Wonderment and Wine

Amanda Jones lives in the Bay Area. She last wrote about the Wodaabe people in Africa for the travel issue

In the poetic tongue of the Maori, the native race of New Zealand, there is a saying that translates to: "Where your feet first brush the earth, know that you are forever a people of that place."

I left my birthplace in New Zealand 15 years ago. I fled as a disgruntled college graduate, infuriated by the chauvinism and sneering at the provincialism, though I'd never actually seen much of the country. I moved to the United States but remained peripatetic, always in search of the next more extreme adventure. Over the years, the word "home" became a loose concept--describing my place of residence in California, or a tent I returned to at night, or any hotel room. My visits back to New Zealand were rare and dutiful in nature. I would fly into Auckland, stay within the city limits and leave as soon as filial decency permitted.

When I first arrived in this country, the average American's ignorance about New Zealand was staggering. New Zealand wasn't even on CNN's world weather map. Maybe it was winning the America's Cup, or perhaps it was the "no-nukes" standoff, but gradually people became aware of New Zealand. Or perhaps they realized it's only a 12-hour plane ride to one of the last underpopulated places on earth where the beauty hasn't been squandered or exploited.

My own sentiments have changed too. Last winter I had a baby, and suddenly my roots seemed very meaningful. I found myself hoping that my daughter had inherited a little of the wildness that flows in New Zealander blood, and I wished that she could grow up with the same freedoms

I had known as a child. It was time to go home for a real visit.

At the tail end of a drought summer, my daughter, Indigo, and I arrived in Auckland. I offered to take my mother on a holiday anywhere in New Zealand, just the three of us, her choice of destination. "Darling," she said, "there's really only one place I want to go, and that's the Marlborough province in the north of the South Island. Absolutely everyone's talking about it. The Sounds have unspoiled beaches and masses of native bush, and the wines in the Wairau Valley are fabulous."

New Zealand consists of two islands--North and South--with 3.6 million inhabitants, a mere 25% of whom live on the larger South Island. I grew up in Auckland (pop. 1 million) on the North Island. For years, North Islanders felt that a vacation meant going abroad, and those who did venture to the South Island usually skipped Marlborough, heading farther south to Queenstown (a touristy ski resort) or the Milford Track (known for bush hiking). My mother and I fell into this category.

South Islanders are testy about the distinction between the islands. In fact, they refer to the South as "The Mainland." They think of the North as an overpopulated purgatory and its occupants as city-slicking lightweights. Although they are loath to admit it, Northerners are nowadays secretly proud of the South Island. It is better endowed with fiords, mountains, sounds, lakes, deserts and pastureland--all within a day's drive from the ocean.

*

My mother is a beautiful, vital woman who has very high standards. Her expectations of quality and service while traveling can exceed the bounds of human potential. Often, when something disappoints her, she reacts by what New Zealanders call "throwing a wobbly." These can be most embarrassing. Traveling with her and the baby would be quite different from dodging cobras in the African desert, something I knew how to cope with. Trepidation gnawed at me as we struck out for Blenheim, the tiny town that stands at the heart of Marlborough's Wairau (pronounced WHY-raow) Valley, an area traditionally devoted to sheep farming.

It's hard to say if it is the expanding wine industry or the belated recognition of stupendous beauty that started Marlborough's recent tourism boom. New Zealand once produced wines that we quite aptly called "plonk," a substance similar to what's sold beneath screw-tops in this country. Today, a dozen wineries, many from the Wairau Valley, are seizing awards and seducing oenophiles worldwide.

Rain hissed to the earth as we stepped off the plane in Blenheim (pop. 25,000), great silver chunks shearing through an opaque fog. New Zealanders have to live with weather like this a good deal of the year. There's a reason why New Zealand is so green. Wairau means "many waters" in Maori, which is lyrical climatology. Despite this, the Wairau Valley usually clocks the most sunshine hours of the entire country.

The rain made it impossible to see anything, so we headed to our hotel downtown. Blenheim isn't exactly quaint, but it is quintessentially rural Kiwi: pie carts, shoe shops displaying prewar styles and the odd attempt at modernity in the form of an artsy gift shop. We checked into the D'Urville, a boutique hotel created from a 1920s neoclassic bank building. Each of the nine rooms is decorated in a different theme, like the Venus Room (chiffons, twinkling mirrors, marble statues) and the Mondrian-ish Colors Room. It's terribly chic and rather radical for drowsy Blenheim (rhymes with "venom"). "Bloody plutey," was how one old-timer later described the hotel. Plutey, in Kiwi slang, means posh. (Some colloquialisms don't translate well. I remember watching an American tourist look appalled when his newfound Kiwi mate asked if he wanted to "sink some piss," a commonly used expression for having a beer.)

