To my right, there is a large barrel, full of sausages.
Also, apples. And oranges. And innumerable other foodstuffs, though at the moment the tally seems heavily weighted in favor of sausages. Customs at the Auckland airport are nothing if not strict, and one quickly realizes that the plague of imported sausage will not escape the wary eyes of New Zealand law enforcement. Someone could have quite the feast on the assortment of discarded comestibles, if they were so inclined. But why are there so many sausages? Is this a secret of savvy world travelers that has remained heretofore unknown to us? Should we be packing a brace of saucisson on our next trans-Pacific voyage?
I start to worry about the cleanliness of the hiking boots in my suitcase as I see people carted off for a stray clump of dirt. Perhaps it's just exhaustion, as what seems an absurdly detailed customs process comes at the end of the longest flight I've ever taken, a flight simultaneously discomforting and fascinating. Covered with the filmy patina of a long air voyage and its attendant fatigue, standing in a winding and increasingly surly queue, I had a few moments to review how we had gotten there.
Please Waitemata, Mr. Ferryman
Thirty minutes from Los Angeles, I was already squirming in my seat. After a few hours, I was positively giddy with stasis. And who's brilliant idea was it to make M. Night Shyamalan's signs the first in-flight movie, anyway? What, a film about a plane crash wasn't available? As I drifted in and out of sleep, wondering when Mel Gibson forgot how to act after a few credible attempts, and why the movie was so trite and silly, I occasionally gazed out the window at a vast expanse of dark nothingness: the Pacific Ocean.
The seats on our Qantas-operated 747 were uncomfortable, the in-flight magazine's crossword puzzle was ridiculously unchallenging, and the food and wine were awful. With a dinner of something I've mercifully forgotten, we were offered:
Lindemans 2002 Chardonnay "Bin 65" Orange juice with sweet vanilla. This would be better with breakfast.
Hardy's 2001 Shiraz Stewed vegetables in a fruit soup, heavily accented with dill. Absolutely vile.
What was fascinating was the in-flight map feature shown between films. The familiar was quickly abandoned for the unfamiliar what are all these islands? and is that really Fiji there? and my sense of displacement coupled with excitement grew even as fatigue threatened to overcome me. I finally sank into a deep sleep just after we crossed the International Date Line and a never-to-be-recovered Monday instantly slipped away
I definitely didn't appreciate being woken up for breakfast at the absurd hour of 3 a.m. Apparently, not only can sausages not be brought into New Zealand, they can't approach within 1200 km unless they're in your belly. The post-breakfast movie was Bend It Like Beckham, a much more entertaining low-budget film about, among other things, a clash of cultures. Would New Zealand be the same for us?
Sleep was difficult to return to, especially when chimes and alarms went off, followed by an announcement of "severe turbulence ahead." Seat backs and tray tables were returned to their upright and locked positions, we made sure we were securely buckled-in, and we braced for 15 seconds of mild turbulence. I gave up trying to sleep. Eventually, dawn lightened the formless ocean sky into a blue-gray haze, and a few hours later we were descending over the verdant Coromandel Peninsula towards the Auckland International Airport.
One metaphorical cavity search and a reminiscence later, we're on the other side of customs and fully-immersed in the first bloom of this exciting new culture: we're face-to-face with McDonald's. It's just after 6 AM, and since we won't be able to check into our hotel until later this afternoon, but we will be meeting all sorts of people before then, I decide I simply must have a shave. The only problem is, there are no towels (paper or otherwise) in the bathroom. I emerge, unshorn, to look for a napkin at one of the various fast food establishment. No napkins. Don't Kiwis use napkins? Are they that meticulously clean? Perhaps it's the absence of sausage. I give up, return to my suitcase, and retrieve a pair of socks to dry my face. Roughing it is such fun.
After that, we quickly fall into the travel process. Theresa buys a road atlas while I call Sue Courtney, who has assured me that she'll be awake at this absurdly early hour. Minutes later, we're stuffing our luggage onto a shuttle headed for Auckland.
