The proverbial American Dream isn’t one that’s always fulfilled on U.S. soil. Just ask Joanne and Bruce Kerner, two television producers who found success and well-being more than 7,000 miles away on the South Island of New Zealand.
As a second act to prolific careers in Hollywood, the couple bought 99-acres of land in the breathtakingly beautiful Marlborough region of New Zealand, converted it to a vineyard and built a spacious 6,458-square-foot home on the property designed for both entertaining and enjoying the solitude of the countryside. The two have since created a family business, Kerner Estate, that produces award-winning wine and olive oil, all the while soaking up the good life of living and working in one of the most scenic places on the planet.
Always looking for the next adventure, the Kerners are ready to move on to a new chapter in their lives and have placed their home and vineyard on the market. We talked with them recently about their 12 years in New Zealand, what they’ve enjoyed most about living and working there, the experience of owning and operating a vineyard and what makes 57 Fareham Lane an extraordinary opportunity for anyone seeking their share of the American Dream, even if means packing up and moving to Marlborough, New Zealand.
Tell us how you ended up in New Zealand.
Joanne: I had lived in New York for years, and then in Los Angeles with Bruce and our family. He wanted to buy some land, and he wanted to buy in New Zealand. I was a bit nervous about going so far away, but said: “If you’re going to make me move to New Zealand, buy vineyard land so that if I hate it there, at least I’ll have good wine to drink.
Bruce: Joanne and I took our two children, Will and Lizzie, to New Zealand for an “Adventure Holiday” in 1992. He was 10, she was 4. Will and I did the Routeburn Trek, and Joanne and Liz toured the fjords by steamer. We vowed to come back someday. Little did we know how soon and for how long.
Both Joanne and I were TV producers in Los Angeles and NYC; she of the sitcoms, me of the dramas and reality TV. We were thinking ahead to the time when we would be in need of an income producing investment – after our prime time years were behind us. My father had left me some money that needed to be put into a real estate investment, so we thought of New Zealand. It was and still is unspoiled, beautiful, and was much less expensive than the US to make an investment in land to develop as a vineyard.
At first I thought about farming deer for the Asian market, but Joanne flipped and said it’s a vineyard or nothing if I’m going to the other side of the world. So, on her instructions, we shopped for grazing land to be converted into a vineyard. I toured and shopped for land in both the North and the South Island with my sister and a professional farm buyer, and we all agreed that Marlborough was the best location to grow grapes, had the most sun, and was just starting to become famous internationally for its Sauvignon Blanc. Everything was affordable, and the US dollar was strong.
J: Bruce did the looking and chose our spot because the land was the best “earth” he had seen after looking over both islands. In retrospect, it’s the only place to be. It’s not crowded, gorgeous, and a beautiful place to live. Much better than the north island.
B: New Zealand was then, as it is now. The Last Frontier for an English speaking country with strong economic growth potential in the wine making business. And, Marlborough is where more than 60% of the grapes are grown and produced as wine.
When you purchased the estate, what was it about the property that made it right for you?
B: The land was far from town, a group of adjacent grazing paddocks, which was in an earlier life a US WWII air base. It was pasture and grazing land when we bought it. But it was beautiful and had plenty of water, being at the confluence of two rivers and having its own creek. The soil was perfect for grape growing; free draining loam – a stony river terrace and it had great views. We created the estate, starting with the vineyard first. After that we built the house. I designed that for Joanne, who wanted a “Barn “ farmhouse with lots of light and room to entertain.
So what we built was a large barn, with high cathedral ceilings with open beam construction and rustic wooden floors on the upper level. But before we built the main house we lived in what is now the guest cottage and discovered that we needed to be one floor up from the ground to see everything taking place in the vineyard.
Thus, our main house is on two levels, with the main living floor about 12 feet above the ground level. There is an elevator next to the garage that takes all the packages and groceries and us up to the main room, which is very much “open plan.”
J: In addition to the above, the place is beautiful, between two mountain ranges that often are capped with snow. Not to mention the pheasants that walk across the land. And the hawks circling above.
