It Reminds Them of California

Corie Brown is a Times staff writer. She last wrote for the magazine about Los Angeles rug merchants Zabi and Zubair Ahmadi.

Go west, young man. There is a great, vast land out there across the mighty Mississippi and the heaven-scraping Rockies. Go all the way to California, that garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see. Even if you ain’t got that do-re-mi, the Golden State will provide. There’s a bounty in the soil and gold in them thar hills.

And if, someday, that arcadia at land’s end should become untenable, should the cities become unlivable and homes unaffordable, should the people rise up against the tax man and render the state bankrupt, should the ocean be soiled and the politics sullied--do not abandon hope!

For the record:

12:00 AM, Nov. 06, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
New Zealand -- In a Los Angeles Times Magazine article about Americans relocating to New Zealand (“It Reminds Them of California,” Oct. 26), a section on real estate ownership quoted Mark Blake, owner of Poronui Station, as saying, “The Maoris have had unfettered access.” He was not referring to his property but to New Zealand land issues in general.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 23, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 10 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
In a story about Americans relocating to New Zealand (“It Reminds Them of California,” Oct. 26), a section on real estate ownership quoted Mark Blake, owner of Poronui Station, as saying, “The Maoris have had unfettered access.” He was not referring to his property but to New Zealand land issues in general.

Keep going west, young man! There is another great shining land out there across the Pacific, far from the madding crowd. And it is all the things the Golden State once was. Onward then, to the New Eden, the New California!

Go to New Zealand!


And so they have--whether the Kiwis like it or not.

patrick and barbara stowe wanted to be vintners. but without a family foothold in the business or a ready-made fortune, their dream of making world-class wine had become impossible in their native California. In the late 1980s, while saving dual, not insignificant paychecks from jobs in the biotech industry, their ability to buy prime land drifted just beyond reach as vineyard prices skyrocketed.

The revelation that changed their lives was a 1990 hiking trip to New Zealand--an island oasis where vineyard land then cost one-tenth the price of comparable land in California. With one American dollar worth nearly two Kiwi dollars, the Stowes could leapfrog ahead of the rest of the population in a middle-class country where wages and salaries hover below U.S. standards and the cost of living is about 40% cheaper than that in the U.S. By 1995, the Stowes had planted vines outside the town of Nelson. Living in a “bach"--short for bachelor pad--a local term for something less than a bungalow with few frills and no central heating, the Stowes planted their 15-acre backyard with Pinot Noir vines and turned their shed into a makeshift winery.

Nelson sits in the middle of the two-island nation whose climate ranges from the equivalent of Los Angeles in the north to Seattle in the south, but with a land mass slightly larger than England. In three directions, the Stowes look out over seaside hills undulating beneath a patchwork of pine forests, apple tree farms and the vibrant green blankets of grass that mark the country’s ubiquitous sheep and dairy cow paddocks. Across the road, a cliff drops down into a South Pacific estuary that is home to flocks of sea and land birds. Breezes fill their home with ocean smells.


“For us to come here was radical,” says Barbara. “Now it seems easier. Lots of others are coming.”

That is an understatement. The Stowes are on the vanguard of an American migration to New Zealand that’s dominated by Californians, a wave being heralded as a godsend by the tiny country’s government and business leaders. In fact, they are actively recruiting Californians, appealing to the sentiment that if your West Coast paradise is lost, here it can be regained.

For the first time in New Zealand history, Yankees are snapping up not just vineyard land but all manner of real estate, from modest beach houses to Auckland office towers. Hotels, forests and dairy farms are giving way to American-style vacation resorts, housing developments and palatial estates.

One Angeleno who came here to work on filming of “The Lord of the Rings” decided to stay. He bought a three-bedroom ocean-view home for about half the cost of a median-priced home in California, which, in case you missed this news, hit an all-time high of nearly $405,000 in August.


Once a deterrent, New Zealand’s distant location--a 13-hour flight from the West Coast--is an attraction in the post-9/11 world, and the country’s no-nuke policy is a welcome declaration of isolation. New Zealanders sense so little threat of terrorism that the military sold or grounded its aging fleet of jet fighters.

