Americans are beginning to fall for the surprising flavors of the boutique wines, free-range meats, artisan honeys and other specialty products from this sustainability-minded South Pacific country.

For many Americans, it took the gorgeous imagery of The Lord of the Rings to illustrate the geographic diversity of New Zealand where the trilogy was filmed—and to better understand the natural bounty where this country’s specialty food products are made. Roughly 1,250 miles from Australia, New Zealand’s isolation makes trading with other countries challenging, yet it hasn’t stopped this small island nation (population 4.5 million) from playing in the big leagues when it comes to exporting dairy, meat, seafood, produce and wine, particularly its famous Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, New Zealand’s isolation has fostered innovation when it comes to exciting new specialty food products, from pure Manuka honey to fig fruit paste to award-winning, naturally made licorice.

A Focus on Green Production

“New Zealand has such an amazing reputation for being clean and green,” says Brad Farmerie, the chef overseeing two hip New York City restaurants, Public and Double Crown, with menus featuring New Zealand venison, lamb, snapper and green-lipped mussels. “The fishing industry is concerned about not over-fishing, the venison is free-range. It’s inspiring—and cool—to be able to open people’s eyes to something new.” He speaks from first-hand experience, having visited New Zealand many times where he’s forged personal relationships with small-production farmers, fishermen and winemakers.

Firstlight Foods of Hastings, NZ, is one of those companies, made up of farmer shareholders who adhere to strict animal welfare standards and seek to minimize the environmental impact of farming practices. Two years ago, the company broke into the U.S. market with its venison and Wagyu beef. “We have had a great response from Whole Foods Markets and sales have definitely met our expectations,” notes Gerard Hickey, a Firstlight spokesman.

The clean-and-green image carries weight for a rising number of health-conscious and ethically minded consumers as many New Zealand suppliers have shown a commitment to quality, environmental protection and Fair Trade practices. For example, most products are shipped on container vessels, more energy efficient than flying or trucking freight.

“Americans are waking up to the dangers of industrial food production,” says Kelly Duffy, the North America food and beverages sector manager for New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, a government agency. “Discerning consumers want to know that their food comes from a person and a place, not a factory, and it was made with care and trust.”

She predicts that in the future, as food scares continue, the isolation of New Zealand will be an asset. Entry to the country is so well patrolled that travelers cannot smuggle so much as an apple past sniffing guard dogs when they land at the Auckland airport. “New Zealand is virtually pest-free because of rigorous controls,” Duffy explains. “Anything that’s remotely suspect will be thrown away before you leave the airport. Fewer pests means less need for pesticides and the result is cleaner, safer food.”

A sense of responsibility has also enhanced levels of safety when it comes to food production. New Zealand has a sophisticated traceability system that discloses a product’s provenance. “The bar code on a lamb shoulder sold at Trader Joe’s, for instance, will tell you the name of the ranch and trace it right back to the farmer and the particular sheep,” says Duffy. According to New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, the temperate climate also means sheep and cattle need not be housed indoors. Additionally, growth hormones are banned in the country so dairy products are rBGH-free.

The same green philosophy holds true of New Zealand’s wine industry. By 2012, 100 percent of vineyards and wineries expect to be certified as sustainable (currently, it’s 75 percent), according to Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, the industry’s program for environmental, social and economic sustainability. That means the vineyards will be self-contained ecosystems, using no artificial fertilizers or pesticides.

While New Zealand still gets lumped in with Australia because of geography—especially when it comes to the New World wine section at retail stores—there are fundamental differences. “New Zealand wines and olive oil are ethereal, mellow,” says Chef Farmerie. “Australian stuff is big, bold and aggressive, more like the Australian personality.”

Drawing on its Natural Resources

New Zealand’s specialty foods are finding a foothold in the U.S., thanks to the novelty and quality of the ingredients, creative packaging and marketing. Also the recent surge in tourism over the past several years has increased demand from those who want to experience Kiwi flavors when they return to their home turf. Manuka honey is a prime example, with its strong gingery, peppery essence from an indigenous plant with natural antibacterial properties.

“Nothing quite compares to the flavor,” says Chef Farmerie. “It’s unique to New Zealand and they consider it a live honey, with lots of health benefits.” At his restaurant Public, Farmerie drizzles it over granola and oatmeal at brunch and places the honeycomb atop pancakes or on a cheese plate because its herbaceous, floral flavor works well with cheese.