The usual industrial airport environs roll along the roadside, lulling me to a desire for sleep that is prevented by the blare of a looped tourist video playing on the on-shuttle TVs, but soon we're climbing tight suburban hills packed with houses. The architecture is unfamiliar, and when we wind into commercial strips with zig-zags of brightly-colored awnings, it quickly becomes clear that, English-speaking or not, New Zealand doesn't look like anywhere we've ever been. Around a corner, the Sky Tower's sky-piercing pinnacle wheels into view, and soon the glistening sparkle of Waitemata Harbor and its thicket of sails dominates our descent down Queen Street and to our hotel.
The Airedale Hotel (380 Queen St.), wedged into an angled space across the street from the Town Hall, is clean and modern, one of the few affordable non-dives we could find near the city center. It's only 8 a.m., and though we'd both desperately love a shower and a nap, we simply drop our bags with one of the youngish porters and stride down Queen St. to meet Sue. We're surrounded by a combination of department stores, American chains (many of these), and sidewalk hawkers, and as we descend towards the harbor, the skin of the people around us gradually darkens to a blend of deeper Asian hues, all hustling and focused. For all its distance, this could be a city anywhere on the west coast of the United States, though the traffic is exceedingly light by those standards, and the small amount of cultural displacement I'd felt upon our arrival disappears for good.
Sue meets us on the street fronting the Ferry Building, giving us the same speculative once-over we're giving her. We have a little time before the next ferry to our destination, and we munch on some deli counter pastries while discussing our plans for the day. We've only been here a few hours, and we're already on our way to a wine tasting.
The turquoise tree
A chilly wind buffets our faces even as the sun warms them; we'll pay for this indulgence later with dry, irritated skin. But the wind caused by our ferry's swift passage alongside a string of mostly unspoiled islands is necessary for two weary travelers, and the harbor itself is unquestionably beautiful. We're on our way to Waiheke Island, a location that these New Englanders cannot help but compare to Martha's Vineyard, though with actual vineyards. Yet the paradigm is all wrong; while its real estate is expensive by New Zealand standards, the island itself is untamed and rustic, exhibiting all the low key gentility on which Napa Valley vintners expend millions of illusion-constructing marketing dollars. A better point of comparison might be California's Anderson Valley, and in fact the two wine regions have more than vines as a shared agricultural history.
Upon our arrival, Sue eyes a few taxis before selecting one I wonder at, but don't inquire after, her criteria and it spirits us over rolling sidewinder hills to our first destination, Goldwater Estate. We're met by Gretchen, daughter of founder/owners Kim and Jeanette Goldwater, who greets us with sympathy for our jet-laggish malaise as we wander up the small hill to Goldwater's signature tree, the one found on their labels. It's a peaceful morning, with a few clenched balls of cloud flowing swiftly across a too-bright sky and reflecting in water that has taken on a decidedly turquoise tint. Around us, vineyards ebb and flow down slopes, then up again, patchworking the landscape amongst the untouched grasses and scraggly forests.
Under the shade of the hilltop tree, Gretchen gently spools out the brief history of the winery. The Goldwaters weren't the first to plant vines on Waiheke Island, but they were the first to sustain success, and their 1978 beginnings have led to much success and expansion in recent years. The vines, though, are a problem; Waiheke's warm nights and general lack of damaging frosts may sound ideal, but as a result the vines fail to go properly dormant and into their restorative phase, which means an earlier onset of grape-begrudging old age, and an early death. Already, the oldest vines have been replanted, with even more replantings on the way.
The sandy clay soils of Goldwater's vineyards are planted mostly with cabernet and merlot, a little cabernet franc, and some chardonnay (with the exception of a new chardonnay grower, Goldwater's Waiheke grapes are all from their own vineyards). Extensive plantings of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay in Marlborough, which dwarf their Waiheke Island production, are from contracted rather than owned vineyards. Their brand new tasting facility, still under construction on our visit, is only open for a few summer weeks and a smattering of special events. And thus, we are invited into the Goldwaters' home.
