Paying tribute to an Otago pioneer
The legacy of Como Villa Estate started with an entrepreneurial pioneer named Thomas Oliver. After moving to Alexandra to pursue opportunities offered by the gold rush era, he purchased the property and built the original stone house that now acts as our cellar door and museum.
Oliver and his business partners established a network of water races and were major contributors to the success of gold mining in the area - supplying much needed water to local miners.
While there is a lot of history recorded on the achievements of his water race business, few know that he was also among the first to plant grapes and produce wine - something the region is well-recognised for these days.
Since discovering the old wine cellar at Como Villa Estate, John and Pam Chapman have been slowly restoring the old stone house, in honor of someone who played an important role in Central Otago’s history.
This year, Como Villa Estate is releasing a tribute wine dedicated to the entreprenuerial spirit of Thomas Oliver. The wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Melbec. It pays homage to the types of grapes that would have been grown on the property 140 years ago.
Proceeds from sales will go toward the continued restoration and preservation of the historic stone house and wine cellar.
The history of Como Villa Estate
Thomas Oliver made his way to New Zealand from England and eventually settling at Dunstan in 1863 where he took up licence at the London Inn on Tarbert Street (later renamed Bendigo Hotel). Oliver started a business partnership with two other men from the district and over the next 10 years began constructing and acquiring water races and mining rights in the area.
During this time, Oliver sold the London Inn and relocated to a ‘residence area’ on Earnscleugh Road. Here he built a substantial stone house and named the property Como Villa.
A photo of the restored stone house (left), contrasted with a drawing of the original four-bedroomed building built by Thomas Oliver in the 1860s.
There were four rooms initially, featuring a master bedroom and living room at the front section of the house. The original four rooms of the house were plastered and wallpapered overtop of several layers of newspaper. These still-readable sheets of the Otago Witness date back to 20 November 1869 can be found on display at Como Villa Estate.
Oliver later added a kitchen-living room, dairy and storeroom to the rear of the house. A six roomed house such as this would have been rare on the goldfields at the time. It also boasted a smithy, stables, coach-house, stockyard, piggery and cellar.
Image on left: The auction notice for Como Villa, as published in the Tuapeka Times, 1874.
Image on right: One of the old newspapers dating back to 1869 found in the walls of the stone house.
Elaborate gardens surrounded the house and made it a prominent attraction in the district.
A short distance from the house were two artificial lakes with islands in the centre. Grape vines grew along the foot of the hill behind the house. Oliver imported many of the plants from France and which grew fruit of good quality and size in the region. Strawberries, with cream from Ayrshire cows were known as a feature at Como Villa. When in season, they attracted visitors in carts and buggies who would come to partake in the delicious fruit.
By 1874 the partnership owned 15 water races and had gained considerable wealth. Oliver sold Como Villa along with shares in 12 of his water races. He moved to Dunedin where he ran the Sussex Hotel (now Farmers) on George St before eventually relocating to California in 1896. The network of water races established by Oliver extended from Frenchman’s Point to Clyde and are still used today, providing irrigation to a number of properties in the area.
Sussex Hotel pictured lower left when it was owned by Thomas Oliver
The property changed ownership several times in the years that followed. The historic stone house was eventually converted to a packing shed and barn when a newer house was built after World War II.
Como Villa Estate: vineyard and museum
John and Pam Chapman first purchased the property in 1982, operating it as a deer farm and orchard. The old stone house had always stood on the property and was used as a workshop and implement shed. One day when working on the tractor, its wheel collapsed into a hole behind the stone house and this led to the discovery of the old wine cellar built by Oliver.
Wine bottles buried amongst the remains of the wine cellar
With Alexandra quickly becoming recognised as an ideal climate for growing grapes, the Chapman’s decided it was time for a new challenge and began planting their own grapevines. The process of restoring the stone house began, eventually converting it into their cellar door and museum.
Photo left: Original fireplace, which was part of the kitchen/living room in the stone house.
Photo right: Examples of artefacts in the museum – the replica of Ship Dunedin built onboard the actual ship itself.
It is believed that Luigi Valli was the winemaker responsible for wine produced from the grapes likely to have been grown at Como Villa. Luigi is a fourth generation winemaker from Como, Italy. His relatives still live in the area today. As well as being a trained winemaker, Luigi was also farming and gold mining in the area during the time. His gravesite can be found in the Cyde cemetary.
With the help of Geneology Assistance, we are also looking into the history of Thomas Oliver’s wife and children. We know Thomas had a wife named Mattie who was from France, a daughter Gresine (born 11 December 1879) and a son Thomas (born 12 November 1888). The family later relocated to the Ballona Township in California, USA in 1896.
A special thankyou to all those who have helped us source information about the history of Thomas Oliver and Como Villa Estate including; The late Professor John McRaw, author of The early days on the Dunstan; NZ Society of Geneologists (Otago district) and Central Stories.
If you think you may have any information about the history of Thomas Oliver and his family, please contact Johnny at firstname.lastname@example.org - we would love to hear from you.