Red Deer Wine was at the Feb 8, 2014 Marlborough Wine Festival. Everyone had a great time sampeling a unique selection of Marlborough wines along with some delicious local produce and gourmet cuisine.
About the Marlborough Wine Festival
It started small, with just four wineries involved. It has grown into New Zealand’s largest and longest running wine festival, that this year will include more than 60 wineries and hundreds of different wines.
Wine Marlborough Festival has become an institution within the province and gained national and international recognition.
So 30 years on since the very first one, how much has the festival helped the growth of the wine industry in Marlborough itself? According to one of the men who has been part of every event, it has not only helped promote the end product – it has highlighted Marlborough as an iconic producer. Gerry Gregg has vivid memories of that very first festival back in 1985. It was tiny in comparison with today’s event.
Blenheim was a small country town back then, with just two streets of shops, a population of less than 20,000, hundreds of hectares of cropping and livestock farms, and just a few hundred hectares of grapes sprouting up within the main Wairau Valley. The summers were hot, the land was often parched and size of the province meant that community projects were well supported. Such as the brand new Marlborough Centre, a self styled theatre and conference base in the heart of the township. Hundreds of voluntary hours of fundraising had seen the building rise out of the ashes of what had been the Farmers Department Store, providing the region with its first custom-built entertainment complex.
The opening of the Centre was planned for February 1985 and the entrepreneurial Grape Growers could see it was the perfect time to promote the every growing wine industry. (Many of those original members are now renowned for their role within the industry, including Neal Ibbotson, Ivan Sutherland, and Hamish Young.)
“A wine tasting was held in the Marlborough Centre on the Friday afternoon, for invited trade from Wellington, Christchurch and Nelson,” Gerry remembers. “They were given fruity Muller-Thurgaus, classy Sauvignon Blancs and heavier but smooth Cabernet Sauvignons!”
It didn’t end there though. Onto a good thing, the organisers then used Saturday to promote what was happening out in the country. Admittedly there wasn’t much to show back then, not when compared with today. Only four wineries were up and running. Te Whare Ra, Hunters’s, Montana and Cellier Le Brun.
But that didn’t deter anyone. Te Whare Ra held an arts type festival on site at their winery in Renwick. Local arts and crafts were displayed, folk musicians entertained and those attending were given the chance to try out the latest wines. Just down the road Daniel Le Brun was establishing his new champenois winery. A tractor-hay trailer was on hand to transport people between the two venues, with Daniel showing people through the impressive winery that included a hillside cellar.
Back in Rapaura, Hunter’s had all day barbecues, wine tasting and entertained invited guests from throughout the country. On the other side of town at Montana, Gerry remembers the top town style of day that was held outside the Riverlands winery. “We had a merry go round, paddy’s market, tours of the winery, wine tastings as well as traditional style vintage competitions such as barrel rolling and grape stomping. People could stomp the grapes and then fill a glass with juice. “Every three quarters of an hour a bus left to make a grand tour of the vineyards. Each bus had a grower on board to answer questions.” But maybe one of the most lasting memories for Gerry is the German beerfest entertainment held on site. “We sang German drinking songs and drank mugs of wine!”
The day was deemed such a success that when the headaches cleared, it was obvious a festival event should become a regular. The next year, there was no grand opening of any new entertainment centre, so the Grape Growers decided to concentrate on the wineries in the province. By this stage, Penfolds had joined the growing fray, making five visitor sites available. Anyone who had missed taking part in the first year was unlikely to make the same mistake in the second, so the numbers of people attending rose dramatically. Buses were put on to transport the festivalgoers between the five sites. There was an amazingly casual atmosphere surrounding the event, with the buses only too happy to stop off at individual’s houses to pick people up. It was a festival like no other – fun and frivolity abounded, with some fantastic wine being sampled throughout the day.
But the numbers of people attending surprised even the organisers. There weren’t enough buses to cope with the demand and in the end many people decided to stay put at their second or third site and just sit back and relax – with wine of course. There is a famous story of three grape grower members who were marshals at the Penfolds site. Their job was to ensure people were kept on the move. Let them have a wine tasting, then make sure they got back on the bus and moved to the next site. Throughout the day they were in contact with other site marshals via radio telephones. There was no such thing as cell phones back then!
However during the afternoon, all three decided to turn off their radio telephones and join the party. No one was marshalling the festivalgoers, which meant the crowd backed up at Penfolds, while some of the other sites further along the trail remained empty.
Except for Montana, who for many was the starting point for the wine trail. Gerry says because they had brought in entertainers, many people were reluctant to leave, which left them with a massive crowd also.
Again the event was a success, apart from the lack of buses. Gerry says it became apparent that they needed to seriously look at containing the festival within one single site.
So as Festival number three drew closer, organisers began looking for the perfect site.
