The next day, I made my way to Fullers Ferry Terminal, where I hopped aboard a boat for a 35-minute trip to Waiheke Island, known for its fine red wines and gallery-filled town.
As the boat pulled up to the dock, I saw green hills, white sandy beaches and a small port. I'd arranged a winery tour and before long, I was delivered to the rambling, rustic tasting room at Stonyridge Vineyard and Cafe, a boutique winery known internationally for its Bordeaux-style reds.
Its Larose is legendary in New Zealand; six bottles sold at auction last spring for $3,700. The winery also produces Fallen Angel wines (80 Onetangi Road, 011-64-9-372-8822, www.stonyridge.co.nz).
Many tasting rooms here offer free sips; those that charge often deduct the price from any bottles you buy. Stonyridge had started my day off right; I was ready to taste more.
My next stop was Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant, where I paused in the tasting room before having lunch (126 Church Bay Road, Oneroa 011-64-9-372-9050, www.mudbrick.co.nz).
Some of the best chefs in New Zealand work their culinary magic at vineyard cafes. Mudbrick's Provence-style restaurant, set on a hilltop overlooking the sea, is one of these. I was tempted to stay all day. But tasting called, and I eventually departed to visit more cellars.
Known as the Island of Wine, Waiheke has more than a dozen wineries. Until recently, the island was populated mainly by artists, hippies and others pursuing alternative lifestyles. Now it draws wine growers, weekenders and commuters, who use it as a pricey suburb of Auckland. It's an ideal stop for international travelers before or after a long flight.
Accommodations range from about $22 a night for backpackers to the high-end $500-a-night luxury digs at the Boatshed, a Nantucket-inspired Down Under-style lodge with a three-story lighthouse suite overlooking the sea.
Back to Auckland
Much as I enjoyed Waiheke's slow pace, scenery and friendly tasting rooms, there were other areas to explore. So I hopped back on the ferry for the 11-mile return trip to Auckland.
Three of New Zealand's largest vintners -- Nobilo, Villa Maria and Montana -- are based in the Auckland area and export huge amounts of wine to the U.S.
Phil Parker of Fine Wine Tours was my guide for a one-day tour; his business, takes him to vineyards around the nation (011-64-9-5295-007, www.insidertouring.co.nz).
"You have a great job," I said. "You get to do a lot of tasting, I assume?"
"I do, but not while I'm doing tours," he said. "Somebody has to drive."
We headed for northwest Auckland, about 30 minutes down the highway. Warehouses, stores and fast-food restaurants finally disappeared, and we began seeing orchards, sheep and road side fruit stands. Most of the eight wineries in this region use grapes grown elsewhere in New Zealand, so there are few vines.
While we drove, Parker talked about his favorite subject: Kiwi wines. He wrote a book on wine weekend road trips last year. His favorite areas are the Marlborough region, known for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir; Hawke's Bay, where full-bodied reds such as Syrah, Merlot and Cabernets do well; central Otago, for Pinot Noir; and Waiheke.
"Many of our wines are only available here," he advised. "So drink heartily!"
I told him I'd try.
Our first stop was Nobilo, New Zealand's second-largest exporter of wine. U.S. buyers can find the Nobilo label on store shelves, as well as other company labels such as Kim Crawford and Monkey Bay -- what the wine industry calls a "critter label."
Inside the tasting room, I saw these, plus several other labels, and got to work, tast- ing my way through several whites.
While sipping, I learned a bit more about Nobilo. It's not exactly a boutique vintner; in fact, it's part of Constellations Brands Inc., a New York-based company that markets 250 alcohol brands in nearly 150 countries. (Nobilo Wine Group is at 46 Station Road, Huapai, 011-64-9-412-6666, www.nobilo.co.nz.)
We stopped at several other wineries, where I drank more whites, and became happier by the hour. Soon we reached West Brook, which wins my award for the prettiest grounds (215 Ararimu Valley Road, Kumeu, 011-64-9-411-9924, www.westbrook.co.nz).
The winery sits on a hilltop, with landscaped terraces leading down to a shady duck pond. I sipped a Sauvignon Blanc, then went outside.
Rows of vines shimmered in the late afternoon light as I walked to the pond. I stopped to say hello to a tin man, one of several imaginative scarecrows that decorated the property. A man sitting at a picnic table looked at me strangely, probably thinking I'd tasted too much wine that day. And who knows? Maybe I had.
The tin man didn't care. So I turned to him again and raised an imaginary toast. I think he smiled.
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