Aotearoa: The Quest for the Kiwifruit Winery
After a fabulous, fun-filled time in Rotorua, it was time to head back towards Auckland. My friend and travel companion, The Lawyer Formerly Known as Sarah, had to leave (sigh!), and My Boy, a.k.a. The One And Only, was arriving (yay!). So, bidding the steam vents and bubbling pools a fond adieu, we hit the road, planning one more stop, in Tauranga. (Not Turangi, but Tauranga.)
Now, Tauranga, as we discovered, has little more to recommend it than its location halfway between Auckland and Rotorua, and at the beginning of the Coromandel Peninsula. The Coromandel is supposed to be breathtaking, but we didn't have the time to see it on this trip. TLFKAS and I agreed that it's better not to try and see everything - and miss some great things - than to see everything at such a breakneck pace that you get home and can't recall which pictures came from which town. As it turned out, the weather wasn't great, either, and most of what the Coromandel has to offer is outside, so it was just as well we were up for being indoors. The city itself seemed to be a utilitarian minor port town, with neither interesting architecture nor interesting activities. Tauranga is also the center of kiwifruit country, and our hostel was full of fruit pickers - young travelers from various parts of the world. Fruit picking is not a particularly well paid position, but it's one of the few things you can do here where employers don't require a work permit, so it's particularly popular among travelers wanting to pick up a few bucks. It's hard work, though, and long hours for small pay, so I'm unclear on why this line of work is attractive to folks from, say, Taiwan or Japan. But it was, and it seemed to work for them.
Aside from being kiwifruit country, Tauranga also lies close to a couple wineries - Morton Estate and Mills Reef Winery. Both offer free tastings, so a good time was had by all. According to a pamphlet we'd picked up in Wanganui, there was also a kiwifruit winery nearby, which sounded intriguing. So we spent the better part of a day checking out the two regular wineries, and about half the next morning searching for the kiwifruit winery.
But we could not for the life of us find the kiwifruit winery. There was a small but poorly labeled map on the pamphlet, and we followed it as closely as it is possible to follow a map that looks like it was originally sketched on a cocktail napkin after a rough night, but to no avail. We ended up on a very rural road with nothing around that looked remotely like a kiwifruit winery supposedly open to the public. After driving up and down the road - and then up and down again - it was time to admit the map was leading us astray, and ask for directions. We asked at a local grocery store, and the woman minding the counter said that yes, there had been a winery there once, but it had moved after being taken over by Mills Reef.
That's odd, we thought to ourselves; we were at the Mills Reef winery yesterday, and we saw neither hide nor hair of a kiwifruit anywhere. In an effort at confirmation, we stopped at the next store down the road, and heard the same story there; the kiwifruit winery had been moved to Mills Reef. As we weren't too far away from Mills Reef, we decided to go back and see if somehow we'd missed the kiwifruit.
We got to the winery and looked around, but nothing indicated any association with kiwifruit. All signs pointed to 'No,' but since we'd come that far, we decided to ask. Feeling somewhat silly, we inquired of the woman at the tasting bar whether they, in fact, also made kiwifruit wines.
"Really?" we asked, shocked and amazed at having finally found the kiwifruit winery.
"Well, yes," she said, almost apologetically. "But we don't like to advertise it, you know, and we don't have any available for tasting."
Our faces fell. No tastings?
"I can sell it to you, though." She pulled a bottle of kiwifruit wine out from under the counter, as if ready to make an illicit deal.
"No tastings?" We, like most of the world's population, had never tried kiwifruit wine, and had assumed that whoever was selling these wines would naturally have some available to try. After all, it could suck; how else would you know if you wanted to buy a whole bottle?
"No. No tastings."
"But..." TLFKAS in a brilliant move (she's not a lawyer for nothin'!) pointed out, "But we have this brochure, and it says here you do tastings! Of the kiwifruit wine!" Things were looking up, we thought...
The woman frowned at the brochure. "Where did you get this?"
"Wanganui. The Visitors' Centre."
"Well," she shook her head, "It's over five years old. This location closed in 1996. I don't know why they still have the brochures, but all of that information is incorrect."
We were appalled. "We spent the whole morning driving around - we went up to this place..." In the hope that she might take pity on us and open a tiny bottle of kiwi wine for us to try, we explained our morning's quest to the woman, adding (somewhat subtly) that we'd bought several bottles of wine here yesterday after the tasting, so she wouldn't think we were simply kiwifruit wine freeloaders.
She was singularly unimpressed. She took down the name of the visitors' center where we got the brochure and said she'd look into it, and did we want to buy a bottle of the wine?
We started to reiterate the sorrowful story of the long quest for the winery, and expressed our reservations about buying wine we'd never tasted, in the hopes that her heart of stone might melt. I mean, opening one bottle of kiwifruit wine: would it kill her?
Apparently, yes, it would. There was no offer, in spite of the pamphlets and the hours-long quest, to provide us with a taste of anything kiwi-related.
Having come so far, it seemed a shame not to buy the wine, now that it had been shown to us from under the counter; but we'd come this far for a tasting, which we couldn't get, and so we still didn't know what it tasted like. Plus, in some strange way, there was the principle of the thing. The woman was just too hard-hearted, not to mention ashamed of the kiwifruit wine, to buy from. And so we decided, with heavy hearts, to forego the wine itself.
By a stroke of luck, however, we had another brochure for Prenzel's, a distillery that advertised fruit liqueurs and other tasty beverages, with tastings. Distrustful now, we called them, and they assured us that they were still where they were supposed to be, and they were open and happy to help us with tastings. And help they did. Upon hearing of our futile quest and the response we'd gotten at the winery, the woman was appalled. "Well, you won't have that happen to you here! Not opening a bottle indeed, after all that? She should've just let you taste! Well, you know," she lowered her voice to us, "They've just been putting on airs over there ever since they moved..." She ducked under the counter for her tasting bottles, and came up with full hands. "Here. You look like you should try a butterscotch cream schnapps, yes?"
We did indeed. We tried the butterscotch schnapps with cream, the Chocomulu chocolate liqueur with peppermint, the lemon twist, the honey liqueur (I had to buy it), various dry distillations of fruit - all really fantastic and decadent. Best of all we got to try a kiwifruit schnapps, just now distilled, being sent up to the bottlers that very day. Wow, that was some good stuff. I love a good dry fruit schnappps, like Kirschwasser or Pere William, and this was definitely up there in the top ten I've tried. I couldn't buy any, because it hadn't been bottled yet - she was serving it out of an old milk container, after all! - but at least I could taste it and hope for the future!
The woman at Prenzel's truly brought us out of our kiwi wine slump. She was our knight in shining armor. She took the brochure and decided to call the Wanganui Visitor's Center herself, even though it really wasn't her problem, because things like this just shouldn't be happening. She was quite genuine in her solicitousness, and she plied us with liqueurs and fabulous olive oils and vinaigrettes, showing us that really, it's not about kiwifruit wine itself, it's about tasting new beverages, and there are plenty out there in the world. And we agreed, chatting with her about everything, and eventually, because they were so damn good, ended up buying a good many of the products she had on offer anyway. (And yet, from her attitude, it was clear that she wasn't necessarily expecting us to buy. She wanted us to feel better about the area, and so she was being very kind; it wasn't about getting us to buy stuff.)
So we didn't end up in a kiwifruit winery, but we tasted kiwi schnapps and honey liqueur and fabulous avocado vinaigrettte and more, and it ended up just as good, if not better. The moral of the story? Just start off at Prenzel's. Your day will go better. And the people working there are much friendlier than at Mills Reef!
8. August 2003
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