Airborne, Leeston, NZ, is the country’s largest exporter of honey. In addition to Manuka it offers creamed Rata honey, Vipers Bugloss and Honeydew honey—not from the melon but from bark extract from the beech tree. “The bees are attracted to it because it is sweet,” says Michael Lippart, general manager of sales and marketing for Fast-Pak Trading, Inc., a fine-food importer based in Garfield, N.J.. “They collect it as they would pollen. The honey is amber and dark, with a malty green-apple taste.”

Manuka honey leads Fast-Pak’s top-seller list, Lippart says, largely because its health benefits intrigue customers. As for other varieties, “some of our honies sell better seasonally than others,” he notes. “For example, over the winter, we sell a lot of Thyme honey. Over the summer, we sell a lot of Honeydew. Everyone loves the different tastes and colors of the honey, as all of them are uncommon to the American palate.”

One drawback, however, is the cost of New Zealand honey. “Costs are high based on the global market, exchange rates and shipment fees,” Lippart says. “The Manuka Health, our most expensive honey, clocks in at $19.99-$24.99 at retail.”

Tony Princiotta, buyer/manager at California’s The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, purveys Airborne honey as well as several other distinctive Kiwi products. “People want to learn something new,” he says. His store has recently added Rutherford and Meyer’s crackers and gourmet fruit pastes, in flavors like Fig and Quince, to complement the ever-more-popular cheese board. “They go very, very quickly,” he says.

Princiotta first fell in love with New Zealand’s products as a tourist and laments that it’s not easy to import the great artisanal cheeses he sampled there. “I’d love to bring in more from New Zealand,”
he said. “It’s hard to get, period.”

Steve Muir, the owner of New Zealand Natural Goods, an importer/distributor based in Manhattan Beach, Calif., is doing what he can to fulfill demand of packaged specialties. In the past three years his company has made strong headway in the U.S. marketplace, doubling business every year. He mostly targets specialty food stores and high-end grocery chains, and reports growing interest. For instance, he says the Rutherford and Meyer products that he represents get good pickup wherever they are placed. “The line contains broader flavors of fruit paste than what is typically found, including Pear, Plum, Cherry and Apricot in addition to Fig and Quince. Manufacturing is done in-house so quality control is extremely high,” Muir notes.

His other products include Antipodes water, the first premium water to be certified carbon-neutral, and Kaitaia Fire hot sauce, a blend of kiwifruit, Manuka honey and habanero pepper. “There’s certainly a point of difference to be selling New Zealand products,” Muir says, “but it’s not the key buying decision.” He attributes the products’ popularity to quality, consistency, flavor and attractive packaging. Plus, small-batch businesses are currently appealing.

RJ’s Licorice fits that bill. The company won the NASFT’s sofi™ Silver Award in 2007 for its Natural Soft Eating Licorice, which helped boost the profile of this family-owned-and-operated confectioner. It now sells widely around the world. RJ’s uses authentic licorice extract and is distinctively packaged in brown paper bags.

Clever packaging also comes into play with high-design, kosher-certified chocolate bars made by Bloomsberry and Co., Christchurch, NZ, which are enjoying rapid growth in the U.S. at Whole Foods Markets and a number of small retailers. For instance, there’s the Marital Bliss bar, divided into one-third for him, two-thirds for her.

While many of the specialty foods coming into the U.S. are from artisan producers, mega company Fonterra, one of the world’s largest exporters of dairy products, is also busily making its mark. “We are excited about the relationships we’ve made with many of the top companies in the food industry since we entered the U.S. retail market in 2008,” says Tony Meredith, Fonterra’s business manager for North American food services and retail. “Our Mainland™ and Anchor® cheese and butter products are now available in stores such as Whole Foods, Earth Fair and Publix as well as other top retail chains, and our distribution continues to grow.”

More than Sauvignon Blanc

New Zealand’s success in the global wine market over the past decade has been phenomenal. Total wine exports are up nearly 1,000 percent since 2000, according to Dana Johanson, business development manager for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. The U.S. imports two million cases a year, the majority of it the country’s benchmark Sauvignon Blanc.

Still, New Zealand’s wine production is not much more than a blip compared to Australia’s. From 2008 to 2009, Australia exported 750 million liters and New Zealand 26.5 million liters. “There’s still huge opportunity for New Zealand companies to grow in the U.S. market, especially in fantastic varietals such as Syrah and Riesling,” says Duffy.

