Page 1: Biography
Chambers, Joseph Bernard
Sheepfarmer, viticulturist, wine-maker
This biography, written by Michael Cooper, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Joseph Bernard Chambers was born at Te Mata, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand, on 12 March 1859, the sixth child of Margaret Wills Knox and her husband, John Chambers, a sheepfarmer who by 1863 owned 14,793 acres of land at Te Mata. After attending Havelock School from 1867 then Napier Grammar School until 1875, Bernard helped to break in the family land. Most of the Te Mata property was divided between three of John Chambers's five sons in 1886, establishing Bernard as a major landowner.
His interest in wine-making was kindled by a French guest at Te Mata homestead, who pointed out the viticultural potential of the surrounding slopes. Visits to wineries in France, California and Australia motivated him further. In 1892 cuttings of Pinot Noir were obtained from the Society of Mary's Mission Vineyards at Taradale and the first vines struck root at Te Mata Vineyard. The business flourished. Chambers converted a brick stable into his cellar and by March 1895 the first wine was flowing. 'My wine is turning out very well', he wrote in 1898. 'I made claret and chablis and have given a lot away. I won't begin selling for another year, until the wine is more matured.' By 1900, on 5,430 acres of freehold land, Bernard Chambers had 10,328 sheep and six acres of grapevines. Among the stream of eminent visitors to the vineyard were the premier, Richard Seddon, and the governor, Lord Ranfurly.
Although raised as a Presbyterian, because of bickering in the local church Chambers transferred his adherence to the Anglican church in 1898. On 7 February 1901, aged 41, he married 38-year-old Georgina Elizabeth Lowry at St Luke's Church, Havelock North. The couple were to have two children.
By 1906 Te Mata Vineyard had spread to 26 acres. Three years later, with Australian wine-maker J. O. Craike at the helm, production was the highest in the country, with an annual output of 12,000 gallons of claret, hock and Madeira from the 35 acres of Meunier, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Verdelho vines. Craike won gold medals for Te Mata overseas. In 1914 Sidney Anderson, the government vine and wine instructor, wrote that Te Mata Vineyard 'is now the leading one in the Dominion' and that the wines 'are commanding a large sale'.
However, not all was plain sailing. The prohibition movement peaked in the second decade of the twentieth century, forcing many wine-makers out of business. From 1909 onwards Chambers did not extend his vine plantings. Birds, mildew, frost (which in 1914 irretrievably damaged 16 acres of vines) and labour posed further problems. Chambers wrote in 1916, 'the vines are in a disgraceful state, unhoed under the rows, and generally neglected'. Meanwhile, some of his employees were 'in the cellar doing talking principally.'
In October 1917 Bernard Chambers, now 58, sold his winery, wine stocks and part of the vineyard to Reginald Collins Limited; Chambers retained a minority shareholding. Five months later he sold most of Te Mata station, retaining 129 acres for himself. By 1923, when Reginald Collins sold its interests to TMV Wines, the vineyard had shrunk to 10 acres. Whether or not Chambers continued as a shareholder is unknown, but the peak period of Te Mata Vineyard was over.
Bernard Chambers was active not only in business, but also in the community. He was director of Williams and Kettle, stock and station agents, from 1897 to 1931. A shareholder in Heretaunga School Limited, which in 1912 purchased the school from its headmaster-owner, he later sat on the council of Iona College and the board of Te Aute College. He was a Freemason. A foundation member of the Hawke's Bay Polo Club, his interests also included hunting, golf and cars.
As a memorial to their pioneer father, in 1927 Bernard and two of his brothers, John and Mason, gave the public of Hawke's Bay a 242-acre reserve on the upper Havelock North hills, including Te Mata Peak. A quiet, retiring man and a hard-working, innovative farmer who held strong anti-socialist views, Bernard Chambers died at Havelock North on 22 May 1931, survived by his wife, Georgina, a son and a daughter. He left a bequest of £6,000 to further veterinary studies at Massey Agricultural College. The winery that he pioneered has since experienced a renaissance. In 1974 Michael Morris and John Buck acquired the run-down company and a century after the first vintage flowed in Chambers's vats, Te Mata Estate Winery ranks as the foremost wine producer in Hawke's Bay.