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Fire and water

We hit the beach while the locals watch their island burn

by Thor Iverson

The gift of morning

Mornings just don’t get much more beautiful than this one. Sun, blue sky, warm – but not too warm – air, and the freedom to do anything, everything, or nothing. Such freedom and its world of possibilities are truly a gift. Inspired, we express our gratitude for the gift of complete freedom by wolfing down several bowls of muesli and fresh fruit.

After all, what good is freedom if you’re not regular?

As we pack the car for relaxing, first-day-of-vacation beach slothfulness, Cliff (our host) emerges from his house toting a folding beach chair. “Here, you’ll want this,” he offers. Just then the phone rings; it’s Auckland wine writer (and friend) Sue Courtney, checking to see if we’ve arrived intact. And once more the refrain: New Zealanders are unbelievably nice, and though we should no longer be surprised by it, we are. Perhaps it’s the gift of the land they inhabit; a treasure in itself, and fertile ground for the cultivation of luxuries both prosaic and extravagant. Perhaps it’s remoteness from the more guarded, selfish centers of “modern” culture. Or perhaps it’s just the people, who approach life with an unstudied innocence that chips away at one’s cynicism and world-weariness. Either way, it’s exceedingly hard to be unhappy when it seems that an entire country is looking out for your well-being.

One with Onetangi

Onetangi Beach is a long, straight stretch of white gold gently lapped by a greenish-blue sea. Today, it’s completely empty, save for a few lonely seagulls. We park our car on the crumbling strip of sand-infused dirt between a narrow frontage street and the beach, park ourselves right in the middle of the sand, and begin the flesh-roasting process (though to be honest, we’re covered in enough high-octane sunscreen that a deep, dark tan seems unlikely). There’s no traffic, very little wind, only the soft murmur of waves, and even the gulls are mostly silent. It’s a little eerie, but it’s also profoundly relaxing, and every last bit of real-world tension drifts softly away, collected and carried to sea by the gentle motion of the tides and the winds.

[Theresa on Onetangi Beach]

Rock on the beach
We exchange brief naps and quickly restorative dips in the ocean, and oscillate between soft, sun-slowed conversation and the sweet silence of isolation. When hunger finally starts to gnaw, we climb back up to a street-side picnic table and unfurl a spread of garlicky green-lipped mussels and Ferndale “Brie” (absurdly simple, definably “cheese” but with no additional character beyond the bare fact of it) with a wine perfectly suited to the day and the location.

Onetangi Road 2004 Rosé (Waiheke Island) – Juicy raspberry goodness that’s big and slightly hot, but despite the slightly overweight character it’s a really fun, full-fruited summer quaffer. It will get you tipsy, though. I suggest a post-lunch layabout on an isolated beach.

There are no shops or hotels here, just a clean and functional public changing room/bathroom combination, but there is a manageable breadth to the waterfront, and so we decide to stroll from one end to another. Low-hanging trees shadow water-etched rocks on one end, boulders which conceal a collection of tidal pools and, behind, tiny little beach alcoves to which a few sun-bronzed locals have retired…perhaps fleeing the masses (which, today, are…I presume…us). At the beach’s opposite end, tangled vegetation supports a teetering cliff onto which a quiet, leaf-dimmed bungalow has been perched. And still, the great length of the beach remains empty. OK, it’s a work day, but come on…where is everybody?

Fire and water

Theresa chooses to follow all that relaxation with more relaxation, and so I leave her at the Villa Pacifica while I search for better comestibles than I found yesterday. I find them in Oneroa, Waiheke’s most bustling and touristy town, which overlooks a crescent-shaped beach rife with sunbathers and tourists on holiday. Ah, here’s where everyone’s been hiding. The streets of the commercial district (really no more than one winding uphill stretch buffered by residential areas on the landward side) are equally full, and I weave around strollers and gawkers, doing a bit of strolling and gawking myself. Need a comprehensive wine shop? That’s here. Mobile phone components? Got ‘em. High-quality food? That’s where I’m headed.