The reason for the plutiness at the D'Urville is Julia Knowles, an exuberant, worldly woman who's passionate about the South Island. She swept into the lobby to greet us, a big-eye blond bursting with casual warmth. "There's not much else to do in this weather but get stuck into some of our local and have a gander at the goggle box," she said. Translation: Sip wine while watching the boob tube.

Cocktail hour in New Zealand seems to start an hour earlier than anywhere else in the world, so we took Knowles' advice, ordered up a bottle of wine and retreated to our Indian-flavored Raja Room, opulent with red walls, antique rugs, orange silks and an ornate daybed. And they hadn't forgotten my daughter; a crib had been set up, complete with a toy on the pillow.

To hide my ignorance about specific labels, I'd left it up to the staff to select our wine. Of course I knew of Cloudy Bay's wines; everyone knows Cloudy Bay. Robert M. Parker Jr., America's Siskel & Ebert of wine critics, calls Cloudy Bay NZ's finest winery.

But the bartender, carrying a bottle of Seresin Estate Sauvignon Blanc into our room, pronounced: "This is my favorite." It had a distinctive handprint on the label. "This region's really known for its Sav Blancs, and Cloudy Bay's gotten all the attention. But this one's great, I reckon." She was right, it was wonderful. And it blew California's Sauvignon Blancs out of the water. She suggested we visit Seresin Winery the following morning.

*

The rain had gone with the night, the sky reverting to its characteristic bleached blue. To the northern end of the Wairau Valley, the Richmond mountain range rose hazy gray. The valley floor was patchworked with velveteen pastures and the soothing symmetry of grapevines. Willows bowed over streams and silver birch trees towered beside white fences. Olive groves, a new industry in this area, thrived alongside acres of established fruit trees. Sheep grazed and high-strung foals skittered across paddocks. A more perfect country scene there never was.

The Seresin winery belongs to Michael Seresin, an urbane (and disarmingly handsome) cinematographer who left NZ in the '60s to seek his fortune. "I was the deluded Kiwi kid out to conquer the world," he told me later. "The wife of a friend of a friend knew Dino DeLaurentiis' brother, and I was sure that was enough to make me king of Italian cinema." He never did work for DeLaurentiis. But Seresin went to London and got his break shooting "Midnight Express." Since then his career has skyrocketed, with director of photography credits on films such as "Angel Heart," "Mercury Rising" and the upcoming "Angela's Ashes." He leads a frantic film life--Germany on Tuesday, Australia on Thursday--keeping houses he's rarely at in London and Tuscany.

But the pull of the homeland got to him, too. Six years ago he purchased 168 spectacular acres in Marlborough and a house on the Queen Charlotte Sound. "It's a complete antidote to cities. The air quality, the noise level, the lack of crowds. The people are still so trusting down there. I'll call a shopkeeper who has no idea who I am and ask him to send over a box of groceries. Some bloke on a bike will come tottering along to deliver it and I'll get a bill a week later."

Seresin claims he's not a wine connoisseur. But he did wax nostalgic when I asked him why a winery in Marlborough and not Tuscany. "I'd never been to Marlborough. I finally went as an ex-pat and it blew me away. There's something so primeval about its beauty--so fundamentally powerful. People don't dominate there--they're just occasional figures in a vast landscape. New Zealanders understand how important it is to have places where a few people can be alone in a lot of nature."

His best move, he claims, was to hire Brian Bicknell, a fellow Kiwi who had worked at wineries in France, Hungary, Australia and Chile, as winemaker. Their first vintage appeared only two years ago to immediate accolades and buyers clamoring for their small production.

Bicknell met us at the winery, a polished-concrete cavern designed by one of New Zealand's top architects. Sultry Portuguese faro music came from above. "Wine needs the right kind of music to mature," he joked, leading us over to the dimly lighted barrel hall. It was the end of the crush and he was grinning. "We've got good clean fruit and intense flavors; 1998 will be a crash-hot vintage," he assured.

Seresin produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and botrytised Riesling (grapes allowed to fall prey to the "noble rot," producing a dessert wine), and is working on a Merlot. A bottle of its Sauvignon Blanc retails in America for about $19.

