It shouldn't have worked - a wine and food festival in a tiny, awkwardly located Wairarapa town that, let's be honest, wasn't exactly a mecca of sophistication 16 years ago.

The punters obviously thought so too, because it took six months to sell tickets to the inaugural Toast Martinborough in 1992. And then only 5000 people showed up.

At last year's event, held as it always is on the third Sunday of November, the tickets, capped at 10,000, sold out in a record five minutes. Here are some other impressive statistics: revellers swilled 12,666 bottles of wine at the 10 participating wineries, chomped through 15,000 parcels of food - including more than 3000 whitebait fritters - and injected somewhere in the region of $1 million into the Wairarapa economy. How times have changed.

In the New Zealand wine festival calendar, Toast, as it's colloquially known, is the local equivalent of Europe's May Day.

New vintages have just been released, it's the height of spring, and locals and out-of-towners alike are thrilled at the chance to dust off their sundresses and shorts after a long winter.

Yet, at the risk of sounding like a wowser, I don't really want to be here. I've got too many deadlines, and I'm too busy to spend a whole day swanning around vineyards and inviting calories to join their cousins on my hips.

I've been to Toast twice before, and both times had a ball. But maybe I'm getting old, because bacchanalian memories of cashed-up, lubricated Wellingtonians turning Toast into a grape version of the Beerfest start to haunt me.

Rachael Fletcher, Toast Martinborough's new general manager, suggests coming a day early to ease myself into the vibe.

We drive over on Saturday morning, leaving the capital in a depressing shroud of mist and drizzle that, halfway across Rimutaka Hill Rd, turns into T-shirt weather.

Rachael's arranged for us to stay at Peppers Martinborough Hotel, the gracious old hotel that anchors the town square and, landmark-wise, is probably to this town of 1300 what the SkyTower is to Auckland.

The hotel's story goes something like this: built in 1882, the elegant two-storey building was once a neglected old booze barn. Before English property developer Mike Laven and his Kiwi wife Sally rescued it in 1995, it was apparently the place to go if you wanted to buy drugs, have a fight or hire a lady of the night.

These days, the shearers' quarters have made way for 16 individually refurbished guest rooms, and the public bar is a magnet for local winemakers, artisan food producers and anyone drawn to good wine and food.

The importance of fermented grapes to this region is hard to ignore: our helicopter ride over Martinborough, Masterton and Gladstone reveals seemingly endless rows of vines. We also get to play paparazzi when the pilot buzzes film-maker Peter Jackson's Masterton mansion.

After a delicious lunch among the vines at Gladstone Winery, we head back to Martinborough for a blind tasting of 80 of the region's new releases. After about half a dozen, I realise I'm way out of my depth, so I leave the specialist wine writers to it. It's a nice touch though, to be able to shoot the breeze with the winemakers afterwards.

On Sunday morning, I'm woken to the sound of loudspeakers as buses start bringing the thirsty hordes from the capital. There's a notable absence of wacky outfits this year - they've been replaced by pretty sundresses and straw hats that ward off the sun already licking the back of our necks.

The beauty of this moveable feast is that because all the vineyards are so close to one another, you can walk - or crawl - between them. If, however, you've been made drowsy by wine and sunshine, there are free shuttle buses to ferry you to the next vineyard. So many, in fact, that every bus available for hire in the lower North Island is doing the rounds here today.

Looking flash with our special festival francs ($1 equals one franc), we start at Te Kairanga, where a 2006 Runholder Pinot Noir sets us up nicely. After all, it would be rude to come here and not celebrate the fact that Martinborough is one of the few places outside Burgundy able to successfully grow the most fickle of grapes.

The secret to Toast's success is not just the wine, though. It's also about the food, and each participating vineyard partners with a well-known restaurant from Wellington or the Wairarapa, which compete for the best-prize dish.

I don't manage to taste the winner - Ata Rangi vineyard's steak and kidney pie, made by the doyenne of Kiwi catering, Ruth Pretty - but my pick of the bunch would have to be Ata Rangi's whitebait fritters with asparagus and hollandaise sauce, followed by Sugar Club scallops.

The music is also a major drawcard, and this time around it's no exception - from the soothing sounds of jazz that accompany the above-mentioned scoff-fest, to the rocking Beat Girls and crowd favourites, the Warratahs, there are no shortage of tunes to shake your booty to. My personal favourite is the socially conscious Rhombus at Craggy Range vineyard whose dub and bass draws a huge crowd of mainly younger festival-goers.

But you know what the best part of the entire day is? The fantastic, laid-back atmosphere. Unlike previous years, I don't see any boorish behaviour, aggression or silly drunks doing even sillier things (apart from the naked couple who had to be forcibly removed from one vineyard, and we arrive too late to witness that particular spectacle).

Instead, this gustatory journey that takes in some of Martinborough's greatest hits is a delight all around. I'm glad I made it and I'll be back next year - if I can get a ticket, that is.