Damian Martin has been left 'shellshocked' by his abrupt departure from Ara Wines, friends say.
Martin, who holds a doctorate in viticultural science from Bordeaux University and is one of the founders of the pioneering Marlborough winery, has been replaced by Jeff Clarke, recently at Brancott Estate (formerly Montana) and an authority on New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
The reasons for Martin’s leaving remain unclear, though there is speculation that Ara’s management – the company was bought in 2008 by Todd Capital, the investment arm of Todd Corporation, one of New Zealand’s biggest companies – wants to change the style of the wine to make it more mainstream.
In a statement announcing Clarke’s appointment, Ara CEO Christine Pears paid tribute to Martin’s ‘considerable contribution’ to Ara and wished him well for the future.
The statement also said, ‘After focusing primarily on the vineyard for the first few years, it is a logical step for us to make sure we have the best winemaking expertise on board. There are few, if any, winemakers in New Zealand with Jeff’s outstanding track record and wealth of experience.’
Pears told Decanter.com, ‘The ARA wine style is an expression of ARA’s unique terroir. As such, and to give the wines the focus they deserve, Ara’s winemaker needs to understand the critical importance of terroir to our wines as well as being an accomplished winemaker; Jeff Clarke more than adequately meets both these requirements.’
Martin was responsible for both viticulture and winemaking. This role
has now been split into two, with both a dedicated viticulturalist and
winemaker running the operation. Ara produces four Sauvignon Blancs and
four Pinot Noirs.
Pears insists that the style of Ara wines will not change, but all the indications are that there has been an irreconcilable difference of opinion about the direction Ara should take.
One observer told Decanter.com, ‘Damian believes in non-intervention. Excessive yields, excessive use of drip irrigation, residual sugar in dry styles, over-ripe fruit and highly-alcoholic wines and interventionist winemaking are all barriers to observing true terroir expression at a given location.’
There is no indication that Clarke intends to use any of these methods, or increase production, though there is some talk in New Zealand that Ara’s management was impatient with Martin’s resolutely non-commercial approach to winemaking.
Ara is highly-thought of in quality terms but its restrained style is out of kilter with mainstream New Zealand Sauvignon. It does not often shine in competitions: at the Decanter World Wine Awards last year the wines won no higher than bronze.
One experienced commentator described Ara’s style as ‘distinctive though in strict quality terms with considerable merit’ and ‘much influenced by site and viticultural methods’.
But, he went on, its style is ‘out of step with the mainstream market. The suggestion was that Jeff Clarke might swing the style more toward the mainstream.’
While Martin himself is unable to comment, his close friends say he is devastated at leaving Ara.
‘Ara is his life, and he is pretty shellshocked to be no longer a part of it. He has no plans for the future,’ one said.
Written by Adam Lechmere