Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A day here...a week there

It’s a small world. You know, that whole six degrees of separation thing? Well the world of wine is even smaller. It’s more like 2.5 degrees of separation (the .5 being that guy you might have seen at an intern party in the late harvest sleep- deprived delirium who you might have spent a long time talking to about Argentina…or maybe South Africa).

We met Beth in Oregon working harvest the previous fall, having been introduced by mutual friends of the grape stained variety. It was the sort of acquaintance that might inspire you to become facebook friends, maybe even make vague plans to get together at some ambiguous time in the future. From our understanding of it, Beth had been living and working in Central Otago in New Zealand and decided to move home to Marlborough and find some work there. Still needing a few more days of R & R, we decided to look Beth up to see if there was some floor space we could occupy while we explored the local wine country. She still was living with her folks, but insisted that they wouldn’t mind if we stayed with them. We expected to roll out our sleeping bags on the floor or couch of a quiet house in the country with maybe a winery or two within reasonable biking distance. What we got was “Chateau Forrest”.

Not only did Beth’s family own a winery (Forrest Estate Wines…check them out at, but they also lived on the vineyard itself just outside of Renwick. Floor space? Try our own private guest bedroom with en suite bathroom and separate entrance to the house. Not to mention two kitchens (one indoors and one outdoors in an awesome enclosed area complete with fireplace and couches) and a hot tub the size of a freshman dorm room. You could swim in it. No seriously, it had a harness and everything. Oh, and Beth had a 3 month old puppy named Frankie. Needless to say, it was a slight departure from our usual backpacker accommodations.

And then there was John and Bridget, Beth’s parents, who were quite possibly the most generous people in New Zealand (which says something). Within a day of being there, plans were being laid down for us to stay through Christmas. We made our attempt at polite refusal, saying we didn’t want to be a burden and should be moving on soon, but it was clear that our opinion was of little importance. Explaining to them why we needed to go was like trying to explain to someone from the Bronx why they should move to Dallas. Life was good in the world of Forrest Estate and they knew it. But unlike many people who have more than enough, the Forrest family was happier sharing as much as they could, even if they hardly knew them. In short, they are wonderful people to be around.

We spent the rest of that week getting to know Marlborough’s bountiful wine country. Not only is Marlborough home to New Zealand’s most famous grape export, Sauvignon Blanc, it is also the largest producing region in the country. And getting larger every year. In fact, there is more wine being produced in Marlborough than anyone really knows what to do with. The blame is all over the place. There’s the global economic catastrophe/meltdown of course, and Mother Nature has delivered two bumper crops in 08 and 09. Throw in hundreds of acres of new plantings coming online every year for the last 5 years, and suddenly there is too much wine in a world market that can’t consume it fast enough. So the wine gets sold off as bulk and the market is flooded (pun intended) with cheap product, driving the price to the cellar (that one too) and causing wineries profits to disappear down the drain (may be getting out of hand now). So now the farmers are getting less money per ton because the wineries are losing money and then…you get the idea. Fortunately we were there to do our part in diminishing the surplus.

I had been to Marlborough about 6 months prior, but having only 2 days to spend here I had hardly scratched the surface. Borrowing bikes from our little slice of paradise, we scoured the countryside for hidden gems in Sav Blanc and Rose and Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Meat Pies and Beer. The result? For Riesling Forrest and Te Whare Ra top the list, Rose is Forrest for sure, Sav Blanc stop at Wither Hills and Huia, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer head to Seresin, Pinot Noir go to Fromm and Seresin, Chardonnay at Huia and for Meat Pies and Beer go to the Renwick Bakery and Moa respectively. And at the end of the day, if you still have any energy left top everything off with some chips and a pint at the Cork and Keg, the fantastic little English pub in downtown Renwick. Or if you want some culture stumble in to the Country Club next door…which in New Zealand is some sort of exclusive dive bar (complete with meat raffles...) Repeat the next day. And maybe the day after.

Our day or two quickly became a week, and was on its way to becoming another week before we decided we really must be going. But before we left, we decided to bring a little taste of home to the Forrest’s. Fiesta style. Beth managed to locate a piñata and a sombrero while we whipped up guacamole, pico de gayo and grilled veggie quesadillas with rice and beans and spicy chili. It wasn’t quite Cinco de Mayo, but we did have some damn fine margaritas and a few Manu Chao albums to listen to. In the end however, it took an American to finally bust open the piñata.