We left Seresin and drove farther into the Wairau Valley. My mother was so excited by the caliber of wine that she kept buying boxes and stuffing them into our tiny rental car. She's a canny shopper but has the tendency to overlook the inevitability of transporting purchases back home. Our rental car was loaded with dessert Riesling from Wairau River Wines, the dry Gewurztraminer from Lawson's Dry Hills, the Hunters oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc, Vavasour's Sauvignon Blanc and Fromm's Pinot Noir. At 2 o'clock, we stopped for lunch at the Allan Scott Winery, close to Cloudy Bay.

"Well," my mother said, raising a glass of Chardonnay to her lips, "Isn't this heaven? I feel like I'm in Provence, but it's far more natural here. Aren't we leaping ahead?" she said, referring to New Zealand as a global tourism contender. Then she declared, "But I can't possibly cope with another thimbleful of wine. We'll have to go shopping this afternoon."

*

The Marlborough countryside has an eccentric blend of shopping opportunities. We were driving down a bucolic alley when, in between the paddocks of sheep, my mother suddenly swiveled around, saying, "Darling, aren't those peculiar creatures llamas?" I made some pejorative comment about her eyesight, and then, indeed, we passed a large sign advertising garments made from the gossamer wool of llamas and alpacas.

We returned to the D'Urville hotel's Brasserie for an impressive Asian-Kiwiana meal of lemongrass corn soup, green-shell mussels in chile broth, giant native crayfish and pepper-crusted rack of lamb. This was the best meal we had in the Wairau Valley.

Seated alone at the next table was a portly gent who leaned over and introduced himself as Stu, a landowner and ex-military officer. Without any encouragement, Stu pulled his chair toward us and settled in for the evening, launching into an unabridged history of Marlborough. I think he fancied my mother.

Stu's knowledge happened to prove very accurate: There used to be many Maoris, New Zealand's indigenous people, living in this area. Then Te Rauparaha, the most brutish cannibal chief in the country's history, caught wind that the pakehas (white people) were feverishly buying up land in exchange for firearms. In 1843, armed with muskets, he and his warriors crossed Cook Strait, the channel between the North and South islands, killing the British officers sent to settle the land disputes. Still thirsty for blood, Te Rauparaha set upon the Marlborough tribes, who courageously fought gunpowder with small jade clubs. (At this point, Stu rose from his chair and performed a convincing dramatization of the way in which Maoris used the clubs to cleave opponents' craniums.)

During WWII days, Stu continued, Blenheim was a training camp for air force recruits about to be shipped off to Guadalcanal and North Africa. "The town was a boomer back then. Then she sorta got dozy after the war. Farming. Then the gov'ment took away the farmers' subsidies and some were forced to sell. Now all kind of city people makin' it their home, bringin' up grapes instead'a sheep."

As we tried to rise, Stu grabbed my mother's arm, insisting that we take a day trip onto the Marlborough Sounds. "Luv," he said, "you can't come to Mar'burra and not see the Sounds. Absobloodylutely not. Want me to take you out there myself? It's one a nature's wundas." By this point he had polished off a bottle of wine and several ports. His ruddy cheeks trembled with patriotic emotion.

"Darling, we must avoid that dreadful little man," my mother said after we escaped. "But he's right, we must see the Sounds." We rose early the next morning and drove a half-hour to Picton, a one-dock, two-main-streets town that was an old whaling stop. Here we could catch a boat and cruise the Queen Charlotte Sound.

*

There is so much untouched nature in the sounds that you forget the world is a crowded place. Created by Ice Age melt-off devouring the land in chaotic bites, there are four sounds creating the greater area called the Marlborough Sounds. The Queen Charlotte Sound happens to be closest to Blenheim and the one best set up for tourists. Together, the four make a jagged maze of pristine bays, golden beaches, overgrown islands and green-rimmed waterways. They are home to a few hermits, a vacation retreat for city folk, a safe haven for boaties and a tranquil stroll for trekkers of all ages. The trail on the Queen Charlotte is 58 miles long, which takes a leisurely hiker four or five days to complete. A mere 11,000 people walk the track per year, and perhaps another 3,000 come as day-trippers. In the realm of tourism, that's pitiful. In the realm of nature encounters, it's blissful.

