Savagnin, hubris and smuggled twigs: the sad story of James Millton

by | May 23, 2024 | Opinion

The news that James Millton, the co-founder of Millton Vineyards and a pioneer of bionynamic viticulture in this country, has been convicted of illegally transporting vine cuttings from Australia has sent shockwaves through the wine world in New Zealand and beyond.

Millton has now been sentenced in the Blenheim District Court to five months of community detention and fined $15,000 on charges linked to him knowingly importing goods with no biosecurity clearance and knowingly making a false or misleading declaration to officials at Auckland Airport.

Millton smuggled the two cuttings in his suitcase on a flight from Adelaide to Auckland in 2019. The cuttings were from the Savagnin variety and were obtained from his daughter’s vineyards in South Australia . He succeeded in smuggling the cuttings into New Zealand and cultivated them in his garden and vineyard in Gisbourne. He was discovered when he tried to have the vines grafted at a Blenheim nursery. The nursery grew suspicious and contacted the Ministry for Primary Industries.

The MPI said Millton’s actions risked introducing a suite of pests and diseases that had the potential to cripple the New Zealand wine industry, which is also one of the country’s major export industries, that has so far developed with relatively little impact from unwanted pests and diseases. When contacted by The Feed, Millton’s lawyer Peter Radich said the MPI were “catastrophising” and that the cuttings were little more than twigs.

Everything about James Millton’s life story suggests he is a rule breaker,. From his early adoption of biodynamics to his championing of a then unfashionable Chenin Blanc, to his determnation to grow world class wines in Gisbourne, all signs point to an individual whose success has come from stubbornly doing things his own way. His conviction marks him out as a man who has allowed his rebellious streak to get away from him and has led him to some make some extremely poor decisions.

For wine geeks this story hits a little differnet, and not just because Millton is a revered and pioneering winemaker. What jumps out is his choice of grape for this doomed smuggling operation: Savagnin. No no, listen carefully: Savagnin. This is a grape variety only familiar ro nerds. It grows in the Jura in Eastern France and is most famous for being the main varietal used to make Vin Jaune, the heavily oxidised, rich, and nutty wine that ages forever and is the preferred accomplianent to Jura’s other great export: Comté cheese. It is made in vanishly small quantities, is quite expensive, and the average wine drinker would most likely describe it as pretty damned weird.

Savagnin only exists in Australia because of a clerical error. In the late twentieth century Australian winemakers were looking to capitalise on the growing popularity of Galicia’s indiginous variety Albariño. There was mix up at the nursery and Australian growers received Savagnin instead and happily planted and marketed the resulting wine as Albariño until someone discovered the mistake in 2009.

Along with being very funny this story tells you something about Savagnin and about James Millton. No one is planting Savagnin in the New World with the hope of becoming rich. Very few people have heard of it and it lacks any big headline varietal characteristics that are going to see it become the next big thing on our supermarket shelves. As Millton’s lawyer Peter Radich put it:

“He’s a romantic, and in a romantic’s world these two dormant cuttings were not pieces of stick but capsules of his dreams and pathways to an exciting future experiencing the flavours of quality wines. He was a romantic, wanting an affair with a variety he met overseas.”

Millton’s actions were irresponsible, reckless, and undoubtably criminal. But they were not motivated by any greed or determination to gain an edge over a competitor. They were the quixotic actions of an eccentric, enthusiastic, perhaps hubristic man.

Should he be punished? Yes. Should he be forgiven? As a wine nerd, I certainly hope so.

About the Author

David Wrigley

David is a writer and musician from Kemureti/ Cambridge. He has been published in Noble Rot, Nourish Magazine, Turbine|Kapohau, New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, and is currently working on his first novel. He has done his time in restaurants in Aotearoa and the UK. Oh, yes. He has done his time.

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