We packed up the car, topped off the now leaky radiator (Otis shedding tears of mourning for Milo?), and set our sights on the Abel Tasmin National Park.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The return and the departure

We were supposed to have dinner in Martinborough around 6pm. We were late. More accurately I suppose, we were suppose to have dinner in Martinborough the previous Thursday, so we were really late. Only that time we were late because of a car accident. Wine tasting is not quite as dramatic of an excuse.

And so I returned to Martinborough, approximately 7 months and 1 week after harvest had ended the previous spring/fall. The town looked, well, exactly as I remembered it. There was one significant development, the Pukemanu, the diviest dive bar around, was undergoing a renovation. It remained open for business however (indeed, I'm not sure any of the regular patrons had left their barstools). We met Huw and his girlfriend Amanda at the Hotel bar for dinner and drinks and to catch up on the latest goings on(sidenote: many of the pubs in NZ refer to themselves as "hotels", although many of them don't seem to have actual rooms to rent, save maybe a closet behind the bar for the sleepy drunk. Evidently the hotel industry is not extremely profitable in NZ. The drinking industry remains robust). Compared to the usual nights I had spent at the hotel, the evening was relatively low-key, most likely because Huw and Amanda both were still a bit hungover from the weekend's festivities.

After spending the night in Huw's new house, we tasted through a few of the old haunts of fellow interns (Palliser and Martinborough vineyards, as well as Schubert) before heading out to Escarpment to taste through the fruits of some very intense labor. After Hawks Bay, the air in Martinborough seemed very different than I remembered. The tasting rooms were a bit stuffier and the wines more expensive, and there was a distinct lack of bleary eyed unwashed harvest interns running around. Still, after the charm of Hawks Bay, Martinborough was a bit flat.

We went out to meet Huw at Escarpment, hoping along the way to run into some of the other Escarpment boys, but it seemed our timing couldn't have been worse. Larry (the winemaker) was running around doing last minute pre-Christmas errands, while Dave (the viticulturalist) was off attending some conference (I had a sneaking suspicion that he too was nursing a hangover in a dark corner somewhere, but I suppose we will never know). Nonetheless, the timing for tasting the wines was perfect, just after finishing their secondary fermentation but before being stabilized with sulfur (which makes the wine rather undrinkable until just before bottling). It was good to catch up with these old friends.

We left Martinborough that afternoon and made for Wellington, driving over the familiar and treacherous Pakuratahi pass through Upper Hutt. The kiwis are not big fans of building tunnels. Maybe its because they have such beautiful scenery. Maybe its because there is a distinct lack of high quality dynamite in NZ. Or maybe its because they have a lot of people that like building roads but there just aren't that many roads that need to be built. For whatever reason, they elect to build ridiculously dangerous roads over mountains that are just wide enough to fit you and an oncoming truck, if you hug the shoulder that is. Except there really isn't a shoulder. The road may be safe if you travel at the recommended speeds (although this is highly questionable), but the locals are more keen to test the physical limits of their machines on corners than obey any speed limit. The guard rails aren't much help either, and in some cases are even cemented into the ground. The one thing the road doesn't lack is crosses. Needless to say, it was a bit of a white knuckle crossing.

We pulled into Wellington with a few hours to kill before our ferry departed, so we headed down to Mac's brewery on the waterfront for a quick bite. The time passed quickly (funny thing about pubs), and as we got back into the car we noticed that our ferry ticket had a final boarding time about an hour before the departure time. Which meant our final boarding time was 15 minutes ago. And it was rush hour in Wellington. Well done.

