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When I asked Brian Bicknell of Mahi to show me his place for this column, he suggested that instead of his house he’d like to show me his boat, a century-old kauri motor launch, Kereru. “The thing I like about it, it’s the same with wine. I love the history of it, the people who have been on it. I love the idea — and it’s sort of like the snail on our label — you can’t rush on this boat,” he says. He also appreciates the craftsmanship that went into building the boat. It reflects the name he chose for his wine, ‘Mahi’, which means ‘our work, our craft’.

Built about 1911 by Auckland shipbuilding firm Charles Bailey, the narrow, 35-foot motor launch caught his wife Nicola’s eye when they went to Picton to look at another boat about 12 years ago. “Nic looked across and said ‘that’s a nice one’. We liked the look of it, loved the history, and knew it would be good for our children, and it has been,” he said. Its sleek lines showed through the blue paint and all the stuff the previous owner, who was living on it, had stacked on it. “My father used to race on a Bailey yacht so I loved that it was built by Charles Bailey Jr. It just felt right,” he said.

Brian had grown up in Auckland sailing with his father and later racing with friends — which he still does — but he loves Kereru’s slowness and the relaxation it induces. “I would much rather have a boat than a bach. I don’t relax easily, and if I had a bach I’d be wanting to be doing stuff. In the boat I’ll do little things, but it doesn’t feel like work,” he said. Nevertheless, the Bicknells have done a lot of restoration work. Brian stripped the blue paint off and fixed a number of things but he loves the little decorative details and old bits and pieces, including the old switches, with one of their labels misspelled “naviagation”. “It feels a little bit like you are preserving part of New Zealand’s history,” he says. He is researching the boat’s history and is fascinated by a photograph of it taken in 1911. He is sleuthing the changes that have been made to it over the years.

Kereru was built for a Dr Henry Hay, who lived in Pigeon Bay on the northern side of Banks Peninsula, and delivered from Auckland by ship. He believes Dr Hay used it mainly for pleasure cruises round Banks Peninsula for some years, then it was sailed up to Marlborough for a new owner. Later it was bought by Roger Frazer, who now runs a little tourist steam ship in Picton. He did a lot of good work on it, including replacing the original 25hp diesel engine with an 80hp one before selling it on, according to Brian. It seems that, probably in the 1930s, the long, narrow cabin was widened and extended and its roof raised so you could stand up in it. This has left some useful cubbyholes for storage in the walls. Padded bench seats along the sides double as beds, and a table folds out between them. At the front of the cabin, on the left of the central engine locker, is the wheel and controls, and on the right the door to a small cabin under the long front deck with two bunks and a toilet beyond in the bow. At the back, near the entrance, are a sink, a cooker and cupboards. There is not a lot of space, but some has been found for a small wine cellar, and wine glasses hang from a wooden holder. “What I like about being on it, it feels like you’re camping, though I think Nic finds it frustrating sometimes,” he says. “It’s not like you jump on and there’s automatic hot water; you have to boil the kettle. There’s no shower.” Next on the list is to install a diesel heater to make it more comfortable to use in winter. That’s the nicest time to go out as there is little wind and no one about, he says.

Over the years they have spent a lot of time exploring the Marlborough Sounds with their children, Maia and Max. “Now they are able to take it out themselves. It doesn’t matter if they ding it a bit, and I’m not worried they will kill someone with it as it goes so slowly,” he said with a laugh. “Max and I talked about it on our last trip. They went through a stage when most of our friends had really speedy boats and we chug along at seven knots really, but it’s helped give them an appreciation of craftsmanship and not rushing everywhere.”

Even so, he loves that he can leave work or home, be at the Picton marina in half an hour, and catch fish or dive for scallops on the way to his favourite mooring at Kaipakirikiri Bay just up the Queen Charlotte Sound from Picton. It’s surrounded by native bush reserve and there are no houses in sight. You can be cooking your catch a couple of hours after leaving home or work, he says. Sometimes he takes visiting sommeliers and agents out on Kereru. “One time we were coming back and it was a beautiful day and we stopped in Spencer Bay, and Pat jumped in and got 60 scallops. He was doing sashimi on the deck and I was cooking them with chilli flakes down here, and we matched them with two different sauvignons. They can’t do that in Hong Kong!” he said.

Brian and his winery and vineyard manager, Pat Patterson, make three sauvignon blancs, a Marlborough blend from seven vineyards and two single vineyard wines, the Alias and Boundary Farm. As with all his wines (besides sauvignon they produce several pinot gris, chardonnays, pinot noirs, a rosé and a gewürztraminer), he is concerned with texture rather than primary fruit, he says. He aims to make wine that is subtle in front, fresh and dry, but with a long, elegant palate that will develop over several years — a bit like his boat. He also aims to show the individuality of the vineyards, from which he sources grapes, that are scattered throughout the Wairau Valley and as far south as Ward.

With more than two decades’ experience of winemaking in several countries, he takes more risks these days to achieve his aims: picking earlier and separating the juice from skins quickly, fermenting with wild yeast, not using enzymes nor including the heavily pressed juice, he says. “If you are not fully confident at what you are aiming at, if you haven’t determined your style, the easy option is to pick ripe. No owner of a wine label is going to say you shouldn’t have picked that ripe. If you pick green or early there is more risk.” He feels his wines are an expression of himself, and everyone who tastes one of his wines is judging not only it, but also, in a way, himself. “It’s an interesting one. I think what happens over time as you build up more confidence is you make wines you truly want to make.” He and Nicola established Mahi in 2001, and in 2006 bought the former Le Brun winery in Renwick as their base.

The large hospitality area that used to be a restaurant is now furnished with a long, rustic tasting table, comfortable leather armchairs beside the open fire, bookshelves and art on the walls. It’s like a second home, he said. “The wine industry is not the best financial industry, but other than that it’s been a blast. For me there is a thing here, with our staff — why go home? I love being here, there’s a good kitchen, a great coffee machine, a good stereo, books, a fire, lots of wine. But I love my home and I love my family, I love being here, I love travelling and I love being on the boat — my four key places. I just love being there. That’s the thing you have to remember to appreciate.”