Napier, New Zealand October 4- October 7, 2007
Southbound three hours from Rotorua leads us downhill from the central mountains to the seaside area of Napier– the “art deco capital”. The scenery along the way is indescribable and changes with every turn. Imagine a 3-hour drive that combines the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Malibu California, Sonoma wine country, Lake Tahoe, the Grand Tetons, Montana, vast pasture lands of Ireland and curving highways of northern Europe with impossible crosswinds that cut through the valleys at gusts of 60mph, nearly pushing your car into the 100+ foot tall pine trees lining the black road. The temperature gradually rises as we approach sea level and we are pleased to return to nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a small town so it doesn’t take Heather long to locate Wally’s Backpackers, our lodging for the next few days that we dub Walley World. The new owners who purchased it twelve weeks ago are a fun family from the U.K. who have decided to sell everything, immigrate to New Zealand and roll the dice at taking over this 50-bed hostel. There are a lot of obstacles they will have to overcome to make Walley World succeed but they have two distinct advantages: First, the local competition seems pretty bad so the bar is already set fairly low to be the best in town. Second, although they don’t have much experience, they are eager to please guests and make up the lack of experience with enthusiasm and a great attitude.
Napier is one of the two predominant wine producing regions of New Zealand so of course we had to do our part stimulating the local economy and “evaluate” this year’s production. Friends know that we are wine lovers and have become accustomed to older varieties of Italian and French wine. Chateaux Pichon Longville and Super Tuscans made before 2000 are almost table wines to us and at home we drink these weekly. New Zealand had a lot to prove to us as a wine contender. Two very different vineyards topped our list to review below. Here’s the setup:
When you are born and raised in Dallas, Texas, you can smell bullshit from miles away. Our hometown has more $30,000 per year millionaires than any other city I have visited. Trendy restaurants line their front entry valet parking with brand new BMWs, Porshes and Lexuses to impress onlookers while their owners inside pray that their Visa card has enough remaining credit not to be rejected for the dinner charge. This is the model, concept and target market for Craggy Range Vineyards.
Craggy Range Winery is an enormous and beautifully planned facility that cost seventy million dollars to build only ten years ago.
It is a newcomer to the New Zealand wine market that tries to make up with image, crisp marketing and flash what it lacks in wine production. A sampling of about six wines from Craggy Range is only $5.00nz but we found it overpriced given the lack of quality in the wine they produce. Three of the six offered were so bad we couldn’t politely swallow the samples offered. But the shocking surprise at Craggy Range was their cellar door steward’s descriptions. He actually described one of their Pinot Grigio samples as “cat piss on a mulberry bush”. That’s bold marketing but the funny part was that he was right! Craggy Range Vineyard is amazing for pictures like those shown below, but if you are serious about drinking wine, you can seriously skip this winery. We concluded that the comparison of their wines to “cat pee on a mulberry bush” was accurate and applied to more than their Pinot.
Te Mata Vineyards by contrast, was a surprise at the other end of the spectrum. This smaller, unassuming vineyard was quaint, yet well organized. It’s evidently the oldest winery in New Zealand- old vines, good wine. We were met by a wonderful man named John Buck who, in the absence of staff on coffee breaks took it upon himself to conduct our tasting. Heather was immediately impressed. Some of our friends already know that she has a natural nose for wine and could easily become a sommelier without formal training. Her nose is extremely sensitive and she has an uncanny talent for rating wine by taste and smell. We spent an hour sampling and re-sampling at Te Mata Estate as John explained the history of the vineyard and revealed that it was the oldest in New Zealand. No wonder these old vines produce Bordeaux quality reds. Digressing into our travel plans John quickly pulled out an atlas of New Zealand and began to map out the remainder of where our trip should take us. It was the highlight of our day and his warm, friendly hospitality washed away the cynical, judgmental attitude we endured at Craggy Range vineyards. Driving back to Walley World we read the vineyard brochure and discovered that John Buck was actually the Chairman and CEO and is not only a world-renowned wine expert, but a regular host on radio and television programs. How wonderful it is to meet genuine people who have nothing to prove and everything to share.