Thankfully the final departure time was more of a suggestion than a requirement, and we made our ferry with about 10 minutes to spare. Nevermind that we were just about the last car aboard. One thing we had timed well that day was our arrival time in Picton, pulling into the gorgeous Queen Charlotte Sound just as the sun was going down. The ride was relatively smooth and quite beautiful, and as darkness descended our wheels hit the pavement of the south island. We were Renwick bound, ready to rest our bones on the same earth that yielded perhaps New Zealand's most famous wine: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Hawks Bay...oh my goodness the goodness

Car packed, bruises healing and spirits high we bid Raglan goodbye and headed back into our adventure. Our backpacking plans still on hold for the time being, we decided to continue with our original plan and head for Hawks Bay, a wine region along the east coast of the north island well known for its cabernet, merlot and malbec. While our current car was slightly newer (1990) and bigger (it has 4 doors and a trunk!) than ole Moldy Milo (RIP), we were still a far cry from anything that might invoke such impressive adjectives as nice or clean. It did have an air conditioning unit entirely in Japanese and 10 disk cd changer (although the cd player part of the system had gone missing) so 19 years ago it was a probably a pretty good car. We were sincerely hoping that it would continue to be. Out of respect to Milo, we christened it Otis.

We had heard the drive could take anywhere from 4-7 hours, depending on how fast you planned on travelling. Fortunately for us, our travelling speed was pre-determined. Again, the car could physically go faster than Milo (RIP), capable of reaching speeds of 120km per hour whereas Milo topped out at 90. But any speed above 104km/h activated a safety alarm system. Yep, try to speed in this car and it will remind you in a gentle high-pitched cheerful chirp that you are going "too-fast, too-fast." A good way to avoid a speeding ticket perhaps, but also a good way to convince yourself that despite your lack of any real mechanical skills it still might be a good idea to root around under the hood with a screwdriver.

It may have been possible to drown out this wonderful little bell with some good tunes, but cleverly both front speakers were not functioning. Tapes and CDs were both out too, leaving only the radio as the only musical diversion (not a great option in a country that is largely unpopulated). I offered to sing, but one look at Tracy's face made it clear that this was not a solution. No the only solution was to drive at or below the speed limit. Thank god for the scenery.

We wound our way through the beautiful mountains and forests to Lake Taupo, pausing there just long enough to decide the wind would never be able to blow away all the tourists (although it was certainly trying). The skies had been a mixture of clouds to Taupo, but as we pushed on through the heavily logged forests of Tarawea to the coast, the skies cleared as if our choice of destination couldn't have been more correct.

Hawks Bay is divided into a few different wine regions, mostly centered around the town of Hastings, a little town about 20km south of Napier, the biggest city in the region. The most famous area is called the Gimlett Gravels, so named for the rocky well-drained former river bed that yields some of the best cab and merlot in the southern hemisphere. The Red Triangle is just south of the Gravels, and while it isn't quite as famous as its neighbor to the north, it is certainly making some pretty smart wines. The other big region lies the the south and east of Hastings along the coast and contains some of the bigger names in the region, including Craggy Range, Elephant Hill and Clearview. There isn't a huge amount of red being grown in this area (although all of the wineries are producing red wine from vineyards all over the region), but there is some really tasty Chardonnay and Savignon Blanc going on.

We tasted at a few wineries the day we arrived before retiring to our "backpackers", which was really more of a run-down motel. Unable to locate any kitchen facilities, we elected to barbecue using a rusty old grill on the property, a plastic drink tray from our room and my backpacking cookware. It was one of the finer meals we put together.

We hit the local farmers market the next day for breakfast and to provision ourselves with picnic supplies for a solid day of tasting. And taste we did. Working off recommendations of friends in the industry and tasting room staff of vineyards we'd enjoyed the day before, we wound our way through the Gimlett Gravels and Red Triangle. The best winery of the day? Unison vineyards. Far and away Unison vineyards. There are some seriously special wines coming out of this place. Like religious experience special mortgaging your soul to the devil's bank so you can stay steeped in this delicious nectar until the end of your days special wines...

Well maybe not quite that good, but you get the idea.

The next day we had planned to head to Martinborough to pay a call to the Escarpment crew (where I had worked harvest 6 months before), but we decided to spend the morning tasting along the coast. Curiously, while the Gimlett Gravels got all of the attention, we both agreed that the caliber of the vineyards along the coast was much higher (save Unison of course). Elephant Hill was the best, although Craggy Range was also quite good. One of the most surprising things about the region as a whole was the cost. Not only were tasting fees a rarity (unless there was a restaurant attached), but the prices of the wines were relatively inexpensive as well. You could get a fantastic bottle of cabernet or merlot for under $35, a bottle worthy of cellaring or giving as a wedding gift to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. We did taste a few duds, and there was a hint of snobbishness at a couple of wineries, but compared to buying pinot or tasting in Napa, this place was a little slice of heaven. My understanding is that this sort of phenomenon (affordable quality) is rather fleeting in the wine world, so we felt privileged to have gotten in at the ground floor. And seriously, pick up some wine from this region, you won't be disappointed. Or maybe you will and you can give the rest to me.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

