This Small New Zealand Island is an A–lister Wine Destination


Just a short ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke Island is synonymous with award–winning wine, idyllic views and famous faces.

“The first time Taylor Swift visited, she sat in the dining room with everyone else,” general manager Oscar Jones recounts while showing us around Mudbrick Vineyard on Waiheke Island. “There’s a photo of my dad [Nick Jones], a bottle of our flagship wine the Mudbrick Velvet and a young Taylor Swift. The next time, she had an entourage and private area.”

Waiheke may be small (19.3 km long) and sparsely populated with just under 10,000 residents, but it’s been attracting big names thanks to its close proximity to Auckland (via ferry or helicopter), renowned wine scene, beautiful beaches and laid–back vibe. A steady stream of celebrity visitors has only boosted its popularity among tourists.

March 15, 2023
The lush coast of Waiheke Island in New Zealand
Waiheke Island, Auckland, New Zealand.

Visitors to the island have included Lady Gaga, Madonna, Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé. While Dua Lipa uses ferry time to snap glamorous Instagram shots, I settle for sipping Cabernet while gazing at the fiery sunset painting peach strokes over Auckland’s skyline, then continue admiring dusk views from the veranda of our cozy room at The Oyster Inn, a boutique guest house and bistro in Oneroa village.

With aesthetic gift shops, cafés and the beach within steps, The Oyster Inn is a low–key hideaway that RuPaul and Gordon Ramsay have checked in at. A few famous faces have been spotted “hiding in the corner eating fish ’n’ chips,” says award–winning chef and owner Josh Emett, who bought the property with wife Helen Cranage just as COVID–19 struck. They have since breathed new life into the inn, with hopes to expand accommodations.

A woman serving herself from a platter of oysters from Oyster Inn
The Oyster Inn's owner and chef, Josh Emett with a glass of wine and a platter of oysters
The Oyster Inn’s award–winning chef and owner Josh Emett.   Photos: The Oyster Inn

Having worked at some of Ramsay’s restaurants, including Claridge’s and the Savoy Grill in London, Emett has served everyone from the Spice Girls to the royals. His croquettes, trevally ceviche and smoked kahawai mousse are divine, while one lot of the miso–roasted eggplant with cashew cream for my vegetarian father was so devoured by the rest of us, we had to order more.

Lunching at The Oyster Inn was part of Miley Cyrus’ day out with Savoy Charters. The Backstreet Boys meanwhile took a scenic tour to the island with Auckland Seaplanes, Kendrick Lamar helicoptered in with Heletranz Helicopters and Lady Gaga settled in for the night at Fossil Cove.

Miley Cyrus with Savoy Charters owner Scott Unsworth
An Oyster Inn black tote bag hanging on a coat rack with a sunhat and towel
Miley Cyrus with Savoy Charters owner Scott Unsworth.   Photo: Savoy Charters
The Oyster Inn.    Photo: The Oyster Inn

Hosting celebrities wasn’t the goal when Robyn and Nicholas Jones bought the property in 1992. When the winery operation was taking longer than expected to bear a sizeable yield, they transformed their home into the Mudbrick Café and later restaurant. “The first day there were 50 customers. It was overwhelmingly successful,” says Oscar Jones. “People also started having weddings here, and now we host more than 100 each year.”

Mudbrick has since grown into a multipurpose wine mecca, now housing the original restaurant, a bistro, tasting room, rooftop bar, luxury lodge and boutique cottages. The patio overlooking Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf is a dreamy spot to enjoy a glass of Mudbrick Oscar syrah with dishes like Hawke’s Bay lamb rump, New Zealand scallops and Coromandel octopus.

The trig point lookout at the Mudbrick Vineyard on Waiheke Island, New Zealand
The Mudbrick Vineyard trig point lookout.     Photo: Leena Tailor
A man holding a bottle of Magna Praemia 2020 from Destiny Bay
Award–winning Magna Praemia 2020 from Destiny Bay.     Photo: Destiny Bay

We stroll past lemon trees used to make Mudbrick’s limoncello, up to a spectacular lookout. The trig point offers 360–degree views of the island, where one local built an $80 million home. Such developments are in contrast to when Destiny Bay owner and winemaker Sean Spratt’s parents, Michael and Ann Spratt, discovered Waiheke Island while visiting from San Francisco in 1999. They were so depressed upon departure that they promptly returned and built their dream home.

“My mother said, ‘People are making good wine here. Maybe we could put a couple of vines in and make wine in the garage,’” says Spratt. While Spratt had once studied theatre, he had also considered winemaking, so it was only natural that he soon followed his parents and has helped produce some of New Zealand’s most upscale wines, such as the award–winning Magna Praemia 2020, which was recently named the number one Cabernet in wine critic James Suckling’s Top 100 Wines of New Zealand. “[Wine critic] Bob Campbell also gave this wine 99/100, which propelled us to wine of the year,” notes Spratt.

Vibrant green fields as far as the eye can see at the Destiny Bay Vineyard in New Zealand
Destiny Bay Vineyard.   Photo: Destiny Bay

Spratt says the amphitheatre–shaped vineyard is conducive to their Bordeaux varietals, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon. “The slopes place natural stress on fruit, meaning more concentrated flavours, and there’s natural drainage so if it’s too hot, the Hauraki Gulf air–conditioning system kicks in. It’s unique.”

Also unique is the family’s hand–heavy processes. It’s about quality over quantity, with grapes hand–harvested before undergoing a vigorous process reminiscent of a last–man–standing reality show in order to separate MOG (material other than grapes). “A sorting table sifts out what ends up in most wine – spoiled berries, stems, the odd Waiheke stink bug,” says Spratt. “Then we hand–sort anything below standard. You have to be a very lucky grape to make it into the tank.”

Women sorting grapes on a table at the Destiny Bay Vineyard
Sorting grapes at the Destiny Bay Vineyard.   Photo: Destiny Bay

With no restaurant or tasting room and a by–appointment–only visitor policy, Spratt believes it’s Destiny Bay’s all–consuming focus on winemaking—producing three wines: fruit–driven, cocoa–tinged Destinae, Mystae and Magna Praemia, awarded 97 points by Gourmet Wine Traveller—which has attracted celebrities from around the world.

“I had enjoyed watching Matthew [Fox] on Lost, but I respected him even more after his visit. He comes from a farming background and was enamoured,” says Spratt. “People appreciate our authenticity. There are no rose bushes and romantic arched doorways. You’re seeing how good, handcrafted wine is made and that’s the appeal.”