Wine Country (plus some beer, mead and horse betting)

A couple on their way to Christchurch dropped me off at the McDonalds in Blenheim, this had become my standard stop throughout New Zealand when I needed to get on the internet. I was hoping to have a message back from some couchsurfers in town about a place to stay the night, but they hadn't yet sent me their address.

As it got later I decided I'd need to find a place to camp the night, looking at the map I saw some coastline just north that might be nice. I started walking up the road headed for Picton, eventually getting picked up by a girl with her mom who was visiting her in the country. I was enjoying the conversation and let my turn off fly by, so wound up in Picton with them. They tossed me some ice cold lemonade and granola bars and took me to the west end of town so I could hitch the coast from that direction.

A boat builder around my age picked me up, just heading to the next small town. I told him I'd be looking for a place to camp, he said the park would probably be fine and that he'd of offered me a place to stay if it weren't for having flatmates that may not be into it. He drove off, I considered the park, but it was central in town and explicitly said no camping, there were really no trees and plenty of people about even though it was getting later.

I decided to start walking the windy road up into the cliffs and around the coast in hopes of catching one more ride or seeing a good spot along the way. It got dark quick, I wasn't seeing any great spots being that it was steep on both sides of the road, so just kept to walking. After a while I reached a sort of park with a trail out to a historic point. While not totally hidden, but mostly, I laid my sleeping bag out in the light misty rain that had started falling and passed out near some trees.

In the morning I got up and went to take a piss, there was a guy up the hill taking a photo of the sunrise with a tripod, he was gone the next time I looked up. I walked down the point and checked it out, a narrow strip of land heading into the bay that was apparently used as a strategic lookout and defense point way back when.

I stood by the side of the road up top hoping to catch a ride, someone who'd come to look at the point gave me a ride back into Picton after walking around. I was dropped at about the same spot I'd walked to when I'd gotten of the ferry a week ago, but this time I headed down the road toad for Blenheim instead of Nelson.

A kid was on his way to start university in Christchurch, he gave me a lift down to Blenheim to the same McDonalds for internet, still no email. I figured I'd try the wine tour thing again, back around Nelson it seemed like it all cost money, but maybe it would be different around here. At the information center they had a stack of maps with the wineries, the descriptions on the back showed at least a half dozen or so that explicitly said tastings were free, I circled the good ones and got to walking out of town.

About a block away from the edge of town, where the speed limit bumps up and the rolling fields of grapes begin, I saw a hitchhiker posted up thumbing down cars. He was picked up before I could even duck away to give him his space, then I was soon picked up as well. An Australian guy, who said he was in a hurry, took me straight to Cloudy Bay just down the road, first place on my list.

I walked down the long driveway, grapes on both sides of me as far as I could see. I stepped in the tasting room, a big beautiful room with a few people milling over their glasses, others on the lawn outside. "Care to do a tasting?", he was already grabbing me a glass. I threw my bag down and began taking sips of one wine and then another. I told the guy that beer was my thing, but was getting appreciate wine as well. He pointed me next door to Moa, the brewery amongst all these wineries.

I first went to the other winery across the street for a few different tastes, they charged me $2 which I didn't expect. I moved on to Moa, they charged as well, but it was beer, I was happy. Their beer seemed to try hard to be like wine, it was OK, I moved along after that and walked down the long road to the junction heading towards some more wineries on the list.

Some French guys picked me up, they were heading towards Nelson, but they ended up coming into the next winery with me for the round of free tasting, then dropping me off at the next one. They didn't come into that one, but it was a pretty good one called Farmington. It was just me, the woman pouring the tastes, and a couple who was doing a walking tour of the wineries, similar to my walking/hitchhiking tour. They circled some more on the map that they'd been to and knew were free.

I headed across the street after that to one called Forrest, they weren't far behind me. The guy working the pouring hooked me up, giving me more samples than the usual. A Canadian girl came in and was tasting too, it seemed the more people who came in, the more he felt he could get away with letting me try, sort of like I was joining these different groups.

I got along with the Canadian well, Jess was her name. We walked out at the same time as I mentioned I was going to try and go to Highfield Winery, it was the only one I'd heard about prior, a suggestion from a friend who'd been around, and it was getting late and I probably would only have time for one more before they all closed.

Jess gave me her number and said I could stay with her that night if I still hadn't heard back from the couchsurfing hosts, she'd booked a room late and there was only a two room suite available. She was on a bike and said she'd probably try to hit Highfield as well. She wheeled off and I hiked back up to the road and started thumbing. I caught a ride quickly from an older guy, then another and got to Highfield before they closed. The woman there pointed me to the tower, saying I should climb up and take a look before tasting.

It was a great view up there, grapes on top of grapes passing grapes in all directions, 360 degrees. Then, looking out, I saw Jess pedaling down the road then up the driveway, it made me smile.

I met her downstairs where she was heading for the bathroom with her hands out, sort of laughing, she'd taken a spill on the bike and scraped herself up a bit, one of the women there had given her some bandaids

When she was cleaned up, we got to tasting. The wine was great, after tasting the whole range Jess debated over which of two bottles she should buy, she settled on getting both. She'd been doing a good amount of tasting all over and had gotten several bottles already, mostly as gifts for people back home.