RIP Moldy Milo

I remember blogging before about how safe and courteous kiwi drivers were, pulling to the side of the road to allow you to pass if you were in a hurry, not scolding you should you forget your signal at a roundabout. So polite that one wonders why they even have horns on their cars, except maybe to compel sheep to leave the roadway.

We left Raglan that morning with great news. While I had heard about my job in Margaret River, Tracy was still waiting to hear a final confirmation. The more time passed, the more concerning things were becoming, as it was a bit late in the game to be restarting a job search for harvest. But the news finally came. She had gotten the job! But as we drove out of Raglan making plans for champagne on our arrival in Hawks Bay, we came around the corner of an S-curve and spotted trouble. A black BMW had taken the turn too fast and had already started fishtailing coming towards us. We had time to slow down and make for the ditch just as the BMW fishtailed back the other way and struck our car full on, leaving us in the ditch and her in the middle of the road.

A car crash isn't very fun to read about, and is even less fun to write about, so I'll skip the details. We both made it out of the car ok, I had a pretty good knock on the head and banged up knees, and Tracy had a sore neck from the whiplash and some pretty serious seatbelt bruises, but otherwise we were ok. Milo did not fare quite so well. Nor, should it be noted, did the Idiot Irene's BMW (names may have been altered to more accurately reflect intelligence). To be safe, we both were taken to the hospital to get checked out, about a 40 minute ambulance ride away. Quite a few of the medical staff there, including our ER nurse (French) and doctor (Chinese) were foreigners, something I thought was kind of interesting. What was far more interesting was that after we were treated, we just walked out the door.

New Zealand has a very interesting program set up that whenever there is an accident, a government organization called the ACC covers all of the medical costs associated with the accident, including emergency care and secondary treatment. The idea is to keep people from suing each other for exorbitant amounts of money, and making sure that everyone involved, even those that are at fault, can get health care. The costs of the program are covered by vehicle registration fees, which are a few hundred dollars every 6 months. So medical care that would have cost us around $6000 in the US without insurance was completely covered in NZ. And yes, somehow they are saving money doing it.

We spent the next few days back in Raglan recovering from our injuries and trying to figure out exactly what to do next. The other driver's insurance would cover the damage to our care since she was at fault (and charged with reckless driving to boot), but in the meantime we had no transportation and were trapped in a rather beautiful but isolated place.

That's when kiwi generosity kicked in.

After a day or so we went to the local garage to collect all of our belongings from Milo, who was towed into town after the accident. The mechanic at the garage, after seeing we were planning on walking back into town with all of our gear, asked if we wanted to borrow their loaner car. I said yes and promised to have it back within 20 minutes, but he tossed me the keys and told me to keep it for a few days until we could sort ourselves out.

A few nights later as we sat outside our hotel room (we opted not to return to the backpackers, who were nice enough to find us a place at a quiet hotel in town that wasn't too expensive), the owners of the hotel, Andy and Brent, came by and struck up a conversation. After finding out what happened, Andy offered to take us back to his house the next morning for a soak in his hot tub and a personal tour of all the local sites in the area. We had managed to track down a car in a town about 40 minutes south of Raglan (thank god for the internet), and Andy even agreed to drop us there when we were finished on the tour. We couldn't say no.

While the kiwis may not have lived up to their reputation as being safe and courteous drivers, they more than lived up to their reputation for kindness and generosity.

We were in a car accident. Our car was totaled. And within 5 days we were mostly healed up and back on the road.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The road ahead

Its a wonderful feeling. The converging in a single point in time, that moment tasted on the last day of school before summer or a first kiss, that rare moment when time, money and opportunity are all on your side, when you have nothing but open road in front of you. Our day had come.

Over breakfast that morning we broke out our lonely planet to decide where to head to first. We were both keen to do some backpacking, but elected to spend a few more days relaxing from the journey before getting our boots in the mud. We settled on Raglan, a sleepy little surfer town about 3 hours south of Auckland on the west coast, just outside of Hamilton. Car packed and occupants caffinated, we hit the road.

