Historic vineyard site

150 years of vineyard history

The first vines at Grasshopper Rock were most likely planted before 1870 making them some of the first vines planted in Central Otago. Those vines are now long gone however in 2003 vines were replanted making this one of the oldest vineyard sites in Central Otago to still be growing grapes. Here we explore the 150 year history of the site.

Prior to the discovery of gold in 1862, the land was part of the very large Earnscleugh Station then held by runholders, Strode and Fraser. The Dunstan, as the area is known, was a windblown and barren pastoral landscape when the early gold miners arrived. There were no bridges across the mighty Molyneux River (now renamed Clutha) and many lives were lost crossing the river.

The gold rush quickly changed the landscape. The easy gold was won by panning and sluicing in the river and stream beds. The gold rushes were on the Molyneux and its various beaches and tributaries such as the Earnscleugh River (renamed Fraser River). Conroys and Butchers Creek were some of the most famous local gold bearing creeks. "Two Germans, a few days ago, brought into the township fifty pounds weight of the precious metal obtained from one of the above places."

Early entrepreneurs wanted to take the water away from the creeks to supply gold rich gravels where there was little or no water. This created tensions between those who wanted to use the water for their claims in the creek beds and those who wanted to take the water away in water races to where they could charge for it. The early history of the Grasshopper Rock land is with those who owned the water races.

The land now owned by Grasshopper Rock was first occupied by Edmund Wellington Jones, otherwise known was David Jones. Jones was one of the very first miners to settle at Manuherikia Junction (Alexandra) and became a proprietor of a very large proportion of all the water races in the Manuherikia district. He also embarked in farming on the west bank of the Molyneux on land later known as Como Villa and now largely owned by Grasshopper Rock. In 1868, Jones was "overtaken with sudden death, from disease of the heart".

Thomas Oliver then acquired Jones' water race interests and took over the property. Oliver invested a considerable amount of time and money in developing the property and is probably the person responsible for the early planting of the orchard, vineyard and ornamental trees and developing a lake. He named the property Como Villa.

It was the mid 1860s (probably 1866) when Jean Desire Feraud returned to Monte Cristo, Clyde, from Australia with a collection of grape vines to establish his vineyard and the first winery in Central Otago. Possibly, Oliver sourced vines from Feraud but we do not know this. Regardless, the timing indicates the vines at Como Villa were some of the earliest in the area. The vines were obviously well established by 1875 when the Tuapeka Times reported :"The grapes grown at Como Villa, Alexandra, this season stamp that locality as one eminently adapted for the growth of the vine". This suggests the vines must have been planted at least four to six years earlier, say 1869 to 1871, to have been this so productive by 1875.

Thomas Oliver sold the property in 1874 having purchased the Sussex Hotel, George Street, Dunedin. Later newspaper reports suggest he retained a number of his water race interests despite selling some in 1874.

After Oliver, the property was then acquired by Mr Joseph Roberts. Roberts continued here as an orchardist for at least 30 years before selling up and heading home to Wales. Unfortunately he died in 1909 on his way home to his native Wales, "the Old Country", and only reached Melbourne. He was about 76 years of age.

After Roberts, the property remained in fruit trees but eventually the land was subdivided and with the decline in viability of small scale orchards, the trees eventually disappeared and the property reverted to pastoral farming.

The revival of vines started in 1981 when Black Ridge was planted by the Burgess' at the mouth of Conroys Gully about 1500 metres west of where Grasshopper Rock's vines are now planted.

Without the water races, originally constructed for gold mining and now used for irrigation, the orchards and vines would not thrive here. The dry and hot conditions mean the area is in water deficit for most of the year and irrigation is essential for vines as well as for frost protection.

It is not clear if the water race which now supplies the vineyard was built by Roberts around 1879 or earlier by others in the 1860s. A notice in the Gazette in 1879 suggests it was Roberts: "Notice by Joseph Roberts of intention to construct water race from point in Conroys Gully, near R. Dawson's homestead, to Como Villa, Poverty Beach, west bank of Molyneux"

We are indebted to the local pioneers who came in search of gold, built the water races and established the first vines and stone fruit orchards. Without them we would not have had the confidence to re-establish vines here in 2003.

References from Papers Past

At times, early newspapers incorrectly changed Como Villa to Coma Villa. I have reverted to Como Villa

Otago Daily Times , Issue 1939, 18 March 1868, Page 5


Within the last fortnight death has deprived us of one of our most valuable and enterprising residents, in the person of Mr Edmund Wellington Jones, of Alexandra. Mr Jones was amongst the first party of miners that settled at the Manuherikia Junction, and having had great experience in mining matters in respect to sluicing claims and waterraces, conceived the idea of cutting a race from the Fraser River to a point on the Molyneux, near Frenchman's Beach. This enterprise turned out a profitable one, and by dint of steady application and good management, Mr Jones became the proprietor of a very large proportion of all the waterraces in the Manuherikia district, some of which brought in a very handsome rental, the Frenchman's Party at Frenchman's Beach alone paying L10 per week for water during the winter season, while their claim was workable. In addition to his property in waterraces, Mr Jones had embarked in farming, and was superintending the operations at his farm on the west bank of the Molyneux, when overtaken with sudden death, from disease of the heart. In the promoting of new enterprises, Mr. .Jones was always amongst the foremost, and like most of those people who had followed the fortunes of gold mining for a number of years was always hopeful, and had that peculiar knack of overcoming difficulties by dint of down right hard work and perseverance, that I may say is possessed by none, save those who have spent a large portion of their lives in searching after the precious metal.

