Smoko! The words my fellow vineyard workers and I looked forward to twice a day while working in the Martinborough vineyards.
Halfway through January I didn’t expect to be working on the Martinborough vineyards until I stumbled across the Back Packer Job Board.
Three hours later I was all sorted to spend time in Martinborough working in the vineyards.
My goal for this experience? To expand my knowledge of wine after the wine festival in Georgia furthered my interest in wine.
On Feb 1st I turned up in Martinborough with no clue of what was going to happen over the next few weeks. That evening I was dropped off at my new home (below). A large two bedroom house on a vineyard with five others (1 German, 1 Brazilian and 3 Hungarians).
The next morning I was up before 7am, a very rare feat for me. One I would refuse to stop me going to bed before midnight. Destination: Murdoch James Vineyard. Goal: To cover all of the rows of vines with nets.
The others in the house had this confidence about them. They knew what they were doing….me, clueless. I didn’t say much that first morning, it was all observation. After half a day or so, it was apparent the majority had no experience at netting either. Yay I’m not the noob.
In my 27 years on this planet, any form of labour work is something I’ve avoided. The first few days on the temperatures across the Martinborough vineyards sored to 31, 31 and 32 degrees Celcius. These three days would be the hottest days for my whole time in Martinborough. I guess it could only get easier from then.
The first week I was waking up with sore muscles as I stumbled into the lounge 10 minutes before departure to get ready for the day.
The whole purpose of netting is to prevent birds from getting access to the grapes as they ripen. Grapes are sweet, and like us humans most birds are drawn towards sweet things. When the birds get access to the grapes they’re left with ‘bird peck’. It’s obvious to spot and in the coming days those grapes with bird peck will start to turn vinegary. A winemakers worse nightmare in the quest to make a decent bottle of wine.
The netting wasn’t always monotonous. There was a few different roles we could partake in and each of the wineries seem to have a slightly different process to each other. Clipping was my preferred role (pro clipper above), it involved a tonne of bending down and standing back up but there was the chance to have a break at the end of each row while the tractor got set up again. And it was easy enough to put the headphones in and before you know it the next smoko break was up.
We were able to work most days netting in February. The nets needed to get on ASAP once the grapes start ripening. The only major barrier to completing netting was the wind. If the wind is too strong, shit hits the fan and the nets will do what they want. Luckily the winds were minimal throughout Feb (and it barely rained) so we got into quite the nice rhythm.
Once the netting was complete, there wasn’t a whole lot to do on the vineyards until the picking season was to begin. So off I went exploring the North Island a bit more covering Rotorua, Coromandel and Auckland.
Returning back to Martinborough a few weeks later it soon became apparent how sensitive the grapes were to weather. It was initially expected the grapes would be ready to be picked on early-mid March. However the weather had started to not be quite so nice and the next week would see no grapes being picked at all.
There was a couple of days picking up pumpkins randomly!
Our boss, Jawl who coordinates all of the temporary workers everyday to head to the various vineyards held a welcoming party which was a great way to meet a few of the people who were in town for the Martinborough picking season.
Eventually I and ~20 (~80 odd were participating in the Martinborough Harvest) of us were summoned to our first day of picking on Luna Estate. She was a sensational day and Luna became my favourite of the Martinborough vineyards to pick grapes on in the end.
There was three factors that influenced how good or bad the winery was to pick in:
- height of the grapes on the vines
- how many leaves were left on the vines
- what condition the grapes were in
The vines at Luna were at a great height so your back wasn’t suffering hour after hour. The leafage was minimal, barely existent in some areas which were another plus and finally we could essentially pick all the grapes without thinking was due to bird peck and bot (mould) being non-existent-ish.
The worst vineyard to pick at would have been Cirrus where we were picking here towards the end of the Martinborough Harvest. There is nothing quite like grabbing a bunch of grapes and your hand going straight through the mush (read” mould), making your hands stickier than they already were.
The winery I spent the most time on was Murdoch James. It’s one of the biggest wineries in Martinborough and there was always 20+ of us picking there. The full-time crew there were awesome and while it wasn’t always the easiest picking (some of it was very easy), considering it was a 10-minute drive from home it was always awesome to be working there too.
The grape picking itself wasn’t too bad at all for the most part. The majority were despising it by the end…some were complaining about their backs, some didn’t like that we wouldn’t know what time we were finishing until the winemaker would say stop minutes before, some didn’t like the idea of a bit of hard work. These were the three main reasons but in all honesty, it was fine. You get to chit chat most of the day…as long as you are picking grapes when talking the supervisors are chill.
The work wasn’t that hard as a snipper (fancy term for a grape picker). Snip. Snip Snip. Snip. Snip. The sound does get repetitive. If you had to lift the buckets full of grapes all day then it would qualify as tough work but snipping and throwing grapes down into the bucket isn’t tough.
The full time vineyard workers are primarily kiwi and are legends. They’re chilled out pretty much the whole time and are always up for a laugh which makes the working environment wicked. Way better than being stuck behind a desk having to look over your shoulder to see where your boss is.
What Is Smoko?
Smoko is kiwi slang for morning tea/afternoon tea. Pretty much all of the contractors were from Europe so the term was new to all of them.
My preferred smoko snack on the vineyards was anything involving peanut butter. That was normally peanut butter sammies, or apples/carrots/bananas with peanut butter on top.
Did I Get To Drink Much Wine?
I had high expectations going into the Martinborough harvest. Would we get a bottle given to us from time to time or a sample? Nope. It wasn’t meant to be this time around. Martinborough is more of a boutique wine growing region so the price/bottle is higher than those from other areas of the country. I hardly drank any wine from Martinborough at all!
Would I Work On The Martinborough Vineyards Again?
Hmmmm. I’m going to say yes. While I didn’t learn as much about wine as I was expecting…that was my fault as I didn’t put in as much effort as I could have. On my days off I could have gone to the wineries myself and been nosey/attend tastings.
In terms of money, the minimum wage in New Zealand is decent ($15.25) but given we barely worked 35 hours most weeks it wasn’t a great way to save cash up. Some people were able to work on the contract which means the faster you pick the higher your hourly is. While it’s good in theory there is no way to rely on this form of picking as it’s not always available as winemakers are day by day prospects. And if there’s the threat of rain in the forecast essentially all picking is postponed for that day. That was frustrating as.
Should You Do It?
The Martinborough harvest was the first kind of seasonal work I’ve done so I can’t compare it to other seasonal gigs but there’s no harm in it. Vineyards are found in sunny regions so there’s that going for it. They tend to be also away from large cities so if you like the laid back lifestyle it will be right up your alley. Just don’t go there planning to save thousands upon thousands of dollars though there’s plenty of free things to do in Martinborough and of course there are plenty of free things to do in New Zealand in general.
If you would like the details of the contractor I worked for in Martinborough, send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org .
For the record I only needed plasters on two occasions when I snipped a little too close to me fingers.
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