Harboring young vines
Kim and Jeanette are warm and friendly, and one immediately takes to them even though one knows that they take the business side of their winery very seriously. Jeanette even offers the use their shower, after I mention that I'm looking forward to one even more than I crave a nap. You won't hear that at many wineries. (Nonetheless, I politely decline.)
Goldwater 2002 Sauvignon Blanc Dog Point (Marlborough) I've always struggled with this wine, as previous vintages have always been a little too ripe, a little too tropical and hot, a little too slick for my tastes. Yet with this one, they've captured my full attention. Scott-Henry trellising and leaf-pulling are employed to achieve full ripeness with what I will, later, come to find is a moderate level of alcohol for Marlborough sauvignon blanc (13.5% on this one, right in the middle of their 13-14% target range). "We want veggies on the plate, not in the glass," Kim remarks. It's then cold-fermented in 100% stainless steel; no wood experiments here. There's some of the familiar lush, tropical pineapple and (slightly unwelcome) green bean on the nose, but the latter is quickly overtaken by an odd walnut and blue cheese aroma that is far more enticing than it sounds. The palate is structured and solid, yet full of ripe grapefruit and pineapple, which turns slightly mineral-sally and steely on the lingering finish. It's a very impressive wine.
Goldwater 2001 Chardonnay Roseland (Marlborough) 100% barrel-fermented in French oak (20% of it new), and spending 10 months on the lees. Like the previous wine, under screwcap, which will be an ongoing (and welcome) theme of our three weeks in New Zealand. Light lemon-yeasty aromas vie with lightly toasted vanilla, though the latter barely registers against a citrusy midpalate and fruit-salad finish full of bright acid and vivid honeydew melon. At the very end, oak adds a grace note of cinnamon, and there's a bit of persimmon flavor. It's a fine chardonnay with some life and development ahead of it, though the jubilant fruit is hard to resist now.
Goldwater 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot (Waiheke Island) This is their signature wine (with 10% cabernet franc, undisclosed by the front label), and much sought-after in New Zealand, but I've never been convinced by the wine, and this is no exception. The nose is classic, structured, and Bordeaux-like with the addition of some spicy bark notes, but the slightly underripe tannin lords it over a thin midpalate, and the long finish shows burnt cherries and not much else of note. It's not a bad wine, by any means, but a little more fruit would be welcome, as would riper, more elegant tannins.
The lavender Labrador
Our tasting completed, Gretchen drives us down the road to Stonyridge Vineyards, a slightly more tourist-oriented establishment with an outdoorsy, Southern Hemisphere-meets-the-Old-West feel. We're greeted by Operations Manager Jeremy Burns, looking slightly unshowered, unshorn, and disoriented as he flops out to us in well-worn sandals, and he somewhat sloppily pours a few glasses of wine as we hike down through an olive grove towards the vineyards, chuckling at his near-constant stream of jokes.
Stonyridge 2001 Chardonnay "Row 10" (Waiheke Island) The color of dandelions in a light sun, and clearly off somehow. Sue thinks its corked, I think that may be the least of its worries. Structured but with a flat patina to the acidity, and more than a bit oxidized. In any case, there's no offer of a second bottle.
Arboring older vines
Captain, a black lab, snoozes happily (and snorts noisily) under a lavender bush; the vines, the olives, and the lavender could put one in mind of Provence, if it wasn't for the quality of the light and the cooling harbor breeze coming over the hills. The vineyards here follow no regular alignment or exposure, and this is apparently true for the entire island. We return to the winery, wait while winemaker Stephen White fields a few phone calls, and then head to the garage-like cellar for a brief barrel tasting. While we're there, Stephen lays out the short version of his mission statement and methodology vis-เ-vis their signature wine, the Larose (this is a dry version; his actual narrative was spiked with scorching irony, none of which I wrote down): free-draining clay soil, organic vines heavily-tended with lots of leaf pulling and planted to the usual range of Bordeaux varieties, plus chardonnay, syrah, and some experimental tannat and sangiovese. The grapes are hand-sorted and crushed, then basket pressed and fermented with French yeast, followed by a 12 month stay in a blend of 80% French and 20% American oak (85% of it new or refurbished). There's also a newish vineyard, Vi๑a del Mar, but its grapes are vinified separately.
