A good egg

Worthy old buildings inspire creativity and enterprise, but their survival is only assured if they are re-purposed. So I was pleased to discover over Christmas that the beloved National Tobacco Company building in Ahuriri, Napier, had been refitted to house one of New Zealand’s most exciting wineries.

The Urban Winery’s barrel room displaying its oak Taransaud Ovum, one of just a few in the world

On my frequent visits back to my old Hawke’s Bay stamping grounds, I’ve kept an eye on this stunning art deco building in the port precinct of Napier. Originally built and owned by tobacco tycoon Gerhard Husheer, it suffered devastating damage in the 1931 Napier earthquake.

But Husheer spared neither time nor expense in having it rebuilt and, by the end of 1932, on the same spot on the corner of Ossian Street, stood a magnificent art deco edifice embellished with a few art nouveau touches.

Of course, I wasn’t around at that time. Still, ever since I was old enough to see the value in accomplished architecture, I’ve been a fan of this historic building - its rectangular lines and the arching, lamp-lined entranceway with brass handrails and intricate motifs of roses, bull rushes and vine leaves. Although it is officially known as the National Tobacco Company Building, we locals always referred to it as ‘The Rothmans’ Building’ as the Pall Mall company owned it from 1956 to 2001. 

Local art works adorn the walls

I was not the only one eyeing this Napier icon. Hawke’s Bay winemaker and entrepreneur Tony Bish had been watching it for about 20 years, and when it came up for lease three years ago he was “in Like Flynn”.

Like Gerhard Husheer nearly 90 years before, Tony, with his wife Karryn, spared little expense in turning the interior space of the old ciggy factory into an attention-grabbing interior that houses a wine barrel hall, a cellar door, an art gallery, and a bar and restaurant.

I’d never been inside the building before and had no idea of its cavernous spaces. The high walls are painted black or clad in contrasting light timber, and subtle lighting creates warmth and a sophisticated sheen. Comfortable seating is scattered about the hall. Interesting artwork and a photographic documentation of the old tobacco-making procedures on the walls are dominated by enlarged and captivating images by local photographer Richard Brimmer.

The seating encourages patrons to linger

To the left, just through the entrance door, a large glass wall forms a transparent barrier to the barrel room, which is filled with rows of traditional barrels and, on the back wall, the symbol of Tony Bish Wines - a vast, gold-coloured sculptural vat made of French oak and shaped like an egg. This is a Taransaud Ovum, the Rolls-Royce of wine vats.

It is the only one in New Zealand and one of only a few in the world. Along one wall another three ovoid-shaped concrete tanks line up with conventional tanks of stainless steel. Tony specialises in making chardonnay wines and, in these oval tanks, the fermenting liquid stirs itself and eliminates the need for human intervention.

“Wines fermented in oval tanks have purity, richness and sublime texture,” says Tony, whose love of chardonnay began way back in 1986, when, with the two Mason brothers, he co-founded Hawkes Bay’s Sacred Hill Winery. In the Urban Winery, Tony’s bottled wines are showcased in a welcoming bar area, and an adjacent wall shelves a careful selection of others from around New Zealand.

The Urban Winery bar

Wine aficionados could occupy themselves here for an afternoon or the good part of a day. For those of us who appreciate wine without much analysis, it is a treat to call in to admire the winery’s interior decor and prop our elbows on the bar for a tasting and a bit of education.

Better still, to be there on one of the three evenings a week when the cellar door becomes a bar and patrons can settle in for a glass or two of wine with a tempting selection of tapas and delicious-looking platters. Musicians are frequently invited to entertain, especially at weekends Visitors and imbibers are offered a full-blooded welcome to this venue, but one thing they aren’t permitted to do is to light up.

That’s an ironic twist in a building that owes its existence to tobacco. The Urban Winery Bar and Restaurant is open seven days a week, and late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.

Win a delicious prize from the Urban Winery Bar and Restaurant


Be in to win a delicious prize from the Urban Winery Bar and Restaurant, including complimentary wine tasting and a platter for four, valued at $100.

Click here to enter, before 2nd April 2020.

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