The total number of Yankee immigrants remains small--about 25,000--and residency applications from the States only recently exceeded 1,000 a year. But it’s a significant bump up from historical migration levels, and in a country of 4 million people, it commands attention. Significantly, it’s the first time Americans have come to New Zealand in the name of opportunity, according to government and business sources in both countries.

“We’ve never seen this before,” says Michael Bayley, a leading real estate broker, who notes that this new crowd of Americans started arriving in the mid-1990s. They quickly made their presence felt. During the past five years Americans have been involved in nearly 40% of the total foreign investment in New Zealand, or roughly 100 significant investments a year, according to government records.

But not everyone is thrilled.


“There is a lot of hatred of Americans who have bought big tracts,” says Stephen Dawe, CEO of the New Zealand Overseas Investment Commission, the government office charged with reviewing foreign investments. That’s echoed by a number of private organizations growing increasingly agitated by the Kiwi Land Rush. If the American presence isn’t quite as resented as it is in, say, some parts of Iraq, it is striking a nerve.

“It’s an investment for that person, but not in our economy,” says Winston Peters, head of a popular nationalistic political movement seeking to make it difficult for Americans to own New Zealand property. “And we propose to stop it.”

Wall Street billionaire Julian Robertson is the highest-profile American in New Zealand. He broke ground on Kauri Cliffs lodge and golf course in 1994, a 4,750-acre resort that caters to the world’s super rich, though to only a handful at any one time.

Robertson, 71, now is building a similar resort at Cape Kidnappers in the Hawke’s Bay region on the North Island, and he recently paid $4 million for 10,995 acres in the South Island’s back country. In February, he reportedly threw down roughly $7 million for New Zealand’s premier cult winery, Neil McCallum’s Dry River Wines. It was a record sum that stunned the country’s wine industry.


Sara Brown sits at the other end of the spectrum. The 26-year-old Missourian recently opened The Grain and Seed, a lakeshore cafe in the Central Otago region. Brown serves fresh bagels as well as chips and salsa made by her American neighbors.

“It’s the beginning of a wave,” says U.S. Ambassador Charles Swindells, noting that the country has “a quality of life you can’t duplicate in the States.” These are individuals, not corporate interests, he points out. “This is not going to be the next Silicon Valley. There is no manufacturing base here at all.”

Perhaps, but the American influx is turning Wellington, the capital, into a mini-Hollywood. New Zealander Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy brought about 200 Americans here to live during production. Many bought homes and became citizens. Combined with the hundreds of locals who earned their film credentials on “Rings,” Wellington now has a deep bench of production expertise. A range of American commercial and television work has migrated here, as well as other major studio films.

“People ask me for advice about [moving to] New Zealand,” says American producer Jake Rose, who has spent most of the past two years here producing several projects. “I tell them to go. You’ll work all the time.”


With a San Francisco vibe, New Zealand’s capital is a pleasing jumble of cutting-edge architecture and Victorian storefronts clustered around a harbor teeming with commercial fishing vessels and a fleet of single-masted sailboats. Every Kiwi seems to own one. Fewer than 500,000 people live in the Wellington area, with many in the houses densely packed on the city’s rolling hills.

At night, the downtown streets are alive with people strolling among the dozens of cafes, restaurants, theaters and clubs. The absence of a street-wise hustle or a sense of urban danger is as remarkable as the variety of cuisines.

Over dinner at Logan Brown, a restaurant specializing in the fresh seafood, grass-fed lamb and seasonal produce that typify Kiwi cuisine, several Americans who arrived in town to work on “Rings"--and then decided they didn’t want to leave--extol the virtues of their new home.

“I’ve never been anywhere so small with so much artistic expression,” says Claire Cooper, a publicist who grew up in Los Angeles and recently married a Kiwi. More importantly, she says, people take time for themselves. “Here, I feel like I can wiggle my toes in the sand. In L.A., I never stop at the ocean. I never have time.”


Life as an ex-pat hasn’t always been easy, says Rick Porras, a producer who married a Kiwi and has since divorced. The personal drama aside, “I missed Mexican food,” he says, a problem he corrected this year when he persuaded a neighbor to open The Flying Burrito Brothers, a margarita-and-enchilada spot across the street from Logan Brown.

