Profile: Alexandra Stone

By: Cameron Officer, Photography by: Cameron Officer

Alexandra Stone Alexandra Stone
Alexandra Stone The guillotine that Dave developed changed the nature of the business Alexandra Stone
Alexandra Stone Poolburn is Alexandra Stone’s primary quarry, high up in the Ida Valley Alexandra Stone
Alexandra Stone The guillotine means schist rock can be cut into more manageable pieces at the source Alexandra Stone
Alexandra Stone The schist delivery bags have been fine-tuned over the years by Dave Alexandra Stone

The intricacies of quarrying Central Otago schist are comparable with producing a fine wine. Well, mostly. Just ask Dave Grant and Suzanne Sinclair of Alexandra Stone.

Profile: Alexandra Stone
Suzanne Sinclair and Dave Grant

You might be wondering what possible connection winemaking could have with quarrying schist. Well, as Alexandra Stone managing director Dave Grant tells me, plenty. And he should know – not only is he a quarry owner, he's a winemaker as well.

Turns out the reason Central Otago has proven so consistently brilliant at producing world-beating pinot noir is down to the schist below the soil, metamorphic rock that has been subjected to huge pressure and heat. With Central Otago sitting bang in the middle of the main divide, the local rock structures prove vital to the region's unique grape-growing prowess.

I'm not a hundred percent on the science, but I know a bold Central Otago pinot when I taste one.

And Dave's father — a stonemason who founded the company back in 1975 – knew a thing or two about rock forms. Today Alexandra Stone remains the longest-operating schist quarry company in the area.

I'm catching up with Dave and his wife and business partner Suzanne Sinclair at Alexandra Stone's Poolburn quarry on a windswept plateau in the Ida Valley. It's starkly beautiful up here among the rock and rust-coloured tussock. Even with the clouds sitting low on a chilly afternoon in early spring, the dramatic peaks of the Remarkables are visible as brilliant white shards in the distance.

Though it's been a mild winter, Poolburn's elevation means snow regularly cloaks the ground. It's generally the only thing that'll bring operations to a halt for quarry foreman Adam Cosgrove and his three on-site employees.

Alexandra Stone operates a second quarry at Crawford Hills nearby (the first site Dave's father mined), but Poolburn provides the bulk of the company's output today.

While schist's grape-supporting properties lie hidden below the surface, as you drive around the region it quickly becomes clear that Central Otago schist is fantastic as a cladding and building material. It boasts the right hardness, the right grain and the right jointing, so that it breaks at clean 90-degree angles (breakages at a 60-degree angle result in less of the clean natural faces desirable for cladding). It looks good, too.

Not that the Victorian pioneers cared much for the aesthetic attributes of schist as a building material, but look at how many stone shearers' quarters, paddock dividing walls, miners' huts and early farm outbuildings from the 19th century remain around Central Otago today. It might be relatively new rock in the grand scheme of things, but it certainly ain't going anywhere.

With more emphasis on design these days however, Alexandra Stone specialises in varying shades of colour — from grey, to light and dark brown, to a mix of the two — thanks to its two operations supplying different hues from different locales.

As Dave explains, schist's popularity, not only in Central Otago but increasingly further afield (especially in the growing subdivisions of Christchurch's Selwyn District), has seen related quarrying technology and handling methods evolve as well.

"Back when we first started quarrying schist we utilised explosives to loosen the rock, as we do now. We'd also use crowbars to shift more manageable sections, although generally speaking, individual pieces were shipped out in larger sizes. In those days masons would be on site cutting down bigger bits. That was before we started developing our guillotine."

While a reasonably common sight overseas at this time, guillotines weren't in widespread use in New Zealand in the early '80s. The Alexandra Stone prototype — which Dave and a couple of mates developed from a log splitter before handing on to an engineering firm to finish — not only sped up the stone-shaping process, but essentially changed the nature of how the company sold stone, and to whom.

"The guillotine helped us start selling rock as a ready-to-lay material, which was a big step," Dave explains. "The way we cut raw product these days means that rather than needing dedicated masons to work on it, a brickie can come in and lay schist. It's so much better shaped to start with now. But rather ironically, the growth in popularity of schist has seen a decline in the number of dedicated masons.

"The stone is a much larger feature of higher-end houses around Central Otago now, so the emphasis is on us to provide quality cut stone at a faster rate. It helps being at both ends of the market — we're dealing with the raw product as well as the end-user, which helps us understand our client's needs."

Another parallel with the quarry operations and the vineyard — Shaky Bridge Wines — is the bagging and storing of the rock once it has been quarried.

As Suzanne explains, the one-tonne bags, which the stone is brought from the quarries to the company's Alexandra yard in need to be exceptionally robust.

"Freight is a huge component of the operation, so we're constantly making sure the stone reaches its destination as intended. In the old days a truckload would get dumped at a site and that was that. We used to use wooden crates, but their structure creates a lot of load limitations. It was then that Dave came up with the bag idea.

"Because of his work in the vineyard he was always dealing with hard-wearing bulk bags for fertiliser. He worked with the sales rep to develop a version of that bag that would stand up to heavy loads and lifting. It took a fair bit of trial and error but we've developed a good solid bag that we rely on now," she says.

The bags have been upgraded since the first version, specifically handle strength and UV protection, as they tend to sit outside in the blistering hot Central Otago sun during peak construction season.

So, despite the hard-wearing 'forever' nature of the product they're mining, Dave and Suzanne know incremental improvements are still the way forward.

"It's a lot more competitive an industry these days," says Dave. "When we first started, an enquiry was essentially an order. Now people have the ability to shop around, so for us it's about operating smarter — and faster — to maintain the business. We know we've got a great product though, so it's a matter of continuing to fine-tune the positive customer experience."

Consistency, it would seem, is key to Alexandra Stone's operation. Just like a good run of pinot, then.

For the latest reviews, subscribe to our Deals On Wheels magazine here.

Keep up to date in the industry by signing up to Deals on Wheels' free newsletter or liking us on Facebook