The history of Mahana is as rich and vibrant as its wines.
It is to be celebrated and not lost. For three generations, the property was owned and cared for by the Brice family. Here is their story of how they came to be stewards of this land named Mahana, before it was transformed into viticulture.
The journey began with Sidney Brice during the First World War. In 1915, Sydney Brice purchased what is now Mahana Estates for his three sons. Originally much larger than the current estate, the property was newly planted as an apple orchard. Brice, a clothing importer or ‘rag trader’ in Wellington who owned Brice & Brice, wanted his sons to be farmers and the three boys moved from Wellington to the property in 1923. However, only one of the three brothers remained at Mahana and he inherited the property.
Herbert Kean Brice or Bill as he was known, was an enterprising young orchardist. He worked extremely hard, initially using horse and cart to cultivate and maintain the Mahana orchard and transport fruit to the wharf at Mapua where it was shipped to Wellington and on to the rest of the world. Beautifully presented, all the fruit was individually wrapped with paper from Sweden and packed into hand built wooden boxes on the estate.
Bill married Maire (Mai) Hamilton, daughter of Fred Orton Hamilton and Isabelle Hamilton. The Hamilton’s were a formative Nelson family, introducing tobacco and hops to the region, along with founding what is now Farmers Department store, previously ‘Buxton’s’. Part Maori, Mai’s aunt was Princess Te Rangi Pai who composed the famous song Hine E Hine.
Bill and his wife Mai lived in the cottage where the Mahana Villa now sits, raising their four children. Mai Brice was a keen gardener and she planted the magnificent oak and rimu trees which surround and ‘embrace’ the Villa site.
Mahana has always been a site of innovation. Bill was the first man in the area to have a car, a Renault known throughout the district as ‘foofy’, the first to have a truck with ‘pump up’ tyres, and the first to have a tractor. He imported a Cutler apple grading machine made of steel from the United States in the fifties, replacing the traditional apple grader whose felt pads were forever bound with wax. Bill strove for new ways of farming and the orchard was the first in Nelson to ‘grass’ the sward between trees (a practice that many thought was madness at the time), and it was the second orchard in the country to adopt bulk harvesting.
Wine has also been a feature in the history of Mahana, with Bill being one of the very first licensed wine makers in the Nelson district. Bill Brice produced sparkling fruit wine which was served at some of the top Wellington restaurants and weddings during the depression and WWII and into the years beyond. ‘Brice’s wine was crafted with the Renault whose wheel was used to drive the belt for the crusher to make the wine. Changes to health legislation saw the end of winemaking for Bill, who distilled the remains of the 1950s Mahana cellar into a spectacular ‘Apple Jack’ that featured at family gatherings and Christmas parties for many decades after.
Bill’s son Codger Brice, now 77 years of age took over from his father Bill in the early 1960s. He ran the Brice orchard, expanding through additional land acquisitions, as well as carting and packing fruit for other orchardists on the property, until the late 1990s when he sold the property to the Schaeffers and Woollastons.