The Waipara Valley Wine and Food Festival is an annual event that celebrates the wines produced in the namesake valley. Such festivals are generally fun to attend, so when our son-in-law told us about this one, it didn’t take long to decide on going. In order to reduce traffic and congestion at the venue, several buses provided for-fee service to the venue from as far south as Christchurch. We caught our bus in mid-morning at the Cashmere Club pick-up point and headed north, the shuttle stopping to pick up additional passengers at six more stations before arriving at the festival grounds at Glenmark Domain.
As we stepped off the bus, the warm northwest winds for which the Waipara Valley is known were blowing stiffly, causing me to wonder if it was a good idea to have come to the festival. Because the winery and food pavilions were set in a forest of trees that served as effective windbreaks, I soon lost interest in the weather and began to get down to the business of sampling wine and food.
First a rant. I paid NZ $57.50 for each ticket, which included the bus fare from Christchurch, admission, a “complimentary” wine glass and entertainment. It did not cover even a limited number of wine samples or the wine glass holders, basically lanyards with an ingeniously designed clip for securing the wine glass around your neck, sold for an extra NZ $3 each (2 for $5). Wine fees were generally $2 for a sample (little over an ounce per pour), $5 for a glass, a bit more if you purchased a vineyard’s logo’ed glass. Some wineries offered purchases of full bottles using EFTPOS, but not credit cards. I felt like I was being nickled and dimed to death, more irritating since I began to worry about running out of cash.
Waipara Valley is known for its zesty rieslings, gewurztraminers and pinot noirs, a result of the warm northwesterlies that blow in the fall. All the wineries had rieslings to sample, many had gewurz and sauvignon blanc, as well as pinot noir and pinot gris. The sampling fee policy restricted our wine tasting to only a few wineries, including one which we really enjoyed when we visited the estate in 2010, Pegasus Bay Winery. Their Aria, a beautifully crafted late harvest riesling, is one of two bottles we brought back home that year. At the festival, we enjoyed the few samples we did have.
What surprised me was the quality of the food. Not typical festival fare, at least by U.S. standards, the food was first-rate. While there were the standard offerings you’d find in the States—chips (fries), hot dogs and waffles—we weren’t so keen on getting those, seeking out Kiwi food instead.
The first place we came across was selling crayfish fritters and garlic scallops, both shellfish locally sourced. There was already a crowd around the booth even if the festival had only been open for an hour. The transaction here typified what happened at all other food stalls. You paid at one station and picked up the order at another, with no claim ticket, relying entirely on the honor system. Nice. The scallops were cooked just right with their corals still attached, a great nosh. More ordinary were the fritters where the eggy batter overwhelmed the mud bugs. Both fritters and scallops were served between two slices of bread to avoid the use of paper plates presumably. We didn’t sample the seafood chowder, which other customers seemed to be gobbling up.
Three restaurants were involved in a cook-off, though unclear how it was being conducted. Regardless, food was being sold by all three, including Isabel’s, where we purchased an order each of bruschetta and grilled lamb kafta. The tomato-basil salad bruschetta was topped with a triangle of grilled haloumi cheese, a refreshing and excellent snack. A sloppy but tasty sandwich to eat was a pita garnished with lamb kafta, very thinly sliced ribbons of cucumber, tomato chutney and grilled red onions and garnished with too much of a tangy mint yogurt dressing.
The Whitebait People pavilion was offering whitebait fritters. Since I first learned of whitebait on our first trip to New Zealand, I’d wanted to try some. The first encounter last July was not so impressive, sold by the shop that otherwise makes excellent fish and chips (Coppell Seafoods), probably pre-frozen patties that were thrown into the frying oil. Today’s was a better example of how Kiwis like theirs, in the form of fritters simply prepared. Sprinkled with salt and a squirt of lemon juice, it was fine, though not something I’d have to have again.
At around 4pm, we piled back onto the bus to take us back to Christchurch, facing the same stiff winds that greeted us on arrival. At the rear of the coach was a group of boisterous, tanked revelers who eventually quieted down as we got halfway to town. All in all, a pleasant day spent in wine country, which would have been even better if I didn’t feel ripped off.