Festival in focus

Last updated 05:00 18/01/2014
Paul Davidson
Derek Flynn
The Marlborough Wine and Food Festival has put the region on the international map. Renwick film-maker Paul Davidson has been documenting its beginnings to mark its 30th anniversary

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Fifty cent festival "francs" were swapped for a glass of wine at the first Brancott Estate Marlborough Wine and Food Festival.

Thirty years on, memories from those early days are being gathered for a short historical film being made by Renwick film-maker Paul Davidson.

Paul has been interviewing some of the festival's key figures and their words will be compressed into five or six-minute, illustrated sound bites for Wine Marlborough.

Events manager Meredith Elley says the 2014 Marlborough Wine and Food Festival on February 8 is a special time for the event, and they wanted to capture the key figures in the industry it represents who were part of the festival's inception.

"[They] had a vision to create something for Marlborough," she says.

"Today 56 wineries are involved . . . they got the formula right from day one."

Malcolm Aitken led the original organising committee and says the logistics of running the festival are huge.

So many things must be sorted to stage an event drawing thousands of people to a rural setting: hundreds of portable toilets, tanks of fresh water, an electricity source to power fridges to keep the wine cool.

Brancott Estate has hosted the wine festival for the past 28 years. For the first two, it was held simultaneously at five different properties and punters ferried between them on buses.

That format reflected the community resources the first festival was celebrating, says Malcolm. He was chairing a committee set up to promote Blenheim's new Civic Theatre, opening on Arthur St in 1985.

The town had been without a theatre for a long time and everyone loved the idea of a week-long entertainment festival becoming an annual event.

Wineries - there were five in Blenheim at the time - agreed to support a wine festival at the end of the week and Hunters, Montana, Te Whare Ra, Cellier Le Brun and Penfolds provided entertainment and set up wine and food stalls on their respective properties.

Between 600 and 700 tickets were purchased for that first festival and buses ferried people from Seymour Square to four of the wineries.

The fifth, Penfolds, didn't have its own premises and used Waterlea Racecourse instead.

In 1986 the community's enthusiasm for a week-long entertainment festival in Blenheim had waned but support was strong for a second wine festival. Like the first, it was held at five separate locations.

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That year, Penfolds linked up with Westmeat Blenheim and set up a day-long restaurant at the Talleys factory on Rapaura Rd.

Support from businesses and local body authorities made the festival a "roaring success".

The former Marlborough County Council got right behind it, TNL and the Marlborough Express were among local business sponsors and Air New Zealand was "fantastic", flying international food chefs, wine writers and travel writers to Blenheim.

Marlborough's profile as a wine region started to grow.

In 1986, then-Marlborough Express marketing manager Bill Floyd proposed a single location be found for subsequent festivals.

The Montana vineyard at Brancott, with its natural amphitheatre, was ideal.

Police were less enthusiastic, Malcolm remembers.

A few years earlier a wine festival had been held at the Ellerslie Race Course in Auckland and the drunkenness and disorderly behaviour among the 30,000-strong crowd had been rampant. Police had declared a similar event would never be held again in New Zealand.

Strict conditions were set when the Marlborough Wine Festival received the official nod.

No wine was to be offered free; all wine had to be sold from small plastic glasses, and festival-goers had to purchase them using special "festival francs".

Half an hour after the 11am opening of the first Brancott festival, the francs had all been sold, forcing volunteers to hurriedly gather, sort, and re-issue the spent ones - again and again and again.

The Brancott event also saw new wineries joining the festival: Cloudy Bay, Almuth Lorenz, Holders Fruit Wines and Corbans all set up stalls in 1987.

"It's just grown from then on," Malcolm says.

He stepped down from the committee in 1989 but he and Jan say the festival is a fantastic promotion for Marlborough. It has been satisfying watching other regions copy what was created here, he says. "And ours is still going."

- The Marlborough Express

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