I had barely stepped foot in Wellington last August when I started to hear rumors about Toast Martinborough, New Zealand’s biggest food and wine festival.
Pretty much every local I met raved about it, convincing me I had to experience it for myself this year. When that many people speak positively about something, you listen.
Ever heard of Martinborough?
Nope, me neither.
While Marlborough on the South Island is the internationally well-known wine region in New Zealand, Martinborough, an itty bitty town an hour east of Wellington, has a thriving wine-producing community all on its own.
And we all know I’m a champion of the underdog and lesser-known regions of the world, especially after living in La Rioja, Spain for a year, which meant I needed to check out Martinborough for myself.
Martinborough is compact, producing only 1% of New Zealand’s wine, and of the 30 wineries around town, almost all of them are small, boutique, family-run vineyards that focus on producing handcraft and high quality wines, especially Pinot Noir, my favorite! Slurp, slurp!
While I’ve toured more wineries than I can remember (hey hey, not because of too much wine!) I’ve always preferred the smaller, more local ones, the ones where you will likely meet the owners while having a sip instead of behemoth vineyards that boast how far their vines extend and their shipments reach.
Martinborough is a pocket of tranquil farms and cozy vineyards, just my cup of tea.
In fact, my very first trip I took outside of Wellington in September was to Martinborough with a friend, so it holds a special place for me. We spent a day hopping from winery to winery before passing out around 4pm and then hiking along the south coast the next day.
I fell in love with this sleepy little chunk of New Zealand, and I couldn’t wait to come back. Apparently, I’m not the only one – I just found out Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron lives over there too. Irresistible!
I wonder if he can introduce me to Leo?
Though I have to be honest, I didn’t fall in love with the drive to Martinborough. There are two main highways out of Wellington on the North Island, Highway 1 and Highway 2 – if that doesn’t give you an idea of how unpopulated New Zealand is, I don’t know what will.
Highway 2 runs over the Rimutakas, a hefty mountain range, to Martinbourgh and the east, and let me just say, that drive is not for the faint of heart.
But…wine. Wine wins. Always.
With the lure of delicious Pinot Noir in the air, it was enough to get me going so I braved the switch-backs and set off again for Martinborough!
Ever heard of Toast?
If you’re a fan of food and wine festivals, Toast is for you. If you’re a fan of local festivals, Toast is also for you too!
It’s difficult for me to even describe how beloved and how popular Toast is in Wellington. 10,000 tickets sell out almost as soon as they go on sale in October for the event a month later, and almost everyone I know who’s been, returns every single year.
80% of people who attend have been to more than one Toast. Holy crap!
For me, that speaks volumes.
Time to see what all the fuss was about.
11 of the Martinborough vineyards participated on Sunday November 17 all day, with huge stages with live music, gourmet food tents and of course, with the wine flowing freely.
Properly caffeinated and ready to go by 9:30, the tiny town of Martinborough was already bursting at the seams when I arrived. When the proverbial whistle blew, everyone was off to the different vineyards.
Each vineyard participating had stages, food and wine tents, tables and spots to relax in the grass or in between the vines, and I found out quickly there is a sort of order to the places to visit throughout the day.
For example, Te Kairanga is normally where people start the day, Alana Estates around noon, and Cape Palliser is where everyone ends up at the end of the day. Chatting up with everyone, it’s easy to figure out, otherwise, just follow the crowd!
It’s like 11 festivals all rolled into one!
Most of the vineyards are within walking distance of each other, but there are TONS of festival buses that make the loop throughout the day, so you can always hop on one or another if your feet get tired.
Since I came to Toast on my own, I spent the morning trying some new wines, eating the signature dishes and attempting to meet as many people as possible – wine helps with that FYI.
I’ve already waxed poetic before about how friendly New Zealanders are, and let me just say, this was reaffirmed when I was at Toast. Everywhere I turned I was meeting a new group of people and having great conversations.
It was just an overall, happy day!
