Traditionally, Marlborough was a region for pastoral farming, but in 1973 Montana planted the first commercial vineyards in the region.
The mild climate and long sunshine hours proved to be ideal, and from these small beginnings the wine industry has flourished, and now the region boasts thousands of hectares of vineyards and dozens of wineries.
Marlborough is renowned for its Sauvignon Blanc, but other varieties are also planted including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Merlot and Reisling.
The demand for land for vineyards has pushed property values up and caused many traditional pastoral farms to convert to vineyards or sell. High land values have in turn driven high property tax (rates) which have often made traditional farming uneconomic. Results of this trend can be seen in the closure of the PPCS freezing works at Riverlands which subsequently converted to an industrial park, and more recently in 2005 the closing of the last apple pack house and abattoir in the region.
A number of people have expressed concern at the conversion of Marlborough to a vineyard monoculture, and at the health risks associated with the various agricultural sprays used in vineyards. A number of wineries have made efforts to provide attractive landscaped areas and facilities for visitors. One result is a multitude of attractive restaurants and events venues suitable for such things as weddings or conferences. Many of these venues also offer opportunities for local artists to exhibit their works.
The rapid growth of the wine industry has provided a boom in employment, however it has also put pressure on contractors to find enough staff. Staffing shortages and fierce competition amongst contractors have resulted in a significant number of illegal migrants being employed in the vineyards. Unscrupulous contractors hire illegal migrants and often pay them at well below legal rates, and provide substandard accommodation, knowing that many of these workers speak little or no English and are afraid to go to authorities for fear of being deported.
Seasonal work opportunities do exist for legitimate visitors from overseas, but the work is long and sometimes in uncomfortable conditions. Reputable contractors and in some case the wineries themselves recognise this, and offer various incentives and assistence to make the working environment more comfortable.
The influx of workers both from around NZ and overseas has driven up the cost of housing, primarily in Blenheim, and has increased the level of cultural diversity. Many local residents have been able to cash in on the labour boom by providing board to visitors to the region.
Apart from seasonal workers, a large number of tourists also visit Marlborough as the locally produced Sauvignon Blanc consistently rates amongst the best in the world. A variety of tourist related businesses exist in the region which depend directly on the wine industry.