Are Kiwis welcoming of Americans?
B: Kiwis are very welcoming to most all people, especially to Americans. There seems to be much in common between the two people, starting with the language and the literature. Joanne belongs to two book clubs, the golf club, the bridge club, and has a weekly morning tea group. Oh, I forgot, Joanne is also in a group of women that play mahjong. I belong to the Beefsteak and Burgundy Club.
J: Yes, they are most welcoming. After I had finished show biz, I decided to go down for 3 months. After about 3 days, I was missing some action. Any action, and began to wonder if it was all a big mistake. But then my neighbor came by, with newly baked apple muffins, and that was the beginning. After meeting all of my neighbors, I joined the bridge club. I was then asked to join a group of women who meet every Wednesday morning for tea (the Morning Tea Group). Then we joined the Millenium Art Gallery and met people there. Bruce has been asked to speak at the local Business group and to join a men’s only wine lunch club. I even play mahjong now, and have joined the golf club, as well. At my 70th birthday party the other day, 70 people were there. So I would say they are as interested in getting to know us as we are in them.
What are some of the more interesting or contrasting cultural differences between New Zealand and the U.S.?
B: Both countries follow the British Common Law, but New Zealand does not have the tort system that has developed in the US. Kiwis find this a better way to live. Our slang is different. Our sports are different. Rugby is front page news, weekly.
J: Seasonality is one. In New Zealand, we eat asparagus in the spring, Bluff Oysters (best in the world, I think) around Easter, scallops in the fall, and so on. In the U.S. I was used to getting whatever I wanted any time of the year; all that fluctuated was the price. In Blenheim, I shop at the Farmer’s Market every Sunday for my vegetables and fruits. They are organic and probably just harvested that morning. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh. And the eggs are free range. I have not had an egg from a cooped up chicken since I got there.
The other interesting social comment I would make is that you are valued for who you are rather than how much you have. Although there is a definite class structure based on the British, the lines blur here quite often. The mahjong group for example, has people with no money and people with tons It’s the mahjong, and nothing else. And it’s the same with the golf club and bridge club. And because Blenheim is so small, you start running into people at different places. So someone you played golf with will be serving you in a store, etc. It’s quite nice, but because it’s a small town, my best advice is “keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.” (that’s a NZ expression).
Since you’ve been living in New Zealand what’s the one thing that has surprised you the most?
B: How all social classes of Kiwis mix together – at least in the rural communities such as Marlborough. In the bigger cities it is still like the US cities were 40 years ago. The pace of life is much slower.
J: That I have been able to meet such a broad group of people and have such good friends.
Describe to us a typical day living at 57 Fareham Lane.
B: The dogs wake me up at around 7 a.m. After the morning walk around the vineyard, a day may bring most anything; there is no set pattern. I can do almost anything that I choose, or “ farm it out “ to local viticulturists and their crews. I love tractor work. I mean, I really love it. No one can bother me. And there is a sense of satisfaction in a job completed that one can see at the end of a tractor session. Besides, there is a good stereo in the cab, so what can be better? Town is always there, and we go in a good deal. But most days, the fun is in the vineyard or at the winery.
J: The birds usually wake us, or the dogs, quite early. Time for coffee and checking the computer to see if our daughter in New York to see if she’s online. Then get dressed before someone knocks at the door. Phones start to ring around eight. Since my role is marketing and office, I’ll usually spend the morning on the computer. I try to take some time off every day for golf, tea, whatever. I might go into town to the supermarket, or the butcher (Mike at Meater’s), or might not. I don’t get dressed very well, after all I am living on a farm. And then there’s dinner, a movie or book, and bed. It’s pretty routine except that growing grapes is farming, so that’s never routine.
On another day we might attend an opening at the gallery, stop in and see some friends, go out to lunch at another vineyard.
What towns are closest to the estate and tell us a little about the restaurants, shopping and culture offerings there?
B: There is a very small town, Renwick, five minutes away; a market, a couple of pubs, a very good school, and lots of sports.
