New Zealand Wine Country; Tour the Beautiful Marlborough Valley With Jade Tours

If you like having a boutique experience, as opposed to a bus with a large number of people, try Jade Tours New Zealand Wine Country tour.

We arrived in Picton, NZ while on a 19 day cruise from Honolulu to Sydney. As it was a cruise stop we didn’t have much time, but after the one day we had we definitely want to return! Picton is a lovely little fishing village surrounded by forested hills. When I looked into things to do in the area I came across Jade Tours.

They offer straight wine tours, which I love. However, because our 14 year old son was with us we chose the New Zealand Wine County tour that included a stop at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Center in Blenheim.

Jade Tours Van
Jade Tours Van

New Zealand Wine Country Tour

The owner of Jade Tours, and also our guide, was Mike. He picked us up conveniently right at the information center in Picton. He uses a comfortable tour van which held about twelve people. As we followed the road out of town, Mike gave us a bit of information on the history of the area and the sites we passed.

In little over twenty minutes, the dense forests gave way to a gorgeous green valley ringed with distant mountains and topped with a baby blue sky. Marlborough is home to over two thirds of the country’s vines making it the largest New Zealand Wine Country producing area. We passed rivers and blossoming fruit orchards. I was reminded of my earlier days in California, though California doesn’t have nearly as many sheep!

Omaka Aviation Heritage center
Omaka Aviation Heritage center

Omaka Aviation Heritage Center

Our first stop was the Omaka Aviation Heritage Center. It was very impressive indeed. They had two different sections, one dedicated to the first World War and the other two World War II. As we only had time for one section on our tour, we chose to do the WW1 part.

The building was dim and cool contrasting greatly to the bright spring day just outside the doors and lending to the sensation of stepping back in time. The beautiful old planes and painstakingly created scenes done by none other than WETA workshop rivaled that of other top museums we’ve visited.

The museum is comprised of the personal collection of famous film director Sir Peter Jackson. The incredible life-like mannequins were created by the WETA workshop (which we had just visited in Wellington, NZ) and the dioramas were created by Wingnut Films, providing a truly special and unique experience. We highly recommend choosing Jade Tours Wine and Wings, as this museum should not be missed!

Steve at Villa Maria
Steve at Villa Maria

Touring the Wineries

Next came the fun part! We piled back into the van and started our tour of a handful of the local wineries. Mike said that he hand picks each. His choices occasionally change depending on demand, hours, etc. On our particular day we found every stop to be superb!

Villa Maria Winery

Our first stop was at Villa Maria, the largest family owned winery in New Zealand. The founder and owner, George Fistonich received the country’s first knighthood for services to the wine industry. They have now been making wine for over 50 years.

On the day we arrived, we were met by a dapper fellow in a bow tie named Steve who conducted our tasting. Of course our favorite was 90.00 a bottle. However, we tasted many that were lower cost and fantastic! Full disclaimer, we are not wine connoisseurs but we love wine. I particularly liked their Chardonnay Reserve 2017 and the Single Vinyard, Taylors Pass, 2013 Pinot Noir.

Rockferry Garden
Rockferry Garden

Rock Ferry Winery

Next, Mike took us to a newer winery in a stunning setting by the name of Rock Ferry. He had us order lunch ahead in the interest of time, and while they were working on the food we were led through a lovely garden and out to a separate light filled building for our tasting.

Rudy at Rockferry Winery
Rudy at Rock Ferry Winery

Here we were met by a jovial man with a handle bar mustache by the name of Rudy. Wow! We found these wines to be the favorite of the day (as determined after the day was over). They were, and I hesitate to say this as some may have a negative connotation with the word, unique. That is to say, as a whole, they had a very different taste to others we’re used to, but wow they were great!

Rudy told us that they are one of the only two who make 100% Pinot Blanc. Once again, I also found the Pinot Noir (Trig Hill Vineyard 2014) to be my favorite…but I’m a huge Pinot Noir fan having been from the West coast of the states. As for lunch, we headed back under a trellis dripping with white wisteria and sat at a large wooden table in a bright room. The windows were large and looked out onto the green of the foliage in the garden.

