Blenheim, a sunny little town, is New Zealand’s wine country. It is situated in the Marlborough region, renowned for its Sauvignon Blanc. Nationwide, supermarkets and liquor stores are chock-a-block with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc options, ranging from $7.99 to over $100. These beauties are also easy to find in America and almost as affordable. Clean, light, and fruity, a Marlborough Sauv (pronounced locally as “sav”) is a wonderful wine for day drinking, pre-dinner drinks, or to accompany a cheese platter, a Thai curry, or a roast lamb dinner. It’s incredibly versatile and always refreshing.
Grammatical Preface Subtle language differences always delight me, so it merits noting here that, in New Zealand, one drinks “a wine” or “a few wines” instead of “some wine” as we say in the States. These innocent little quantifiers don’t play by the familiar rules I know. For example, when I go to a Wellington Hurricanes rugby game I am to yell, “Go the Hurricanes!” and when complaining about an establishment I should say, “Home Depot are raising their prices on lumber again.” I presume this is because it is the people (plural) at Home Depot who are doing this and not the storefront itself (singular) like some creepy, pocket-gouging, animated building.
To supply the country (and world!) with delicious white wine, every little scrap of land within a fifty-mile radius of Blenheim has been planted in grapes. This region is completely covered in vineyards. It used to be home to orchards, and still has some nice little pocket remnants, but the dollar signs of grapes cha-chinged their way into town and apples got the boot. Mesmerizing rows of grapevines render every roadside view beautifully grandiose. Winery chateaux and owners’ mansions perch like sentinels, watching over their tidy rows of grape vines.
Wine touring is a major tourist attraction around Blenheim and I have witnessed many a couplie (couple selfie) taken by the side of the road, bicycles posed in the background just so as sheep graze among the vines. I always envy the couple who rented the electric bicycles and whiz by with wind in their hair and love in their eyes. Equally, I pity the couple who went the manual pedal route and look tired, sweaty, and regretful as if questioning whether they even chose the right life partner, never mind the right bike.
Wine permeates the culture here. My in-laws have friends who grow grapes for a major winery. Every couple of weeks they drop off boxes of $22 Sauvignon Blanc which they sell to us at cost. This particular Marlborough Sauv has replaced drinking water in our house. I wash my whites in it. They come out citrusy and fresh. Winery lunches are popular and vineyard weddings abound. Every second vehicle in town bears the name of some winery or another, the fancy SUVs and premium pick-up trucks. The regular non-wine folk are pretty unemotional about their vehicles here, which is a nice change.
In springtime I can hear the constant drone of helicopter blades warding off the early morning frost which can kill the buds and ruin an entire crop. In summer, the vines are full of leaves and the green rows extend as far as the eye can see. Harvest time rolls in around Easter, the timing of which amuses me. Here, Easter weekend is the sign that summer has ended and it’s time to buckle down, be boring, and go to bed early. Which of course, is totally opposite for us Northern Hemispherians. For us, Easter means maybe we can finally dig out our flip-flops and start wearing shorts (after apologizing profusely for our chubby, white legs). Christmas here in New Zealand is even jollier as it’s a sunny, hot holiday meant for barbecues, slushy buckets of daiquiris, and fruit: cherries, raspberries, and blackberries fresh from the vine. I had to put my whole concept of holiday timing on hold while in New Zealand.
Just before harvest, the cannons fire. Not ceremonial cannons (New Zealand doesn’t do ceremonial – too frivolous) but cannons that make birds poop their pants and think twice before pinching a grape. We’ve all known birds to make a mockery of our fruit tree dreams by devouring every single apricot at sunrise the day they finally ripen. Sure, it’s a bit sad when birds hinder our breakfast marmalade plans. We might put up a net or two. But our wine?! Bring out the cannons! They boom through the valley all day, exciting the children and reminding their parents of the beautiful bounty they are sworn to protect.
Harvest brings masses of grape-picking tractors out on the roads. Gangly machines on tall tire legs, they straddle the rows of vines and spit the grapes into the bed of a truck. The trucks make endless runs between the vines and the processing facilities. The tanned workers toil day and night sorting, cleaning, operating machines, and loading the grapes into various augers and presses; leaves, sticks, spiderwebs, bugs, bird nests, and dead birds included. During the spare hour between when they stop working and have to catch a few hours of shut-eye, I often see them in the supermarket. Easy to spot, they are often European or South American, always youthful and strong, all wearing gumboots and stained, but somehow fashionable, work clothes. I wonder at the luck and opportunity of being a young European in New Zealand working the harvest. It will make a great story to tell their grandchildren.
