Vines & Wines


WAIPARA, NEW ZEALAND: April 16-21, 2013

Steve: After our romp up the east coast of the South Island it was time to put on the brakes so to speak as we ventured north for our second-to-last Kiwi WorkAway. We didn’t have far to go as an hour north of Christchurch our bus deposited us in Waipara, smack in the middle of North Canterbury’s quietly idyllic wine region. With little more than willing hands and an eagerness to learn we found ourselves on our first vineyard work-stay.

Our hosts for this WorkAway, Peter and Maura, are semi-retired native Kiwis who decided several years ago to delve into the world of viticulture as both an investment and for the love of hands-on work. I say “semi” retired since Maura works full time as a rehabilitation specialist with the Christchurch police department and because even though Peter is out of the banking business, owning a vineyard—like all farming endeavors—is a full-time job in itself. We would soon learn that at all times of the year there is something to be done, be it weeding, pruning, placing/removing nets, harvesting, spraying for fungus…you name it. It sounds like the easiest time of year may be when they contract (or get paid rather) with a local farmer to let their sheep run loose through the vineyard; apparently the sheep do an effective job of weeding while selectively eating the lower leaves that would otherwise prevent the grapes from getting proper sunlight or aeration. I might have to come back to see this myself one day.

Although Peter and Maura did not have farm animals and no dogs could be found, our insatiable need for animal companionship was placated by a pair of feline rescues. Taylor and Lani excelled in crawling in your lap and sleeping and generally looking for any attention that may be had. (Leah: I also appreciated their canine-esque habit of jumping in my lap and licking my face, or rolling over onto their back for a tummy rub. Not since Marley the kitten back in Ecuador have I been so smitten with felines!) Of course dog lover’s such as ourselves were easily taken by these stereotypical canine qualities but their presence never went unappreciated.

During the first several days of our stay Leah and I found ourselves pruning and thinning leaves and unhealthy grapes in our host’s Riesling vines. While requiring little skill and not the hardest labor I’ve done in my life (reference our griping while installing anti-hail Tela nets in Argentina for that one), this is tedious work that requires patience and a healthy back. To be sure, this work wasn’t necessarily ideal for someone of my stature since I had to be bent over or squatting in order to be at the proper height for accessing the grapes (Leah, I’m still waiting for that back rub)(Leah: My back was just as sore despite being shorter, so as my dear husband frequently says, “Hello, whine-1-1? Yes, I’m calling for a whah-mbulance.”). I can’t really complain though as it was overcast and drizzly during this time so the weather was fairly nice for being out, and fresh air is never out of season.

As luck would have it, our stay coincided with the harvest of this season’s chardonnay grapes. We were only their second workers who were able to harvest which thankfully has not led us to an over-inflated sense of entitlement. For the larger crop of pinot noir Peter noted that they hired a mechanized harvester that simply drives through the rows and knocks the grapes off into a bin. Since the quantity of chardonnay on their vineyard is much smaller, economies of scale dictated that we would be using the good old fashion method of hand-picking. With rain in the forecast we ventured out while still dry and began the process of culling the healthy grapes; unlike the tedious task of pruning, harvesting was much quicker and since we were filling bucket after bucket this job was much more fruitful (pun intended). By 4 P.M. we dumped the last bucket into the bin (Leah: and picked clusters of pinot noir grapes to nosh on that the harvester had missed) and the rain began to fall…our timing couldn’t have been better.

Later that evening we dropped our wares off at the Pegasus Bay winery which would be pressing the grapes for their Main Divide line of wines (which would generally include grapes from other vineyards in the area). In addition to these wines, Peter and Maura also have small batches of their grapes pressed for bottling into wines wholly comprised of fruit from their property. I can attest that these 278 Georges wines are deliciously of the highest quality. If you ever want to try them the label will tell you where to go since the name happens to be their home address.

Leah: We also enjoyed the singularly unique experience of attending Catholic mass with Maura in the nearby tiny town of Amberley. The small church, The Holy Passion of Our Lord, hearkened from the 1800s and had been physically uprooted and moved to its current location. The parish owned a nearby sheep farm as their main source of income and the wooden interior consisted of beautiful beam work,vibrant stained glass windows, pews that were so narrow your butt threatened to fall off and an un-padded wooden kneeler that did more  damage to my kneecaps in 10 minutes than my entire 31-yr-old life. Steve and I were one of about 40 people in attendance (and the church felt packed at that) and almost the only ones under 60. After mass we headed to the quaint one-room parish hall for a "cuppa" (cup of tea or coffee) with cookies while Maura  pressed raffle tickets into our hands. Apparently the items on the center table, ranging from homemade jam and tinned cat food to soup mix and chocolate bars would soon be raffled off. A few minutes later my number actually came up and I shuffled up as the novelty guest ("All the way from California!," the charming geriatric crowd whispered) to claim the giant bar of Cadbury chocolate. Yup, Catholic Kiwis are pretty damn cool!

Steve: The rest of our stay was marked by the longest sustained rain that the region has had for years (Leah: To the point where it was too wet to leave the house to work or explore. At one point I even told Steve that I was pretty sure there was some type of psychological thriller out there about four adults trapped in a house on a remote farm that slowly go insane/hack each other to bits à la The Shining. Fortunately we left before that could happen. This is also the reason why there are virtually no photos to share.) Seeing how the resonant issue affecting New Zealand during our stay was the extended drought, we couldn’t complain that the island nation was getting some much needed rainfall. It made for some great reading time (Victor Cha’s The Impossible State is a comprehensive study in the North Korean regime and a must-read considering current affairs) and allowed one ample time to blog.

Unfortunately this also gave us time to read news reports as Boston reeled from marathon bombings (and the Texas fertilizer plant explosion) and America united yet again to heal and find those responsible. I pray that by the end of our journey, our blog won’t have to chronicle our place in time for any more acts of senseless, and often homegrown, terror. (Leah: However, on a happy note, while we were in Waipara the New Zealand government legalized same-sex marriage. What was even more moving was how spectators in the House of Representatives burst into a New Zealand love song after the official ruling, the video of which you can check out here.)

Albeit wet and cold, we had a lovely and well-fed time with our hosts and before we knew it we were heading off to our last Workaway and final week in NZ...

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