Lecture done, he dips a thief into a barrel.
Stonyridge 2002 "Larose" (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) (This is the final 2002 blend, tasted from new French oak after much consideration and indecision on Stephen's part.) Bitter barrel notes with some menthol/eucalyptus and a brooding core of cassis, plus a little sprinkled thyme. The palate is dense, dark, and terrifically structured, finishing with white-peppery powdered tannin. It's all potential at this point, and tasting wines like this in barrel is always difficult, but there seems to be a lot to look forward to.
A conversation between Sue and Stephen about malbec (it quickly became clear from this and later conversations that she has a bit of a fetish for malbec) leads to a few additional barrel tastings one malbec, one not.
Stonyridge 2002 Vi๑a del Mar Malbec (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) Chocolate and butterscotch, with a peanut butter-like texture thanks to solid, gripping tannins and chewy dirt-like flavors.
Stonyridge 2002 Petit Verdot (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) Roses amongst the other flowers, with chewy, extremely tactile tannins and an abrupt finish.
Jeremy reappears, and we pile into a well-preserved classic automobile (with "MERLOT" plates) to a place where he thinks we can get some good local wine with lunch.
Fries on Belgium Street
Nourish (3 Belgium St.) is an ultra-casual caf้ with only the barest hint of a sign outside. Hungry but growing increasingly fatigued, we're only up for a little food and a glass of wine (Theresa eschews the latter), and even those have to be rushed so we don't miss the 3 p.m. high-speed ferry returning to the mainland. What Jeremy has led us to is the perfect little bistro: simple but well-executed food with a short, locally-representative wine list and friendly service. Better yet, it's ridiculously cheap. I order thick slabs of pistachio-studded pork terrine wrapped with flawlessly smoked bacon and served with a "marmalade" full of big chunks of pickled apple, and share with Theresa and Sue a basket of perfectly crisp fries with a mustardy a๏oli. Sue and I order, then trade back and forth, glasses of wine.
Sandals & chardonnay
Huntaway 2001 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) Light and acid-driven, showing mild pear syrup and some salty minerals. It's a touch hard, though long, and could age into something more interesting, though I suspect that it lacks the stuffing.
Passage Rock 2001 Viognier (Waiheke Island) One of the rarest of wine discoveries, a delicious viognier from somewhere other than Condrieu. Not that it tastes like Condrieu. There's the requisite midpalate fatness, but it's braced on both sides with excellent acidity and a lovely floral delicacy. Best of all, there's no alcoholic heat.
The total for the three of us? $32 American. That'll get you a bag of chips and a bottle of water on Martha's Vineyard.
Hangin' with Mr. Cooper
The ferry ride back is almost ridiculously windy, but sitting inside to avoid it means succumbing to drowsiness. The view of Auckland is as terrific as it was on the way out, and worth a little windburn, but we're pretty happy to arrive back at the hotel and finally be able to check in. Theresa's unconscious until dinner, but I can only spare time for a 15-minute power nap and a blissful shower, because I have yet another wine tasting to attend. Michael Cooper along with Bob Campbell, MW, the only New Zealand wine writer widely known outside New Zealand is hosting a book launch for his new Wine Atlas of New Zealand, and I'm invited.
Sue, who arranged for the invitation, tells me that "it's right across the street from your hotel." And she's quite literally correct, as it's in a majestic vaulted meeting room in the Town Hall. The assembled notables of the Auckland wine scene are already here, and this is the only time in three full weeks of New Zealand travel that I'll see nearly everyone wearing a jacket and tie. It's also a little unusual for me to be at a trade/press event of any sort and not know a soul. I sit down and fight off creeping drowsiness with a glass of some anonymous sauvignon blanc, and soon Sue (with husband Neil in tow) arrives to introduce me around the room. It's a blur of new names and faces it seems like half the people here are Masters of Wine and I'm afraid my conversational skills are at a low ebb, though I do manage to have a nice chat with the subject of the event. All wine writers should be so down-to-earth.
