Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Terry Dunleavy, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.
Nikola Nobilo was one of New Zealand’s most successful winemakers of the 1960s and 1970s, building a few vines on his Huapai farm into a winemaking dynasty. With his sons, Nobilo was one the leaders of the transition from fortified wines to premium table wines, for which he established an international reputation.
Early years and emigration
Nikola Nobilo was born on 23 August 1913 at Lumbarda, on the island of Korčula in the Kingdom of Dalmatia (then within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, later Yugoslavia and now Croatia). He was the fourth child of viticulturalist Stjepan Nobilo and his wife, Mandalina Kriletich. Nikola’s parents grew grapevines and olive trees, and his family claimed to have been involved with winemaking for around 300 years. Educated at Lumbarda, he worked on the family property as a young man and later took up stonemasonry. He served for two years in the Yugoslavian navy, and played tenor horn in Lumbarda’s brass band.
In 1937, Nikola made the difficult decision to emigrate to New Zealand. His uncle John Nobilo owned a farm at Te Hana, near Wellsford, and had requested that one of his nephews travel to New Zealand to assist him and to preserve the family name (John had only daughters). Nikola arrived in Auckland on 8 June 1937, and began learning English and helping out with his uncle’s sheep, cattle, orchard and limeworks.
Nikola hoped that his fiancée in Lumbarda, Zuva Marija Kriletich, would join him in New Zealand, but it was difficult for her to travel as a single woman as borders began closing in the lead-up to the Second World War. To facilitate her travel, the couple were married by proxy on 22 January 1939 at the Catholic Church in Lumbarda, with Nikola’s brother Ivan standing in for the groom. Zuva arrived in Auckland in July 1939 and settled with Nikola on the Te Hana farm. The couple had three children, Stephen (born 1940), Nicholas (or Nick, born 1943) and Marco (or Mark, born 1949).
Move into winemaking
When John Nobilo decided to sell his farm in 1942, Nikola and Zuva purchased a 5.7-hectare farm at Huapai, near Kumeū, where they initially ran poultry and dairy cattle. Nikola decided to continue the family’s winemaking tradition, and in 1943 he planted a dozen grape varieties to see which ones would grow. Initially manufacturing wine in a shed, they opened their first ‘konoba’ (cellar) in 1945; many of their earliest customers were Aucklanders who visited the vineyard with fill-your-own bottles. Nikola was one of several Dalmatian winemakers who established themselves in this region during the 1930s and 1940s, because suitable land was available on the outskirts of the large urban market of Auckland. Demand for fortified wines as a relatively inexpensive alcoholic relaxant dictated their choice of grape varieties and winemaking style.
Nikola made all the winery equipment himself: 5000-litre tōtara casks, kauri open-top fermenters, blending tubs and display racks. Raising cattle and poultry and selling fruit and vegetables helped finance the winemaking business. His son Nick described Nikola as ‘a perfectionist, a fastidious man. Everything had to be in its right place.’1
The early winemaking years were difficult, with little market for anything other than fortified wines such as port and sherry. Nikola was one of the few producers who made table wines as well, producing a dry red wine for customers who had returned from the war with a taste for wine with their food. ‘In these early days [the] N.Z. wine industry was very primitive and it took a lot of guts and determination to make good wine and sell it’, Zuva later recalled. ‘A lot of our people made rubbish which Kiwis called plonk. This used to make me very angry because I never considered our wine to be plonk.’2
Vineyards could only sell wine in bulk, and restaurants were prohibited from selling alcohol with meals. Nikola and other Dalmatian winemakers lobbied the government for more liberal liquor laws, and gradually the restrictions were eased. Vineyards were able to sell wine in 750-millilitre bottles from 1959, and licensed restaurants could sell wine with meals from 1961.
The local market for table wine grew during the 1960s, and Nikola set out to expand his business to meet the new demand. His sons joined him in the business, with Steve in charge of sales and marketing, Nick the winemaker (and later chief executive), and Mark becoming one of the country’s top viticulturists. Unlike many of his fellow Dalmatian winemakers, who ruled the roost in their family businesses, Nikola was prepared to allow his sons to help shape the company’s direction. Thus young Nick was able to move into making premium table wines from classical vinifera varieties cultivated by his talented brother Mark. In order, they produced reds from pinotage, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir grown in Auckland, and whites from Müller-Thurgau and chardonnay grown under contract in Gisborne.
In 1966 the family formed a partnership with spirits manufacturers Gilbeys New Zealand Ltd, and expansion as Gilbey Nobilo began. The Huapai farm eventually grew to more than 100 hectares of vineyards. The partnership with Gilbey helped them to build their new range of premium table wines, and Nobilo wines quickly gained a reputation for high quality. In 1970 the family produced a cabernet sauvignon, a pinotage and a Müller-Thurgau, the first of many Nobilo wines to be awarded top prizes in national competitions. Nobilo’s 1970 pinotage won a gold medal and the overall champion THC Cup at the Department of Trade and Industry National Wine Competition in 1973. Nick produced the country’s first serious pinot noir in 1976, and was the first to label the popular riesling sylvaner wine under its correct varietal name, Müller-Thurgau.
Gilbey withdrew from the partnership in 1974, leaving the firm’s future direction uncertain. The following year the family formed a new partnership with food and alcohol merchants L.D. Nathan and Company, the Public Service Investment Society and the Development Finance Corporation, which enabled the company to continue growing and provided new marketing outlets.
Nobilo’s business grew along with the market for table wine, and the company became one of the largest of the medium-sized wine producers which comprised Category 2 of the Wine Institute of New Zealand when that single-industry body was inaugurated in 1976. Negotiation of a United Kingdom agency through Averys of Bristol in the early 1980s saw Nobilo become one of New Zealand’s first wine exporters, with one of its successes being a contract to supply Poverty Bay chardonnay to British Airways for all its international routes.
Nikola retired in about 1980, but continued to work with his sons to preserve the integrity of the family’s winemaking traditions. The family sold much of its Huapai land in the mid-1980s so it could buy back 100 per cent of the company, and in 1998 it bought another Dalmatian New Zealand winemaking company, Selaks. In 2000 the Nobilos sold their company to the Australian winemakers BRL Hardy, which subsequently merged with the multinational company Constellation Wines. The Nobilo brand continued, but the family’s involvement ended with Mark’s retirement in 2007.
Nikola lived on at Huapai after his retirement, in a Mediterranean-style stone chateau overlooking the vineyards with the name ‘Dom Nobilo’ sandblasted over the doorway. He and Zuva renewed their wedding vows at the village church in Lumbarda in 1993, and again in Huapai on their 60th wedding anniversary in 1999. Nikola joked that he had been married three times in his life, but always to the same woman. In 1994 he was made an OBE for services to the viticulture industry. Finally forced by ill health to move to Henderson, he died at Te Atatū on 29 August 2007, a few days after his 94th birthday. Nikola Nobilo was the last survivor of the pioneer Dalmatian winemakers who transplanted their winemaking traditions to the other side of the world.