This is perhaps what I love the most about Toast is it is still very much a kiwi festival. If you want to meet locals and get to see something special, these are the kinds of events to look for. Though I did meet a handful of foreigners, most of them were expats living in New Zealand.
While so many festivals around the world have turned touristic and commercialized, Toast Martinborough still feels very authentic and local, not to mention it’s something everyone can relate to – I mean, who doesn’t love good food, good wine and good music?
Nobody, that’s who.
I also made it my mission to try as much food as possible
Momofuku pork belly buns with hoisin, cucumber, coriander, daikon and sriracha sauce – the magic word! I don’t know about you guys, but I will eat anything that has sriracha on it.
From venison burgers to duck confit to poutine (because that’s exotic in New Zealand) I’m fairly certain I left Martinborough 10 pounds heavier. Good thing I wore leggings.
A note for fellow peanut allergy sufferers
While New Zealand doesn’t have peanuts as a common ingredient in most foods, there are a lot of ethnic influences here, especially from South East Asia and the dreaded Thai food.
Now that there is a burgeoning culinary culture here in New Zealand, especially with fusion food, I have to be careful they don’t throw in some “exotic” peanuts as a topping or have satay sauce hidden in somewhere. Luckily for me, they speak English in New Zealand AND they are aware of the threat that peanuts can cause.
Toast was no exception and when I noticed that a menu at one of the wineries had the words “Thai” or “peanuts” listed on any of the dishes, I mentioned my allergy and they were more than accommodating.
Drinking my first Riesling around 10am – hey it was 4pm in America (yesterday) – I strolled around the beautiful vineyards in among the leaves and watching everyone dance around the stage.
Did I mention they give you a wine glass that hangs around your neck – talk about being prepared! If anyone needs to make sure they don’t break a glass, it’s this girl.
By noon, the weather had gotten nice and warm and things were really getting going at the vineyards – i.e. inhibitions were quickly disappearing.
Though I have to add, I stayed for the entire festival, and though people were pretty drunk by the end, it wasn’t sloppy, especially compared with some of the major euro summer festivals and events I’ve attended.
If I didn’t love the fact that I somehow managed to sneak my way into a truly local festival – am I turning kiwi? – it was the fact that Toast Martinborough REALLY is for everyone, and by that I mean a festival of all ages.
It’s extremely popular with yungins’ like me, but I saw plenty of people my parent’s age rocking out to the live music and downing more wine than I could ever imagine, many of them in matching shirts.
Everyone intermingled and got along, it was a beautiful cliched coming together of all ages in the spring sunshine over good food and wine. Toast Martinborough is a perfect New Zealand experience, combining all my favorite things about this little country in one day.
I just hope I’ll be one of the 80% that come back next year – the odds are in my favor!
Have you ever been to a food and wine festival while traveling? Where’s your favorite wine on the road? Ever heard of Toast? Spill!
- Toast Martinborough next year is slated for Sunday November 16th, 2014, tickets will go on sale early October here, follow along closely, you’ll have to buy them as soon as they go on sale
- Many people end up not being able to go so you can sometimes find extra tickets close to the date
- Accommodation in Martinborough books up WAY in advance, so most people shuttle in and out on the same day, you can buy bus and transport tickets when you buy your festival ticket
- Don’t drink and drive – they were giving everyone driving out of Martinborough breathalyzer tests after Toast so you won’t get away with it
- Do bring a hat and sunscreen (both of which I forgot) New Zealand has a hole in the ozone layer above it so you will fry SO much faster than anywhere else
- Don’t expect to hit every vineyard, it’s best to focus on a few
- You buy the food and drinks with festival vouchers called “francs” and you can get them at the entrance and at every vineyard
- Wear comfortable shoes but look cute! Toast is almost like the first big spring event so everyone can’t wait to show up in sundresses and sun hats for it! Take advantage!
- There’s free water at every vineyard (wahoo hydration!)
Many thanks for Toast Martinborough for inviting me – don’t worry, I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own, like you could expect anything less!