After some speeches and a book signing, I wander around the room to take advantage of the tasting. Wines are arranged by appellation, and it would be hard to argue that the cream of the New Zealand wine crop is in evidence, though there are a few scattered gems. My first instinct is to try wines from regions we won't be visiting, but this is immediately abandoned for the sake of efficiency, and even then I only taste about a quarter of the wines on offer.
Muddy Water 2002 Riesling "Unplugged" (Canterbury) Sweet lemon fighting off some rubber and petrol notes; the whole package is a bit soupy, and a slightly industrial soup at that.
Morworth Estate 2000 Chardonnay (Canterbury) Fat melon and gooseberry and some notions I can't quite identify; a little odd, but not bad for a chardonnay.
Nearly asleep at Stonyridge
Waipara Springs 2001 Pinot Noir "Reserve" (Canterbury) Sour and stewed cherries, with some hybrid-like grapiness and a definite geranium note. Seems flawed.
Kawaru Estate 2000 Pinot Noir "Reserve" (Central Otago) Spiced pear, strawberry, and cantaloupe. If it was overripe pinot gris, I'd accept this. But pinot noir?
Nevis Bluff 2000 Pinot Gris "Vendange Tardive" (Central Otago) Light pear, orange rind, and grapefruit, with only mild intensity and not enough of anything to be worth late-harvesting.
William Hill 2000 Pinot Noir Alexandra (Central Otago) Sandy, graphite-like tannin and leafy strawberry seem intriguing, but they turn candied and artificial fairly quickly.
Okahu Estate "Kaz" 1998 Cabernet (Northland) Soft tannins and a slight herbality grace this elegant little wine. There's red cherries and strawberries in a long, graphite-tinged finish. Very nice.
Okahu Estate "Ninety Mile" 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot (Northland) Void, with a touch of candy. But really, really empty.
Rongopai 2001 Merlot/Malbec "Reserve" (New Zealand) Intense strawberry seed, raspberry, and plum, with good tannin and fair balance. Give it some time.
Goldwater 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot (Waiheke Island) Well-herbed cabbage and asparagus, thick and dense but far too green and underripe.
Waiheke Vineyards "Te Motu" 1999 Cabernet/Merlot (Waiheke Island) Thick, dense baked black fruit pie studded with walnuts and drizzled with a little chocolate. The tannins are ripe but firm, the oak is present but balanced, and the finish is long and extremely promising, with hints of the complexity to come developing with a lot of air. A terrific wine.
Ferryman 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot (Waiheke Island) Virtually fruitless under vanilla and chocolate oak.
Forrest Estate "Newton Forrest" 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Malbec "Cornerstone" (Hawke's Bay) Cassis, plum, and black cherry bound by find-grained, graphite-like tannin and finishing with a soft herbal edge. Very nice, with a long life ahead of it.
Martinborough Vineyard 2001 Pinot Gris (Martinborough) Lightly spicy and with a few minerals in the mix, but starting and finishing synthetic and slightly rubbery.
Martinus Estate 2001 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) Chewy kirsch, rhubarb, and thyme. Not ripe, no potential.
Alana Estate 2001 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) Sweet plum and red cherry form a lovely nose that, unfortunately, is followed by a rather soupy wine.
Vineyards at Stonyridge
As for the Wine Atlas, it's highly recommended as the only resource of its kind, but with three reservations. The first, and least important, is that it probably could have been proofread a little better. The second is beyond Cooper's control: the New Zealand wine scene is changing at an insane pace, and perhaps the only way to not be hopelessly out of date in some of the more aggressively-changing regions (like the Central Otago) is to spend all of one's time on the road, tasting and learning, and then publish the results on a Web site. Any book will, inherently, be behind the times. The third, however, is the significant complaint: for what is allegedly an atlas, there's not nearly enough focus on the vineyards.