Because of this specialized and seasonal wine economy, Blenheim draws thousands of other foreign workers in addition to the harvest crew. My husband and I played on a local touch rugby team made up of French, English, Chilean, Brazilian, Nepalese, Kiwis, and me, the American. Every week was a new delight hearing their accents and youthful tales of travel, communal living, and exhausting work schedules. Living life to the max, they always stayed after the game to play more rugby together or learn games from each other’s countries or head to the pub for a beer.
Blenheim also welcomes many young men from Vanuatu and other South Pacific islands who come without their families to prune the vines throughout the year and earn some cold, hard cash. They often stay in vineyard housing and travel into the town center in one of two ways: by jandal (flip-flops) to wander around town on a Sunday, or by full vanload to group grocery shop. I call this second mode a “van of Vans” and no matter how many times I repeat this moniker it never gets old to me. I have single-handedly debunked the law of diminishing returns. The islanders mostly keep to themselves and so remain quite mysterious to me. I once stood in line at a small convenience store that doubled as a Western Union money wiring service behind one man who busted out a Dora the Explorer backpack filled with stacks of money. Stacks. Crisp, thick stacks with the official bank tape wrapped around them. I didn’t think much of Dora until that day, but afterwards her status in my mind was officially bumped up to gangster.
My husband, Tony, accidentally got roped in to the wine business, as you do when in wine country. Actually he tried to avoid working altogether as long as he could and he desperately wanted to do something outside logistics or supply chain, but he got sucked in to a job ad calling for a planner/purchaser for a winery. Why not? “What a fun industry!” we thought. “How romantic!” they said. How horribly stressful it turned out to be. I continue to marvel at this incongruity. There are people, right now, who are pulling their hair out, working 14-hour days, and missing family time so I can sit around at 4pm on a Wednesday and delight my palate.
The same insane formula plays out in restaurants around the world. Half the people in the building are happy, drunk, and relaxed. The other half are maxed out on caffeine, simultaneously performing twelve ulcer-inducing tasks, while some alpha dog yells in their face, reminding them what a disappointment they are to this kitchen, to their parents, and to the population of the civilized world. Honestly, I don’t care if my spaghetti and meatballs arrive seven or seventeen minutes after the salad. Let’s all just chillax and have a meal. Nobody is going to perish if their main dish is not sprinted to their table and dashed with pepper just at the right moment.
It’s such an uneven balance that the people who make food and wine don’t get to relish the process and beauty of what they are creating. Instead, they stress out that the label artwork is behind schedule, that the bottle caps don’t line up, that Japan is returning 200 cases because they are in the wrong bottles. What a horrible downside to the wonderful advance in technology of clicking to purchase, choosing expedited shipping, and receiving instant gratification. I guess we can’t have one without the other, but it bothers me in the same way it bothers me that stores open for sales on Thanksgiving night. Gross. I learned it takes years of chemistry classes and general winery toil and apprenticeship to rise to the lofty title and responsibilities of an actual winemaker. My image of the chic winemaker confidently resting one butt cheek on a polished oak table while he swirls his glass and entertains the room with tales of his most recent business trip to Cinque Terre has been replaced with the stark reality that instead he spends 14 hours a day at his desk, running computations in Microsoft Excel.
Those computations often include sugar. During harvest production, my husband’s winery received 18 one-ton pallets of sugar per day. One after the other, the sugar sacks are poured into the wine tanks like some Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fantasy for grown-ups. If a winery guest sampled enough of the goods, they could end up licking the wallpaper and cruising dreamily down a river of Sauv running smooth and clear. Refreshing dip anyone? Perhaps after this long day of adventure, a couple of wines to unwind?
Blenheim beckons its inhabitants to unwind. Sit for a while in the sun. Enjoy the views. Have a wine. Have a bottle. It’s cheap! And made just ’round the corner. Just remember to thank the hard-working server, thank the winemaker, thank Mother Nature, and thank God it’s Friday.
Kiwi Glossary: Rate. To rank very high in estimation. “I’m really rating these new 10-hour work days the company instituted. Such a nice change from 14-hour days!”