In addition to working closely with a winemaker in a tiny winery in the Adelaide Hills for the past four vintages, this year I’ve also been working at what could be described as a medium-sized winery that makes use of fruit from across South Australia. While not an especially large winery when compared with names like Penfolds or Casella, it’s been a big step up for me in terms not only of scale and varieties, but in terms of my role in a team.
The first big difference was that I was hired as a casual cellar hand for the vintage and paid an hourly rate – a fairly generous one at that. I’ve worked as a volunteer in the Adelaide Hills, initially for the experience, and on subsequent vintages because I enjoyed it. So as someone who ordinarily spends most of his time in front of a computer screen typing, it was strangely pleasing both to be doing a fair amount physical labour and to be paid for it.
Second, I was part of a team that consisted of two winemakers, up to four casual cellar hands, and myself. The senior winemaker managed the overall operations of the team and the winery, scheduling the delivery of fruit, the movements from fermenters across to tanks and barrels, and the staffing. The other winemaker was responsible for all the lab work – analysis of sugars, acids levels, temperatures, and progress of fermentations. The two of them set out the daily work to be done by the cellar hands. In addition, both were involved at different points in many other activities in the winery alongside cellar hands, from receiving fruit, digging out fermenters, pressing, racking, cleaning, what have you.
So what was so different about the experience? While I was hired on an “as needed” basis, it’s been pretty much a full time job. Vintage in the Adelaide Hills this year consisted of a handful of days spread over a couple of weeks, but with this job there has been a full day (and often more) of work to do for the last two months. So while vintage is generally the busy time of the year for wineries, this year has been much busier for me, and for a longer duration.
Not only has there been more work in general, but many new experiences. I’ve now worked with Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Colombard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Sangiovese, and even Nebbiolo. I’ve spent more time on a forklift, stacking and unstacking barrels, moving things on and off trucks, and have tipped 500kg bins of grapes into a receiving unit. I’ve used a number of unfamiliar types of pumps, fermenters, and tanks, as well as a press so big that you have to climb inside and walk around to properly clean it. I’ve pumped over Shiraz ferments (as opposed to the gentle plunging when I worked with Pinot Noir), climbed to the top of a catwalk to dip tanks (that is drop a measuring tape into it to see how full it is) and then thrown in chucks of dry ice to lay down a protective buffer of CO2. I’ve done the same on a huge tanker truck, which somehow seemed the antithesis of my experiences in a tiny winery, but if you don’t do your own bottling on site, you need to get your wine to the bottling line somehow. All of that is in addition to jobs that were already familiar from previous vintages, like tipping baskets of grapes by hand, racking off lees, and of course cleaning.
The biggest single difference though has been being an actual cellar hand as opposed to just assisting the winemaker. As an assistant, I was typically working directly with the winemaker or doing a specific task that he assigned me, and the winery was small enough that we could always see each other. As a cellar hand, I spent some time working with winemakers or other cellar hands, but equally often I would be given a task (or assign it to myself if I knew it needed doing) and just get on with it independently. I certainly started the vintage needing to be told what to do, and often needed some supervision in doing it, but these days I typically will know how I’ll be spending my day even as I drive to the winery and can get to work immediately.
Next I’ll try to describe my understanding of the difference between what it means to be a cellar hand and what it means to be a winemaker.