Jesse Mulligan joins an annual celebration of good food and wine in beautiful surroundings.
The Dog Point picnic is an annual event that began informally 10 years ago when Al Brown threw together some local produce for a dozen or so staff members and their families. He returned the following year but by then word had started to get around, and within a few summers the number of picnickers had swelled to 200.
Brown is there in name only these days through his former restaurant Logan Brown, which still prepares and cooks all the food for a well-dressed crowd who lunch in the dappled shade of an olive grove on one of Marlborough's most respected wineries.
Ivan Sutherland and winemaker James Healy made their name during the early days of Cloudy Bay and, when that brand was sold to the French, struck out on a new venture, doing things their own way on a large patch of premium winegrowing land at the confluence of Brancott and Omaka Valleys.
A few years ago Ivan decided to switch to organic growing methods — a mammoth conversion into what, at 250ha, is now one of New Zealand's largest organic vineyards. It's the sort of decision you can make when personal satisfaction is as important as commercial imperatives and that ethos is visible throughout the business where, to be honest, the extended family could probably do without putting on a long lunch for 200 each February, but continue to do it because the social and hospitable aspects of the industry are just as important to them as the economic.
Guests arrive on buses and wander through bush to get to the picnic. On arrival, wait staff (mostly local mums volunteering in return for a donation to the school) pour from jeroboams of Champagne while visitors eat juicy paua fritters and crayfish served in lettuce cups dressed in Thai spices.
A gong rings and we sit down to generous platters of salmon served with the winery's house Sauvignon Blanc and their "Section 94", a Sauvignon made in a different style, with judicious use of oak and other winemaking techniques I don't quite understand, creating a wine that tastes closer to a fresh, acidic chardonnay.
The main course this year was a beautifully rare and tender venison rack, served with a potato mash I'm determined to recreate at home. Shaun Clouston, now executive chef at Logan Brown, smokes the milk before combining it in the mash, creating an incredible background flavour to each mouthful. It was served with the Dog Point pinot noir made with grapes grown on some of Marlborough's oldest vines.
Afterwards a generous cheese platter featured a selection from the embattled Kaikoura Cheese, a business which has suffered greatly in the aftermath of the earthquake. They're receiving great support from their neighbours in the Marlborough district including Liz Buttimore at Blenheim's top restaurant Arbour, who pitched in with this picnic and donates hours of each week selling cheese locally for the Kaikoura producer after their supply and distribution lines were cut off by the quake.
Lunch ends with chocolate truffles and a passionfruit icecream sandwich, then espresso and petanque for those energetic enough to stand and throw.
Around 5pm the buses arrive to take everyone home and the mood is of contented lethargy not the boozy chaos that can bubble up after an afternoon of drinking in the sun. Maybe we have the organic wine to thank for that.
Tickets to the picnic sell out within half an hour each year in November when they go up for grabs.
The regulars don't seem to mind a few North Islanders sharing in the spoils of their beautiful district, as long as they're prepared to do what the locals do — wear something a bit fancy and be willing to make some new friends.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Blenheim.
Further information: See dogpoint.co.nz.