New Zealand Diary: Hitting the town with Marcia Gagliardi

San Francisco native Marcia Gagliardi, founder of the Bay Area’s popular Tablehopper restaurant review site, was invited to New Zealand by trade organisations in advance of the next America’s Cup yachting challenge that will be hosted in San Francisco from July through September of this year.

New Zealand is a big competitor in the America’s Cup, and a number of New Zealand wineries, chefs and food producers will be visiting San Francisco this summer to participate in pop-up shops, culinary demonstrations, international wine tastings and food expos. Gagliardi’s job, as far as I could understand it, was to come here and survey the food and wine scene, then return to San Fran and write about it for her 20,000+ subscribers, giving them advance notice on what to look for (and hopefully sample) when the New Zealand contingent arrives in the US this summer.

The San Francisco Tablehopper - Marcia Gagliardi
Marcia sits down for a degustation experience at Auckland’s Sidart restaurant

*NOTE: It also doesn’t hurt that San Francisco boasts one of the few direct flights from the US to New Zealand, so it was definitely a savvy marketing move to invite a San Fran food & travel writer to chat up the country’s food and wine to an audience that can potentially wing it on over.

Marcia was introduced to me via email by her good friend Basil Racuk, whom I interviewed for a two-part artisan series back in 2010 (Part 1 and Part 2). He thought she might enjoy palling around with a non-industry / non-PR person for a moment or two during her whirlwind weeklong trek through New Zealand, and that I might enjoy seeing my home city of Auckland through fresh food-lovin’ eyes.

He was correct on both counts.

Marcia takes notes from Chris Canning
Marcia gets the scoop on Waiheke Island novelist and winemaker Chris Canning of The Hay Paddock

First, I have to say that while being a food & travel writer sounds like it may potentially be a breeze of an occupation, Gagliardi is hard at work from the crack of the early breakfast hours to the dimly lit clock of late-night drinking and appetisers. There isn’t a moment when she’s not pulling out her camera, jotting down notes, asking waiters to repeat the information so she can get it right, audio recording her impressions, interviewing chefs and managers, Instagramming, Facebooking, Tweeting, calling, texting, event coordinating, schedule managing, ay yi yi.

She whipped out her crammed-to-the-minute New Zealand itinerary for me to see, and it was a thick sheaf of papers outlining a non-stop barnstorm across the country to meet with wine growers and makers, salmon processors, sheep and deer farmers, resort and hotel managers, chef/restaurant owners and the Emirates Team New Zealand.

All I can say is, thank god she gets to sit down and have a drink with some of these people, because I needed a hot foot-soak and a long nap after just reading her schedule.

The Oyster Inn on Waiheke Island
Marcia doing her thing at Waiheke Island’s Oyster Inn

*NOTE 2: Moments like this also help — yes, that’s really us chugging a bottle of Chris Canning’s visionary Hay Paddock syrah on the warm, breezy ferry ride back to Auckland from Waiheke Island. Life has its lovely moments, and that was certainly one of them.

While Marcia was in Auckland for a few brief days before heading out into the rest of New Zealand, she tried to take in as much of the local food culture as possible. I didn’t go with her everywhere, but I did accompany her to a tantalisingly inventive dinner at Sidart on Saturday, a bang-up contemporary foodfest at Clooney on Sunday evening, and then a Monday jaunt to Waiheke Island which is only a beautiful thirty minute ferry ride from central Auckland (so why don’t I go more often?!!).

Our Monday tour was the big start to her official itinerary, and we wheeled our way through a wine tasting with Hay Paddock winegrower and maker Chris Canning, a very quick (and unscheduled) chat with Casita Miro owner Cat Vosper, glasses of New Zealand sparkling wine and a plate of pre-lunch oysters on the charmingly sun-drenched deck of casual eatery The Oyster Inn, a dream of a wine-tasting and lunch at Cable Bay Vineyards (that place was gorgeous, not to mention that our hosts Loukas Petrou and Neill Culley were amiable and chatty, and we departed Cable Bay deeply impressed with their food, wine and creative passion), topped off with a wine-tasting at the more mainstream Mudbrick Vineyards.

Food and wine at Cable Bay Vineyards
Fine food and even finer wines at Cable Bay Vineyards

We then grabbed the ferry back to Auckland and hit two new central Auckland hotspots, Ortolana and Depot Eatery. By then, I was feeling pretty toasty and tipsy, but let me tell you, there wasn’t a single moment where Marcia wasn’t still at the top of her game — jotting notes about ingredients, comparing and contrasting the local beer and wine, taking pictures for Instagram, handing out business cards, collecting contact information, and hitting up the waitstaff for their suggestions of other Auckland hotspots she can tell her readers about.

Whoever made the brilliant decision to invite Marcia to New Zealand, he/she deserves a raise.

You can find a more extensive collection of pictures from my time with Marcia at Flickr here: Marcia Gagliardi tablehops in Auckland & Waiheke

*NOTE 3: The one restaurant we hit together that I didn’t get any pictures of/from is Clooney (their sugar-cured ostrich entree was a revelation). Clooney is notorious for its dimly lit interior space (e.g. halfway through the meal, I had to pass the wine list to Marcia because I couldn’t read it — yes, I’m older than their young-money target demographic, but still) and it started to rain outside right before I left the house, so I made the snap decision to keep the camera at home. I regret that decision now, but at the moment, I thought I was being smart.