The Lockdown Harvest: Duncan Shouler Read the story of harvesting grapes during lockdown
Senior Winemaker Duncan Shouler shares his story of how COVID-19 affected vintage 2020.
As Giesen Group’s Senior Winemaker, I’m used to harvest being a pretty busy time, but harvesting under lockdown really took things to another level.
My day-to-day tasks during harvest are all about keeping production moving.
I help to plan the intake of fruit into the winery, how we’re going to treat it once it arrives, what fruit is being combined and what should be kept separate. I work closely with our Viticulture team to make sure there’s a smooth flow of fruit. It’s also my job to taste our white wine ferments, and decide what actions need to be taken based on those tastings. Between those tasks and trouble-shooting any issues that arise, there’s never a dull moment during vintage. You could say winemaking is a moving target – sometimes the goal posts feel like they’re changing hourly.
While working through vintage we’re used to very long hours and high pressure. You only get one chance to bring the fruit in, so it’s got to be right! This sets up the wine we make and sell for up to five years, so the pressure is definitely on. Lucky for us, things move much slower outside the vintage period.
COVID-19 for us brought a very real concern that we might not be able to harvest at all. When we reached the highest alert level just as picking got underway, we were very relieved to be named an essential industry and therefore allowed to operate under strict restrictions designed to prevent our crew coming into contact with the potential spread of the virus. Because of this, our whole team – and in fact the whole country – were in lockdown for the majority of harvest.
During the lockdown harvest I led the day shift, starting at 7am and finishing at 6:30pm. Our Chief Winemaker, Nikolai St George, took the night shift – certainly a big difference as we usually work together very closely. Our night shift and day shift teams were completely separated from each other in self-contained “bubbles”, which meant we had a firm deadline to allow a 30 minute gap for cleaning between shifts. Lockdown measures meant we had an entire hotel filled with Giesen day shift crew, so we could be sure we were meeting our strict isolation safety standards. As I was one of this team, once 6:30pm rolled around it was back to the hotel to catch up on emails and production planning. Ready to do it all again at 7am the next day!
Some of the most notable differences compared to a normal harvest were day-to-day operational changes, like going paperless during the fruit receival process and not spending much time in the vineyards. Instead we made picking decisions based on analysis and guidance from our Viticulture team. This was a pretty big change compared to the amount of time we usually spend in the vines during a harvest, so took some readjusting.
Other changes were more centered around our people. We spent a lot more time focused on HR tasks, and helping to manage the stress and change in lifestyle with people being isolated due to COVID-19. Then of course we had the visible 2 metre physical distancing throughout it all too!
Undoubtedly the biggest challenge for me was being in isolation away from my family. For six weeks of lockdown I had to stay in a hotel, which was all the more difficult when it was only three minutes’ drive from home!
Another challenge I faced was tasting under time pressure from needing to leave site by 6:30pm each day. We had about 80 ferments to taste and actions to record for each one, all in 45 minutes. This was next to no time, so created a lot of stress.
One unexpected positive though was developing some new processes that actually worked really well. One example is making our operations paperless, which is something we’ll be able to use going forward.
My favourite thing about this harvest would have to be the weather! Conditions were excellent so this is looking like it will be one of the best vintages we’ve had in recent years. The wine I’m most looking forward to drinking from this vintage is the Ara Single Estate Sauvignon Blanc. The weather was just perfect for Sauvignon Blanc and we’re super excited about the flavours and acidity we’re seeing.