30th September 2016
As the 2016 wine harvest gets fully underway across the Northern Hemisphere, I reminisce about my own harvest experience earlier this year…
In February of this year, I completed an important rite of passage.
I worked in a winery for the first time.
This may not sound very dramatic or rite-of-passage-worthy. After all, I’ve worked in the wine industry, selling and teaching about this divine nectar, for thirteen years. So why was it such a big deal for me? Two reasons, really.
First, despite the fact that I had spent many years of my life studying for wine exams and visiting dozens of wineries the world over, grilling winemakers on the specifics of their fermentation temperatures/yeast strains/barrel-ageing regimes, I had never actually got down-and-dirty during harvest time myself. The time had come.
Secondly, when I tentatively mentioned my plans to friends and colleagues, I was met with a unanimous reaction.
‘Anne, you are so precious about your nails and can’t even lift a case of wine…how are you going to survive even one day in a winery?’ The moment that my statement of intent was actually met with a throwing-back-of-the-head level of roaring laughter (you know who you are), my decision was cemented. I was going to prove them all wrong.
And prove them wrong I did.
My winery of choice was the fabulous Keermont Vineyards in Stellenbosch, South Africa. I had long desired to visit the Western Cape, so choosing South Africa was an easy decision. The only challenging part was finding a winery which would actually take me on, given my lack of hands-on experience. Luckily for me the talented Alex Starey, winemaker at Keermont, decided to take the risk.
My experience at Keermont was wonderful. Not only is it situated in one of the most visually stunning parts of the Cape, it is also making excellent wines with a minimal-intervention, traditional approach, and is full of delightful people. I was welcomed warmly by Alex and his lovely wife Caryn, their gorgeous daughters Chloë and Ayla, by owner Mark Wraith, office team Linda and Juanita, fellow intern and harvest buddy Shane Brannan, and the rest of the fabulous team at Keermont. Thank you all for making my experience so memorable.
One of the many stunning vineyards at Keermont
So what did I actually learn along the way? Well…there are SIX key things I will take away from my first winery experience. If you are a seasoned winery worker, none of this will be new to you. If, like I was earlier this year, you are entirely new to this concept, you may learn a thing or two…
1. It’s great for your bingo wings
Keermont is an artisan winery which works traditionally, without extensive machinery to assist with the daily tasks of winemaking. One such task is the pigeage – the ‘punching down’ of the thick crust (‘cap’) of skins which have risen to the top of a fermenting red wine tank due to the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast. Mixing this crust with the fermenting juice enables the extraction of colour and tannins from the skins of the grapes. You do this with a long stick that has a flat piece of wood attached to the end. But boy, is it not as easy as it sounds. I was only able to manage it successfully when a) I could stand on a box beside the tank and b) the tank was low enough that could I lever my entire body weight over the top of it. Only then did I have enough power to break through the cap. #weakling! However, I did notice that the day after my first attempt, my triceps were definitely hurting. And as time passed, the task got slightly easier and my arms had a little less wobble. Who needs Davina McCall when you can do punch downs?!
Working on those bingo wings
2. You can eat whatever you like
Winery days are long and relentless. But this shift from sedentary desk work to active manual labour is not all bad for a hedonist like me. It is fair to say that I did not exactly return from South Africa with a sylph-like figure, but I can say that the amount I ate would have had a much more noticeable impact had I not been on the move all day long, shovelling and lifting grapes.
3. You need to be in touch with nature
The first time a spider crawled up my arm from amongst the freshly de-stemmed grapes, I was remarkably calm. The men expressed surprise and admiration at my serene demeanour. I said: ‘just you wait’. Sure enough, the next day all heads swivelled round as a piercing scream rent the air. The spider was huge! The odd cicada gave me a shock too, being perfectly camouflaged against the green of the leaves. Such encounters did impress on me the importance of being at one with nature whilst working in the winery, and also the crucial role played by the sorting table, at which one stands for endless hours patiently picking out every piece of ‘MOG’ (‘matter other than grapes’) which catches the eye, including our eight-legged friends.
