Vineyard tales… from Clare Dunleavy on Waiheke Island

It’s high priced wines, real estate and journey to get there make Waiheke Island a highly sought after destination, an hour away from New Zealand’s biggest city, and one of New Zealand’s newest premium wine regions.

This new book delves into the people behind the wine – Waiheke Island, A World of Wine – The People Behind the Labels by Clare Dunleavy, with portraits by Marti Friedlander was published by Beatnik Publishing in Auckland,

Clare Dunleavy has lived on Waiheke since 1993 when she landed there on her return from living in Europe. This is her first book. These are her thoughts on its journey from her mind to the published page.

Clare’s wine story

“I first experienced Waiheke wine via my family’s vineyard Te Motu.  I worked on our vineyard doing everything from field grafting to pulling wires for a new block of Syrah we planted.  Harvest, pruning, bench grafting, planting, driving tractors et al were a great grounding on the land.

“I then started working in wine tourism on Waiheke and have worked in many of our vineyard restaurants and cellar doors.  I watched as the island’s vineyards grew around me.  I experienced over many years how our wines tasted, how they’re made, how they stood up against their competition.  I also worked in the wine trade, at The Fine Wine Delivery Company, so I was able to taste a broad spectrum of wines, both local and international, which helped me put everything into context.”

The lightbulb moment

“My lightbulb moment came in 2002 when my partner Denis gifted me Wine Pioneers of New Zealand, written by Dick Scott, with stunning portraits by Marti Friedlander.  It was a reprint. It was first published in 1964.  That same year I met Marti and her husband Gerrard.  They came to Waiheke annually for a summer holiday in January and ate at the vineyard restaurants.  I was working as wine waiter at Te Whau.  She walked up to me and asked me if she could photograph my eyes someday.  She told me I had the most beautiful green eyes.  I knew who she was, so I was both thrilled and dumbstruck that she asked me such a question.  I never followed up on her request, but I did bump into her over the years and when Denis gave me the book, we thought that maybe I could write a book about our Waiheke Island wine pioneers.  We let it germinate.

Many years later, tourism was growing and our wines were standing proudly on the international stage.  Across the board, quality levels were mostly great.  People were discovering and appreciating our wines and coming to find the source.  I rang Marti and eventually, we met up and immediately clicked.  She said she’d love to work on the project with me.  So – game on.  There was no going back.  I will never be able to repay Marti for the opportunity to have her beautiful and insightful portraits gaze out from the pages of my book.  She never saw the finished book, but her love and support was instrumental to the success of my writing and of the book.

How did you learn about wine

“I studied the Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications with Bob Campbell and Jane Skillton at Bob’s wine school in Devonport.  It was fabulous to have both a new and old take on wine via Jane and Bob.

“The biggest benefit from WSET are the many doors that open into the greater world of wine, which wasn’t so available on the shop shelf back then.  To taste and talk about regions and styles that I’d never heard of.  New Zealand did feel very far away from the centre of wine back then in 2002 or so.  I had fantastic mentors in Tony Forsyth at Te Whau and his in depth and incredible wine collection and also in Herb Friedli, a brilliant winemaker with a stunning wine collection, that he generously shared.  Drinking first growths or DRC or La Turque or Meursault Grand Cru etc, was such a revelation to me.  With this background I walked into the WSET classes and absorped the where, why, how, when and who of wine. It empowered me and gave me great confidence to stride into the wine trade and know what people were talking about.  This was before the advent of Google and instant knowledge via the web, a nd I still think  it is wonderful to have this qualification.

Today on Waiheke

“My day job now on Waiheke Island now is being cellar door manager at Tantalus – a newly opened and renovated restaurant and vineyard on the island.  It’s absolutely stunning and is a great asset, not only to Waiheke, but to New Zealand. Waiheke Island wine is all about premium wine on a beautiful island just a short ferry ride from central Auckland.

“I think our wines will continue to be tasted and understood.  We are very much our own appellation of wine production, like the Gimblett Gravels.  Our flavours and styles are growing in maturity and more vineyards have opened cellar doors so Waiheke wine sales via cellar doors are growing, and this connection is paramount to the success of Waiheke’s wines.

“Our successes are individual and as a collective.  The Waiheke Winegrowers Association works to market the island’s wines at events such as the annual Waiheke Wine Festival.”

Waiheke in context

“Waiheke Island winemakers shouldn’t be aiming for anything less than high quality, hand crafted wines.  You can’t enter this industry to make a $20 bottle of wine. Not if you have your own winery.  We cannot do large scale, so we must make quality or not bother.  We can’t afford to dabble.  Thankfully, some of our producers have dug into deep pockets to enable trial and error to occur, from which we’ve all learned hard lessons.  Man O’War is now a triumph, for example.

What we need going forward

“Waiheke as a wine-producing island probably could do with more advocacy from Tourism NZ and ATEED.  And if I start talking about how ridiculous our liquor licensing laws have become, totally crippling our ability to promote, taste and sell our products on ‘the Jesus days’, as I call them, I could go on for pages.  Something definitely has to change.  To try and explain to tourists that they cannot taste or buy our wines from our vineyards on Good Friday and other such days is crippling and actually makes us look stupid in their eyes.  It’s a total business disincentive and not at all a measure of fair trading, in my view.”

Buy the book

  • Waiheke Island, A World of Wine – The People Behind the Labels by Clare Dunleavy, with portraits by Marty Friedlander was published by Beatnik Publishing in Auckland,
  • Find out more by emailing:

Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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