Bill Floyd, who at the time was working at The Marlborough Express, (one of the major backers of Festival 1987) remembers the small committee standing within the confines of the A&P showgrounds. Dusty, stark and home to sheep, cows and other livestock competitions, it wasn’t the ideal site. But beggars couldn’t be choosers, it was the only venue large enough to house wineries and festivalgoers within the Blenheim township. Gerry Gregg didn’t like it and suggested that maybe the committee might like to have a look at one of Montana’s vineyards.
“So we all got into our cars and followed Gerry out to Brancott,” says Bill. “We stood there with him at the base of the natural amphitheatre and I remember thinking, this would be magic.”
The single site festival was born and this time instead of hundreds of people, thousands turned up.
“It was a really beautiful festival, we created a true village atmosphere,” Bill says. “New Zealand is so sophisticated in so many ways now, but back then that festival was something completely different to anything I had ever experienced. I sensed some sort of French thing that I had never experienced in New Zealand before. We could have been sitting in Provence.”
Wine Marlborough Festival has been held at Brancott ever since. It has been a massive undertaking for the company’s staff with hundreds of hours spent getting it ready for the one-day event.
The 330hectare vineyard, 5km from Blenheim, was the very first to be planted in Marlborough. A large 4ha site has remained free of vines, with the company even removing some older plantings 15 years ago to increase the site size.
“Our vineyard staff put in a lot of hard work to ensure it is right for the day,” says Gerry. “They spend weeks mowing and watering and getting it perfect. I have had only terrific comments over the years, comments like ‘a real picture’, and ‘how lucky Marlborough is to have it’. The company sees it though as part of our donation to the province.”
Over the years there have been many people who have played a major role within the festival. Mike Blair who used to be the Blenheim manager of Air New Zealand played an integral part in gaining sponsorship from the airline. That in turn saw dozens of the country’s and world’s leading wine writers brought in to not only highlight the festival itself, but also the wines that were on show. For years the residents of Blenheim and Renwick would be woken on Festival morning by the sounds of Boeings arriving from all over New Zealand, full of people keen to be a part of the day. The planes would disgorge their passengers, with many being taken by bus to breakfast at vineyard sites, prior to the festival beginning.
Malcolm Aitken a grape grower was on board in those first years and was the face of the organising committee during the 80s and early 90s. He and his wife later would host a major breakfast at his vineyard behind Cloudy Bay Winery. “Ninety-eight percent of those people that used to come down from Auckland had never been to the South Island. They flew in here, all dressed up the nines, and came here for a breakfast. They were sitting here eating whitebait and drinking wine on my front lawn. They honestly thought that this was the festival site.”
But it hasn’t always been an easy affair. Over the years the festival had its up and downs, and at one stage almost lost itself, according to Bill Floyd. It went from being an event to promote Marlborough Wines, to a huge party, with the numbers attending rising above 10,000. (There are some strong discrepancies about just how many attended the largest festival in 1990. Some say it was close to 20,000, others say it was far more like 13,000.)
Whatever, it was a huge event, with numbers higher than normal because the Queen was due to visit the site only a matter of days later. “Her English security found it hard to believe that we could allow this and placed security personnel on the surrounding hills during (festival) day and the next four days. That year the numbers were also swelled by the track suited security,” Gerry says.
These days the ticket numbers are limited to 8000, with all expected to be sold prior to the event. (There are no gate sales on the day.) Wine and food still dominate, although entertainment also plays a major role. Over the years some of the biggest names in New Zealand entertainment have been lured in to take part. Gary McCormick, Sam Hunt, The NZ Army Band, The Finn Brothers, Annie Crummer, Gin Wigmore, Hello Sailor, and Salmonella Dub just a few of the big name attractions. This year top New Zealand bands Phoenix Foundation will lead the bill.
Wine, sunshine, good food and entertainment always led the party atmosphere, with the end of the day inevitably seeing the hay bales provided for seating, being torn apart for a hay fight.
When Gerry is pushed to give a lasting memory of the past 21 festivals – his succinct reply is “hay fights and the singing in the buses.”
Marlborough’s wine festival may have been the first of its kind in New Zealand and is still considered the largest, but it is under attack from a plethora of similar events. Nearly every wine region has followed the success and developed their own form of festival to promote their products, with many drawing on the experience of Marlborough organisers.
While professionals are involved in organising many of those other events, Marlborough’s festival is still run by a small volunteer group. That is one of the major reasons it has lasted so long according to Gerry.
“We have always had the right people on the committee, all volunteers. We run with what others would say is a very small group, but it gets down to having the right people.
“For Marlborough I believe it has been the greatest single yearly event. It has brought in thousands of visitors that may not have visited or stayed in Marlborough otherwise. How many of those visitors now have decided to live here? “It has done exactly what it was formulated to do. Draw attention to the Marlborough wine industry and show the world what we have to offer.”