One winery is seeking inspiration from the man who landscaped Hobbiton, at least three are opening new or refurbished tasting rooms and another is renovating a restaurant. It's all part of a plan to lure tourists to New Zealand's premier wine region.
Vignerons in the Marlborough region are on a building spree, adding infrastructure to help them leverage off record tourist arrivals. The aim is to turn winery visitors into life-long advocates of Kiwi vino.
Almost 612,000 foreigners visited New Zealand vineyards in the year through June, 11 percent more than a year earlier, and government figures show that wine buffs typically stay in the country longer and spend more.
"What's being offered by the vineyards has got slicker-the whole experience has got better," said Philip Green, owner of Appellation Central Wine Tours in Queenstown, a city famous for its adventure sports that's also a gateway to the nation's southernmost wineries. "There has been an increasing awareness of New Zealand as a wine and food destination."
While the focus will help wine exports reach a $2 billion target by 2020 from $1.57 billion in the year ended June, it may also be another fillip for tourism, which overtook dairy last year as New Zealand's biggest export industry.
New Zealand wine is among the most expensive in many overseas markets in terms of average price per bottle, which suggests those who drink it can also afford to be potential visitors, said Chris Yorke, global marketing director of New Zealand Winegrowers.
The industry body announced last week that it's compiling a database of wineries catering to tourists, supported by funding from Auckland International Airport.
Marlborough has 141 wineries, of which at least 35 have wine-tasting rooms, known locally as "cellar doors," that allow customers to sample and buy their produce.
"We are seeing a new generation of visitors who are looking for a differentiated and unique winery experience," said Mario Dussurget, hospitality manager at Cloudy Bay, the winery that was bought in 2003 by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world's biggest luxury-goods maker. "They have been to Bordeaux, maybe Napa, the Barossa Valley, and they want something unique from Cloudy Bay and New Zealand."
The 31-year-old winery, whose Sauvignon Blanc is one of New Zealand's most iconic wines, offers tastings alongside plates of local cheeses and oysters, plus lodge-style accommodation. "People come here having tried the wine abroad and want to see where it is made," Dussurget said in an email.
Less than a mile away, Jackson Estate has hired Brian Massey, who was greensmaster for the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy and helped to design the Hobbiton set that is now a tourist destination in its own right. He's advising on landscaping around the winery and cellar door it's building-the eighth new venue to open for Marlborough visitors in two years.
We are seeing a new generation of visitors who are looking for a differentiated and unique winery experience.
"Having a place will give us more of a home we can share with people," Managing Director Jeff Hart said from his office in Wellington, as he overlooks progress via a webcam.
At Wither Hills, owned by the local unit of Japanese brewer Kirin Holdings, a renovated restaurant is expected to be open in November. That follows restaurant upgrades at St Clair and Highfield Estate in 2015.
Near Cromwell, in the South Island's Central Otago region, visitors to Wild Earth Wines can sample local game and fish under trees on the banks of the Kawarau River. The popularity of the venue with Chinese tourists has prompted the owners to offer sweeter-styled red wines and noodle salads, said sales manager Wesley Quider, whose father started the vineyard in 1998.
"We're definitely noticing a big increase in tourism, especially with the Chinese tour groups," Quider said, adding that the restaurant catered for as many as 250 guests a day last summer, compared with a peak of 150 two years earlier.
China is New Zealand's fastest-growing tourism market, with arrivals increasing 27 per cent to 397,000 in the year ended June 30. Still, the world's most-populous nation made up only 1.8 per cent of New Zealand's wine exports by value, compared with the US's 30 per cent share.
We're definitely noticing a big increase in tourism, especially with the Chinese tour groups.
"Given the growing popularity of wine among the middle class in China, there is an opportunity to attract Chinese consumers to visit New Zealand vineyards," said Tim Foulds, head of Australasian research with Euromonitor International.
Not all wineries see the value in targeting tourists. Constellation Brands closed its Marlborough tasting room earlier this year, preferring to use the space as part of a $50 million expansion of its production facilities, said New Zealand managing director Simon Towns. The focus will instead be to host tastings for distribution partners and key wine writers at its Kim Crawford vineyard.
"It seems more authentic rather than being back at the winery, so there's a greater connection to the brand," he said, adding that Constellation's strategy shouldn't detract from the benefits of wine tourism, and he wouldn't rule out reopening a tasting room in the future.
At Two Paddocks, the Central Otago winery owned by actor Sam Neill, star of "Jurassic Park" and "The Hunt for Red October," the cellar door is open for tastings by appointment only. The business wants to grow membership of its wine club and reward those supporters with the opportunity to visit the winery and the attached farm where they can stroll among Neill's collection of outdoor sculptures, said manager Jacqui Murphy.
"We'd love to be open to all the public seven days a week, but from a business viability perspective we've had to keep it quite reined in," she said. "We won't survive if we have streams of people coming in but they only buy a bottle of entry level Pinot Noir and say thanks very much."