By: Nicole Campbell
During the 4 months I lived in Bordeaux and worked for negotiant Compagnie Medocaine, I often day dreamed of walking the vineyard instead of translating French tasting notes and editing labels.
The great outdoors! To tend the grapes! A couple days working at wineries like Pichon Longueville and Petit Village only encouraged my misguided fantasies. I rolled a barrel! I’d tell my impressed friends. I added egg whites and everything! I expounded, showing off more than anything.
You can only imagine my excitement at heading to Australia early February to work harvest at Mitchell Winery in Clare Valley. It started off innocently enough with a 2 week tour of Australia and New Zealand visiting McLaren Vale, Coonawarra, the Yarra Valley, Barossa, Marlborough and Hawkes’ Bay- amongst other places. Amazing wines, people, meals and sights were had.
After two weeks of non-stop eating and drinking it was a relief to arrive back in Clare Valley to begin my first ever wine harvest with the Mitchells. Mitchell winery- began in 1975 by husband and wife team Andrew and Jane Mitchell- is a family estate producing consistently excellent wine. Accolades include the Penguin Wine of the Year in 2003, a consistent 5 star rating in James Halliday’s Wine Companion and inclusion in the Financial Times Top 20 Wines of the World and regular Top 100 listings.
Impressive, right? Add to it an adorable wine dog, Louis, a couple of highland cattle and a gorgeous property making fantastic Shiraz, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon and life is golden.
After my first week of harvest I can officially tell you IT IS REALLY HARD WORK. Grapes have yet to arrive in Southern Australia and this week was all about preparing for the crop to come- likely slowly starting to roll in next week.
My first task was melting wax that I then painted on wooden slabs and tanks. After I coated every inch, I blow torched off the streaks of wax to make a smooth covering against any lurking bacteria. These wood slabs are inserted into the tank to hold down the cap of hardened grape skins imparting the grape juice with colour, flavour and tannin. Allow me to present, an iphone photo montage of 3 full days spent repeating this waxing process. Back sore. Brain misses internet (did I mention the winery is in a cell free zone?!). Dreaming of office chairs and French-English dictionaries…
Between axing, melting and burning I also helped wash out a couple of tanks. It is rather awesome to climb inside a tiny tank… until you realize you must clean it by spraying scalding hot water around yourself. Still, a pleasant day time shower and a lot of fun to climb ladders, balance precariously on slanted stainless steel and try not to soak yourself, whille soaking everything else. Never having been particularly handy (surprise, surprise) I have a ton to learn about combing solutions, connecting hoses and running pumps.
Very happy to have a break on Thursday from waxing and cleaning, I spent the last two days of the week on the bottling line. The bottling system is new for the Mitchells, and quite unique for a small winery, where the common practice is shipping finished wine to a larger facility to be bottled.
By adding a bottling line, they instantly have greater control over their finished product, as well as having the decreased cost of outsourcing the work. That being said, running a bottling line is very tricky and temperamental, not to mention dependent on a large amount of staff working the line. A line is exactly what it is. While one member of the team loads bottles, another stacks the finished bottles in cases, while another glues together the cases and yet another stacks cases onto a palate. Plus there is the additional staff to run forklifts and assemble boxes. Tiring repetitive work, but essential. I worked a little bit of everything and have the blisters and glue-burns to show for it.
Next week will be a whole new set of chores, excitement and boredom. Looking forward to lab testing, grape crushing and challenges to come. Until then, I need a beer.