Waiheke Island, New Zealand • February 2017 • Length of Read: 10 Minutes
I awoke to find myself covered in itchy mosquito bites. Tara had warned me about how bad they were, with the scars on her skin to prove it, but in our drunken states, Nene, Possum, and I had stupidly forgotten to shut the windows of our dorm room at Hekerua Lodge before crashing out for the night. Whilst my two Dutch girls got changed I applied some cream to the bites and then gave Justin a call to see if we were still on for the vineyard tour that morning; intrigued as to whether he would remember the drunken promise that he’d made to us in the Sandbar the prior night. At the time it had seemed almost too good to be true.
“Crobs,” he answered in a high-pitched ring. “I’ve just picked up my second group and am on my way to get you. Are you still good to go?”
“Of course,” I said, laughing back down the phone. “I was just calling to see if you were actually going to show up or whether it was going to be like a typical date where I’m left twiddling my thumbs at the bar, alone.”
“I’ll be at the bus stop where we agreed to meet in about twenty minutes,” sang his voice through the speaker. “If you guys could be ready and waiting for then it would be much appreciated. There are two others from your accommodation also booked on the trip so look out for them as well.”
“Will do,” I said, before hanging up the phone. “Chop, chop, girls. We’ve got a lift to catch.”
In visiting Waiheke, I was filling an obligation and promise that I’d made to my friend Tara. In 2015, the island that is situated a forty-minute ferry journey north of Auckland was voted as the fifth best destination in the world to visit by Lonely Planet; primarily due to its extensive array of vineyards, golden beaches, and restaurants. Tara had lived on the island for four months at Hekerua Lodge and had worked at one of these vineyards. What better a place to tick off bucket list number 146 then? And on a sweltering New Zealand summer day.
We’d arrived on the island paradise the previous night, but wandering into town to find something to eat after checking in, we instead found ourselves ordering up a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc at the Sandbar, a lovely open-aired establishment that overlooked the marina bay and beach. Here, we got chatting to the bubbly fellow sitting at the table next to us, and in doing so became acquainted with the one and only Justin Moore.
He wore a flowery Hawaiian shirt which was fully unbuttoned to reveal a sweat-soaked grey t-shirt underneath. His short, receding, hairline had left his forehead a little sunburnt-red and his voice was a little camp. A namesake of the famous country music singer, Justin Moore was about forty-five years of age and had a zestful energy for life that was simply infectious. From behind his prescription designer sunglasses, he informed us that he was born on Waiheke, moved away for a number of years to pursue work opportunities in Japan and the United States, and had then returned to the island a few years previous to live a quieter life.
“I now operate a small business called Waiheke Tour running barbeque, vineyard, and beach tours of the island,” he said. From his slurred speech it was clear that Justin had also had his fair share of vino for the evening.
“Really?” said Possum, attempting to show a fistful of nachos into his mouth from across the table. Hunger had finally taken over and we’d ordered a plate to share between the three of us. “We were planning on doing a vineyard tour tomorrow but haven’t booked anything yet,” she continued, sounding more steaming than a James Watt designed engine. I’m not going to go as far as saying that Possum and Nene are alcoholics, but if they ever met Jesus then the first thing they’d ask was for him to turn all water supplies into wine taps.
“I just so happen to have three spare seats on my wine tour tomorrow, actually,” said Justin, munching down the chips and salsa that Possum had shoved into his pie hole. “We visit three different vineyards and then I cook up a massive barbeque of succulent steaks, juicy sausages, and grilled veggies for everyone. Are you interested?”
And that is how we found ourselves standing at the bus stop the following morning, Possum regaling the tale of how we came to be in such a position to the British couple that Justin had been referring to on the phone. Nathan was a London city boy and Jenny a Northern Irish girl from just outside of Belfast.
The honking of a horn diverted our attention down the road. Rounding the corner, the vehicle that had caused the commotion came into view. Behind the wheel of the beat-up minivan was the man himself, waving so furiously at us with a gaping smile that I was genuinely concerned he was about to lose control of his Anna; so named due to the personalised registration plate stapled to the front grill.
“All aboard,” yelled Justin gleefully, opening up the electric folding side-door.
“Morning,” we cried as we climbed up the steps and shuffled to the five empty seats at the rear, addressing him like a church congregation responding to their minister.
Already onboard was a middle-aged Scottish couple from Queens Park, three Canadians, and three Kiwis. It transpired that the twenty-something Kiwi guy and similarly aged Canadian girl were engaged to be married on Waiheke in one year’ time and that both sets of parents had come together for a holiday, to get to know their future extended family better, and to have talks with the venue where they’d be tying the knot; one of the twenty-five vineyards that littered the island at the time of writing.
If they were still together in twelve months’ time, that is. Even on the short journey to our first of three stops, Batch Winery, I could tell that the incessant questioning from the mother of the bride was pissing off the groom; her status as a control freak having clearly already been stamped on proceedings.
The bride herself was a very attractive girl in a bright white sundress; her jet-black hair falling down her back and coming to rest over the two giant angel wings tattooed across her shoulder blades and spine. I immediately wondered where her devil horns were hidden. This allure both tantalised and fascinated me in equal parts, taking over my thoughts as we rolled into the Batch car park. This term has a double-meaning in New Zealand, being used to describe a holiday home or beach house as well as the quantity of wine produced each time a harvesting and fermentation process is run.
