The story of Romeo Bragato
On the 19th February 1895, Romeo Bragato arrived at Bluff on loan from the Victorian Government to the Department of Agriculture. He came with impressive credentials, having spent four years at Conegliano, Italy's famous school of viticulture where he obtained a diploma of Oenology. He was escorted by Government officials from one end of the country to the other. His report, 'Prospects of Viticulture and Instructions for Planting and Pruning' submitted to the premier on 10th September the same year was reasoned and enthusiastic.
Bragato strongly urged that associations be formed in the various districts, "A competent body in each district would determine the most suitable varieties for planting, collect and spread local data and thus in great measure secure the industry against failure. Each district would subsequently gain notoriety for the wine produced as in the famous districts of the Continent". He had found phylloxera in the Auckland vineyards of Mr Bridgman and Mr Harding of Mt Eden Road and strongly recommended an inspection of all vineyards. He also recommended the importation by the Department, from Europe, of cuttings of American resistant vines.
Signor Bragato returned to Australia, leaving behind him a farming population excited by the prospects of wealth from viticulture. But two pests, Phylloxera and Oidium Mildew, and a lacklustre policy by the Department of Agriculture dampened the enthusiasm of most except the wealthy gentlemen farmers of Hawke's Bay, the missionaries, and a new breed of wine growers entering the field, the Dalmatians.
In 1901 there was another flicker of interest by the New Zealand Government in viticulture and they asked Bragato to come back and report on the phylloxera which by now was having a heavy toll on the vineyards of the North Island, as it had done earlier in the vineyards of Europe. He had already given New Zealand the answer in his report of 1895 - root out the diseased vine, import and plant American resistant vines, (root stock grafted with European varieties). This time he was offered a permanent position and came back in 1902 to the newly created post of Viticulturist and Head of the Viticultural Division of the Department of Agriculture based at Te Kauwhata.
Bragato imported disease resistant stocks and in his handbook, Viticulture in New Zealand published in 1906 by the Department of Agriculture, showed growers how to graft the European classical varieties which predominated in the country at that time, on to the American root stocks. Bragato's work identified the varieties to plant, the Phylloxera resistant rootstocks to graft them to, the regions in which to plant vines, the varieties suitable to each region, vineyard layout, pruning methods and much more.
Regrettably his work was not acted on and lay forgotten for over 60 years. Dusted off by a few pioneers in the 1970's early 1980's, many of the recommendations of Romeo Bragato form the basis of modern New Zealand viticulture practices.