We drink wine because it's cheap. We drink wine because it's expensive. We drink wine because it inspires, because it gives us that ruby tinge of confidence. We drink wine to reminisce lovers lost, and to rein the new. We drink wine to narrate the burgundy of our sorrows, to sweeten the palette of our jubilee. We drink wine to taste the richness of Chilean earth, to smell the charred oak of French barriques, to savor the rose petals of New Zealand. No matter what your reason for pouring that glass, every bottle of wine tells its own tale. For vintage 2013, I flew to the top of New Zealand's South Island to live the story from the ground up.
From Wellington to Blenheim, I took a six-shooter plane over the Marlborough Sounds for just over $100 NZD (about $80 US). I boarded the plane with one other passenger; our captain cordially loaded our luggage before closing the hobbit-sized cabin door. I shuddered to think of taking off on a "Windy Wellington" day, but on this fine April afternoon Wellington's winds behaved themselves. We took off into blue skies, rolling sounds and brazen clouds. In a half hour, Wellington's steel-green cityscape brightened into the sepia-toned patchwork of wine-country. Hectares upon hectares of pinot noir, chardonnay, viognier, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc, riesling, etc. swept towards the horizon.
Twin pistons touched down. The other passenger on the plane offered to give me a lift. I declined with a thank you; a few minutes later Sam Weaver, owner of Churton Wines, arrived in his weathered Outback. He introduced me to the quaint vineyard-town, brought me to the supermarket, and then dropped me off at his son's house, where I would live for the next two weeks.
Waking before the sun. Nectarine lights peer through shades of gray. I'm up. Breakfast with a coffee dark as the country road. Leftovers packed for lunch. Bed made, teeth brushed. I step into a morning ripe with dew, air cold enough to see.
The Weavers left keys to their vineyard Ute for my daily commute. Green, a truck-bed made of 2 x 4s and steel, and black and blue all over, it's the perfect farmhand. By 6:30 a.m., it's warmed up to hit the road with the rest of the morning workforce. I pass vans sardined with pickers, trucks heavy as their drivers' eyelids. Like wildfire, the sunrise consumes everything in my wake, leaving a blinding glow in my rear-view.
I drive from Blenheim to Renwick, learning the road's curves like my hometown. A lava of fog covers the Waihopai Valley; dew clings to the air as it does the grass. I pull to the side of the road, headlights on. I open the door and take a few steps towards a beat fence, admiring the scene. Sunshine shimmers through a shadow of trees. A spider-web hangs from the fence, heavy with sweat. A few sheep stir, bathing in the warmth of day on the rise.
I come to a stop just before 7 a.m. outside a three-door open garage known as "The Shed." Dawn's all-consuming orange has ebbed into a soft peach. Rows upon rows of vines rustle beneath the light, hungry for nutrients. To the north, a mountainous green rises from Blenheim all the way to the coast, where it falls into the Marlborough Sounds. To the south, the Kaikoura Range rises up in arid glory. The last of the dawn fog recedes from Churton's glistening blocks.
I step into the wet grass, covered all the way from my gumboots to my winter hat. A pair of shorts and jersey huddle against my packed lunch just in case. Frigid nights turn to pristine days -- aiding Marlborough in becoming a "crown jewel" of the New Zealand wine industry.
Brief introductions lead to work. I load a trailer with crates higher than my six feet. They are black, rigid things that clench down on bare fingers. I hop on to keep the crates in place, a pair of gloves in my back pocket. Kevin, the vineyard's handyman, sits at the helm of "Smokey." In a few days' time, I learn how to lumber through the vines on the hardy old-timer of a tractor, but not today. Today I am fresh legs, arms and back; something that this four-man crew, made up of Kevin, Chris, Lynsey and Kelly, need.
I let the first crate fly. It hits the ground with a soft clunk before sliding to a stop in the wet grass. Every crate lands differently. As Kevin makes a wide turn towards the next untouched row, I look back. A spattering of black crates follows the hill's curvature towards the pallid southern range. The skies above inundate with morning blues. Plump pinot noir cascades from each row; the vines are ready for a plucking.