The layout of Waiheke Fruit & Veg (110 Oceanview Rd., Oneroa) is only slightly more conducive to traffic than its exterior, which necessitates parking just about anywhere other than near the store. I do a slightly dangerous U-turn to snag one of the few spaces within a half-mile of the place, a brief re-emergence of driving aggression learned and perfected back home. Inside, it appears that a pair of convenience stores have been welded together and their contents half-replaced by things foodies might actually be interested in, though with the same shelving on which any roadside gas station might feature stacks of chips, soda and beer. But aside from a specialist butcher shop just up the street, the deli attached to the nearby wine shop, and some artisan purveyors of olive oil, lavender and – of course – wine, there’s not a lot of choice on this island for those interested in something better than the supermarket basics, and thus this store becomes a necessary paradise of sorts. There’s even a decent selection of Asian ingredients, a fact I vow to remember should we ever return.

Post shopping, I’ve still got some free time, and I spend it winding my way down to an abandoned and weather-beaten store at Rocky Bay, then out to the semi-private point maintained and tilled by the spectacular Te Whau vineyard and restaurant. Steep vine-covered slopes descend to a sheltered bay on one side, the island-dotted Hauraki Gulf on the other, with the pointed blue-grey Sky Tower and urban waterfront of Auckland unmistakably glistening on the horizon. But a sign the end of the gated road reads, fairly clearly, “Keep Out” (it’s so un-Kiwi), and anyway it’s time to get home.

[Theresa, rocks, Onetangi Beach]

Let’s play “hide the beach”
On the way back, I hear the noisy vibration of a low-flying helicopter. Around the corner, I see both the source of the noise and the reason for it: a hillside not too far from the island’s supermarket is on fire, and the fire’s spreading. The hill is accessed on its opposite side by gravel and dirt trucks that have removed a good deal of its width already, but its pinnacle and the side that’s actually on fire are inaccessible by anything but helicopter…save by foot, and that’s unlikely with the wind blowing flame and smoke around. Locals are strewn along the road both in and out of their cars, and it seems that the entire island is watching the unfolding drama as a lone helicopter arrives from the ocean with a dangling bucket, dumps its watery contents on the smoking trees and burning underbrush, and wheels around for another payload. Thankfully, nothing of value seems to be in immediate danger, but given such limited methods for fighting the fire I begin to wonder – and worry – about the future. There’s a farm and hardware store below the burning slope, Stonyridge Vineyards runs right up to the other side of the hill, and even our villa is both reasonably close to and downwind from the rapidly charring hillside. Somewhat concerned, I retreat under the drumming of the helicopter’s blades and the soft but unmistakable aroma of burnt leaves.

Do you know the way to St. Tropez?

A quick change later, Theresa and I are reunited with Matiatia, awaiting a ferry to the mainland. It’s a beautiful, incredibly peaceful late afternoon, with the sun sparkling and glinting off the water, and the ride to Auckland is yet another chance to soak up the wonderful colors of the Gulf and its islands. It’s a touch disconcerting being back on the mainland and in the city – just a touch, though, as Auckland even on its worst days is not exactly Manhattan – but we’re looking forward to the evening to come.

We snag a taxi at the Ferry Building, give the driver directions (several times; he seems disconcerted by our accents), and sit back, only to be interrupted by the shrill bleat of a car horn. Theresa leans forward, looks to our left, and exclaims, “hey, it’s Sue & Neil!” The Courtneys – two of our dining companions this evening – with an unknown guest in the back seat. A few minutes later, we’re exchanging hugs and handshakes on a street full of hip restaurants and people-watching cafés, and assembling at the door of tonight’s dining destination: St. Tropez (149 Parnell Rd., Parnell).

St. Tropez bills itself as French, and upon first listen more than a few of the employees are indeed of French origin. Several came to New Zealand to visit and found it impossible to leave, a feeling with which we’ll become all too familiar over the course of this trip. Others are merely gaining experience in the restaurant trade, which is much more open and free-wheeling than in France, and hope to take their experience home with them and start somewhere other than at the bottom. Either way, the feel of the place is definitely French-influenced Kiwi, which has both good and bad aspects. My garlic and parmesan-encrusted rack of lamb with rich, fat-infused beans is succulent and a perfect foil for strong red wines, but the pork and veal terrine that precedes it is gristly and a bit flavorless, and the strawberries that follow it would be infinitely better without the cheap and watery “balsamic vinegar” that turns them soppy and acrid. Still, the food is well-priced and a good value, and a friendly BYO policy makes some of the complaints disappear.