Rockferry Cheese Board
Rock Ferry Cheese Board

My husband and I shared a cheese board with bread and homemade chutney that paired nicely with the chardonnay, and a Roast Aoraki Salmon Fillet, marinated with lemon, mustard and dill over an Israeli cous cous with sundried tomato salsa…it was amazing!

Rockferry Salmon
Rock Ferry Salmon

After living in Seattle for many years, I’m hesitant to try salmon elsewhere as Seattleite chefs really have it down, but this dish rivaled any that I have had in the Pacific Northwest! Our son ordered the fish special, which happened to be monkfish and he loved it. If you are heading to the area, I highly recommend contacting Mike at Jade Tours well ahead of time and asking him if it is possible to include Rock Ferry in your stops!

Hunters Winery Outside
Hunters Winery Outside

Hunter’s Wines

Our last winery stop was Hunter’s Wines. It was established by an Irishman named Ernie Hunter in 1979 and is now run by his wife Jane Hunter. Once again, we found Mike’s choice for our tour to be top notch!

A lovely setting, the wine tasting room is situated in what was originally the home of the Hunter’s. The décor is tasteful and not over done and had, in my opinion, almost a Nantucket-like feel. The French doors led out to a gorgeous garden with a few tables about where people sat merrily drinking their wine.

Our tasting server was Jilly and she regaled us with the fascinating story of how Hunter wines made their mark on the world. I highly recommend reading about them or, better yet, visiting in person!

Jane Hunter sounds like a truly remarkable woman and has been described by the London Sunday Times as the First Lady of New Zealand wine. She was the first woman to be inducted into the NZ Wine Hall of Fame. As for the wine, overall I would say they were more floral than the previous wines of the day.

Hunters Winery Gruner Veltliner
Hunters Winery Gruner Veltliner

They were delicate and lovely. The one called Gruner Veltliner that they tout as a “new variety- an up and comer” is one to try if you ‘don’t like chardonnay’. Well, my husband does not like chardonnay, but he did like the Gruner Veltliner! If you’re looking for a delicate wine, stop into Hunter’s Wines.

Watching them make chocolate dipped gingers at Makana Confections
Watching them make chocolate dipped ginger candies

Makana Confections

The last stop of our tour was at the Makana Confections chocolate shop, where we got to try samples. Makana Confections seemed to be a stop for the other local tours as well. We saw a few large busses of people who had booked through the cruise ship while there. But, we were happy Mike included it as who doesn’t like chocolate?

We cruise a lot and try to never book through the ship if possible. This is because I often find amazing trips and unique experiences by doing my own research. Also, we get far better prices than those booking through the cruise line. Jade Tours was a prime example of this! When we got back on the ship and compared notes on our day with other people, we knew we definitely did the right thing going with Mike!

If you like having a more boutique experience as opposed to being tossed on a bus with a large number of people, then I highly recommend you book with Jade Tours. And as for the Marlborough Valley, we hope to return one day with more time. It’s a lovely area with amazing wines.


Hollin Stafford
Hollin Stafford

Hollin is originally from California. After obtaining a degree in Sociology she worked as a flight attendant for United Airlines so that she could combine her work with something she’s always loved, travel. Later she found herself in Seattle, WA where she met her husband and went to work in the real estate field.

She moved with her family from Port Townsend, WA to Sintra, Portugal in 2016. They said they’d try it out for a year and never left! Leveraging her U.S. real estate background and the insights she’s gained over the years into Portuguese life, she works with the Brightman Group, guiding international buyers and connecting sellers. She loves her work and finds delight in helping people find their ‘spot’ in the world.

Hollin's passions also include spending quality time with family and friends, seeking out excellent food and writing. She writes in a variety of genres, from YA, to literary short stories, non-fiction and engaging travel pieces. Her current focus is on writing a memoir about what brought her family to Portugal. The first excerpt will be published soon at The Portugal News. Hollin has garnered acclaim for her remarkable storytelling skills, praised by critics for her ability to authentically capture the essence of the human experience with warmth and depth.

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