Cooper's introductory text is perhaps the best part of the book, and each section (the book is broken down by region, and occasionally by sub-region) has some introductory text describing the elements of the regional terroir. But when it comes to the specifics of plotting differences in soil type, mesoclimate, and identification of the location and ownership/destination of grapes in important vineyards, there's little to no information. Now, it's entirely possible that this information doesn't exist (the entire concept of terroir is given a half-page large-print handwave in the introduction, though the elements that go into terroir are fully-explored elsewhere), and it's also possible even likely that no one, even Cooper, feels that the New Zealand wine scene is mature enough to draw proper conclusions based on the existing data. The only time Cooper attempts to really address the importance of site is in a full-page essay on the controversial Martinborough Terrace designation, and even then he's more focused on the history and the politics than the validity of justifications for the designation. While there are maps, an attempt to show identifiable sub-appellations and (when appropriate) vineyard ownership on said maps would be extremely welcome.
But perhaps this is all too much to ask for a first edition, and a future update will be able to address these issues. For now, it remains an excellent work despite these flaws. Cooper is a passionate and involved writer, and exhibits the overwhelming benefits of staying connected to the wine scene and learning from its practitioners; the knowledge and understanding Cooper has for his subject is evident on every page. Far better a hundred writers of his type than critics who maintain a foolish independence at the cost of understanding or even logic. Trust is earned through experience, but ignorance ruins everything.
Fish and fir
I return to the hotel to find Theresa still asleep. It's hard not to drift into sleep while she prepares for dinner at one of the more elegant establishments we'll visit on this trip, but somehow I manage, and soon we're in a taxi headed for Vinnies (166 Jervois Rd. Herne Bay). The night is cool and crisp, the streets nearly deserted, and our taxi is able to make an easy mid-street U-turn in the front of the restaurant that would get one quickly and violently killed in any American city.
Our hotel view
Vinnies is extremely beige, filled with a chic urbanity mixed with the relentless New Zealand casualness; a bit noisy, but then it's packed to the gills most of the evening. The menu is adventurous, the service quiet and efficient (our waiter looks like some unidentifiable movie star), but turns friendly at the end of dinner in the manner of classic European service. A basket of doughy bread, a dish of overly fruity and acidic olive oil, and another dish of unsalted butter are brought to the table; we'll soon find that New Zealanders prefer both bread and butter undersalted by our standards, and so a little dish of local fleur de sel at the table gets a workout. The one service hiccup relates to the wine list; we're asked to make a selection before we've seen our menus. For a large group looking for ap้ritifs, this is probably welcome, but for us running on fumes at this point it's out of the question. We manage to put the sommelier off until we've selected our dishes, which for me starts with a crispy plate of whitebait (deliciously in-season on our trip) with an exotic m้lange of Asian flavors (there's a lot of nori, some soy, and sesame butter, but much of the rest remains unidentifiable by me) that I'm not sure works all that well. Some out-of-place greens don't help, either. But the following dish makes up for it: meltingly tender but crisp-encased duck confit with puy lentils and steamed okra, a combination I'd not have thought would work, but does. With it, we have an extraordinary wine:
Dry River 2000 Riesling Craighall "Late Harvest" L502 (Martinborough) (I'm told that lot numbers matter with Dry River, thus its inclusion in the note.) Gentle wood smoke from slowly-smoldering balsam firs blows down into a sandstone and chalk valley. There's a faint hint of petrol, then zesty and extremely ripe lemon and grapefruit rind, a keening, powdery minerality, and occasional spikes of grape tannin, as if one if experiencing little explosions of ultra-ripe riesling grapes intermingled with the wine. A perfect balance of acidity and moderate sweetness, fruit and minerality, freshness and complexity, this is a stunning wine.
We're both too full for dessert, but a flawless espresso is enough to sustain me on the beautiful ride back to the hotel, the Sky Tower beaming upward amongst a twinkling constellation of lights. We're still laughing at the bill: $100 (U.S.), about a third what it would be at any similar restaurant in Boston. A gentle rain starts just as we're paying the driver, and between its refreshing mist and the espresso I'm just barely able to make it upstairs before collapsing into total and oblivious unconsciousness.