Gino Acevedo grabs a taco dinner at the stucco-walled restaurant two or three times a week after putting in long days learning to translate 3-D handiwork into computer-generated special effects. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity” to make that transition in Los Angeles, he says. “There is a wall there between the physical camp and the computer guys.”

Acevedo took a pay cut to work on “Rings,” but he still was able to buy a three-bedroom ocean-view home for $205,000. Sitting on his balcony at night, he looks out over Cook Strait and watches the ferry cross from Wellington’s twinkling lights to the darker hills of the Marlborough Sounds.

His boss enjoys much the same view from her home. Living in a 1920s Craftsman cottage that could have been built in Santa Monica, Eileen Moran, head of production at Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s special-effects company, zips from her office to her home on the beach in the suburb of Seatoun in three minutes. “There is everything you need in Wellington,” she says, ticking off theater, shopping, live music and great public schools.


The new immigrants won’t look back once they settle in, says Terry Shagin, a former Hollywood lawyer who, with his wife Francie, traded the high-stress entertainment industry for a “bach” on a South Island beach 18 years ago. They now live in a masterpiece of native woods and stones they built on a hill overlooking their grove of olive trees. The broad Marlborough valley of vineyards stretches out to the low mountains beyond.

“There are very few times when reality is better than the fantasy, and it has been here,” Shagin says.

There are no ugly Americans in the eyes of New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who has made a point of breaking bread with the wealthiest newcomers. She may have derided President Bush for invading Iraq, but she is positively giddy about the Americans landing on her country’s shores.

“What we’re seeing now is the decision to come here to live and make substantive high-end investments,” Clark says, adding, “We’re quite happy about that.”


She is selling New Zealand as a place to live, particularly to Californians, in a first-ever marketing effort launched this year in the U.S. “It’s active recruitment,” she says. “There is an appreciation [here] that they have the skills we need in New Zealand. They have a lifestyle compatible with ours. And,” she notes in a confident tone, “California is in the down part of an economic cycle.”

This adoration of Americans and their money frightens Kiwis who have grown comfortable being ignored by the rest of the world. “There is considerable disquiet about this,” says Murray Horton, a member of the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa, (the native Maori name for New Zealand, which means The Land of the Long White Cloud).

“There is growing resentment that foreigners buying up land for escapes in New Zealand are reducing our ability to have an escape ourselves within our own country,” says Rod Donald, a member of Parliament and co-leader of New Zealand’s Green Party. He estimates that more than 6% of New Zealand is controlled by nonresidents. “While that amount of land isn’t huge, it’s going up and it’s the most pristine land that is going first. There is a sense of loss. This is particularly true of coastal and high-country land where [foreign owners] are imposing access restrictions not compatible with our culture,” he says. “We have a tradition where people walk up any river bank to fish, go tramping across the high country. We regard beaches as open to all.”

Not surprisingly, some American investors are balking at such an open-door policy.


“Unless you are a guest, or get permission, you can’t hunt or fish on our property,” says Mark Blake, a 36-year-old San Franciscan who five years ago bought Poronui Station, a 16,260-acre North Island wilderness crisscrossed with fly-fishing streams near Lake Taupo. Blake charges guests, who have included Vice President Dick Cheney, $600 a night to angle in solitude.

“It’s not a free-for-all on our property. It’s not cool to go around the corner and find a six-pack of used Tuis,” he says, claiming unauthorized trampers have littered his property with discarded beer cans. “The Maoris have had unfettered access. And that’s changing,” he says.

But the change is being fought by New Zealand First, the movement seeking to keep the nation’s land under Kiwi control. As a case in point, the group’s leader, Winston Peters, singles out Wall Street hedge fund manager John Griffin, 40, and the sale of Young Nicks Head.

A protege of Julian Robertson, Griffin took his first New Zealand vacation in January 2002, making an appointment to meet Robertson’s real estate broker while he was there. When the broker showed him a 1,645-acre property on a secluded stretch of the North Island coast, Griffin immediately agreed to the $1.6-million purchase price. He envisioned dropping lobster pots in the bay out his front door and hiking the rocky green hills, sharing his reverie with only his wife, a select group of friends and the 4,000 sheep and 200 head of cattle that came with the deal.


