Pheasant Day Out in Hawke’s Bay

December 9, 2009

Published in NZ Home & Garden

“If you get to Sherenden School then you’ve gone too far,” instructs Pip Russell. “The guns start at 8.30 sharp.” By “guns” Pip means hunters, eight of whom are spending the day at a pheasant shoot.

It’s being operated by Tunanui Gamebirds, a partnership between the Russell family of Hawke’s Bay’s Tunanui Station and NZ Gamebirds, a company run by the Russells’ neighbours Bridgette Karetai and Jeff Niblett.

A winter’s day out with shotguns and hounds might be enough to tempt hunter-gatherer types but this girl needs more. So when the promise of fine wine, hot food and good conversation was made I grabbed my gumboots and got there without too much protest.

Gunn Estate Wines has sponsored these shoots for the past two years – its wines are poured at the luncheon held in the 130-year-old woolshed and at the post-shoot drinks at the homestead.

The Gunn family – farmers since the 1920s and grape growers since the 1980s – are also, according to chief winemaker Denis Gunn, mad-keen hunters. Their family history and love of the outdoors and farming life is reflected in the names given to their much-lauded Skeetfield chardonnay, Skipper’s Pool sauvignon blanc, Woolshed merlot and highly praised Silistria syrah.

“Silistria was the name of the ship my great-grandfather sailed to New Zealand on in 1862,” says Denis. “Skipper’s Pool is a little pond on our farm. For years a guy called Skipper used to catch eels there and smoke them. We reckoned smoked eel and our reserve sauvignon were a perfect match.”

Coincidentally, Tunanui means “big eel” in Maori. Tunanui Homestead is a sprawling, 700sqm Charles Natusch-designed treasure trove of long-loved artefacts and furniture. Lived in by many generations of the Russell family, it comes complete with an amazing (although slightly shambolic) war memorabilia museum in the attic.

Pheasant_Hunting_HB“Go for your life. Have a look around,” urges Pip as she, Bridgette and Bridgette’s sister, winemaker Maarea Karetai, prepare morning tea in the kitchen. I almost miss the dark little wine cupboard just off the main hall. Supplies of new-release Gunn wines are jumbled together with Kiwi classics like McWilliams Bakano 1962 and good old 1982 Cresta Doré Dry White.

After stuffing myself with fruit cake, I’m squashed between ruddy-cheeked blokes in a ute that bounces out to the bull paddock for the second shoot of the day.

“As a safety measure we’ll put a minder on guns who haven’t shot before,” explains Andrew. “It’s a lot harder than it looks, plus they can aim only at birds with a blue-sky background [ie not on the ground or flying close to a slope] – although today it’s just sky,”  he says through a thick veil of rain.

In just over an hour we’re rolling across to the historic woolshed for lunch. Soaking wet and starving, I gratefully accept a glass of Silistria to wash down one of Bridgette’s steaming pheasant pies. Minutes later I opt for merlot when attacking the cheese platter and home-made damson plum paste.

But it’s chardonnay that has been the star for Gunn Estate – the Skeetfield has won golds, trophies and five-star ratings across the board, and the white label unoaked chardonnay has done exceptionally well, not only here but in Australia and the United States.

“Listen up, guns.” The call to get going again halts the conversation. Seventeen-year-old Hugo Rittson-Thomas, a newbie, shrugs on his wet-weather gear and joins the team of beaters, picker-uppers, retrieval dogs, minders and guns as they trudge out into the chilly afternoon.

I have some recipes in mind for the pair of donated birds in my boot, and a contact who’ll weave their feathers into cloaks, so I leave them to it, opting instead to pour another wine, cuddle up by the heater and make friends with the leftover cheese. Ah, nice.