Excitement bubbles over as the eager new intern arrives at 06:30am, a whole 30 minutes prior to her actual clock-in time. This lasts for about a week; after the second week you’ll be missing your Monday morning 8am lectures and 9am Neelsie coffee breaks (I have now revealed myself as the first-time-intern).
As the weeks speed on through you learn to, in the words of Johan Malan, either “ride the harvest wave, or miss it”. The first few weeks are and always will be tough, with all the MCC grapes ripening simultaneously while other white cultivars pick up the balling-chase to the cellar, just tailing the MCC cultivars. There were always a few nights a week that got my hopes up, encouraged by cheerful cellar workers telling me “ons gaan vanaand vroeg chaila (we are going home early tonight)”, only to have my hopes crushed by the sound of a bursting press door, or a load of grapes arriving at 21:00 because the lorry broke down. Those 3am nights will make or break you, and so, after pushing through some very late nights I thought to myself, “Girl, you need a survival plan!”.
Firstly, you need to be open to making new friends during harvest, mainly because your social life only involves a very deep-felt love for your bed. You will make two very important new BEST friends, their names are Berocca boost (or Vitathion) and coffee. These rock-steady companions will get you through the latest of late nights, the earliest of early mornings and the two-hourly punch down shifts.
When the coffee fails, learn to appreciate the smaller things to get you through the day. Open your senses to the things around you. One morning, after a long shift, I felt completely deflated as I walked past the nartjie trees lined outside the cellar. I hadn’t noticed that they were in blossom; the sweet citrus-blossom aromas instantly brightened up my day and added an extra spring to my step. After feeling so happy for noticing something as small and seemingly insignificant as a delicate citrus aroma wafting outside the cellar, I started to take note of other things too. Morning ballings became a lot more interesting when I realised that the fermentations all offered unique aromas that triggered many childhood memories. For example, one section of the cellar smelled like bubbaloo bubble gum for about a week, while the MCC must happily fermented. Another section of the cellar smelled of raspberries and strawberry jive ice-cream.
Eventually, the MCC and white wine grapes give way to the red wine cultivars, which slowly take their time to roll into the cellar and fill up the tanks. This is a completely different ball game, white wine won’t stain your favourite pair of jeans, let alone your hands. After struggling to get my hands clean for about a month, I finally discovered the beauty of citric acid and tartaric acid. To remove the anthocyanin stains from your hands, once a week to avoid damaging your skin, use either as an exfoliating hand scrub with some warm water. Your hands will be left feeling soft and stain free!
Another helpful hint to all harvest interns out there: if you break a balling meter (or three, in my case), it doesn’t mean your going to be doomed as a winemaker, it just means you were a little bit clumsy and that’s okay! However, if you know you’re clumsy or accident prone, I would definitely suggest a good pair of non-slip boots, they last forever and are definitely a lot cheaper than any potential hospital bills.
Following the non-slip boots, a very important and often over-looked harvest essential is a reasonable amount of good, thick pairs of long socks. You will be on your feet all day, every day. Long socks save you from any nasty heel-blisters, as well as keeping the edges of your jeans tucked in to prevent any chaffing. I am almost certain the winemakers at work think I have a very questionable fashion sense, every day I wear a pair of brightly patterned long socks with my ankle boots, because it not only brightens up my day, but it also makes everyone around me smile to themselves a bit, even if its at my expense.
Investing in a pair of insteps is also a very good idea. After my first month of harvest, my feet started getting quite sore so I removed my hiking boots’ insteps and put them inside of my cellar boots, and it made a worlds difference! I wasn’t getting tired on my feet anymore, which put me in a much more positive frame of mind. See, what did I say about the small things?
Always keeping a hat, a pair of harvest scissors/pruning shears and sunblock handy in your backpack or car is also a good idea, you never know when you’re going to be sent off to explore the vineyards, do harvest predictions, retrieve samples or be asked to cut a few bunches. Always be prepared, don’t forget: working in the cellar also involves the vineyard.
The most important lesson I learned this harvest was that if you push through the hardest parts, you start having a lot of fun. Don’t be discouraged when things get difficult, instead, take it as a challenge. Don’t pine after an “easy” harvest, push through a difficult one so that you will be as prepared as ever if mother nature decides to throw you another curve ball like the 2015-2018 drought. Stay positive, appreciate the small things and have as much fun as possible, because I promise, it is possible.