Idyllic-looking sheep farms, verdant valleys and distant cloud-covered hills passed by my window as we traveled from the harbor town of Picton to New Zealand’s Marlborough wine region. Known especially for its Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough is the country’s largest wine-growing region, responsible for 75 to 80 percent of all production. The town of Blenheim, about half an hour from Picton, is home to dozens of wineries that dot the countryside along the area’s main roads.
Upton Oaks Garden
The first stop on our wine tour, however, was not about wine. Instead, the vines at Upton Oaks Garden are of the flowering kind, a lovely and surprisingly sophisticated garden at a private residence near Blenheim. Owner Sue Monahan greeted our group and led us to the garden entrance beside their 1911 Victorian house. Sue and her husband Dave, who was serving homemade refreshments near the pool, created Upton Oaks over the past 30 years, turning a neglected property into a series of themed gardens that flow from one space to the next.
The gardens have a formal but comfortable feel. Layers of hedges and walls separate the various “rooms,” and many of the plantings are designed by color. There are fruit trees, an olive grove, vegetable gardens, a rose gardens and an impressive 17th century-style “knot” garden. It’s the kind of place you’d expect to see at a public park rather than a private home. The Monahans invited us to take photos and wander throughout the property, making us feel as if we were guests in their home rather than visitors passing through.
Wither Hills Winery
A few minutes down the road from Upton Oaks is Wither Hills Winery, named after the Wither Hills mountain range bordering the vineyards. This was a “cellar door” visit – tasting only – where we sampled several white wines, including the region’s infamous Sauvignon Blanc, and a Pinot Noir. After the tasting, we headed outside to take in the beautiful surroundings.
Cloudy Bay Vineyards
Our final stop was Cloudy Bay Vineyards, one of the first wineries in the region. This was also a cellar door visit with all white wines and one Pinot Noir. The beam-ceilinged tasting room featured long tables surrounded by oak barrels. Outside, a patio and inviting the inviting grounds beyond offered serene views of the vineyards.
My Aha Moment
On the drive back to Picton, I had one of those “lightbulb” moments where a situation that feels a little off suddenly makes sense. Although the wine visits had been lovely and the hosts had been very gracious, I left both wineries feeling a little empty, as if something was missing. And then it hit me: Our day in Bordeaux with wine expert and wonderful guide Dewey Markham, Jr.
Dewey had prepared us for the typical Bordeaux wine visit that includes a walk through the vineyards and a tour of the vat house and barrel cellars before the actual tasting. He explained that growers are extremely proud of their vineyards and want guests to see where the grapes are grown and how they are vinified. I came away from those visits with a real sense of each vineyard, and two years later, I still remember what I experienced there. I missed that in Marlborough.
The other take-away from that day and the heart of Dewey’s message was that what matters most about wine is finding what you like, what you enjoy. The truth that I hated to admit was that I really didn’t care for the wines we had tasted. Although Herb and I prefer reds, we were both excited to see what the Marlborough region was all about. The wines we sampled in Marlborough were all very young and quite sweet. The Bordeaux vineyards we had visited – also as part of a group tour – all served a newer vintage first, followed by increasingly “better” vintages that crescendoed into a grand finale of the best wine at the end.
Here was another great gift of travel served up on a silver platter: Perspective. It wasn’t about comparing one place with another in a critical way, but understanding the differences that play into our expectations. Whether it’s wine or museums or amusement parks, we carry anticipation and expectation with us, even if it they are buried deep inside a long-ago memory. And in the end, I believe, our reactions are more about how an experience makes us feel than the actual experience itself.
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Later that afternoon, Herb and I walked from the ship to the town of Picton, population about 4,000. The town’s location at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound in the Marlborough Sounds makes it a popular destination for boat trips and water activities. That night we sailed through Queen Charlotte Sound, reaching the point where it spills into the sea just as the sun was setting. There had been no shortage of spectacular sunsets on this voyage through the waters of Australia and New Zealand. This time, in the Queen Charlotte Sound, the sky turned apricot.