 he opened a shop in Queen Street, Auckland, advertising himself as an 'Eastern Importer of Fancy Goods, Jewellery, Drapery, etc.' In the same year he became a naturalised British subject, and in 1897 sent for his wife and two children to join him in New Zealand.
The origin of Corbans Wines lies in Assid Corban's purchase in 1902 of a 10-acre block of scrub-covered Henderson gumland. The property had a two-roomed cottage, an orchard and vines of the native American variety Isabella. His first 3½-acre vineyard was planted in a mix of wine grapes which included the classic red varieties Syrah, Meunier and Cabernet Sauvignon, and dual-purpose table grapes such as Black Hamburgh. The vineyard was called Mt Lebanon Vineyards and the firm known as A. A. Corban; Assid was generally known as 'AA'. Romeo Bragato, government viticulturist from 1902 to 1909, was very impressed with Mt Lebanon Vineyards, praising it as 'the model vineyard of New Zealand, and an object lesson to vinegrowers'.
A three-level wine cellar, started in 1903, was completed in 1907. The first grapes were crushed by hand with a wooden club, and an open hogshead was used as the fermenting vat. By 1908 Corban had a simple crusher and two small presses for his first commercial vintage. Winemaking, however, was an extremely precarious pursuit in early twentieth-century New Zealand. The industry's most formidable foe was the temperance movement. Henderson became 'dry' in 1909, forcing Corban to sell his wine a few yards away from his cellar on the other side of a railway line, which not only bordered his vineyard but also marked the Henderson no-licence boundary. His first recorded sale, in September 1909, was to James Cottle of Taupaki who purchased two gallons of wine in his own jar at 10 shillings per gallon.
Recognition of the quality of Corban's wines came swiftly. The company won first prize for unsweetened red grape wine at the 1910 Henderson show. At the 1913–14 Auckland Exhibition, competing against wines from other countries in the British Empire, it won gold medals for its sherry and port and silver medals for its claret and red wine.
Both the Corban family and its holdings steadily expanded. Eight children were born to Assid and Najibie Corban in New Zealand. In 1909 Assid bought a neighbouring 20-acre property, planting the first five acres in vines in 1912. Eight years later he opened a wine depot in Auckland city and in 1923 built a two-storeyed, 17-room family homestead on the Great North Road. By the 1920s the firm was called A. A. Corban and Company. In 1925 the Department of Agriculture's vine and wine instructor, J. C. Woodfin, wrote that in the previous year 'only twenty acres of vines were planted and one brave man was responsible for eight of these'. Corban's had clearly become the largest winery in the country. It was also very much a family concern and in the 1930s became known as A. A. Corban and Sons Limited.
Although the arrival of a rotary hoe in 1934, and a caterpillar tractor soon after, greatly eased the vineyard toil, by all accounts Assid Corban remained a patriarch in the Old Testament mould and a strong believer in the virtues of hard work. Every day of the year was a working day – except Sundays. His son Corban later described him as 'well versed in the Scriptures and a staunch adherent of the Greek Orthodox Church'. He used to 'bring out his treasured Bible and read to his family in Arabic'.
Assid Corban never retired. He died in Auckland on 2 December 1941. His wife, Najibie, died in 1957. The business became a public company in 1963 and passed out of the family's hands in the 1970s. Nevetheless, the company founded by Assid Corban has remained one of New Zealand's wine-making giants.