But the startling 600-foot-high white headlands and the sandy beaches that define Griffin’s new vacation home also happen to be New Zealand’s equivalent of Plymouth Rock, the first bit of the country to see European colonists. On Oct. 7, 1769, Nicholas Young, the 12-year-old surgeon’s boy on Capt. James Cook’s Endeavor, caught sight of the cliffs that would thereafter be named for him.

It was a monumental moment for the natives, who’d had New Zealand all to themselves for more than 400 years. To this day, the local Maori tribe, or iwi, call themselves Nga Tangata O Nga Pari E Ma Mai Ra, or The People of the White Cliffs. When a baby is born within the tribe, the parents bury the placenta and umbilical cord at the top of the cliffs.

“It ties the person to that area and brings them back home from wherever they go in life,” says Dawn Pomama, manager of the Ngai Tamanuhiri Whanui Trust. “We lost the land 100 years ago through a European marrying into our people,” she says. Although the owners had allowed them only limited access to the cliffs, “it never stopped us from feeling that the land was ours culturally.”

When the property went on the market in 2000, the iwi offered to buy it. But their price was deemed too low. There had been no other offers for 15 months until Griffin’s, which far surpassed what the iwi could pay.


Outraged by the idea of a foreigner owning one of their most sacred sites, the iwi organized a sit-in at Young Nicks Head and a bus caravan to Wellington’s government offices, where the group camped out on the grounds of Parliament. Despite capturing newspaper headlines and galvanizing opposition, the protests stopped nothing.

“We don’t have restrictive arrangements on foreign investments,” says Roger Kerr, executive director of the New Zealand Business Roundtable, a prominent group of business leaders unified under a free-trade philosophy. “It can all be done, eventually. New Zealand is open for business.”

Griffin mended relations with the iwi by agreeing to conservation measures that also ensured his solitude. And he agreed to allow tribal members to continue visiting the cliffs, although they must seek permission first.

“We are resigned to the sale,” says Pomama, “but forever hopeful that one day we will get our cliffs back.”


Peters, head of New Zealand First, isn’t as sanguine. He vows to press ahead to change the country’s land ownership laws. “We won’t let that happen again,” he says.

That may be easier said than done. U.S. interest in New Zealand is taking off because of the country’s 1980s economic revolution. The country rejected its history of heavy-handed government controls and state ownership to adopt an open and free market philosophy. Sacrosanct wage guarantees were eliminated. Government-run industries such as transportation, communications and banking were privatized. Beyond national health care and education, little of the old socialized system survived.

After several rough years, government and industry experts say the country has emerged with a vibrant economy. “The experiment proved a success but it was very painful,” says Gareth Morgan, a New Zealand economist. “We had to dismantle the previous institutions, throw people on the scrap heap and see if they could find a way to make it under the new rules.”

New Zealand is a new country “building its modern identity today,” says Glenn Schaeffer, president of Las Vegas’ Mandalay Resort Group and a part-time New Zealand resident who is developing a vineyard down the road from the Stowes in the hills above Nelson.


“They have a socialist temperament that every bloke is as good as the next one,” he says. But from an investment standpoint, “it’s the Switzerland of the South Seas. Great judicial system, fair and transparent markets, and an export economy. Anything you touched in New Zealand in the last three years went up. Anything,” he states emphatically.

“New Zealand is suddenly hot,” says Paul Kelly, who owns the Westport, Conn., investment banking firm Knox & Co., as well as one of the largest American developments in New Zealand. On the Karikari Peninsula--a 3 1/2-hour drive north of Auckland where the temperatures and wide, sandy beaches are on par with Los Angeles, yet the population and ecological balance are in league with northern Maine--Kelly is building an expansive 3,550-acre golf and deep-sea fishing resort with a vineyard and a housing development.

“It’s the [“Lord of the Rings”] movies, the clean, green thing they have going, the America’s Cup race,” he says, listing the attractions that have caught the attention of U.S. citizens. “There is no place more beautiful, top to bottom, in all of the ways that a place can be beautiful.”