Getting outside of Auckland proper didn't take long (even in a car whose top speed was only 90k, about 50mph), and before we know it we were winding through a postcard of the sunny New Zealand countryside. The hillsides were not dotted with sheep however, but cows. As we later found out, the dairy industry had soared recently, thanks to the high price that milk products were demanding in the market, so many former sheep farmers had traded their crooks for metal buckets and ridden the lactose wave. The rest of the county, however, looked exactly as I had remembered it.

We pulled into Raglan around the middle of the afternoon and found our backpackers. After dropping our gear and picking up some dinner supplies, we headed out to the black sand beaches for a stroll and a beer before dinner. The town was not actually on the ocean, but a few kilometers to the east of it along an innlet. Raglan is known for being one of the best surfing locations in New Zealand, but for us this meant one thing: it was really damn windy. Like two weeks later you are still pulling sand out of your ear windy. I had been thinking a swim would be quite nice, but as the clouds descended and the wind increased, I had second thoughts, so we headed for home. Fortunately for us, our backpackers was equipped with a hot tub!

The next day we borrowed some kayaks and went for a paddle in the innlet before once again attempting to head to the beach for a swim. The wind remained almost as strong as the day before, but I was determined enough to dash out in between clouds. Feeling quite satisfied with myself, we spent the rest of the afternoon soaking and reading before another quiet evening of cooking dinner and watching movies. We decided the next morning to make a break for Hawk's Bay and wine country on the east coast and seemed to be hitting our travelling groove.

If only we had known what was just around the next corner.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

New Zealand take 2

Every good sequel needs something. Whether it be a new character (Lando Calrissian) or a new take on an already established character (Robert Di Nero as Vito Corleone), there has to be something in a sequel to make it interesting enough for people to tune in to the same old scene. Well fear not, this particular sequel has both! Not only to you get the same main character in a different time (6 months older and wiser), but a new character as well. Everyone, I would like you to meet Tracy.

Tracy and I met over the summer in Oregon. I was working in a wine bar at the time and she was in town exploring the possibility of a harvest in Oregon. Thanks in no small part to the Newberg Taco Truck, we hit it off. She ended up working a harvest in Oregon at Torii Mor (while I was working once again at Cristom), and after harvest ended we both landed a spring vintage in Margaret River (her at Vasse Felix, me at Cape Mentelle). Needing something constructive (and ideally financially beneficial) to do in the meantime, we decided to head to New Zealand to do a bit of viticultural work at Felton Road in Central Otago. Turns out they didn't really need us until after Christmas, so we decided to head down a bit earlier and do a bit of vacationing before the work began. So we did.

I met Tracy and her mom Sue in LAX, having left Chicago that morning after spending Thanksgiving with my family in Geneva. Wanting to ensure that this bit of travelling would be as much of a marathon as the last go around, I was booked on the early flight out of Chicago (8am), meaning by the time I hooked up with Tracy and Sue in LA I had already been on the road some 8 hours (thanks to a stop-over in Tuscan). Mercifully we elected not to hang around the airport, heading for a nice early dinner in Santa Monica (after a brief detour through Inglewood). Given that both Tracy and I are vertically unchallenged, upon checking in we decided to try and snag an exit row for the flight over. As it turns out we were in luck. There would be no cramped middle seat with awkward chair leg placement for us. Not only were we in the exit row, we were on the upper level. A free upgrade to business class! Not only that, but the flight was undersold, meaning we had an entire row of business class seating to ourselves. Sipping on a complementary glass of red wine after a rub down with a hot towel, we both slipped off quite easily into the soundest sleep possible on a 777.

The Fiji airport was about as exciting as I remembered it (I forgot to mention we fly Air Pacific yet again, it really is the cheapest means to get to NZ), although this time around I knew that all the shops took American currency, something that would have made my last go-round far more interesting. Another few hours on a slightly smaller plane and we had arrived in Auckland, exactly 15 hours and two days after leaving the states.

I didn't really see much of Auckland the last time I was in NZ, electing instead to head to Australia immediately and drink some damn fine pinots at a wine festival. I had also largely bypassed the north island entirely in favor of exploring the more scenic and less populated south. Our mission was much the same this time around (find some damn fine wine and explore the south island), but we had decided to pick up some wheels for the journey and Auckland was the best place to do that.