From Picton we caught the Cougar Line boat, a high-speed catamaran responsible for ferrying tourists, delivering mail and groceries, and passing messages to residents who eschew the telephone. The day was hot, and the sun struck at the peacock-colored water, scattering shards of white light. All around us was a folded coastline of the lushest bush imaginable. I was thunderstruck by the beauty and felt suddenly foolish that I had traveled the world without looking homeward. From the water, the bush looked impenetrable, subtropical, an infinity of green. There were yellow-greens, lime-greens, black-greens, emerald-greens, all swarming together to create a wildly knitted canopy that reached up to swallow a ridge behind. In the foreground lay sweeping beaches and white cliffs, etched from the land by nature and left alone by man. I heard my mother whisper to herself, "It's flawless." And it was.

After lunch in one of the outlying bays at Punga Cove Resort, the best place to eat on the Queen Charlotte, I strapped my daughter on my back. We located the hiking trail and began to walk upward, deep into the bush. The path was mossy, damp, smelling of the rot that feeds new life. Tangled vegetation formed a tunnel overhead, blunting the hot rays of the sun. I had the impression of being underwater, looking up at the surface. The light had that glowing, green-ghoulish cast. Thirty-foot tree ferns circled their tentacles toward pohutukawa trees, with feathery green leaves and flaming scarlet flowers. And tuis and bellbirds, native to New Zealand, chimed so sweetly that it made me stop and think of the one time in America I had felt homesick. I had gone to see "The Piano," the movie starring Holly Hunter that was filmed in New Zealand. I was not affected by the scenery, which I knew so well. But when, unseen in the shadows, the homely little bellbird sang her lovely song, my throat closed and my eyes filled with water. The sounds from our youth will sometimes do that.

At 4, we stepped from the bush in time to catch the ferry back to Picton, a 90-minute ride. As the sun swept toward the horizon, a pod of 60 or so bottlenose dolphins swarmed the boat, pirouetting out of the water.

*

Back in Blenheim, we pulled into the Peppertree Homestead, our next overnight stop, a wonderful historic villa converted into a roomy B&B.; My mother immediately bonded with the genteel proprietor. They sat in the kitchen chortling over a story I had told about seeing NZ lamb advertised in an American supermarket as being "unique free range sheep." New Zealanders find American gullibility fabulously amusing. Most things in NZ, including the people, are free range.

You cannot visit Wairau and not see Cloudy Bay Vineyards. The winery, formed in 1985, is responsible for putting New Zealand on the wine lovers' map of the world. It has a superb Sauvignon Blanc (voted seventh in Wine Spectator's top 100 list for 1997), a Chardonnay, a Merlot-Cabernet blend and a sparkling wine (not so surprising considering Veuve Clicquot, the French champagne house, is its major shareholder).

Australian Kevin Judd is the winemaker who ushered Cloudy Bay to stardom. It's tough being an Aussie on Kiwi turf, but creating the most successful wine in the country is a good way to gain respect. After a tour of the winery, Judd took me out to get some scenic photographs. On the way back, we stopped to visit his "cobber" (friend) Cliff, a no-nonsense Kiwi farmer. He was loading a small sample of New Zealand's 50 million sheep into a trailer.

"Gidday, 'owzitgowin?" he said, crushing my hand. "Yur a Yank, are ya?" My NZ accent has thinned after years in the States. "Well, whaddya think of our wee valley here? Luvly, innit?"

It's hard to imagine a bloke like Cliff using the word "lovely," but I promise he did.

We spent that night at Timara Lodge, in the middle of vineyard country, a two-story house with four bedrooms that's the most expensive lodging in Marlborough. Set among superb acres of blooming shrubbery, clipped hedges, meandering pathways and luxuriant arbors, it looked like something out of "Brideshead Revisited" and was frightfully upper-crust. Guests dine at a communal table--breakfast and dinner are included, as is alcohol. Of course, they served Cloudy Bay. As we were having canapes, Indigo's shrieks thundered down the hushed hallways. What was I thinking showing up at a place like this with an infant who has a supernatural talent at detecting the wrong moment? So what if our neighbors were paying $560 a night for serenity; you think she cared? I spent an hour groveling on the floor of our bedroom, pleading with her to sleep.

My mother had fallen in love with the area from the beginning and had remained placid and polite throughout. I overheard her on the phone with my father saying, "The food is divine, the accommodations are classy and the scenery, well, you can imagine." That's high praise coming from a woman whose idea of slumming it is to have a drink without ice cubes. My father could well imagine--he had been sent to Blenheim 55 years earlier as one of those

teenage unfortunates training for Guadalcanal.

