“Meisietjie, Lena is die Wingerd-Aaantie (aunty)”, this was one of the very first sentences I heard when I started my internship this year (2018). While I sit here, taking a hefty sip of chilled Sauvignon blanc, I can’t help but think about all of the unseen and almost unheard of hard work that has been poured into each lingering sip of wine.
Some of my fellow cellar-dwellers have been working in the industry for longer than I have been alive; it very quickly dawned on me that these men and women are fountains of knowledge and quirky stories. A winemaker is only as good as the team supporting them, this is a very important lesson for any young or aspiring winemaker to learn. As far as my winemaking internship goes, I can wholeheartedly say that I have landed with my bum in the butter. In my very first week, I had already been taught (by the cellar team) how to build lines, operate pumps, pressure-rack barrels, set up acid and alcohol trials etc..
Almost two months down the line, I can very clearly see why my colleagues are so eager to get to work in the mornings. Each time the viticulturalist brings in grape samples from the vineyard, one of the cellar workers rushes to find me and tell me that I must come and do ripeness asssesments. Within the same breath, forgetting that I have not yet taken any sugar readings, I either get asked, “Where is the sugar lying? Wanneer gaan ons pars (when are we going to harvest)?” or promptly told, “No, no, they are not ready yet”. I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of the winemakers, to have a team that is this enthusiastic and motivated to start harvesting.
In the vineyard, I am constantly greeted with smiles, and even though I don’t yet know the entire team’s names, they all know my name. Every opportunity I have to work in the vineyard is met with people enthusiastically asking me to work with them, as they show me the do’s and don’ts of the day’s vineyard tasks. I think, as consumers, it is very easy to give the winemakers all of the credit when we taste a phenomenal wine, and it’s equally as easy to forget that no person can make a great wine on their own. It’s definitely a team effort.
As much as the teams are teaching me, I have found that learning and teaching work both ways. While doing some crop dropping (green bunches were removed) in order to allow for the Merlot bunches undergoing veraison to ripen, one of the team members said she could taste something familiar in the berry but couldn’t quite put her finger on it. I was very quick to pop a berry in my mouth, purely out of curiosity, and rapidly replied with, “it’s minty, and tastes a bit like bell-peppers”. Her face lit up as she recognised these flavours and agreed with me, where after she explained to me that it made a lot of sense as the viticulturalists wanted us to do the crop-dropping in order to try and lessen the green characteristics of the berries.
I would like to take my hat off to all of the men and women behind wine and thank them for the countless hours of hard work they have put into each vintage. From working long days in 30-40°C weather, to working 15+ hour shifts during the harvest season, I have not heard a single complaint. I am constantly surprised by the amount of passion and hard work the teams put into every task they’re given and how readily they offer help to anyone who struggles. They hold each other accountable for their work, truly working as a team by making sure everyone is doing their work properly.
When harvest started, I didn’t expect anyone to remember me after my pruning practical on the farm in June, however very few had forgotten. While walking through the vineyards on a very hot day, hanging up containers with biological control agents (parasitic wasp eggs), I bumped into one of the suckering teams. I was immediately recognised and greeted with a smile, while being called over to come and see what the team was doing. I was feeling exhausted, and quite honestly did not want to walk all the way back to the other side of the row I had just hung the control agents in. I somehow mustered up enough motivation to put one foot in front of the other and make the journey. What should have been a quick “hi-and-bye” turned into a 45-minute chat about everything from insects, to love advice and weekend shenanigans. I learned another important lesson that day, sometimes, all someone needs is a smile and a good story or two to motivate them and give them a little bit of encouragement. After talking to some of the team members, I had forgotten all about my exhaustion and immediately felt more energized.
Remembering something a viticulturalist had once said to me about the workers always being loud and chatty in the vineyards, I finally understood why. When you’re enjoying your work and the company, laughing and singing while you get through the day, you begin to look forward to tomorrow. Hard work is made a lot easier when it’s appreciated. So, here’s a big THANK YOU, to all of the winemakers, cellar workers, viticulturalists and vineyard workers for all of the hard work that goes into each divine sip of wine!