The highest vineyard on the island, we were led by Batch’s Dutch sommelier to a lone tree atop the hill where the on-site restaurant was situated; a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panorama opening up before us. There was not a cloud in the sky and although this meant I’d had to douse myself in sunscreen that morning, the clear weather meant that we could also make out the spire of Auckland’s Sky Tower as we took shade under the solitary pine. Beneath its branches were two casks, a selection of branded glasses organised neatly on top of one and four different bottles of wine perched on the other.
“This vineyard is the newest on the island,” said the Dutch guy, pouring the first bottle. “It’s owned by a Canadian family and opened for business two years’ ago. They are actually here holidaying at the moment, so be on your best behaviour,” he joked. “Our first batch of wines for retail are expected to be ready in about one year from now.”
“We’re Canadian,” announced the mother of the bride, “and it would be really nice to meet them.”
“I think they're a bit busy for that, unfortunately,” squinted the sommelier, shutting her down in the politest way possible. I’m sure the last thing that the savvy millionaire owners wished to do whilst enjoying some downtime in their own batch was to brush shoulders with overzealous guests; fellow countrymen and women, or not.
I took a sip of the drink that I’d been handed. Despite the large quantities of alcohol that I consume on a far-too-regular basis, I’m no wine expert. I couldn’t tell the difference between a Chilean Malbec and a Cabernet from Mendoza if they both bit me on the same arse cheek. What I will say, however, is that as my eyes took in the scenery from behind the prescription lenses of my sunglasses, I couldn’t help but feel that the views cast over the island were a lot more breath-taking than the wine swirling around my palate. I swallowed it anyway. Hair of the dog.
Peacock Sky was the name of our second stop, confusing considering that the logo for the vineyard stamped on the entrance gate was that of a butterfly; a farfalle. A small marquee had been erected in the garden, with the place settings indicating that we’d not only be getting a sample of five different wines, but also a posh nibble to go with each. Apparently, the couple that owned this particular establishment were wannabe-chefs as well as wine enthusiasts.
I took a space next to the Scottish couple and got chatting to them about life at home. I love meeting fellow Scots on the road, as you can immediately cut through all the wishy-washy bullshit conversations that are far-too-frequent between travellers and get straight to the good stuff. The man was the type of character who I imagined spent a large portion of each weekend sinking pints down his local pub whilst watching the footy, and it was apparent that his wife had brought him on this wine tour as a form of societal education as much as to have a relaxing drink.
“What flavours are you getting through?” asked the Frenchman running the session, directing his question towards my compatriot.
“Alcohol,” he bluntly responded, knocking it back in one large gulp like he was a goldfish swimming in a tank. The stare from his wife at that moment could have burnt a hole in the back of his head, but he was having too good a time to care. We were all beginning to get a little tipsy, especially myself who hadn’t had anything to eat since that shared plate of nachos the night before.
“Oh my God,” squealed the mother of the bride as she took a bite into the tiny square of chocolate brownie that had been placed in front of us. “Yummy.”
I took one look across the table, locked eyes with Nathan, and we both burst into sniggered laughter; the wine acting as a catalyst.
“It’s so creamy,” she then moaned as tears rolled down my face.
“I feel like I’ve just learned what that lady sounds like when she comes,” I whispered to Nathan as we strolled back to the bus, feeling rather jolly.
“Get that image out of my head right now,” he squirmed.
Our third and final stop was where Justin Moore had promised to cook us our barbeque lunch, and despite the hors d’oeuvres served at the previous venue, I was still absolutely ravenous. Whilst Justin fired up the gas, we were treated to a lesson in the art of making a good wine by the owner of Dellows Waiheke, Bill Dellows. A fascinating thing I learned is that in order to maintain balance in the wine, extracts of either eggs, fish, or clay need to be added at the clarification step of the process.
“Are you telling me that wine is not vegan-friendly then?” asked the mother of the bride, sounding appalled.
“You can’t usually tell from the ingredients on the label exactly what was used to clarify it, so it is advised if you are vegan to not drink wine at all, yes,” answered Bill in his softly-spoken accent. His white, Santa Claus, beard indicated that he was tipping retirement age and his demeanour was that of a person who had seen it all when it came to wine, whisky, and spirits.
“I know that some of the cheaper goon sacks, for example, contain up to forty percent fish oil,” I added; Nathan nodding his head in agreement.
“What’s a goon sack,” she asked, annoyed that she didn’t know.
“It’s the boxed wine that you get from liquor stores in Australia,” I informed her. Who knew that something I’d learnt from passing out drunk on a beach one night whilst on a 4x4 trip to Fraser Island would have come in handy at a wealthy vineyard. That’s what I call a tertiary style of education right there. “They make really useful pillows,” I smiled.
“Oh no,” she gasped. “I can’t wait to go home and tell all of my friends. This could be disastrous for some of them.”
“I feel sorry for the people that have to call her their friend,” I mouthed to Nene as the smell of Justin’s cooking drew us onto the patio outside; our awesome day-drinking session brought to a close with an absolute epic spread for lunch that got wolfed down. Justin Moore – what a legend.