Bales and Bottles in The Land of the Long White Cloud
It is December. Lenticular white clouds with dark gray undersides cross the sky, looking like whales. Nettie Barrow and Jane Craighead run the Straw Lodge in Marlborough, New Zealand. Nettie’s husband Bill assists with grape growing and construction. They created the frame using steel and used straw bales to form the inner walls. We sit in deep couches in the living room with thick walls – and listen to the BBC radio World Service News. This sitting room is part of the owner’s home but also forms a living room for guests.
Nettie takes minutes to sit in a comfortable chair to speak. She wears an apron. She shows a photo album that documents construction of their lodge. Photographs show the curved metal superstructure, as well as hay bales being brought in and assembled as walls. The roof of the lodge resembles a bonnet.
Outside, harrier hawks and falcons fly above the 22 hectares (54 acres) of land where they grow Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
“The combination of wine and accommodation is a perfect marriage.
“Bill and I were at this crossroads with our business. It was his desire to find a bit of land. There were family reasons, traditional reasons. It was a huge mid-life crisis for us all. The three of us, we knew it was going to work well.
“That’s how it started. We all came up here. It’s just grown. It’s great. We have a passion for this place. It’s a lovely, lovely place. It’s a joy to be able to share that.
“Straw creates a wonderful living environment. You can use straw as load bearing. We’ve used it for infill. It’s superb. So warm, moderating. It’s living, breathing, and aesthetically wonderful. It’s the external walls where you need insulation that we’ve actually used the straw. Environmentally, you’re using a waste product.
“The council has a specification of what are B&B is. That’s five people. That’s nice. Keeps it intimate. People don’t want to come to a crowded place. Gives people space.
“You have to people oriented. Otherwise it would not work. Marlborough is synonymous with good wine and that is the draw card for most. It is quite a charm to be able to drink the wine and live amongst the vines where it’s coming from. For me that’s a very important thing to offer people.
“We are getting to where we want to be – running a truly sustainable accommodation business, an organic vineyard and now having our own wine label. The Straw Lodge Estate is located here in our organic vineyard in the Wairau Valley wine region. Long dry summers and cool nights create ideal conditions for producing Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
“This year sees the beginning of our new label ‘Worlds End Wines’ with the release of the first ‘Worlds End Sauvignon Blanc’. The label name has grown from a number of influences – shaped by the importance of a ‘sense of place,’ of people and environment. Also by our guests’ expressions of delight at feeling they have come as far from clutter, pollution and excesses to the end of the world, and to a very special place in our heart.
“People do come here for the wine, for the environment. The straw bale building is a draw card. We’re we’re getting people of a similar ilk. A bit of a free spirit. They’re looking for a bit more, something that’s engaging. We want to give people that whole experience.”
It’s an interesting community because the industry has brought people from all over. Huge input. Americans, Germans, French, French Canadians, Swiss influence. That’s lovely. Quite a mix. Tomorrow morning Bill and I are going over to Clos Henri Vineyard. We’re invited to go there at planting time, bring a spade, plant a vine. They have a party and the accordion and French champagne. Tomorrow they’re having a little seminar on the growing of Sauvignon, because they grow it in France, they grow it here. They’re passionate about what they’re doing.
One of the things I love is that physicality and being so in touch with the seasons, controlled by them really. Physically very demanding. You get one huge job done, turn around and there’s another one waiting.
It’s a lovely climate and a lovely place to live. When we planted here ten years ago, they said we’re far too far out; that it’s too cold and too marginal. Now, they call us wine growers.