Tuapeka Times, Volume VII, Issue 378, 1 August 1874, Page 3

Sale Notice








To Miners, Farmers, Speculators, and others.

J. C. CHAPPLE has received instructions from Thomas Oliver, Esq., to sell by public auction, on the above date, at Como Villa, Alexandra, at 11 o'clock punctually, the following valuable property

Lot 1

The property known as Como Villa, on which is erected a substantial six-roomed House, built of stone, with the following Outhouse, viz., Dairy, Storeroom, Stable, Coach- house, Smithy, Stockyard, and Piggeries. The ground adjacent to the house is stocked with 1000 fruit trees in full bearing, and 1000 fruit and forest trees, various sorts; The remainder of the ground consists of about 60 acres of good land, laid down in English grasses, and securely fenced.

Lot 2

Consists of The Grange Farm, situated about a mile from Alexandra, and comprises 55 acres, the whole of which is securely fenced, laid down in English grasses, and well watered. A two-roomed stone House is built on the farm also, a Stable and Barn.

Lot 3

Consists of a five-roomed wood and iron House.

Lot 4

Stone Stockyard and Piggeries, 1 stack Oats, 1 ditto Oaten Hay, and ditto Clover Hay, and a 4-roomed stone House and Garden, 3 Quiet Dairy Cows, 8 Fat Steers, 6 Fat Pigs, and a lot of Poultry, 2 Buggy Horses, 1 Buggy and Harness, 1 Express "Waggon and Harness, Saddle and Bridle, Side Saddle, Stack of Clover Hay, 50 Bushels Wheat and Barley, 5 Tons Potatoes, 4 Doz. empty Bags, Blacksmith's Bellows, Anvil, and Took Carpenters' Tools, Plough, Harrows, Roller, Garden Roller, Tip Dray, 2 Spring Carts, Set of Spring Cart Harness, Cart and Leading Harness, Grindstone, Corn Crusher, Mould Plough, Water Wheel, 40 Sluice Boxes, 150 Sheets Galvanised Iron, Forming Implements and Garden Tools, 130 Gallon Iron Boiler, Household Furniture and Cooking Utensils; A No. 6 Cooking Stove

Lot 5.

There will also be offered for sale:
3 Races taking their rise in Blackmans Gully, and registered to carry 13 heads of water
6 Races taking their rise in Conroy Gully, and registered to carry 12 heads of water.
3 Races taking their rise in Earnscleugh River, and registered to carry 7 heads of water
Also, One-Twelfth Share in the Manuherikia Water Race.

Note.- -In drawing the attention of the- public to the- above sale, the Auctioneer has to state that the title to Como Villa and The Grange Farm is held under the runholders,. Messrs. Strode and Fraser, who have given in writing their consent to purchase. This very desirable property may therefore be converted into a freehold at any time. The water races are too well known to require any comment. The only reason the owner has for disposing of the above-mentioned valuable properties is his removal to Dunedin, where he has purchased a business that will require his constant attention. Buyers are requested is be early on the ground, as the lots to be offered exceed 500 in number..

Otago Witness , Issue 1216, 20 March 1875, Page 11


Como Gardens, the property of Mr Joseph Roberts, is worthy of special mention. It is situate at the foot of Conroys Gully, on the west bank of the Molyneux. This pretty homestead and its surroundings were the handiwork of Mr Thomas Oliver, now of Dunedin. It consists of an enclosure of about 12 acres, four out of which is a magnificent fruit garden, including the space occupied by the house, hay sheds, and stables, the remainder of the land is used as a grazing pad lock. At the extremity of the paddock is a large reservoir of water, about a mile and a-half in circumference, having a small island in the middle. The reservoir belonged to Mr Oliver, who owned several water races here. All round the shores of this reservoir, or Lake Como. as it is termed, is planted with weeping willows and poplars, while the island is similarly planted. The trees are of pretty large growth, and the bright rippling surface of the lake, spotted, here and there, with flocks of wild fowl, when viewed through the foliage, presents a charming appearance, and quite on agreeable relief from the dry, sandy plain of the Molyneux, distinctly visible in the distance. Besides some hundreds of thriving fruit trees planted in the ordinary manner, a quantity are trellised to neatly and stoutly made wooden frames while numbers of peach trees are trained along stone walls, built especially for the purpose. There is also a large collection of grape vines, loaded with fruit, trained to the rocks on a little stony rise at the rear of the orchard. The dwelling-house and out-offices are built of stone, and finished in the most novel and convenient manner. Water is laid on to the premises by pipes from the race supplying the garden. The whole bears the impress of an enormous expenditure of the time, labour, and ingenuity of some original-minded man.

Tuapeka Times, Volume VIII, Issue 452, 17 April 1875, Page 2. LOCAL INTELLIGENCE.

The grapes grown at Como Villa, Alexandra, this season stamp that locality as one eminently adapted for the growth of the vine.

Tuapeka Times, Volume XII, Issue 573, 22 October 1879, Page 2. NOTES FROM THE "GAZETTE."

Notice by Joseph Roberts of intention to construct water race from point in Conroys Gully, near R. Dawson's homestead, to Como Villa, Poverty Beach, west bank of Molyneux

Alexandra Herald and Central Otago Gazette , Issue 677, 26 May 1909, Page 4

Word was received in Alexandra by cable on Monday announcing the death at Melbourne of Mr Joseph Roberts, who left here a week or so ago for the Old Country. Deceased was an old resident of the district, having arrived here in the sixties, and latterly he followed the occupation of fruitgrower. Having disposed of his property, he left here for his native land, in Wales, but apparently he died suddenly on arrival of the boat at Melbourne. He was about 76 years of age, and has relations living in Wales:


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