J: It just got an ATM last year! Can you even imagine that? It has a pharmacy, and a good take out place for fish and chips, a tractor store, post office, and not a lot else. But Dot, the woman who runs the supermarket, has a lot of customers and will get whatever they want. As a result, you can get some French cheese, Italian salami, pasta, special chutneys, etc., that you won’t find anywhere else.
B: Twenty minutes away is Blenheim, a town with many restaurants and shopping opportunities. There is a civic theatre for live performances and an amateur theatre club that gives public performances in a boathouse, a multiplex cinema with six or seven screens, and a 16 seat art house theatre.
There are rowing clubs, horse riding clubs, a fine race track for both trotters and gallopers, a Rugby Stadium, a large indoor pool and sports facility, an excellent public library and a top-flight public hospital. There are several art galleries as well. The list goes on.
J: There is local theater, two or three art galleries who are continually changing their shows, the concert series, the ballet, etc. In New Zealand, the arts go on tour, so the Royal New Zealand ballet will come to Blenheim, or the chamber quartet, or the jazz group. I was quite surprised and delighted to find out how much was there.
B: It is important to remember that many of the larger wineries have fine dining, both for lunch and dinner, as well as sponsoring concerts of all types, inside in Winter, and outside in Summer.
J: There are some really great restaurants at the vineyards. Herzog is the best, Wither Hills is quite good, Highfield for the view, La Veranda at Georges Michel for a French lunch. In town, nothing to write home about. Oh yes, the Hotel d’Urville has a nice restaurant.
As for shopping, there is one store that has nice up to date designer clothes and housewares and that’s Thomas’s. Really nice things. And in Renwick there’s a small sporty store that has some beautiful things. Otherwise, you might want to go to Wellington, Auckland or Sydney (only a 3 hour trip).
B: Wellington offers just that much more in cosmopolitan events. A good symphony and ballet, first-rate attractions of all kinds, such as Leonard Cohen. Several times during the year the airlines offer deals to Australia. A weekend away is always available. Joanne and I flew to Sydney to go to the Symphony where Lalo Schifrin conducted & performed a commissioned work that he composed, followed by a presentation of his movie themes and jazz pieces.
What is your favorite room in the house?
J: The open living room, dining room and kitchen. Why? The views. They are stunning and constantly changing. And the ease of entertaining there.
B: The main floor with its open living room to the deck. The first floor is a great experience in open plan living as one can be inside and outside through the glass French doors on to the deck that runs from the East side of the house, North and then around to the West side.
The living room has superb acoustics, high ceilings, a beautiful stone fire place, and built in custom book cases, set on a rustic wooden floor, all of this is bathed in light from the many windows and a domed skylight. Indoor / outdoor living in my own vineyard, with a beautiful view of our vineyard – all five varieties.
What’s been the greatest pleasure of owning a home in New Zealand, as well as owning a vineyard?
J: There are so many, it’s hard to say. I would have to put the people as the top pleasure.
B: Being away from in-door office work; to enjoy the out of doors as a way of life, both professionally and for recreation. The beauty of the seasons is all around us. And we may elect to do as little or as much as we want to in the grape growing process.
Did you have any prior experience in the wine industry?
B: No, we had no prior experience in the wine industry. Many people, it seems, have the same dream of having a vineyard and of producing wine; we just decided to do it. When we decided to do this, both Joanne and I took courses at Cal-Davis. But we were still novices in the order when we came here. You see, that was part of the adventure.
J: Yes, our only experience was that we just enjoyed wine.
How would you sum up the New Zealand wine scene/industry? What trends are you seeing and expect to see?
B: Big off shore wine, spirits, and beer companies have come into the country and bought up many fine wine producers. Their Commodity Wine is doing very well. Presently, however, Artisan wine making is “the real thing,” small producers making fine natural wine. This is where both the fun and the growth is for those interested in making wine and not simply selling grapes to the bigger players.
One can run a vineyard and produce high quality grapes for sale and make enough to meet the cost of operating and a profit, but the real profit and the fun is in the wine making. Both sides of the industry will grow going forward. But my view is that the smaller makers of fine wine will grow as the force behind the reputation of fine New Zealand wine. New Zealan has the ability to produce first-rate wines, many are doing that now. But, there will be growth in both poles of the business.