And the economics are irresistible, says Kelly, who counts his personal investments in New Zealand to be in the tens of millions of dollars.


Alan Trent is another prominent American investor, but his name pops up often as someone who irritates his Kiwi neighbors. “He embarked on a program to buy land, develop up-market coastline housing. The way he’s gone about doing it, run bulldozers through things he shouldn’t,” has upset people, says Stephen Dawe of the government’s Overseas Investment Commission.

New Zealand newspapers have published scores of stories detailing growing concern over Trent’s grand plans for a 500-acre site he is developing between Nelson and the Abel Tasman National Park, a crescent-shaped bay of pristine beaches backed by vast stretches of virgin coastal range wilderness.

A 41-year-old native of Riverside who had a construction business in California, Trent has made New Zealand his permanent residence and has become a Kiwi citizen. Yet, his development is pure California. Dubbing his gated retreat Pebble Bay, a nod, he says, to California’s Pebble Beach, Trent wants to re-create south Orange County, Dana Point in particular. And he wants to lure “the Russell Crowes of the world” to buy into it.

“You can’t get beach property in America that you can get in New Zealand,” says Trent, who changed his surname from Chiuminatta when he moved to New Zealand in the late 1990s. He says he wanted his name to sound more English, so that his family would more easily fit in their new country.


Trent paid nearly $8 million for land stretching three-quarters of a mile along the tranquil Tasman Bay. The first home being built is his own. “It’s really nice, like something you would find in Malibu,” he says, “an infinity pool, the whole California thing.” It is a high-tech marvel with seven built-in plasma screen TVs and an elaborate multi-camera security system. “It’s kind of like a prison inside,” Trent boasts.

In a small town with a crime rate that would be considered nonexistent in America, why bother? “It’s just because you can do it, not because you need it,” he says, “People with money, the Tom Cruises of the world, want security.”

While recognizing that his idealized community doesn’t reflect Nelson’s bohemian style, he says, “The negative is mostly coming from a small group of people, locals who live there that don’t have that much, don’t even own their own houses,” he says. “No matter what we do, we’re not going to make them happy. So we’re not even going to try.”

Las Vegas tycoon Schaeffer offers this advice to incoming Americans: Don’t try to get known there for the things you own. “That’s American,” he says. “One of the appeals of New Zealand is that they live well--best quality of life of anywhere in the world--but New Zealanders don’t have any money.”


He does not, however, dismiss the impulse to develop along the vast amount of beachfront property. “That coastline basically feeds animals. Well, those animals don’t need to look at the ocean as they eat grass. If they could put houses on those cliffs, there are fortunes to be made.”

Schaeffer says that he would like to expand his three weeks a year in Nelson to a six-month split with Nevada, and he is carefully crafting a life there, aware that the neighbors are watching him closely.

“Nelson is their Santa Fe. But there isn’t a core, no gallery district,” he says, noting that most local artists sell their work from their homes. After talking with the head of the Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu art museum, Schaeffer decided to collect South Island art, including landscapes, the works on paper he thought represented a local Kiwi point of view. “The finest New Zealand artists were born or bred here and no one has ever collected this South Island strain of painting,” he says.

Schaeffer plans to keep his collection at the Suter and, to facilitate those plans, is funding a renovation and expansion of the neglected museum. “When I’m done, it will be a couple of million bucks, including the cost of the space and the art,” he says, claiming that it would have taken a $100-million gift to make the same splash in the U.S.


“A few people said, ‘How dare he.’ ‘Shame on us for taking money that came from a Las Vegas casino,’ ” Schaeffer says. But he also received an invitation for lunch with Prime Minister Clark.

“You hear my name up and down the country now,” he says. “Cabdrivers know me. You can be somebody there.”

For people from the American West, like himself, Schaeffer says New Zealand is like going home. “They are a pioneer culture. The experience of the settlers in New Zealand was very similar to that of our West,” he says. Both sets of immigrants knew they were never going back home.

