It seems hard to believe now but just 30 years ago wine was small business on Waiheke.

When brothers John and Paul Dunleavy bought 12ha of farmland in 1988, there were just two wineries on the island — Goldwater and Stonyridge. The latter had only been in existence since 1988, the former was the pioneering vineyard on the island, established in the 1970s.

But the Dunleavys saw something special in this block of land in the Onetangi Valley and now, almost 30 years on, they have been proven correct. Te Motu is one of Waiheke's highly acclaimed vineyards producing world-class wines.

At the time, their vision probably seemed an insurmountable task. John and Paul had little winemaking experience, but dad Terry soon joined his sons in the business.

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A former journalist and editor of the Samoa Times, Terry had worked at Montana (as it was known then), became the inaugural CEO of the NZ Wine Institute and headed New Zealand's first export initiative. John, now the chief viticulturist and winemaker, was a builder and teacher by trade and had to learn on the job.

The first vines were planted on the Dunleavys' new land in 1989 — cabernet sauvignon, malbec and cabernet franc.

Waiheke's microclimate is ideal for these Bordeaux-style grapes — hot summer days, cooler evenings and fresh sea breezes. At Te Motu, the gentle undulation of the land helps too, as does the fact the north-facing property gets all-day sun.

The view from The Winemakers Loft.
The view from The Winemakers Loft.

The conditions were right for growing and the setting was perfect for John to establish the Dunleavys' new family home. He called on his building skills and turned the old goat shed and shearers' quarters into their house.

The first vintage was produced in 1993; the first wine ever bottled still sits, unopened, on the mantelpiece. Not long after, the accolades began to flow — in 1994, Te Motu's second vintage won a gold medal at the International Wine Awards.

These days, Te Motu, which translates as "the island", is a winery that wows. Set down a long driveway along the valley from Stonyridge, the views are spectacular and the setting full of rustic charm. The repurposed old farm buildings blend seamlessly into the natural environment, and it feels very homely.

Everything you see around the property is likely to have been created by John - from the houses to the tables. He turned the old family home into the commercial Cellar Door, where visitors now flock to try Te Motu's wines. When the family decided they would start serving food, John got the hammer out again and turned the old tractor shed and smoko room into what is now award-winning restaurant The Shed.

We sampled the acclaimed food for ourselves at Te Motu's 2012 Vintage Release Dinner, a celebratory affair with some of the Dunleavys' Waiheke contemporaries, friends, family and invited guests. Around the two large shared tables we were in good company — across the table from me was Kiwi celebrity chef Mike van de Elzen; next to my partner was Daniel Schuster, one of the pioneers of the Kiwi wine industry and a man who has consulted on vineyards belonging to everyone from Martin Scorsese to Ronnie Wood.

While we enjoyed hearty food from executive chef Bronwen Laight and outstanding wines from Te Motu's new release 2012 range, Schuster — who must be in his 70s but still has a twinkle in his eye — regaled us with tales of his escapades with his famous friends. We were charmed.

Leaving Te Motu on a high, our home for the weekend was The Winemakers Loft, a luxury private accommodation next door to Cable Bay vineyard. The stand-alone apartment sits proudly in the middle of fields of grapes, with the hills rolling beautifully down to the coastline and Matiatia Bay below. Getting home from dinner, I sat in the lounge in the dark, looking back to the city and the lights of the Sky Tower, reflecting on the beautiful dinner and the connective power sharing wine and food can bring.

We tried our best to blow away the cobwebs the next morning with a good walk on the Headlands section of the island's excellent Te Ara Hura walkway.

We made our way down the pathway towards Matiatia ferry terminal, then looped back around the coastal track to Cable Bay itself, past multimillion-dollar clifftop homes, through rolling valleys and shady bush tracks.

John and Sam Dunleavy.
John and Sam Dunleavy.

Te Ara Hura makes its way across the entire island, a great walk we'll be returning to when we can, to explore Waiheke's parts unknown. Because, as we discovered, the island isn't just about wine. It's also about incredible scenery, impressive history, family and friends.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Te Motu is on Onetangi Rd, about 20 minutes' drive from Matiatia Wharf.

Staying there: The Winemakers Loft is a self-contained boutique accommodation in Church Bay, Oneroa, five minutes' drive from the ferry terminal.

Walking there: Te Ara Hura is a 100km continuous walking route linking the best tracks around Waiheke Island.

*****

Catch the hilarious new comedy Waiheke Republic on WatchMe.co.nz. The short episodes make it a perfect watch on the train or when you need a break from emails.

The comedy follows the citizens of Waiheke, who upon discovering their votes were not counted in the last general election, and the Government's disinterest in righting that wrong, have to band together to declare Independence. The tiny island paradise must now face the realities and suffer the growing pains of being a new nation state in hostile waters.