I've heard that Auckland has about three quarters of the population of NZ within the city and the surrounding area, meaning it would be about 3 million people or so. A fair amount of concentration in a country the size of Colorado. We had booked three nights in a cheap backpackers/hotel (it really was a cross of both), which we hoped would give us enough time to track down a car and do a bit of sightseeing. Fighting off the jet lag, we wandered the city a bit that afternoon, having dinner at a small cafe in an area of downtown which resembled a European city more than anything else. We discovered exactly two things about Auckland immediately. It is a rather expensive place (especially for NZ), and it is full of Asian people. There were far more Asians than kiwis, or Maoris, or even tourists. The Sky Tower (Auckland's central landmark) was literally overrun with them.

Our second day in Auckland poured down rain, but we were so excited about being in a new place that we didn't care. We walked everywhere, exploring the artistic section, wandering malls and wine shops and cheese shops and bakeries and even a funny hat store. All told, we probably walked 15 miles before 3pm, before finally calling it quits in favor of over-priced beers and people watching. The night ended early, as we wanted to be up fairly early the next morning for the Auckland city car fair, where we hoped our chariot awaited.

Buying a car in New Zealand is rather different than buying a car in most other places. For starters, New Zealand gets lots of quality imports from Korea and Japan, both new and used, so most of the cars on the road are fairly reliable. The government also requires every car on the road to be completely checked over every 6 months to ensure it is in proper working condition. Plus, with the amount of backpackers and tourists that circle the country every year, the used car market is especially robust and cars tend to have a high turnover rate. In short, we were pretty confident that we could find a reliable set of wheels on the cheap that we could turn around and resell to other backpackers on our way out of the country. The best place to do so, according to several sources, was the Auckland city car fair.

We were not disappointed.

It was the first car in the row, a well loved spray paint silver 1986 Mitsubishi Mirage 2dr hatchback. It may have been held together in certain areas with electrical tape, it may have had brakes that squealed like a banshee at every intersection, but it had a phil collins tape in the glove box and a red chili pepper hanging from the mirror. And it had that certain indefinable quality, like fate had brought us to this particular moment for a reason. Maybe it was love. Maybe it was the moldy smell. But we knew we had to have it. We talked its current owner (a British backpacker nursing a nasty hangover) down from $1400 to $800 and an hour later we were proud parents. Its previous owner had named it Micky. We christened it Moldy Milo.

Having sorted out the car in the morning, we still had the rest of the day free to do a little exploring. Tracy had read that one of the nearby islands had a budding wine region, so we booked tickets on a ferry that afternoon. After provisioning ourselves at a farmer's market near the harbor, we set out for Waiheke island.

There are about 30 wineries on Waiheke, making primarily Bordeaux varietals with a dash of syrah here and there for fun. We were a bit dissapointed with the majority of the wines, finding them rather overpriced and uninteresting, but the island itself was quite beautiful, sort of a mixture between South America and Scotland. We did find a beautiful lunch spot and ate quesidillas with a fine rose, and spent most of the afternoon hiking alternatively between vineyards and nature preserves. A ferry ride back at sunset brought Orca whales breeching in the harbor, leaving little doubt that this was a blessed day indeed.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Catching up Part 2: The last days of travel and the beginning of harvest

With each passing day, Karamea proved more and more irresistable. What had started into a quick overnight before a long road trip had become several days of lounging and feasting. Not a bad turn of events by any means, but the time had come to begin making my way to Martinborough and the next leg of the adventure: making New Zealand Pinot Noir.