And like Los Angeles, he says, “It’s a multicultural society. The majority of the population will be South Pacific Islander in 50 years, Maori and others,” he says. “New Zealand is safe for all the right reasons. Not because someone built tall walls and locked the gates. It’s safe because people decided to get along.”


When New Zealand overhauled its economy in the ‘80s, it also abandoned an inward-looking, Eurocentric immigration policy. In its place, a colorblind points system was instituted that encouraged a broader range of immigrants. Asians, in particular, began applying to become Kiwi citizens.

Coincidentally, the improving economy has started bringing ex-pat Kiwis back home. After decades of watching its youth leave for better jobs in the United Kingdom, Australia and the U.S., New Zealand has experienced a recent modest reversal in its out-migration.

“We’re on steroids now because of immigration,” says economist Morgan. “Everyone accepts that immigration has raised the per capita GNP.”

Maintaining that growth rate is the challenge. Most of the new Asian immigrants have been locked out of New Zealand’s English-speaking professional world, and many are leaving. “Chinese nuclear physicists are driving our cabs,” says Morgan, bemoaning the lack of programs to help them.


Rather than stretch the social safety net with remedial programs, the government decided to recruit Americans. “The sense is that Americans will assimilate pretty easily,” Morgan says, noting that the government wants younger Americans who pay their way, not retirees who will be a drain on the state-supported health care system.

There is no ideal American, says New Zealand Minister of Immigration Lianne Dalziel, but it’s the “American entrepreneurial spirit” that the government wants to attract, noting that tradespeople and professionals are in demand as well as the moneyed class of investors.

Someone who wants to cash out Los Angeles real estate to buy an oceanfront home in Wellington and still have enough money left over to start a new business? “Yes,” Dalziel says. “We can’t compete with salary levels in the U.S. But our cost of living is significantly lower.”

New Zealand’s burgeoning wine industry--from Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough north of Wellington to the Marlborough region and Nelson at the top of the South Island and down to the Central Otago region--is a mecca for American vintners. The bottom line is the quality of the wine, says Russell Briggs, 41, who left California’s high-tech industry this summer to start a Kiwi wine export business out of a beach home near Nelson. “When I tasted the wines here that weren’t being exported . . . ,” says Briggs, shaking his head in wonderment. “No other place in the world outside of Germany and Alsace makes Rieslings like these.” And the Pinot Noirs, he notes, “have been ravishing, the equal of Russian River or the big guns in Oregon.”


Because the industry is in its infancy, the opportunities here can’t be duplicated in the States, says John Kemble, who arrived in the Hawke’s Bay area 11 years ago to start Kemblefield at a time when vineyards were being planted on faith, not experience. A former associate winemaker at Sonoma’s Ravenswood, Kemble says he “saw the potential, so I’m not surprised at the growth. But at the speed, yeah, I’m surprised at that.”

It’s been a whirlwind for Doug Wisor, a 30-year-old vintner whose career started seven years ago as an assistant winemaker at three of Napa’s top wineries. Working a short stint at Neil McCallum’s Dry River Wines on his way around the world, Wisor met the team starting up a winery for American tycoon Terry Peabody. The chairman and CEO of Transpacific Industries, who now lives in Brisbane, Australia, was among the first wave of Americans scouting for opportunities in New Zealand. “He wanted to do something sexy,” says Wisor.

In Hawke’s Bay, a rural part of New Zealand where coffee shops pass for fine dining and a dozen decaying Art Deco era buildings constitute a tourist attraction, Peabody’s freshman wine venture is a $35-million complex that would dwarf wineries on the main drag in Napa. He hired one of Auckland’s best chefs to create a world-class restaurant, and Wisor was put in charge of the winery.

Before the first bottle of Craggy Range Estate wine was released, the project was a sensation. For the gala opening in January, Peabody brought in a local hero, Mt. Everest climber Sir Edmund Hillary, to act as a celebrity host. Kiwi opera diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performed for 6,300 guests, accompanied by the Auckland Philharmonia.


“They hired a consultant to help me and gave me a blank check to do everything I’d seen all over the world,” Wisor says. “I live in a bach on the ocean. I wake up to the surf. And we make the wine I want to make,” he says. “I’ll probably stay.”