Prominent New Zealand winegrower James Millton smuggled Australian vine cuttings to New Zealand in a suitcase

By Tracy Neal, Open Justice Reporter New Zealand Herald

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James Millton (file image).
Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

A prominent New Zealand vintner who planted vines from an Australian cutting he hid in his luggage and smuggled into the country has been described as a “misguided romantic” whose fall from grace has been significant and painful.

The actions of winemaker and vineyard owner James Millton, who in 2012 was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to the New Zealand wine industry, were described by a judge on Tuesday as “absolutely inexplicable” and ” unfathomable.”

Millton, an internationally renowned organic wine producer, has been sentenced at Blenheim District Court to five months’ community detention and a $15,000 fine on charges relating to knowingly importing products without biosafety clearance and carrying out aware of a false or misleading statement to Auckland Airport officials.

The Ministry for Primary Industries charged Millton after a Blenheim nursery raised concerns about the provenance of cuttings it wanted to graft, which turned out to be from illegal vines already established in Gisborne.

He later admitted to having illegally imported the vine cuttings he had in his suitcase, without declaring them, and then planting them in his garden and vineyard.

Millton’s actions risked introducing a number of pests and diseases that had the potential to cripple New Zealand’s wine industry, which is also one of the country’s major export industries, which has so far developed with relatively little impact. from unwanted pests and diseases, MPI said. .

They could also have a significant impact on the wider New Zealand horticulture industry.

A court statement from the New Zealand Wine Producers Association described in stark terms what the industry feared as a result of the biosecurity breaches, and that such actions put the entire industry, including 42,000 hectares of wine plantations, at risk. grape.

Millton’s lawyer, Peter Radich, said that while there was a risk, it was not in the league described.

“These are two inert prunings of grapes: they are not like fertilized eggs,” says Radich.

During a trip to South Australia in 2019, Millton took the two cuttings of a Savagnin vine from his daughter’s vineyard in the Adelaide Hills, a vineyard he knew was healthy and disease-free.

Savagnin is described as a white wine grape variety with green-skinned berries, grown primarily in one region of France.

Millton was interested in the variety because it was not present in New Zealand and he wanted to grow it in his vineyard in Gisborne and, later, in Marlborough.

Radich said Millton was a “dreamer” and an enthusiast who was on a “sensory expedition of his own”, but at 67 his personal life had collapsed, he had suffered a huge setback in his life by losing his business, part of his family and now the reputational damage associated with the crime.

Radich said that despite MPI’s claim that Millton showed no remorse and even minimized the offending, he was a man who was now “self-flagellating” and regretting himself and what he had done.

“He is a romantic, and in a romantic world these two dormant cuttings were not pieces of stick but capsules of his dreams and paths towards an exciting future experiencing the flavors of quality wines.

“He was a romantic and wanted to have an affair with a variety he met abroad,” Radich said.

Whether or not he had commercial intentions, as alleged by MPI but refuted by the defence, was inconclusive, leading Judge Garry Barkle to consider the argument irrelevant.

Nothing to declare

Millton wrapped the vine cuttings in plastic and placed them inside his suitcase, and on June 14, 2019, Millton flew from Adelaide to Auckland.

During the trip, he completed the declaration on the passenger arrival card, and indicated that he was not carrying any plants or plant products.

MPI said he knew this was fake because he had the vine cuttings in his suitcase.

Millton submitted his falsely completed arrival declaration upon arrival and failed to declare the vine cuttings when clearing biosecurity and customs at Auckland International Airport.

He took the cuttings home to Gisborne, where he lived at the time, and in 2020 planted them in a garden near his vineyard home.

He treated the cuttings with a sulfate of lime solution, which MPI said was not an approved treatment for pathogens nor did it prevent unwanted viruses or other pathogens from surviving in the plant material.

Judge Barkle said this showed he was not indifferent to the risk involved, even though it was not an approved treatment protocol.

Cuttings were later taken from these plants and grown in the vineyard.

In 2021, he took cuttings to a local nursery for grafting and falsely claimed they were “Chenin Blanc” vine cuttings.

The nursery grafted 134 cuttings and returned them to Millton, who then planted them in Millton’s vineyard.

Millton moved to Blenheim in 2022 but remained a shareholder in the Millton Vineyard business which he and his ex-wife founded in 1984.

In 2023, he arranged to send cuttings he called “Chenin Blanc Special Selection” to Blenheim.

He contacted a nursery in Blenheim and asked to graft the cuttings, but after inquiring about the provenance of the cuttings, the nursery refused to graft them and MPI was alerted.

Expensive and difficult

MPI said Millton knew he had to follow a specific process to import vine cuttings into New Zealand, but decided not to.

“I considered bringing them in legally was expensive and difficult.”

MPI said Millton avoided strict requirements for importing nursery stock, including a minimum 16-month quarantine in a registered facility for the material to be inspected, tested and treated for regulated pests, which would have cost just under $5,000 for two vine cuttings.

“There are many pests and diseases (bacterial, fungal, viral, insect) that, if introduced into New Zealand, could dramatically affect the production of vines grown for the wine industry.”

Many of the pests and diseases could also have a significant impact on the wider New Zealand horticulture industry, MPI added.

The ministry said New Zealand’s biosecurity system underpins trade, primary production and biodiversity, and allows animals, plants and food to be transported safely within New Zealand and to and from other countries.

Circumventing the system exposed New Zealand’s primary industries to significant risks, MPI said.

Sentencing Millton, Judge Barkle said his continued conduct after introducing the cuts had aggravated the breach which he described as deliberate and premeditated, and his extensive experience in the industry meant he was well aware of the procedures that needed to be followed.

“Their knowledge of this important risk would have been much greater than that of the average New Zealander.”

Judge Barkle credited Millton for his full cooperation with officials and for assisting with the destruction of the cuttings and all their progeny.

In 2018, New Zealand businesswoman Joyce Austin was convicted and fined for falsifying wine export documents to the European Union, a crime that a judge and winegrowers say may have damaged the industry’s reputation.

Austin, who operated New Zealand Boutique Wines Ltd (Boutique Wines), had admitted that he had hired wineries to falsify wine export applications for 44.5 cases of wine to be used as samples at sales and promotional events in the Republic of Ireland.

His sentencing came just days after Yealands Estate Wines pleaded guilty to its “unprecedented offence” of falsifying documents and adding sugar to its products and paid a $400,000 fine.

– This story was originally published by New Zealand Herald.