I was tipped off on the special qualities of Ata Rangi in a 2004 issue of Wine Country Cuisine magazine. Reading about Clive Paton and Ata Rangi winery stuck to my memory like a fruit fly on fly tape. It would take more than 11 years for me to investigate this pocket of New Zealand’s wine paradise in person. Ata Rangi translates from Maori as “new beginning, or dawn sky” and I was excited for my new beginning of wine exploration in Martinborough.

The long wait was worth it. My wife and I visited in December of 2015, trading early winter in Baltimore for early summer in New Zealand. As we crested the thickly forested Rimutaka Range and began an almost endless course of hairpin curves downward, wine was on our minds. After piloting our car safely to the bottom of this memorable roadway, we drove through Featherston onward to our objective. Ten minutes later, I pulled over and gazed upon miles of green pastures and a few far-off vineyards. Cows grazed contentedly, oblivious to the grapes and wine the area is famous for.

Ata Rangi. Highway overlook above Martinborough (c) Kurt Jacobson. FWT Magazine.

Highway overlook above Martinborough (c) Kurt Jacobson. FWT Magazine.

We came for the increasingly touted pinot noir and farm-to-table food in this lesser known wine region. Avoiding the media-hogging wine regions of Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough, and Otago suited me just right. If I wanted that much hype, I’d go to Napa. I was searching for the best wine in a laid back atmosphere. As we pulled into Martinborough I could tell it was the home of Laid Back. The local information center is one of the first buildings people find when arriving from the west. We popped in and looked around the stacks of brochures to see if anything of interest was missed in our internet research. We picked up some tips on what to see, and the clean restrooms were a bonus before setting off on our adventure.

In the middle of it all

Our first stop was Aylstone Boutique Cottages to check in and drop off our baggage. These cottages are on the edge of a vineyard and within walking distance to multiple wineries, including Ata Rangi. We admired the view of the vineyard next door from our private backyard as we made plans to sip wine and watch the sunset later.

Ata Rangi: One Of New Zealand’s Best Wineries

Ata Rangi Winery, Wairarapa, New Zealand (c) Kurt Jacobson. FWT Magazine.

Martinborough is part of the Wairarapa wine region and has around 18 wineries of note.  It’s a compact wine region with many of the wineries accessible in a day by car or bicycle. At Aylstone we could easily get to more than ten wineries on foot without breaking a sweat.

Baby grapes in Martinborough

Baby grapes in Martinborough, Wairarapa, New Zealand (c) Kurt Jacobson. FWT Magazine.

The interview I had scheduled with Ata Rangi’s owner and founder, Clive Paton, was sure to be a highlight of the trip. I was thrilled he was available. After all, I was a new food, wine, and travel writer with a mere five or so published articles at the time. New Zealanders (Kiwis) are an unpretentious bunch, a fact I had appreciated from my first of eight visits. They don’t pay much attention to your record of fame and fortune.

Meeting the owner of Ata Rangi

Passing fields of vines to Ata Rangi as I walked the country road, I could indulge in wine tasting without the worry of driving. Upon arrival, I surveyed the tasting room and noted how its simple elegance shined. On the back wall was a real vine, gnarly brown roots and all, attached to the wall under the words Ata Rangi Martinborough. This is a perfect adornment for the room. Clive Paton met me shortly after my arrival, and we entered a small room behind the vine on the wall for our interview.

Ata Rangi: One Of New Zealand’s Best Wineries

Inside Ata Rangi cellar door (c) Kurt Jacobson. FWT Magazine.

When I asked Clive how his winemaking journey began, he said, “I found myself a single dad and needed to do something more exciting than milking cows to make a living. I moved to Martinborough in 1980 following the publication of a soil and climate report that identified the small region as having significant potential for viticulture, and pinot noir in particular. I sold my cows in exchange for a dry, barren, stony sheep paddock of just 12 acres and began digging in posts and planting vines. Six years later, and already having achieved gold medal success, I was joined by my partner Phyll. By 1995 we had won the first of three IWSC (International Wine and Spirit Competition) trophies for pinot noir.”

Ata Rangi cottage

Ata Rangi cottage (c) Kurt Jacobson. FWT Magazine.

Through years of hard work, Clive eventually became one of the most respected vintners in New Zealand. Now, winemaker Helen Masters continues to build on Ata Rangi’s reputation. With some of the highest rated pinot noir in New Zealand, Helen is clearly doing a fantastic job.

Ata Rangi: One Of New Zealand’s Best Wineries

The author with Clive Paton, photo courtesy of Ata Rangi. FWT Magazine.

Clive’s passion goes beyond winemaking. He told me he was buying what would probably be his last mountain bike. He still loves to get out and ride New Zealand’s spectacular trails the country has in abundance. Clive is also keenly interested in restoring the environment. He has his own “bush block” where he is restoring the plot back to its natural splendor. Other projects include a board position on the Pukaha Mount Bruce Bird Sanctuary near Masterton.

Clive is also a passionate supporter of Project Crimson, the move to restore the Pohutakawa and Rata trees to New Zealand’s ecosystems. Pohutakawa are magnificent trees. They were dubbed Christmas trees by Captain Cook due to their bright red blooms abundant around Christmas time. In 2012, Clive was received by the Governor-General as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his contribution to viticulture and conservation in New Zealand.

If you have at least a day to spare and make it over to Martinborough, it will be time well spent. The flashy wine regions to the north and south can wait while you plot your own “new beginning” at Ata Rangi.

Ata Rangi: One Of New Zealand’s Best Wineries

Country scene near Ata Rangi (c) Kurt Jacobson. FWT Magazine.

If you go to Ata Rangi

For directions and cellar door hours, visit Ata Rangi’s website.

Aylstone Retreat puts you in the middle of Martinborough’s wine country. For rates, availability and directions, visit its website.

New Zealand has visitor information centers (called iSite) in nearly every town worth visiting. Martinborough and the Wairarapa region have many attractions and events. Find them at Wairarapa iSite.