We walked out and I told her I'd meet her back in Renwick where she was staying, she told me the place and the unit number and was off. I got down to the road and got picked up quick again, a local guy who knew the place I was going to and dropped me off right there, I beat Jess once again, hitchhiking > bike.

I went with her to return her bike, she now had dinner on her mind and I was pretty hungry too. We settled on the place right next door, a relaxed spot where we got some beers and she opted for the green mussels she'd been hearing about.

We couldn't help but notice the horse racing on the TV, she said she'd bet on a horse a few weeks ago without much luck. After another beer, we were looking to place some bets. I put a dollar on a horse named Bold Joker to place, he did and paid more than 9 to 1. Some locals and the guy behind the counter were amused. I was talking a big game before the bet, mainly because I knew a horse with a name like that was a sure thing, but they were somehow surprised to see him pull through. The horse before him had won and I'd called that one too, but before putting any money down, his name was Disco Invasion.

I placed just a couple more bets and a horse named Tent Peg won for me too. When all was said and done and we were walking out of the place, I realized that on the day I'd drank heaps of wine, filled my belly with food and beer, was on my way to a comfortable place to sleep the night with a shower and had more money in my pocket than the days start. Life was good, Jess and I stayed up a while and broke into one of the bottles she'd bought to extend the night a bit more.

The next day we went to a couple more wineries quickly and Jess dropped me off back in Blenheim on her way up to Picton where she was catching the ferry. McDonalds, again, this time I had a message waiting for me with an address and a phone number. I found a phone and let the couchsurfers know I was on my way.

It was back in the direction I'd came from, I headed for the same spot where I'd seen the other hitchhiker at the speed limit change. I waited a decent while there this time, a bit uncharacteristic of what I'd experienced so far hitching in the country. Eventually I started walking and got picked up fairly quickly. The woman who picked me up actually even said, without my saying anything, "Sometimes people just stand there waiting, they usually don't get picked up, when someone's walking they get picked up pretty quick." Movement brings movement, so I've learned.

We made a quick stop at the butcher, then she dropped me off at a junction where I kept walking. I walked for a little while, I was fairly close to the house, but on a back country road without many cars. A pickup truck picked me up, an older guy who owned one of the bigger vineyards out there, he wasn't sure exactly where I was going, but we found our way there anyhow and he dropped me right at the house I was heading to.

Sarah was there, I talked with her a while and eventually Steve got back too. They were a couple from Hawaii here in New Zealand on working visas. Sarah worked at the Highfield Winery and Steve had been helping out at a couple breweries. They'd lucked out on the house, no rent on account of it technically being a house sitting gig. They had chickens too, I'd go out a few times hunting for a hidden egg stockpile that was apparently out there somewhere when they'd gone rouge for a week, I never found them.

We talked beer all night, mostly, Steve let me try some of the brews from his work, as well as some mead they'd made and we had a nice fish dinner, Sarah was a great cook.

The next day I was back on the wine trail, walking from their house and catching a ride along the way to the first stop. It was a small little room and I was the only one there, the guy seemed pretty busy too so I rushed through to let him get back to his wine making.

The next place was really good, a place called Mahi. It was just me and the woman pouring for a bit, then a tipsy guy from Boston came in with his motorcycle helmet came in, particularly asking for smaller pours so he wouldn't get drunk. As I left he shouted back, "Get back to America soon, we need more people to vote republican!", an interesting parting request.

I walked up the road a bit to a small place, there was a guy there who seemed like a pro taster. Swishing the wine in his mouth and making wispy snapping sounds with it, using all the lingo. The woman watched him after each sip with baited breath, her husband was interested in his opinion too, the couple owned the small place. He laid it out clear and honest, and for the most part was loving every drop. The pro's wife sat in the corner reading something, not bored, but not interested in this wine dissection either.

It all worked well for me, they broke out some specialty bottles as well as some of the newer stuff to further impress the pro, or get his opinion I suppose, and me being the only other person in there, well they had to include me in these special sips. I enjoyed it and moved on when it was time.

I walked a good ways towards the next place, as I got closer a car pulled over and let me in. It was a woman and her two daughters, both with wine glasses in their hands. The girl next to me passed me a bottle assuring me that I could drink straight from it. I got my swigs in, we drove past the winery I'd intended to go to and they dropped me at the next one. I'm not sure where they were going really, even though they had wine in hand the two daughters seemed surprised to hear that you could taste the wine at the wineries.

The sign where they dropped me off said there was a tasting fee, so I passed it up and turned around, heading on foot back for the place I'd originally intended to go. I had some good wine there, snagging some grapes off the vines on my way out for some extra flavor on my peanut butter sandwich. I hit a few more in walking distance after that, then caught a ride from a French couple to another a ways away, they came and tasted with me there, this one was called Fromm.

I walked to yet another one next. A few minutes in a couple girls walked in, it was the same mom and daughter who'd given me the ride up to Picton the other night. We talked and drank a bit, munching on some cheese as well, then I was on my way.

That was the last one, I hitched a ride from a guy who took me back to the house. It was another good night, Steve let me try some of his homebrew. Another couchsurfer came, an Italian who'd done quite a bit of brewing himself, so lots more beer talk and a big lamb dinner.

It had been a great trip through wine country, the next day I'd be looking to get on the road again, ideas of going south and back to the west coast. It would be another good trip with an unexpected pause with some interesting people along the way, good times in all directions.

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