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New Zealand winegrower sentenced for smuggling Aussie cuttings

James Millton, a pioneer of organic viticulture in New Zealand, appeared in court, charged with illegally transporting vine cuttings in his suitcase from South Australia to Gisborne.


Millton, who co-founded The Millton Vineyards & Winery in Gisborne in 1984 with his now ex-wife Annie. The property is described as “New Zealand’s first organic and biodynamic wine estate”, with a number of varieties cultivated, including Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir.

The smuggling incident took place in June 2019, when Millton flew from Adelaide to Auckland, without declaring on his paperwork that he was bringing any plants, in this case cuttings of Savagnin vines from his daughter’s vineyard in Adelaide Hills, into his home country, according to The New Zealand Herald.

In 2020 he planted the Savagnin cuttings in his garden, treating them with lime sulphate beforehand to remove any pathogens, and was in 2021, when he took them to a local nursery, which grafted them for him. Millton then planted these in his vineyard in Gisborne.

It was in 2023, when Millton contacted another nursery about grafting cuttings taken from those vines, the alarm was raised and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), which is concerned with, among other areas, the biological risks posed to New Zealand, was contacted.

“There are many pests and diseases (bacterial, fungal, viral, insects) which, if introduced into New Zealand, could dramatically affect the production of grape vines grown for the wine industry,” an MPI spokesperson said.

There is a rigorous approach to importing cuttings, which involves, among ever steps, a 16 month quarantine of the plants in a registered bio-secure facility to prevent the introduction of foreign pests and diseases – the MPI argued that Millton’s lime sulphate treatment was insufficient.

The trial

In court, Millton’s lawyer, Peter Radich, tried to downplay the risk posed by the cuttings, arguing that they were “inert”.

Radich also tried to plead that Millton did not have commercial intentions for the cuttings, something that the MPI alleged.

“He’s a romantic, and in a romantic’s world these two dormant cuttings were not pieces of stick but capsules of his dreams and pathways to an exciting future experiencing the flavours of quality wines,” Radich argued to the judge at Blenheim District Court. “He was a romantic, wanting an affair with a variety he met overseas.”

However, Judge Garry Barkle did not buy this argument, and suggested that far from doing it on a whim, it was a pre-meditated plan from Millton.

Barkle also said that Millton’s “knowledge of this significant [biosecurity] risk would have been far greater than the average New Zealander”.

The judge did praise Millton for cooperating in the destruction of the offending cuttings and vines.

Millton was sentenced to five months of community detention, meaning he must stay within a certain locale and adhere to curfew, and slapped with a NZ$15,000 (£7,200) fine.

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