Small stories – the odyssey of Assid Corban

Dhour  al Choueir ( ضهور الشوير ), or Shweir, is a small town on the flanks of Mount Lebanon, looking down on Lebanon’s capital Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea, some thirty kilometres to the west. ‘Dhour’ means ‘summit, or top of a mountain. Illustrative of Lebanon’s diverse demography, half of it’s inhabitants are Eastern Orthodox and the other half Melkite and Maronite. It lay on the front line of during Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war (see Pity the Nation).

Today, it is one of Mount Lebanon’s favoured summer resorts where well-off Beirutis keep apartments and enjoy the cool fresh air during the hot summer months. It is called the city of skyscrapers, due to its many tall buildings and also because up there on the mountainside, these literally touch the sky. But in the last century, people from al Choueir migrated throughout the world – and they and their descendants have retained close ties with their hometown through family contacts and visits home. The town is now famous for its annual August carnival, honouring Lebanon’s emigrants.

Assid Abraham Corban was born in Choueir, then but a village, on 25 August 1864, the son of Abraham Hannah Corban, a vigneron from a family of stone masons and wine-growers, and Helene Hannah Bousader. In those days, there was no Lebanon. Predominantly Christian Mount Lebanon was  a Mutasarrifat or governorate of the Vilayet of Beirut, a province of the Ottoman Empire. The empire had another fifty four years to run after which the mutasarrifat and the four others that were to become the Republic of Lebanon in 1943 became part of the French mandate of Syria. Young Assid worked principally as a stonemason, but he also pruned and ploughed the family vineyard. On 22 October 1887, he married Najibie Tanyus Ataia, the daughter of another respected local family. They had two children Khalil (1889-1975) and Wadiye (1891-1982).

In the winter of 1890 both of Assid’s parents died. Inspired by the tales of Lebanese emigrants of fortunes to be made in the New World, he set out on his own in 1891 for Australia, leaving his young family behind in Choueir. After waltzing through the outback as a pedlar, he crossed the Tasman Sea to New Zealand in 1892 where, still toting his pedlar’s pack, he travelled around the mining towns of the Coromandel Peninsula, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. After working for a time as a haberdasher in Waihi, and later in Thames, in 1895, he opened a shop in Queen Street, Auckland, advertising himself as an ‘Eastern Importer of Fancy Goods, Jewellery, Drapery, etc.’ In the same year he became a naturalized British subject, and in 1897 sent for Najibie and the boys to join him.

Aetearoa – New Zealand, on the far side of the world, became the new home of the Lebanese stonemason turned haberdasher. Three further three children were born whilst the family lived in Queen Street. They named their first childborn in New Zealand, Zealandia (1898-1993) to celebrate their new home, then came Corban (1900-1974), Zarefy (1901-1978), and Annis (who died in infancy in 1903).

 In western Auckland,  at at the foot of the North Island’s scenic Waitakere Range, lies the suburb of Henderson. The land once belonged to the Te Kawerau ā Maki, the mana whenua (people of the land) of West Auckland, a distinct tribal entity since the early seventeenth century  when their ancestor Maki conquered and settled the Auckland isthmus and the land as far north as the Kaipara harbour. They sold much of their land of European settlers during the last decades of the Nineteenth Century.

And in 1902 Assid bought a scrubby ten acres of this land for £320 and planted a vineyard beside the O Panuku stream, on what is today the Great North Road. He named it Mount Lebanon Vineyards after the mountains of his birth. This became the celebrated Corbans Winery, one of New Zealand’s oldest. The property had a two-roomed cottage, an orchard and vines of the native American variety Isabella. Assid’s first 3½-acre vineyard was planted in a mix of wine grapes which included the classic red varieties Syrah, Meunier and Cabernet Sauvignon, and dual-purpose table grapes such as Black Hamburgh. It’s reputation was established swiftly. Romeo Bragato, government viticulturist from 1902 to 1909, was very impressed with Mt Lebanon Vineyards, praising it as ‘the model vineyard of New Zealand, and an object lesson to vine-growers’.

Assid, or AA as he was now known in the area, and his growing family first lived the cottage.  work on a three-level wine cellar started in 1903 and was completed in 1907. The first grapes were crushed by hand with a wooden club, and an open hogshead was used as the fermenting vat. By 1908 Assid had a simple crusher and two small presses for his first commercial vintage. Wine-making, however, was an extremely precarious pursuit in early twentieth-century New Zealand. In those early days, the family supplement wine-making with other forms of income: vegetable crops and tobacco were planted between the vines. A produce stall sold from the front gate and a handcart went out to sell fresh goods around Henderson. The industry’s most formidable foe was the temperance movement. Henderson became ‘dry’ in 1909, possibly due to alcohol-related problems at the local Falls Hotel. Assid built a small brick building outside the railway lines bordering his land which formed the dry boundary, and he was able to sell his wine legally from the small whitewashed building that still stands today.

 

The Corbin Winery’s first recorded sale, in September 1909, was to James Cottle of Taupaki who purchased two gallons of wine in his own jar at 10 shillings per gallon. Recognition of the quality of Corban’s wines came swiftly. The company won first prize for unsweetened red grape wine at the 1910 Henderson show. At the 1913–14 Auckland Exhibition, competing against wines from other countries in the British Empire, it won gold medals for its sherry and port and silver medals for its claret and red wine.

