The first time Steve Harrop drove the road between the braided Waitaki River and Elephant Hill in North Otago’s wild and sparsely populated Waitaki Valley, he knew he wanted to live there. He was on his way to check out a job developing vineyards with Otago Station Estates and he called his wife, Fenella Barry, to say he was so amazed by the landscape he’d already decided to take the position.
After nearly 10 years working in Europe and Hong Kong, the couple had two young children and were ready to return to New Zealand.
“Do you come back to New Zealand and live in a city after so much time in Europe and Asia?” Steve wonders. “We love the wide open spaces here and the smaller class sizes for the girls. We’re not here for the sophistication but for a caring community. If you’ve got a decent coffee machine, a wine cellar, a fridge full of Emerson’s [Dunedin beer] and better food than anywhere else, you’re set.”
The couple saw the area’s enormous potential. While Steve was managing the development of the vineyards, Fenella, amazed at the variety and quality of the local produce, set out to market it. Within a year of arriving in 2003 she had mounted the first of two Taste Waitaki expos. The second, in 2006, was a two-day event that featured New Zealand-born Peter Gordon, who co-owns a Waitaki vineyard, as guest chef. It drew 550 people, including lifestyle magazine editors and writers from all over the country. Suddenly everyone was talking about the Waitaki’s food and wine, art and music.
Fenella and Steve have always thrown themselves into new ventures. Friends since university days, they went their separate ways for some years. Fenella worked as an environmental lobbyist in Australia while Steve made a name as a musician in New Zealand – most notably as a member of bands Freebass and Straw-people – and built up a specialist bakery, Threshermans, in Auckland’s Karangahape Road. The couple married in their late 20s and took off on what Fenella calls the longest honeymoon on record.
“When we were in London I answered an ad in Time Out magazine and started work as the cook at Ardverikie.”
Ardverikie is a 45-room castle in the Scottish Highlands that was the set for the television series Monarch of the Glen.
“Steve’s mother sent me a copy of the Penguin Guide to Game and I asked my mother to send a copy of the Edmonds Cookery Book.” And on that basis Fenella launched herself into a career as a cook and caterer. Steve, who can take on anything that interests him, according to Fenella, handled the butchering. They spent the summers in the Scottish Highlands, rode a tandem bike through Europe in the autumn and ran chalets in the Alps in the winters. Spring was spent in Paris, where Fenella continued as a caterer and Steve played music.
In 1999, when their first daughter Madeleine was born, the travel hand-brake was applied. Steve bought a suit and took a job in an investment bank.
Hong Kong called in 2001: Fenella worked in sports marketing and Steve in financial publishing, and both carried on in the hospitality and music industries. Then came the choice – stay in Hong Kong or move to the Waitaki Valley.
The choice was made and they bought 6ha at the end of a long shingle road. It came with a modest weatherboard farmhouse and a separate “fale” (the original shearers’ quarters). Together with the late Colin Dorsey, a highly regarded draughtsman as well as an author and musician in Oamaru, they designed the house they wanted.
It is now an L-shaped dwelling with a new dining room, bedroom and bath-room bridging the space between the original house and the “fale”, which became the second bedroom in the lodge wing. The lodge was designed to accommodate friends and paying guests at their 3ha vineyard, which produces their own label, Sublime Wine. “The lodge gives people a reason to come here,” says Steve. “Not just for the wine but for the fishing and tramping. We’ll get the tennis court going, maybe horses.
“Colin designed the roof line to match the original farmhouse and we had the weatherboards milled to a profile almost identical to the original. Our friend Austin McMillan, a builder in Oamaru, did the finishing work inside.”
There’s a story behind everything in the house. Confirmed conservationists, Fenella and Steve haunt opportunity shops, demolition yards, second-hand dealers and TradeMe. They describe their decorating style as “op shopulent”.
Some larger furniture pieces were shipped from France and Hong Kong: the informal dining table, an art deco sideboard and a table in the sitting room. Windows, floorboards, internal doors and the six sets of French doors that open to the new verandah once graced other homes and businesses.
Fenella can cook and bake just about anything to perfection in the Aga stove, which came from the workingmen’s club in Papakura, Auckland. It’s used only in the colder months because it pumps out too much heat for the long, dry summers.
With the help of Oamaru’s artisan electrician, Graeme “Clarkie the Sparkie” Clark, they designed and assembled the three huge light fittings in the lodge dining room from copper jelly moulds, plough discs, metal poles and heavy glass globes found at the Waitaki Resource Recovery Park. Fenella bought the red and white 1950s lounge suite at a Waimate second-hand dealer and six-year-old Cassidhe uses weathered scales from Timaru Railway Station to stand on while she cleans her teeth.
With Steve now travelling often as an international wine marketer, Fenella runs their vineyards. They produce pinot gris and pinot noir wines under their Sublime Wine label, both made in Wanaka at Maude Wines, and a sparkling wine will be available in 2014. Fenella follows the French viticulture model where each of the 8000 plants is handled five or six times in the season and she maintains very low cropping levels.
“The less fruit you grow on the vines the more intense the flavour,” she explains. “The harvest is done with the help of friends and family. Occasionally guests come out and help. It’s hard work, but we’ve got an idyllic life and we’re here for the long haul, though we might have to reassess that when the girls go to high school.”
Story: NATHALIE BROWN
Photographs: GUY FREDERICK