Working A Vintage Season In South Australia

The twelve-hour day shift starts at 6am. They don’t tell you that before you sign up.

Many mornings I was working the colossal corkscrew of the grape crusher before the sun even peeked its hot head over the cusp of the nearest Clarendon hill.

When it finally did, the dawns were magnificent. Light tumbled down onto the vineyards below me, coating my bucolic surroundings in a pale rosy glow. The hills barely green yet, and the heavy steel machinery of the winery blinding me with it’s sharp reflections of the first light.

The smooth, well-oiled whir of the crusher would keep me, only barely, in the present moment. A mixture of extreme tiredness and the picturesque surroundings teamed up to distract me from the task at hand. My bleary eyes focused on the grape bin through the mesh floor below and I altered the dial to slow the process down momentarily.

It’s a fine art to master: Too slow and the pumps won’t process quickly enough, too fast, and the juice will overflow. Bubbling green and red slime gushes, like a scene from a horror movie, over the steel lip until the pace is righted. No matter what the outcome, we would all be power-hosing the pit come the end of the shift. The crusher always won.

A few hours in, the day would warm up as we approached ‘Smoko’.

To non-natives of Australia, this is an ancient institution during which, as I understand it, you take a morning break, eat a pie and chug a coffee. My daily smoko shamefully consisted of several donuts, a Ned Kelly pie (think layers of bacon and melted cheese atop your average cottage pie) and a cup of English breakfast tea. Well, I wasn’t a proper Australian.

The distant sounds of the crush and press whirred into the afternoon and could be heard from any nook and cranny of the rickety old winery. In the heat of the day I could be found lugging buckets of tartaric acid and yeast to the top of an open tank, wrestling with mono-pumps and hoses as wide as my leg, or wielding said hoses in what seemed like an erratic manner above a swirling, frothing sea of red grape juice.

The latter was called ‘pumping over’ and it was my favourite task. Dark, thick, gloopy juice blasted out of the pump that I held like a bazooka in my tense hands. As my small arms gripped, my mind wandered and my eyes occasionally found a ragged hole in the corrugated iron from which, surprisingly there was quite the view. As dusk fell I would use any excuse to hover at the tops of tanks 80 to 95, which towered above the rest at almost 40 feet tall.

The raised metal walkway was like a catwalk through sun’s daily path. Dawn on one side, but by the time I got up there, the most spectacular burning sunset over the South Australian Ocean. Adelaide, a spec in the distance, glowed in the light of the orange sea and I, for a moment, would forget that I’d endured almost twelve hours of manual labour.

Darkness signalled the final chores of the day.

Pumps were accounted for, yards swept, and empty tanks prepped for the next load of juice. In the small laboratory, juices were tested for PH values and maturity. Levels were recorded and the data passed to the wine maker, dictating how many buckets of heavy powder the next workers would be carrying.

As the night shift team arrived under the glare of floodlights, the machinery once again started up and the whole process began once more. Trucks of fresh, plump grapes awaiting their fate – a pawn in the arduous and intricate process that gives us wine.

My sore arms and swollen knuckles were followed by torrid nightmares. Tossing and turning in the hot South Australian summer night, I would be standing in the crusher pit, grapes tumbling over me in there drowning thousands; I would be suffocated by sulphuric fumes and fermentation and wrestle with deafening steel until the early morning.

The work was incessant. That’s the Vintage Season.

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