The Corban holdings steadily expanded. In 1909 Assid bought a neighbouring 20-acre property, planting the first five acres in vines in 1912. Eight years later he opened a wine depot in Auckland city and in 1923 built a two-storeyed, 17-room family homestead on the Great North Road. By the 1920s the firm was called A. A. Corban and Company.  In 1925 the Department of Agriculture’s vine and wine instructor, J. C. Woodfin, wrote that in the previous year ‘only twenty acres of vines were planted and one brave man was responsible for eight of these’. Corban’s had clearly become the largest winery in the country. It was also very much a family concern and in the 1930s became known as A. A. Corban and Sons Limited.

And there were indeed many sons. Four other children were born in Henderson: Annis (1905-1974), Annisie (1907-2002), Najib (1909) and Helena (1911). Other than Zealandia, all the Corban children lived in Henderson throughout their lives. The size of the family grew progressively as each of the children married and brought their spouses time to live in the homestead. Eventually some family members moved to other houses around the Henderson area. But they still maintained daily contact with the family, and the homestead remained a busy center for the family as well as for the wine business. The cooking of meals and other chores was shared, and all income was pooled. As the families grew, a system developed to fairly manage income and expenses. The costs were allocated with each adult counting as one unit, and with two children as one unit.

Although the arrival of a rotary hoe in 1934, and a caterpillar tractor soon after, greatly eased the vineyard toil, Assid Corban remained a patriarch in the Old Testament mould and a strong believer in the virtues of hard work. His work ethic inextinguishable, he never retired – every day of the year was a working day – except Sundays. His son Corban later described him as ‘well versed in the Scriptures and a staunch adherent of the Greek Orthodox Church’. He used to ‘bring out his treasured Bible and read to the family in Arabic’.

The end of an era came on December 2 1941when Assid suffered a stroke on his way home after a day working on a newly acquired property in Henderson Valley Road. He was in a coma for 12 days before finally passing away. His embalmed body lay in state in the homestead for a week whilst visitors filed past to pay their respects. In January 1943 work was completed on a classical tomb that had been erected in Waikumerte cemetery. And so, in a second funeral ceremony Assid Abraham Corban, villager, traveller, wanderer, immigrant, and pioneer was finally laid to rest. The respect this man commanded was evident in the large numbers who attended ceremonies in New Zealand and his hometown of Choueir where he still retained firm links.

Najibie became the head of the family, and just as her husband had been a powerful patriarch, she become the family’s powerful matriarch, leading it through some difficult times. The company continued to grow as the Corban family pioneered many new wine-making techniques. For much of the first half of the twentieth century the winery Corban founded dominated the New Zealand wine scene. When she passed away in 1957, the family had grown to include 32 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren. As a mark of respect, on the day of Madame Corban’s funeral, the shops in Henderson closed for half a day.

The growth of the winery continued as the Corban family pioneered many new wine-making techniques. With the ongoing expansion of the family owned winery, other companies began to buy shares during the 1960’s and 70’s. The business became a public company in 1963 and passed out of the family’s hands in the 1970s.y 1978, the Rothmans Corporation owned 78% of the company and took the company over. It remains one of New Zealand’s wine-making giants. The sturdy figure of Assid Abraham Corban, with his magnificent walrus moustache and trademark waistcoat and chains, gazes sternly down from a wall in the entrance to the head office of Corbans Wines Limited.

The Corban Winery continues to play a vibrant role in the cultural life of Henderson. Many of the extended Corban family became key figures in the local community. Most notable is Assid Abraham’s grandson, Assid Corban (Junior), who became the Mayor of Henderson Borough from 1974 to 1989, and the first Mayor of Waitakere City in 1989. When the Corban Estate site was sold in 1992, it was purchased by the Waitakere City Council and by the end of 2001, the Waitakere Arts and Cultural Development Trust had taken on the lease for much of the estate and established the Corban Estate Arts Centre. The land and winery buildings have been converted into a large multi-disciplinary arts centre that is visited by thousands of Aucklanders each year. The homestead is currently home to the galleries and reception area. Members of the Corban family contributed to the formation and development of the arts centre, and Brian Corban remains the Chair of the Trust Board.

References:

Assid Abraham Corban, Michael Cooper, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Corban Estate Arts Centre (CEAC) 2004. A Brief History of the Corban Winery 

Photographs are sourced from the Corbans Wines website.

Adele and Elly amidst the wine vats at the Corban Estate Arts Centre

For other posts in our Small Stories series of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, see:  A Tale of Twin Pines  , the story of a Lebanese migrant to New Zealand, and The Monarch of the Sea, the rollicking tale of an unlikely “pirate king”.

On a dry note:

Whilst New Zealand’s iconic band Split Enz once sung “history never repeats”, an official Auckland strategy to minimize alcohol related harm saw predominantly working class “Hindersin” once again designated a “dry zone” in August 2016. The public consumption of alcohol is banned. Only the Waitakere Licensing Trust can operate pubs and bottle shops, whilst supermarkets sell no alcohol. The trusts, administered by publically-elected trustees, return surplus profits to the community through grants, rebates to clubs, sponsorships and other support for community activities. One of the West Auckland-based Waitakere and Portage Licensing Trust’s most significant investments in the “The Trusts Stadium”. It attracts events from fashion shows to rock concerts, community gatherings to local sporting competitions. The venue has hosted several million visitors since opening in September 2004, attracting 600,000 visitors a year, thus making it one of the most accessible stadiums in New Zealand.

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