The Lockdown Harvest: Antony Bell Experience the Lockdown Harvest through a Viticulturalist's eyes
Ant Bell, Company Viticulturalist, gives us the rundown of his lockdown harvest.
COVID-19 made for some very unexpected to changes to our normal harvest process. Lucky for us, New Zealand stayed ahead of the curve and introduced some firm expectations when it became clear this was a global phenomenon. This meant the Giesen Group banded together ahead of time to prepare before Alert Level 4 placed the whole country into lockdown. We separated our team into night and day shifts not just during working hours, but in some case into completely isolated bubbles to ensure we minimised any risk to our crew.
I work closely with our Grower Viticulturalist, Craig, so the two of us had moved out of the office to work in isolation at the Cellar Door. My role means I usually go out tasting blocks of fruit and organising a soft schedule for picking the grapes, and then Craig turns it into reality. This means a lot of ongoing communication with our growers – sometimes I charged my phone three times a day because it rang so much! Each time something changed, we communicated this down the line to all the relevant parts of the chain – that could be our winery, transport, growers, industry, and our vineyards. It’s a continually moving operation so reshuffling to keep the show on the road is a big part of the job.
This year under COVID, we did a lot of work before lockdown trying to get clarity on how everything was going to work, so we could reassure our growers we’d be able to pick their blocks. When the announcement of Level 4 happened the phone definitely started ringing! It means a lot to our growers that we can keep them in the loop and give them a bit of comfort and normality, so we really stepped up the comms this year. I think I was hoarse at the end of the day a few times but it was all worth it. And the silver lining was, no one got any of the usual colds or flu symptoms because we were all separate, so it was great reinforcement that we were doing the right thing to keep everyone healthy and safe.
A normal day for me under lockdown meant I started work at 5 or 6 in the morning. Because my wife also works in the wine industry, I’d work until 1pm before going home to switch with her and look after our daughter. Once my wife got home and we had dinner I was able to get back on the computer until about 9 or 10. It was definitely a challenge balancing phone calls with looking after my family – my role during harvest means I can get calls at any hour of the day or night, because picking happens around the clock. Having a great working relationship with our team was really important to help with this.
One big difference compared to a normal harvest was that I didn’t spend much time in the field. We really minimised our movements because of COVID to make sure we weren’t putting anyone at risk. Grower relationships are such a personal thing, so it was really strange not to have that face-to-face communication! We had myself and Craig who were part of the same bubble sharing an office, and we had Fabiano (Assistant Vineyard Manager) organising hand-picking. Fabiano did an amazing job so that took a lot off my mind which was awesome. Fabiano could then build plans directly with our winemakers and we could have two harvesters going at once – we’re a well-oiled machine.
Other strange day-to-day differences were having no cars on the road, which was crazy! It was just trucks and harvesters which felt quite strange. We also missed the social aspect of going to the pub after work to swap notes with other winery teams; usually this helps us keep a handle on overall harvest progress and there’s collaborative problem-solving and operational chats too, so we felt a bit of a loss without that community spirit.
A challenge we had to overcome quite quickly once social distancing came into effect was our documentation processes. Usually this is all on paper and quite manual; some operators don’t tend to use smartphones or email, so we all pitched together to find a solution. There was a real sense of everyone understanding the common cause and working together to get it done. We removed paper being transferred from person to person, to a system we think works better than our old one – definitely a nice win.
The best thing about this harvest was that the quality of the fruit is absolutely outstanding. The Sauvignon Blanc especially, which is about 90% of what we do. I think it might be the best Sauv I’ve ever tried… to get that high quality fruit from such a challenging time made it all feel worth the additional care we’d taken.
About 3 weeks after harvest we got to taste some of the blends, and as soon as I smelt that first ferment, I knew it was going to be a good one! I can’t wait to see vintage 20 rolling out the door. I’m most looking forward to drinking the Sauvignon Blanc from this harvest – so powerful and easy to enjoy. It’s going to be awesome.