With Jens' van thoroughly out of commission, Jens, Marleis and I elected to hitchhike our way out of Karamea, but not before a final bonfire and beers on the beach, and of course a few beers in the van as well. I was going to miss these crazy Germans. Jens and Marleis had decided to head south and make for Christchurch, while my path led north to Picton and the ferry to Wellington, where I could catch a train to Martinborough. It was only about 150km as the crow flies from Karamea to Picton, but the relative isolation of Karmea left no direct route there, meaning the total trip was more like 350km. Still penniless, I planned to hitchhike the entire way (save the ferry crossing of course). I bid a fond farewell to Jens and Marleis with promises to reunite some time down the line, and caught my first ride to Westport from a young Dutch couple who were staying at the holiday park. The rain began to pick up in Westport (the west coast of New Zealand sees about as much rain as the Oregon coast, ie A LOT), but I remained hopeful that the pity of strangers would keep me dry. Just then, the clouds parted and the sun shone brilliantly across the land as a chariot piloted by two young beautiful Belgian angels smiling radiantly at me slid to a stop along the road. As I climbed aboard amid excited giggling, I ran through a mental checklist of all the available dieties whom I would be sending a small thank you note to in the very near future. But oh the folly of man! Their path was leading south to Hammer Springs, the exact opposite direction from my idiotic responsibilities, so our wonderful time together only lasted some pitiful 8km. Time and time again I have wondered exactly where this particular path that had been laid before me would have led should I followed them to some delicious clothing optional thermal spring high on a mountaintop somewhere in Middle Earth...but instead I was left standing on the road watching their tiny blue nissan dissapear in the distance. It was, quite simply, the biggest mistake I made in New Zealand.

As if to ensure plenty of time to mull over my cold, lonely decision, my next ride didn't arrive for nearly 30 minutes (which felt like 40 hours). The rain, which had briefly abated for my glimpse of divinity, returned in earnest. Finally, a car pulled past me and ground to a halt, and I was moving again. Trent, Tom and Mel were three older gay men from the US and Canada. Tom and Mel were celebrating their 20th anniversary, and Mel owned property somewhere in Nelson. They were all very friendly and invited me to spend time with them at Mel's house (which I politiely declined), and left me where the highway split towards Blenheim just after 1pm at a place called Hope River. Four hours in and I was already halfway there! Elation quickly turned to despair as an hour slowly ticked by, with only four cars passing in my direction. My rate of pickups thus far had been about one car in twenty, and Hope flowed downstream. I had all the necessary gear to spend a night in the mountains, but food was a real concern. So was the isolation.

Finally, two French girls picked me up and got me to St Arnold, saving me the prospect of a cold lonely night of warm Belgian fascination. I spent another hour there waiting (at least St Arnold had a bus stop en route to Blenheim) before getting picked up by a Kiwi marthon runner who got me all the way to Blenheim. A van full of American and French hippies and an old kiwi handyman landed me in Picton in time for dinner at the Villa, a little backpackers near the ferry. A beer and a soak in the hot tub, and I was a new man.

I caught the ferry early the next morning to Wellington, spending the two hour trip watching the tides ripping across the Cook Strait before grabbing a train and a bus to Martinborough. I met Dave, the vineyard manager of Escarpment, at the bus station and after a quick drive around Martinborough (or really a quick loop around the square at the center of town) he deposited me at my home for harvest. I was staying with Carla, a divorced mother of two who worked in the office for another winery in town and had a house situated on 7 acres of savignon blanc and pinot noir.

As it turns out the month of February had been very cold, meaning harvest was at least another 2 or 3 weeks away. Having spent all of my money travelling the previous 6 weeks however, I had little choice but find ways to amuse myself locally. On my first day, I oriented myself with Carla's kitchen, which had a very flash espresso maker. Not wanting to use such an expensive devise without instruction however, I chose instead to make myself instant coffee with the tea kettle. Putting the kettle on the gas stove, I set about making toast and jam. I began to notice a peculiar odor coming in the direction of the kettle, and turned just in time to see the kettle burst into flames. As it turns out, this particular kettle was electric, and though it was made almost entirely of metal (as to emulate an actual kettle), the bottom was in fact plastic. Thus, my first day in Martinborough was spent frantically rushing around downtown trying to find a replacement before Carla came home from work. Not the best first impression.

Now I could spend hours writing about harvest and the weeks I spent before it began, but given that I am once again in New Zealand and fresh adventures are turning up daily, I'll keep things brief. In short, I attended a cricket match and drank some champaign, visited a seal colony on the coast and ate paua (sort of a giant mussel), made 200 tons of pinot, riesling, chardonnay and savignon blanc in a barrel hall (the winery at Escarpment is yet to be built), drank a lot of beer and some really good wine, and generally worked harder than I ever have in my life.

Such is the life of a traveling winemaker :)