Sweet as Mangoes
Persistence pays off for mango winemakers
At the turn of the millennium, history was made in Biboohra, Mareeba when fruit farmers Dino and Sam Nastasi and their father Charles launched the world’s first commercial mango wine at their family owned and operated Golden Drop Winery.
It was a bold business venture, previously unheard of in the Australian fruit and wine industries, but it was a risk they were willing to take, tapping into an untouched niche market that would change their business for the better.
Nearly twenty years later, the Nastasis couldn’t be prouder to see out their father’s vision. Their wines are renowned for reducing food waste and have become a popular gift choice.
They harvest four different varieties of mango – Pearl, Kiett, Kensington Pride (KP) and their own special variety, Australian Kensington Red.
The ‘KP Reds’, as they call them, flower a couple of weeks earlier than the KPs and boast a vibrant red blush inside and on their skin and flavour that packs a punch.
Back in 1975, Charles and his sons planted their first 3600 mango trees. Over the past 25 years the plantation has grown to have in excess of 17,000 trees covering more than 100 hectares, making it now one of the largest family owned mango plantations in Australia.
Fresh produce remains their main source of production while unmarketable fruit becomes seconds for wine making. In turn, fruit that doesn’t meet a good market price is put back into something profitable. It is an ingenious value-add, the result of years of fastidious research and experimenting.
Today, their fruit sits on the shelves of all main chain stores across Australia, including Woolworths, Coles and Aldi, with a small amount exported to overseas markets craving premium quality fruit.
On-farm, they use underground irrigation through lateral spinners at the roots of the trees with water they get from the Barron River and three pump sites on their property.
The mangoes receive plenty of sustenance but bad weather looms in the summer months threatening the Nastasis mango quality and production.
Just last year, Ex-Tropical Cyclone Owen imposed significant wind damage to the crop. There was no loss of mangoes to the ground, but a close inspection of the trees showed bruises on the fruit skins where they bumped each other.
“We’ve been hit with everything. We’ve had floods, hail, storms, and now magpie geese!” Dino said.
“We drive around and scare them every morning at dawn and every night to get them airborne. The sky becomes black with birds, it’s amazing how many land in the plantation.”
In recent months the birdlife has harmed the fruit, landing in huge packs and scuffing the crop.
Risks like these aren’t new. Whether it be the wrath of Mother Nature or the menacing threat of wildlife, it is times like these when the business falls back upon the security of the winery.
But the winery wasn’t always what it is today, said Dino. Years ago, when they were first entrenched in the technical and scientific process of wine making, they installed laboratories on their property to experiment with different flavours. They employed chemists and wine makers to help refine the product and eventually persistence paid off, despite the scepticism of peers.
“We consulted industry for help, but a lot of people turned us away. No one had ever heard of mango wine and fruit wines were not as popular as they are today,” Dino said.
“In the early days we’d go in to the lab under the dark of morning and not come out until nine at night.”
Five years and 50-odd test batches of wine later, the family narrowed down the choices to a Dry, Medium and a Sweet for sale at their cellar door on-farm.
“But Customers would come in and say, ‘is that all you’ve got?” Dino said. “So, from the wines, we expanded our line to include mango port, mango cello, and lemon, mandarin, lime and dragonfruit cello’s.”
Today the Nastasis sell to local bottle shops and export worldwide through their shop online. It’s a wide market that’s slowly growing but Dino said they don’t want to expand further than they can supply.
“If the fresh mango industry fell over, we’d probably push more with the winery but at the moment it’s just where we want it to be,” he said.
“It’s a good value-add to our business to keep all our staff employed during the year.”
Their farm, Nastasi & Sons, employs eight staff who work year-round, some of which have been in their positions for 20 years. While during harvest time, there can be up to 75 pickers and packers in the field and packing shed.
Dino said more than half of his harvest staff are return-workers which includes seasonal workers.
“Most employees want at least three months of continuous work. I do consider this during the harvest and try to have a constant flow of work available. I aim for a good five days a week so they’re not left waiting. I don’t muck them around.” he said.
“It’s a matter of getting loyal, reliable staff that turn up regularly and stick out the season. It can be frustrating having to train 70-odd people, who may end up leaving as early as three days into the season.”
With wages at an all-time high, some years the only way for the Nastasis to make a profit is to cut costs internally which proves difficult when they want to grow quality fruit.
But the pressure doesn’t just sit on Dino and Sam’s shoulders, their respective wives Maria and Jackie, their sister Grace and their mother Lucy all play a part in the operation of the farm and winery. They carry on an admirable legacy left by their father who passed away five years ago.
“He was the biggest inspiration and strength to all of us,” Dino said.
“We’ve done a good job at filling in all the gaps – the hardest part is finding some time to take a break.”
However, Dino says the silly season is the last time of year they’d consider travelling given it’s their busiest.
“We took Christmas day off, but then we were at it again, the mangoes don’t hang around for us,” Dino said.
“It probably is time to start thinking about having a break. We’re set up now. We can handle a few bad blows and don’t worry so much anymore.
“The years are going quicker, I don’t know why. You turn around and go, oh its mango season again!”
Golden Drop Winery is featured in the February 2019 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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Written by Sam Allen-Ankins. Photography by Robert Blake. Photographs reproduced with permission.