Remaining calm and focused at the sorting table, despite the threat of spiders
4. Have you seen the film ‘Groundhog Day’?
Groundhog Day is shorthand for a day which repeats itself over and over…..and over….and over again.
Welcome to the winery.
At 7am I would typically be in the winery taking sugar and temperature measurements from each of the tanks, in order to monitor the progress of the fermentations. By the time I had finished that, the vineyard teams would have picked the first batch of grapes, which were driven to the winery and loaded onto pallets. After my spider experience, I began to volunteer to take up a post at the upper sorting table where spiders were easier to spot. My job involved heaving the crates of grapes from the pallet onto the table, pulling out any leaves (and cicadas) and pushing the fruit through to the destemmer machine, from where it would descend to the second sorting table.
Initially this was great fun and a fabulous core workout to rival any of Davina’s home videos. The first time I got to the last crate in the pallet, a huge grin spread over my face and the thought ‘time for second breakfast’ crossed my mind….until out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed the forklift truck coming round the corner with another pallet of crates. My heart sank. And so it continued.
Crates…and crates…and crates of grapes to be heaved
By the time 5 or 6pm arrived the fruit would typically all be processed and safely in tanks ready to begin fermentation. As before, I had a tendency at this point to think that the work was done and that it was nearly dinner time. Oh no. Before my Keermont experience I had written a Master of Wine practice exam essay on ‘winery hygiene’ but the concept was entirely theoretical to me. I did not fully appreciate that at the end of a working day in a winery, the full clean-up takes at least two hours. This includes sweeping (oh, so much sweeping) of grape debris, the thorough cleaning of the equipment (never volunteer to clean out a wine press by hand – those pesky pips get everywhere), and the hosing down of the entire winery.
So much sweeping!
The next morning, you wake up and do it all again.
You’ve been warned.
5. You learn about teamwork
The concept of teamwork truly came into play on one particular Saturday, when the majority of the regular Keermont team had most of the day off after having picked the fruit in the morning. This left Alex, Shane and me to carry out all the winery tasks on our own. We soon got into a rhythm of heaving, sorting, shovelling and transferring to tank. I have never done so much physical work in my life (hear that, doubters?). There were extra tasks to carry out at the clean-up stage too – on that afternoon I single-handedly power-hosed over four hundred picking crates in preparation for Monday’s harvesting.
I can safely say that I have never enjoyed a dinner more than I did that evening’s braai under the stars.
One of the Syrah fermentations bubbling away
6. You will re-connect with your inner child
Hard manual labour aside, there are some winery tasks which are endlessly fun. My favourites: delving my arm deep into the fermenting tank to extract a sample of juice for the sugar and temperature analysis, and never growing bored of the amazing deep purple stain on my skin; hosing down the winery with a pair of wellies on; and last but not least, climbing into the container of grape stems to stomp them down and make room for more!
Crime scene…or wine measurements?!
So as you can see, I learned a lot. Hopefully the above will give you an honest idea of what to expect if you decide to try out winery work for yourself. Despite the physical challenges, the repetitive nature of the work, and the damage inflicted on my precious nails (soon put right by a restorative visit to the spa), I can safely say that it was one of the most special experiences of my life. The quality of the wines I was working with (and drinking, it has to be said), the warmth of the people I met and the stunning beauty of the location all made sure of that. The South African wine industry is alive and kicking right now, with a passion which was fully in evidence at London’s recent Intrepid South Africa event. Watch out for this country’s wines: they won’t disappoint you.
And I will certainly be keeping a close eye out for those Keermont 2016s.
2023 UPDATE: I got my hand on some 2016s, and boy are they good! I only have one bottle of white left (the wine on which I performed bâtonnage with my own hands 😍) and a few of the single-vineyard Syrah wines which still have life ahead of them. Each time I drink one, I am filled with joy at the happy memories of this special time!