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A man of wine and sunshine

From Christchurch to China and back to Gisborne, Sam Millton took the long way home. Now firmly situated on the East Coast, working in the family business and running his own, Sam sat down for a chat with Jack Marshall about how he got to here.

Sam Millton is a quintessential strand of Gisborne culture. Like most on the Coast, he is almost too relaxed at work and seems more comfortable in bare feet than would be socially acceptable anywhere but Gisborne.

Somehow he still manages to make wine, music and serve a drink at his bar, Siduri, all the while wearing a smile.

Before he started dabbling in winemaking, world travelling and business making, Sam grew up in a slower Gisborne.

“Gizzy was a quiet little town back then — the only thing to do was hang out with mates and make fun out Wainui. We weren't really ‘Gisborne city' focused. It was more about throwing water balloons and beaches.”

Even in a “quiet little town”, there was still plenty of mischief a boy could get up to with a couple of friends out at the beach.

“Time was spent making fake cut-outs of cats with tin foil eyes and sticking them down on the middle of the road at night-time, waiting for cars to come by. It was amazing how lifelike everyone thought it was because we'd be watching from behind a fence. Cars would come speeding down slow roads at about 60 or 70kmph, going far too fast. Then, as soon as they realised that the cat wasn't moving, they would always get on the horn and swerve out of the way and throw on the brakes.

“That's when we'd bombard them with water balloons. And yeah, that was our version of fun — causing headaches for other people.”

“One night, when we'd run out of water balloons, we decided that the three of us would give a big moon [flash your butt] to the next car that came along.

“All three of us went out when the next car stopped and put our pants to our ankles and just spread the cheeks . . . And that was when the driver turned his red and blue lights on.

“As you would expect, the fun was over. The cop drove us home to my Dad's at 11:30pm and woke him and he started shouting at me.

“It wasn't till the next morning when he realised it was funny that we just mooned some cops.”

These days Sam is far more sensible — at least as much as a winemaker and bar owner can be.

It is hard to say winemaking was a calling for Sam — it may be more accurate to say his mother and father, Annie and James Millton, called him to wine, a suggestion Sam agreed with.

“Even when I was quite young, Dad was always trying to gently push me away from RTDs and stuff like that. He'd always open up nice bottles when I was 13 or something, and give me a little taste of wine, trying to get me into it.

“I remember him talking about how it was over in Europe — how family was, how life was orientated around good food and good wine.

“He's a bit of a Francophile. He loves that French method around family-made wines on-premise, pressed at the same location, bottled in the same place, and from the grapes grown on your property, like an entirely encapsulated ecosystem.

“With my Mum, Annie, he'd spent quite a few years over in Germany and Australia doing harvests and they found a way to do something like it in Gizzy.”

From speaking with Sam, it is obvious how important family is to him. Even though he spent years away from Gisborne, every story always wove back to family and the vineyard, one way or another . . . even mooning cars.

Family was the very reason he went away to boarding school — four generations before him had all gone to the same school.

“After high school, I didn't do uni. I moved to China for a couple of months with my cousin Jeremy who had a textiles company over there. I spent a while over there and just explored.

“I got thrown in the deep end of a city that didn't speak English with 22 million people and worked in an Irish Pub in Guangzhou — so yeah, that was pretty interesting.”

After coming back to New Zealand, burning his hands on frying pans, missing out on a job making coffee and hating the bar he was working at, he ended up back in Gisborne taking shelter under the vines.

Without a formal education under his belt, he got to learn about wine the old fashioned way — squashing grapes and making it taste good in the family business.

“I think the reason why I didn't go to uni came down to two reasons. One is I didn't know what to study, and two was because if I studied viticulture, Dad said he would have to unteach me what I'd learned — because back then there was no training in organic and natural wines. It was very mainstream back then.”

The resulting Sam of today is very much a picture of his own path he has trod —combined with his family influences.

A personal side of Sam he has cultivated is his love of music, both making and playing it.

“I feel like it's only been over the last two years I've realised that wine and music are identical. It's a form of artisanal craft and understanding. It's subjective. What one person says they like, the other person might not like.

“Music and wine coincide, really closely, the same with artwork.

“It's a losing battle if you're trying to create things that other people want, rather than for yourself.”

TASTE TESTING: Sam Millton at Siduri Bar in Peel Street. Picture by Liam Clayton