New Zealand is a long, skinny country basically consisting of two land masses commonly called the North Island and the South Island. There are ten major wine regions and latitudes are similar to great winegrowing areas in France and Spain. The diversity of soils and a 1,000-mile-long landscape of coastline, mountains, forest and fields creates a wide variety of wine styles. Grapes other than Sauvignon Blanc that do well in the maritime climate are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Müller-Thurgau and Gewürztraminer. Reds that are showing high-quality consistency include Pinot Noir, Syrah and Merlot-based blends.

Pauli Morgan, an owner of Nelson Blue, a Manhattan restaurant offering New Zealand cuisine, is doing his part to let customers know there’s more to the country than Sauvignon Blanc, steering them toward Southern Hemisphere Rieslings, Gewürztraminers and Pinot Noirs. As with anything new and good, once it’s sampled, it sells, he says.

Chuck Hayward, a fine wine specialist and buyer in Northern California, was one of the first to jump on the New Zealand wine bandwagon, back in the early 1990s. He now works at an online wine company, JJ Buckley of Oakland, Calif., where he continues to specialize in wines from Australia and New Zealand. “There’s a natural tendency of wine enthusiasts to investigate different flavors and wines from different areas,” he says. “Pinot Noir people only used to drink Burgundies. Then they moved on to Pinot Noirs from California and Oregon, always on the lookout for new flavors in the varietal. Now it’s New Zealand.”

Hayward says the next trend to look for in New Zealand wines are Syrahs from the Hawke’s Bay region, on the North Island. “They have more in common with French Syrahs from Crozes-Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, not at all like wines from California.”

Steve Smith, director of wine at Craggy Range, in Hawke’s Bay, says, “Ours are storytelling wines, of the place and the people where they come from. Every wine we make is from a single vineyard.” Craggy Range makes 30 different varietals—six types of Pinot Noirs, five Rieslings, all from different vineyards. “We want to get people to move from Sauvignon Blanc to something else, show the world our diversity,” Smith says. Steve Smith, director of wine at Craggy Range, in Hawke’s Bay, says, “Ours are storytelling wines, of the place and the people where they come from. Every wine we make is from a single vineyard.” Craggy Range makes 30 different varietals—six types of Pinot Noirs, five Rieslings, all from different vineyards. “We want to get people to move from Sauvignon Blanc to something else, show the world our diversity,” Smith
says.  |SFM|

Julie Besonen is the food editor at Paper magazine, writes a weekly restaurant column for and has contributed to the New York Times and the New York Daily News.


Here are just some of the Kiwi products available in the U.S.

Airborne Honey: Exotic flavors made from indigenous New Zealand flora, including the cult favorite, Manuka honey;

Antipodes Water: Pure sparkling and still water, the first brand to be certified carbon neutral;

Bloomsberry and Co.: Specialty chocolate bars with clever, witty wrappers;

Cloudy Bay: The Marlborough winery that started the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc craze also produces other varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir;

Craggy Range Winery: Prestige single-vineyard wines, highly acclaimed for Pinot Noir and Riesling;

Cyclops Frozen Yogurt: Artisan, organic, gluten-free Greek-style desserts in tropical flavors, available in California;

Firstlight Foods: Pasture-raised, ethically farmed venison and Wagyu beef;

Fonterra: A cooperative owned by 11,000 New Zealand dairy farmers producing a wide range of butter, cheese, milk, yogurt, ice cream and milk chocolate;

Joseph Banks’ Cassava root vegetable chips: Naturally made snacks, offering a healthier alternative to potato chips;

Kaitaia Fire Waha Wera Kiwifruit and Habanero Chili Sauce: Organic, fruit-based hot sauce;
New Zealand Natural Ice Cream: Premium-quality ice cream, sorbet, frozen yogurt, shakes and smoothies sold at franchised shops and retailers in California and Nevada;

RJ’s Licorice: Naturally made, ecologically packaged soft eating licorice in a variety of flavors;

Rutherford and Meyer: Innovative, intensely flavored fruit pastes and pâtés for cheese plates, gourmet wafers and fruit vinegars;

SilverFern Specialties Pavlova: A soft-centered meringue with a smooth, light crust; called the “national dessert of New Zealand.” The product is gluten-free, trans-fat free and dairy-free;

The Village Press: Extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil from groves in Hawke’s Bay wine country;

Whitestone Cheese: Handmade, traditional in a range of styles from cows’, sheep and goats’ milk;