So I waited... and I waited some more. I signed up for ExpertFlyer in August, religiously checking my email every few hours hoping that a notification would pop up saying that an award seat had opened up. Finally, in late September, I was alerted to one business class seat for the return leg AKL to SFO. I was ecstatic since this was my ideal direct flight, and in lie-flat business no less! Still, by late October, nothing had opened up at all for the flight to Auckland. I set up ExpertFlyer alerts for virtually every known routing, including all direct flights out of SFO and LAX on Air New Zealand and Qantas, as well as some lesser known routes on Air Tahiti Nui through Papeete and Hawaiian Air/Air New Zealand through Honolulu. I also called the American Airlines award desk incessantly to check Air Pacific availability through Nadi, Fiji. Finally, I added Qantas routes via Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne.
The closest I got was when one business award seat opened up on Air New Zealand from Honolulu to Auckland. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any saver awards open in either business or economy into Honolulu from the West Coast, and I wasn't willing to book a separate standard award - yet.
My patience paid off, however, when finally, a couple days ago, a business award seat opened up on Air New Zealand from LAX to AKL! In addition, there was availability from SFO to LAX as well in domestic first class on United Airlines. I literally jumped out of bed when I saw the email alert and immediately logged onto the Continental website to book my award flight. Continental remains one of the very few domestic airlines that displays partner award seats on their website, and also allows you to book directly online, saving you the $25 phone fee.
So for those of you looking to book tickets to New Zealand from the West Coast at the absolute peak holiday season, have hope that with enough patience (and a membership to ExpertFlyer), you may just be able to snag a business class award seat. In fact, after I booked my LAX-AKL ticket, I noticed that another business seat opened up about two day later on the same flight. And after that one was gone, yet another seat opened up a day later. That one is gone now as well, and I haven't seen any more availability since then, unfortunately.
In any case, I am absolutely relieved that this ticket-booking ordeal has finally come to an end. New Zealand here I come! :)