Our final night in Marlborough was spent at Le Grys Vineyard and Homestay. NZ is well known for its home stays, where locals throw open their houses to paying guests. Sometimes that means you're bunking in a barely converted cowshed, and others it means you stumble on a gem like Le Grys. There is a guest room in the family home itself, along with a two-bedroom, self-contained cottage set among the grapevines.

Packing my mother's purchases on the final morning was a joke. Embarrassed, I struggled up to the counter at the Blenheim airport with 10 hulking boxes and suitcases. My mother took Indigo and disappeared. That's the rub with growing up the roles reverse and you are required to do all the dirty work. The check-in agent looked momentarily stupefied, glancing out the window at the plane--a 12-seat puddle-jumper. I held my breath while he regained his composure. "No wurries, dearie, plane's not full, we'll squeeze it all on," he said. No mention of the overweight fee I knew he was supposed to levy. Therein lay the true-blue Kiwi spirit: Who the hell needs rules?

And so ended the first vacation we had ever taken where my mother did not once throw a wobbly.

*

When I returned to the states, I had to admit that New Zealand is no longer the insular place I had turned my back on so many years ago. Her people have learned from the mistakes of other countries and have struggled to avoid the pollution, the destitution and the desecration of nature. The South Island is a place where it is still possible to drive for hours and not pass another car, where you can pick a beach and be alone all day, and where plain-hearted locals will invite you into their home for an industrial-strength cup of tea.

For me, the trip unearthed memories I had neglected: of being a barefoot child with the smell of damp bush in my nostrils, of swimming in a blood-warm sea from a dinghy I had rowed out in alone, of picnicking on some farmer's private land.

Often, during our trip, my mother would turn to me and ask, "Do you remember . . . ?" My answer is yes, now I remember.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Guidebook: Heaven Down Under

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for New Zealand is 64. The city code for Blenheim is 3 (03 if calling within New Zealand). All prices are approximate and computed at a rate of 1.60 New Zealand dollars to the U.S. dollar. (Note: Because of the Asian economic crisis, the New Zealand dollar has plummeted in recent months, making the country a bargain for Americans.) Room rates are for a double for one night.

Getting there: Air New Zealand, Qantas and United airlines fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Auckland (a 12 1/2-hour flight). From Auckland, Air New Zealand flies to Blenheim (an hour-plus hop). A car is essential, and most major auto-rental companies have counters at the Blenheim airport. (New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road.) A visa is not required.

Where to stay: Hotel D'Urville, 52 Queen St., Blenheim; telephone 577-9945, fax 577-9946, Internet http://nz.com/travel/durville/. Rate: $150. The Peppertree Homestead, State Highway 1, Riverlands, Blenheim; tel. 578-7009, fax 577-9533. Rate: $140, includes breakfast. Timara Lodge, Dog Point Road, Blenheim; tel. 572-8276, fax 572-9191. Rate: $560, includes breakfast, dinner and drinks. Le Grys Vineyard and Homestay, Conders Bend Road, Renwick; tel. 572-9490, fax 572-9491, Internet http://-nz.com/webnz/bbnz/legrys. Rate: Main house, $75, includes breakfast and wine tasting. Waterfall Lodge Cottage, $270.

Where to eat: D'Urville Brasserie, 52 Queen St., Blenheim; tel. 577-9945; main courses about $16. Allan Scott Winery, Jacksons Road, Blenheim; tel. 572-9054. Good for a well-priced lunch outdoors; main courses about $8. Marlborough Terranean, 31 High St., Picton; tel. 573-7122. Quaint setting with sophisticated continental food; main courses about $17. The Mussel Boys, 31 Main St., Hevelock; tel. 574-2824. In a pretty seaside town 40 minutes from Blenheim, this place serves local green-shell mussels; average main course $6.

Wineries: Brochures and maps of the Marlborough wine region are widely available in local hotels and stores, or at the Blenheim Information Center, 2 High St., Blenheim; tel. 578-9904, fax 578-6084.

For more information: New Zealand Tourism Board, 501 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 300, Santa Monica, 90401; (800) 388-5494, fax (310) 395-5453, Internet http://www.nzb.govt.nz. A very helpful Web site on the Queen Charlotte Sound is http://nz.com/travel/queen.charlotte/.

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