Service, however, re-energizes those complaints. We struggle mightily to obtain water (and refills of same), we’re asked to pass utensils to our neighbors when the staff could easily reach patrons themselves, and no attempts are made to avoid the “who ordered the oysters?” question every time food arrives at table. Also, Theresa has some questions about ingredients which are met with the least informative of answers. An example:

[dead crab on Onetangi]

“One day when the boss get hungry
Guess who's gon' be on the plate?”
(showing a cheese plate) “…and we have a blue cheese.”

“What kind of blue cheese?”

Blank stare. “Blue cheese.”

“From where?”

(a shrug)

“From New Zealand?”

(another shrug)

Still, this reads more negative than the restaurant really deserves, because we do have a marvelous time despite the problems. In attendance are the aforementioned Courtneys, John Barker (a dining companion on our previous visit to Auckland), and Kay Morganty. It’s a wonderful, warm group, but one with focus, and after some brief pleasantries we’re all eager to get started with the wines.

No. 1 Family Estate 1999 “Cuvée Virginie” (Marlborough) – This is the third name for a sparkling wine estate headed by the New Zealand branch of the le Brun family, long the “name of record” for Marlborough bubbly despite their eponymous winery (Cellier Le Brun) now being owned and operated by someone else, and the Cuvée Virginie is designed to be their top-of-the-line fizz. It’s foamy, showing peach, grapefruit, and lemon with a papery texture that I almost always consider a flaw in sparkling wines. The finish is both drying and heavily malic, and I think this wine could use more yeastiness and a general upsurge in complexity. By way of contrast, the highly-regarded Pelorus from Cloudy Bay is often too tropical and ripe for its own good. Somewhere in the middle lies success.

Fèvre 2002 Chablis Les Clos “Grand Cru” (Burgundy) – Seashell minerality, orange and cashew with moderate spicy oak in a balanced, highly-concentrated seedling many years from its full blossoming. The minerality is tremendous here, see-sawing between the aforementioned seashells and a firmer, more granitic aspect, and the finish is as balanced as it is incredibly long. A richly beautiful wine, and though not unoaked it makes no compromises vs. its need for a good long rest in the cellar.

Westport Rivers 2000 Brut “Cuvée RJR” (Southeastern New England) – I serve this blind, and it’s amusing to hear the guesses. I doubt there’s much Massachusetts wine served in Auckland’s French bistros…or Auckland, or New Zealand, or really anywhere outside New England. I find it lemony and frothy, showing ripe apple and a big burst of fruit with a rather abrupt finish, but it seems to be a bigger hit at the table. The ’98 was better.

[fire on Waiheke Island]

Fire on the hill
Dry River 1998 Gewurztraminer (Martinborough) – Juicy lychee and bitter macadamia nut; skin-dominated and slightly tannic (not at all unusual for ripe gewürztraminer) with good acidity and a somewhat strange, eggy consistency that’s a little different than the nut oil texture so common to Alsatian versions of this grape. I like it a great deal, though I’d age it longer in an attempt to shed some of the fat, as I think it’s in a bit of an awkward middle age at the moment.

We pause between courses and between wines to converse a bit, though between tasting, eating, and note-taking I don’t always follow every thread. At the moment, John is in the midst of a story detailing his day, which includes the phrase “up with the sparrow’s fart.” The Kiwis just nod, but it sends Theresa and I into hysterics. “I’ve gotta write that one down,” I promise.

Promise kept.

St. Innocent 1996 Pinot Noir O’Connor (Willamette Valley) – Balanced, rich, and mature, showing spiced leaves, rosemary, and slightly gritty tannin with the soft remembrance of fruits gone by. Just gorgeous, and I’m pleased that it seems to strike the natives most positively. Unfortunately, later into the bacchanalian evening, I manage to spill my last half-glass all over the table (just missing Sue thanks to a curled-up paper tablecloth) but even then the aroma just sings. Beautiful, elegant pinot at the peak of its aromatic decadence.

