Marlborough Wine & Food Festival cancelled for the first time ever

By Tracy Neal for RNZ

Organisers of next February's Marlborough Wine & Food Festival have pulled the plug early.

It is the first time in the event's 36-year history it has been cancelled, but the potential lingering challenges over COVID-19 posed too much risk.

Marlborough Winegrowers board chair Tom Trolove said it had been a really tough decision that would impact businesses in the community.

"But the board was clear that in these unprecedented times, it had to prioritise the safety of the harvest.

"The Marlborough Wine & Food Festival celebrates our industry on the cusp of our harvest, and that's a risk," Trolove said.

The one-day harvest festival was owned and run by Wine Marlborough, and normally attracted up to 8000 people.

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens said planning had been well underway, but they had to ensure the harvest went ahead without risking community transmission of COVID-19.

The industry faced severe workforce challenges this year as strict lockdown rules hit as the harvest was just starting.

"It's really about the risk from holding an event so close to our harvest period.

"We get one opportunity to get the grapes off the vines and into the wineries, and that was really the biggest threat to us, and bringing 8000 people together on the one site in New Zealand's largest wine region was really something we thought was too big a challenge to overcome."

Trolove said the past month has been a reminder that the world remained in a time of uncertainty, and New Zealand's situation could change at any time.

"What is certain to us is that we have to do all we can to protect the health of our people, and the economic lifeblood of this region."

Marlborough's wine industry made up almost 78 percent of the national grape harvest, and accounted for at least 80 percent of all exports, currently worth $1.923 billion a year.

A report from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research said the wine industry made up 19 percent of Marlborough's GDP, and employed 4850 people - one in five jobs in Marlborough.

Pickens said tickets were due to go on sale, and it made sense to let people know now.

"It's better than changing half way through the process, or close to the event."

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens and Marlborough Winegrowers board chair Tom Trolove.
Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens and Marlborough Winegrowers board chair Tom Trolove. Photo credit: RNZ

He said it would mean a loss for the region's visitor economy, which was already hard-hit.

"We understand it's definitely a blow to our tourism sector, but we've realised the potential risk to Marlborough's economy through not having a grape harvest is so much larger, and we know this is the right decision to make."

Super Early Bird ticket holders will be offered a 100 percent refund.