Visitors spread festival message
For the past week Richard Riddiford has been anxiously peering skyward, searching for signs of rain. "You can always get a bit nervous about things at this stage," the Toast Martinborough chairman says. "You can certainly get nervous about the weather."
Today, 10,000 people will rumble into Martinborough, slurping their way through 9500 litres of wine and 30,000 portions of food. The event has been a favourite day out for people around the Wellington region since 1992 - with many returning year in, year out.
Fine spells will be interspersed with showers in Martinborough today.
A MetService forecaster says showers are expected this morning and current gusty north westerlies will be tending more south westerly later today.
The afternoon will be a mix of fine spells and showers, increasing in the evening. A maximum of 15degC is expected.
Over the years the festival has mostly been blessed by clear skies and spring sunshine, but there has been the odd blip, Mr Riddiford says. "We've had hail, we've had rain, one year we had to take our marquee down otherwise it would have blown into Lake Wairarapa.
"Although when the weather's been bad, it's actually ended up being a party on the buses."
This year 10 vineyards are involved, including four "originals" in Palliser Estate, Ata Rangi, Martinborough and Te Kairanga.
Each receives $6500 from Toast to take part.
With a slick marketing campaign, the event has come a long way from the first year, when it was dreamt up by a group of like-minded vineyard owners.
Mr Riddiford, who is managing director at Palliser, was the inaugural Toast chairman, and last year took over the reins again.
He admits that organisers were initially "flying blind". "We really didn't know what was going to happen, but it just seemed to work.
"It was incredible after the first festival the number of letters we received - there was even an editorial about it in The Dominion Post - saying that we had changed wine festivals in New Zealand.
"Of course, I did have to ring everyone I knew and beg them to come because we had no track record.
"And we were very lucky with the weather because, if it had pissed down, then that would have been the end of it."
Wine production in Wairarapa has more than tripled since 2000, with the 2011 vintage producing 3600 tonnes. The wine-producing area in the region is also more than double the size than in 2000 - at 882 hectares in 2011, compared with 327ha.
While Mr Riddiford will not credit Toast with the expansion, the festival has significantly raised the awareness of Martinborough wines here and overseas, he says.
"When we started, people didn't even know where Martinborough was. But after the first event it was the people who had been who sold the next event for us - just by telling others about it."
The continued success of the festival comes down to a simple recipe, he believes.
"When you think you can go to three or four parties, have breakfast, lunch and dinner and see three bands, if you put it that way it's a pretty reasonable day."
Ruth Pretty's clear memory of the first Toast was not knowing what to expect. "Not knowing how much food to have, or even how many staff to have.
"I also remember having the feeling that everyone who was coming to our site I either knew or knew by sight."
The Te Horo-based caterer has been dishing up culinary delights at Toast every year since, and will start setting up today for her 21st anniversary.
Each vineyard is partnered with a caterer, and Mrs Pretty and her team have combined with Ata Rangi vineyard from the start.
A "perennial favourite" over the years has been her West Coast whitebait with asparagus and hollandaise sauce. It will be on her menu again, with four other dishes, all matched with Ata Rangi wines.
Tomorrow her staff will be among the 1000 workers employed on the day.
Despite months of planning, weeks of preparation and a long busy slog on the day, she still looks forward to the event.
"It's a really enjoyable day and I see a lot of Wellingtonians there. I never would have imagined how successful it's been, and it's a real credit to the event that they've kept going for 21 years with such quality.
"Many people say it's the best and most prestigious wine festival in New Zealand . . . and I think prestigious is the right way to put it.
"It may have had a bit of a stutter last year but, given how long it's been going, that's pretty impressive."
Of the 10,000 festivalgoers who flock to Toast, on average 73 per cent come from Wellington, 10 per cent from Wairarapa, 8 per cent from Auckland and the rest from elsewhere, a recent survey shows. And thanks to a joint Wellington-Wairarapa marketing campaign, Australians too are increasingly jetting in to experience what Toast has to offer.
More than a third of festivalgoers have been at least five times before, and 80 per cent have been at least once - a testament to Toast's popularity.
Barbara Hyde, marketing manager at Destination Wairarapa, says Toast's impact on the region is enormous.
"Whenever you go outside the region, it's what people know. It is what people play back to you.
"If you say you're from the Wairarapa or from Martinborough, they immediately say, ‘Oh, Toast Martinborough.'
"And even if they haven't been themselves, they know about it or they have a brother or sister or mother-in-law that has been," she says.
Several smaller side events have sprung up around the main one, including today's Barrel Race in The Square, A Toast Before Toast at luxury lodge Wharekauhau Country Estate tonight, and the relaxed family concert, Party Marty, at the Martinborough Rugby Club from 4pm-7pm today.
And it is such events that help to pump about $2 million into the local economy, benefiting everyone from service stations to bed and breakfasts.
For a region of just 40,000 people, the benefits are obvious, Ms Hyde says.
"This kind of event is exactly what a small region needs."
"While there's breath in my body, I will be there," vows Jim Neighbour when asked if he is going to this year's Toast Martinborough.
The recently retired Whitby man and his wife Janice have been to every festival since it started in 1992, and they have no intention of stopping. "We look forward to it and we really enjoy it," he says.
"So as long as we enjoy it and as long as we can afford it, we will go."
The couple remember buying tickets for the first event after going to an earlier version on Wellington's waterfront.
They were impressed, but later fell in love with Toast as it was "the real deal", he says. "To actually get out and walk the streets and go to the vineyards . . . it was new and exciting."
After two decades of festivals, the pair have their Toast routine down pat, Mr Neighbour says. "We're always on the first bus, we're always at the front of the bus, and we're always the first through the gates.
"You could almost set your watch by it."
Over the years they have travelled to Martinborough in groups as large as 26, but this year they will be taking two special guests.
Their sons - including one flying in from Melbourne - will join them at Toast Martinborough for the first time.
The Dominion Post