Page 1: Biography
McDonald, Thomas Bayne
Viticulturist, wine-maker, orchardist, community leader
This biography, written by Michael Cooper, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Tom McDonald was an outstanding figure in the New Zealand wine industry for several decades. The first post-war wine-maker to explore Hawke’s Bay’s potential for high-quality table wines made from classic grape varieties, he was also the driving force behind New Zealand’s first prestige red.
Born on 12 September 1907 at Greenmeadows, Hawke’s Bay, Thomas Bayne McDonald was the son of Lewis Smith McDonald, a carrier and farmer from Ayrshire, Scotland, and his wife, Theresa Julia Hayden, born in Napier. Tom’s first involvement with the wine industry was in the humble role of bottle-washer at the Society of Mary’s mission vineyard at Greenmeadows in 1918–19. In 1921, after leaving Taradale School, he started work at Bartholomew Steinmetz’s Taradale vineyard, making fortified wines such as sherries, ports and muscats. In 1927 McDonald bought the business; he was only 19. On 16 September 1931, at Dannevirke, he married Florence Gwendolen (Gwen) Brown, with whom he was to have two daughters.
During the depression wine sales slumped. McDonald supplemented his income by growing fruit and vegetables for cash crops, and even gave his occupation as orchardist on his marriage certificate. The 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake damaged his winery, but in 1932 and again in 1938 he expanded his land holdings. Table wines were still only a sideline. The main grapes were Pinot Meunier, Chasselas and Cabernet Sauvignon. White wines were made from Pinot Meunier (a black-skinned variety) by fermenting off the skins.
Determined to expand further, and with no sons to carry on the business, in 1944 McDonald sold out to the Christchurch-based Ballins Breweries (New Zealand). He stayed on as manager, new vineyards were planted and in 1948 a modern new winery was built in Church Road, Taradale. In the early 1950s the company’s name was finally changed to McDonald’s Wines. The McDonald label now produced a rivulet of Cabernet Sauvignon that pioneered the modern red-wine-making era in Hawke’s Bay. When the famous writer on gastronomy and wine André Simon visited Hawke’s Bay in 1964, McDonald served him his own 1949 Cabernet alongside Château Margaux from France. To Simon, this was ‘a rare and convincing proof that New Zealand can bring forth table wines of a very high standard of quality’.
In 1962 McDonald’s Wines merged with the leading force in Hawke’s Bay, McWilliams Wines, and McDonald took on the influential position of production director. The first of a string of outstanding white-labelled McWilliams’s Cabernet Sauvignons, Tom McDonald’s 1965 vintage was acclaimed by author Frank Thorpy as ‘the finest commercial red wine ever produced in New Zealand’. With McWilliams’s financial resources, McDonald and his talented wine-maker, Denis Kasza, were able to buy French oak barriques in which to mature their Cabernet Sauvignon for a year; it was then bottle-aged for a further three years.
During the 1960s and 1970s McDonald dominated the Hawke’s Bay wine scene. ‘He rules by force of personality,’ declared Cooks Wine Bulletin in April 1971, ‘his views influencing those outside his domain, his insistence on tradition admired there and mostly copied’. Although principally renowned for his red wines, McDonald also made a series of fine whites from such varieties as Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Riesling.
As president of the Hawke’s Bay Grape Winegrowers’ Association, he was an active political lobbyist. ‘Every minister of agriculture since Keith Holyoake has been a personal friend of mine,’ he declared in 1976. He was deeply involved in protracted negotiations that overcame longstanding internal divisions in the wine industry through the formation of a united Wine Institute of New Zealand in 1975. McDonald retired from McWilliams in 1976, but stayed on as a consultant and director until 1982, and chaired the Wine Institute from 1980 to 1982.
Apart from his wine industry career, McDonald’s interests included gardening, golf and philately, and he was deeply involved in the Hawke’s Bay community. He was chairman of directors of Certified Concrete (Hawke’s Bay) Limited, president of the Hawke’s Bay Bowling Centre (1940), a member of the Hawke’s Bay Education Board (1948–58; chairman 1954–58), a member of the Napier Harbour Board (1959–68) and foundation president of the Rotary Club of Taradale (1959). Appointed an OBE in 1974, he served as a justice of the peace, and in 1982 was awarded the wine industry’s highest honour: fellowship of the Wine Institute.
Gwen McDonald died in June 1978, and on 7 February 1987, at Taradale, 79-year-old Tom McDonald married Esme Hilda Gilmore (née Smith). He died a few weeks later, at Napier, on 26 March 1987. He was survived by Esme and his daughters. A burly man with a forceful intellect, Tom McDonald had a gentle manner and shrewd, sparkling eyes. His memory lives on at the McDonald Winery in Taradale, purchased by Montana Wines in 1989, and since rejuvenated to become one of the highlights of the Hawke’s Bay wine trail.