Felton Road 1999 Pinot Noir Block 5 (Central Otago) – A pinot of a different color. Chocolate-covered cherries, orange rind, grey soil and big acidity with lots of emergent peat and clay on the finish. Felton Road produces some of the most restrained examples of high-end pinot in the Central Otago, and yet this wine is a lot heavier and more forward than the St. Innocent. But it’s no less good, just different – Beaune to Nuits, Willamette to RRV to Central Coast, whatever paradigm one wishes to invoke – and, unlike the previous wine, well short of maturity.

Esk Valley 2002 Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve” (Hawke’s Bay) – Smoky plum and baked espresso dust scented with vanilla and bitter milk chocolate. The finish turns to blackberry and thus more obvious acidity, with ripe, slightly herbal tannin for support. I will never love these grapes as much as I love pinot, but here is a fine, well-made, balanced but unquestionably New World (though cooler-climate) take on a Bordeaux-style blend. It does have that faint hint of greenness that will turn off those looking for gobs, but entice those looking for complexity beyond the thuddingly obvious headache of fruit and oak.

Trinity Hill 2003 Tempranillo Gimblett Gravels (Hawke’s Bay) – New Zealand winemakers work from a very limited palette of grapes. From region to region, winery to winery, one finds so many of the same grapes (vinified with the same profiles in mind) that a certain ennui is inescapable. No doubt the market has much to do with this state of affairs, but one hopes that as the industry moves inexorably towards maturity, new varietal horizons may be reached by some adventurous winemakers.

Yet, thankfully, not all New Zealand wines taste the same. The most obvious separator of all these identi-grapes is winemaking, but also at work are the first stirrings of terroir. It’s hard to identify much of the signature of the land when a vineyard site is still in its teens (and an entire region, like Marlborough, is barely in its thirties), but some sites are older than others, and certain things may be said, or at least theorized, by those with viticultural and/or tasting experience. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made along the way, winemaking will continue to obscure and obliterate terroir, and marketing will wield its nefarious influence (putting brand identity ahead of site identity), but the attempt to identify emergent site-specificity is an absolutely necessary step in the development of New Zealand as a world-class wine producing country. The Gimblett Gravels are, along with the much more controversial Martinborough Terrace, early steps in that direction.

[Te Whau & Auckland]

Te Whau, with Auckland in the distance
This wine, however, doesn’t do much to advance either notion. Raw plum, strawberry and rosemary are rather dominated by volatile acidity and goopy chocolate. It’s dark and juicy, but there’s just too much wrong with it. Points for effort, but a barely honorable mention for execution.

Johanneshof 2001 Riesling Auslese (Marlborough) – Massive acidity is completely and oddly separated from thick, lemon, apple and lime leaf fruit with a cardboardy texture. More strange than good at this stage, but a few years in the cellar will probably help.

The gift of evening

At one point during dinner, Theresa admires a bracelet worn by Kay…who promptly takes it off and gives it to my wife. I repeat earlier sentiments: who are these people, and why are they so nice? We stammer around for a way to return the favor (which will have to wait until we return to the States), but soon realize that we’re pressed for time if we want to catch anything other than the last ferry, which leaves far later than we’d like. Neil does a quick breathalyzer test, confirms that he’s OK to drive, and rushes us to the Ferry Building as soon as we say our rapid goodbyes.

The return to Waiheke is utterly peaceful, moving from the rich golden brown light of the Ferry Building and the ascendant Sky Tower, to little constellations of shore-bound lights and the retreating twinkle of Auckland, to the near-darkness of the last half of the passage. Soon the brighter lights of the Matiatia docks beckon, and on a cool, absolutely still night we motor up, down and around deserted roads and quiet, forested passages to our villa…where we’ve got yet another present waiting for us: a winery that was unable to accommodate a visit has, instead, dropped off a few bottles for us to taste.

We shut off the lights and step onto our patio. The brilliance of the stars overhead enlivens our senses, especially the majestically dense cluster of the Milky Way’s visible arm (here orders of magnitude brighter and more detailed than anywhere I’ve ever been, and the ultra-brief needles of shooting stars lace and crisscross the peaceful night sky. We’d make a wish, but to what purpose? All our wishes are being fulfilled by a day that begins and ends in beauty and generosity. A day that is truly a gift.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.