An Otematata family has stitched itself a patchwork quilt of occupations.
Dale and Warren Aitken are familiar to the public as the people who run the Otematata On the Spot store. They have been leasing it from the Waitaki District Council since 2015, offering groceries, snack foods and drinks seven days a week. The adjacent ice-cream parlour is also a popular place in the summer.
As if that wasn’t a big enough commitment, they have the local postal agency, took over the lease of the Bobbing Creek vineyard near the Waitaki Dam in August last year, Mrs Aitken prunes the grapevines at the River-T vineyard and Max Wilde’s vineyards, and Mr Aitken delivers the Otematata mail by pushbike.
The couple’s youngest son, Joseph (21), works for them in the shop.
His brother, Daniel (25), who works at Mobil Omarama, was with them in the lockdown bubble so he helped to pick the grapes at Bobbing Creek.
The Aitkens also have a daughter, Katherine (27), and another son, Lyndon (38).
They took the scenic route to Otematata. Mr Aitken was in the mining industry for many years, including stints at Macraes, Waihi, South America and Reefton.
The longest posting was five years in Australia when the children were young, firstly in Brisbane then Dalby.
They returned to New Zealand for the Reefton job, where the rainfall, measured in metres, took some getting used to. But they liked living there before heading south to Cromwell.
They spent nine years at Bannockburn, where Mrs Aitken did a viticulture apprenticeship at Akarua and studied at the Otago Polytechnic. It offered a Burgundy exchange, swapping students with the area in France famed for its pinot wines grown in a similar climate to that of Central Otago.
Mrs Aitken spent six weeks in Burgundy in 2012. It began with a week at an agricultural training school for classwork and barrel-making at assorted vineyards.
For the other five weeks she was billeted with a family that ran a vineyard. The wife was English, so communication was easy. However, the French seemed to struggle with the Kiwi accent, Mrs Aitken said.
South African student who had spent two years in New Zealand and still keeps in touch with him and their host family.
Mr Aitken said he and his wife looked at a number of different businesses before settling on the Otematata shop. They knew the area from having camped at Waitangi on the northern shore of Lake Aviemore when Lyndon was a baby.
They have noticed changes in Otematata in recent years. The number of businesses has dropped and the resident population is mainly retired people who had holidayed there.
Just four children lived in the township now and a few more on outlying farming stations, Mrs Aitken said.
Winter was a hard time for the store, the couple said. The Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail had not boosted trade much – most cyclists got to Otematata about 10am and continued straight on to Kurow.
Nor did skiers provide relief.
“Tourists are not really our thing,” Mr Aitken said.
“Campers are our thing.
“We’ve got a lot of history behind us now. We’ve learned what people want.”
The shop was very much a “convenience store”, they said – it could not compete for prices with the Four Square supermarkets 30km away in Kurow and Omarama.
They tried to source as much as possible from local suppliers, such as meat from Oamaru’s Campbells Butchery and fruit and vegetables from Taylor and Nash.
While things were quiet in the winter, Mrs Aitken could carry out her vineyard pruning work on fine days. If the vines were cut during rain, they were vulnerable to disease spores getting in.
The Aitkens entered into a “handshake agreement” with Bobbing Creek owner Eve Skerrett to lease the vines for two years.
They took over in time to do last year’s pruning.
When the grapes were ripening, Mr Aitken became a human bird-scarer. The bird-proof netting turned out to be riddled with holes, so he parked his caravan at the site and tried to keep the pests off the crop.
They sold this year’s vintage to Grant Taylor of Valli Wines but were considering producing wine under their own label next year.
They will call it “Nektia” – Aitken spelled backwards.
“Our daughter is designing the label,” Mrs Aitken said.
Mr Aitken takes care of all the maintenance tasks in the vineyard and Mrs Aitken handles the vines and grapes.
The most demanding workloads fit neatly with the Otematata store – the harvest is at Easter, after trade has dropped off at the shop, and the pruning is a mid-winter job.
Mr Aitken needs to disappear to the vineyard every 10 days in summer to do the spraying, and if Mrs Aitken’s skills are needed she will make sure Joseph and shop assistant Margaret Rae, who they describe as a “godsend”, are minding the store.