If you were to draw a comparison between the setting of the home and somewhere in the US what city/area would it be most similar to? Sonoma County?
B: New Zealand is a couple of Pacific Islands, a paradise not as yet spoiled. We are known as a “cold growing region,” even though Marlborough has the most sunshine days per year. Warm growing days and cool nights are the norm. There are very few days when it is more than 80 degrees. Marlborough is not thought of as being “coastal,” so we are not like Santa Barbara. Draw a line left and right from NZ to the same L/L lines and you will find yourself in the colder growing regions of Alsace, France, and Germany. Therefore, we are more like Napa and Sonoma. In fact, ourr son, Will, worked a vintage in Sonoma and found that the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from certain sites in the area was very similar in quality characteristics to some of New Zealand’s best wines of those varieties.
Can you elaborate a little on the how the vineyard works, the Estate Label and the contract in place with the large winery? Do you personally manage the operations of the vineyard?
J: We do personally manage it all. I do the office, marketing, etc, while Bruce deals with the vineyard, contractors, wineries, etc. We all do the tastings and decide what we want to do with a particular wine in a particular year.
B: There is a definite growing and wine making cycle through out the year. I pay attention to the outside work in the vineyard and supervise operations, which I enjoy. There is a support industry of contract labor and management services in the region that allows us to do as little or as much vineyard work as we want. Joanne does the inside work at the computer.
We have produced as much as 250 tons of grapes in a season. We only use 25 ton for our label, which we produce all by hand and make in a small winery a couple of minutes away. This is a great pleasure, being in “ a hands on “ method of production. The large balance of the grapes that we grow is sold to large wineries, either under contract or on a handshake deal done in the vineyard. Over the years we have sold to Wither Hills, Marisco, Delegates, Grove Mill, West Brook, St. Clair, and others.
The beauty of this balanced arrangement between our wine and our grape sales is that there is no need to produce large amounts of “commodity wine” to support a winery and staff. We have no winery, nor do we have a staff. We simply concentrate on making the best wine that we can and hope that it is enjoyed by others. It is natural wine, single vineyard – non blended, and non- manipulated. In fact, part of our vineyard is certified as being Organic, with more acres in conversion this season. This is the pleasure, not needing to produce the same wine each season, letting the wine effectively reflect the season and the way that it is grown.
Describe to me the most ideal person, couple or family you envision living in this home.
J: People who love the solitude of the country, who enjoy farming and wine, and entertaining as well.
How is travel between the home in Marlborough and the U.S.? Closest airport?
J: Travel is actually easier than you would think. The flight from Blenheim (10 minutes from the house) to Auckland is an hour, twenty minutes. You don’t have to check in until 20 minutes for a national flight and 60 for an international. The flight from Auckland is great. You get on in the early evening, have some wine, dinner, watch a movie and then sleep for eight hours, so you awaken without too much jet lag. I quite look forward to it.
B: Air New Zealand is our airline of choice and all classes of travel are comfortable, with superior service. I prefer Premium Economy, and Joanne prefers Business but books Premium Econ, hoping for an upgrade, which happens on most trips.
Finally, can you share with our readers why you have chosen put the estate on the market?
B: Personally, I want another adventure. I have done this. It is an achievement; we have made the Best New Zealand Classic Bland Olive Oil ( LA County Fair), earned Gold Medals and Silver Medals and Bronze Medals in many international wine competitions. We have loved the almost 20 years that we have had this dream life style. Now, we feel that the time has come to move on. Joanne wants to retire. Not me, not yet. But I do want to slow down.
I started my career as a photojournalist and I want to get back to that work, but in an urban setting. I feel that there is an epic change about to take place in the world, and I want to experience it.
It is beautiful and safe on the vineyard – and in New Zealand in general, so we could be very comfortable and happy here. But we are older now than when we started, and we have decided to travel the world from an urban base. Joanne is very social, both here in Blenheim and in NYC, where we have many friends. Simply said, we are moving on.