Working With Grape Vines in Outback Queensland
My First Day in the Vineyards
Eagerly I joined the other seasonal workers in front of the Wine Cellar. Here was an opportunity to learn new skills that were previously unheard of to me before. There was something romantic about the idea of lovingly tending grape vines to produce a fantastic wine.
Trevor introduced me to Mark the Scotsman and Charlene who came from Papua New Guinea. There were two or three other workers of dubious appearance. They had already been working here for about two weeks. I was the new kid on the block and I was already lost trying to understand what they were saying. Their English was heavily accented by their home country's accent.
Trevor was telling us that we were going to shoot thin today. OK. Walking up and down the rows pulling shoots off vines sounded pretty easy. I don't know why everyone groaned. By the looks of them they were suffering from hangovers.
The drizzling rain that I awoke to was now a steady stream.
Then Trevor told us all to get in the back of the ute and he would drive us down to where we were to start work. This was so much fun. I was going to ride in the back of the ute with no seats or seat belts. Can't do that in the city. As I was about to climb up Trevor said he didn't expect me to ride in the back. I could ride in the front with him. What a kill joy! He dropped the others off and then took me on a tour of the property. He even showed me a place on the river bank where a couple of regular koalas hung out. He proceeded to show me and point out all the technical workings of the water pump which pumped the water from the river for irrigating the grape vines. That bit of information was never of much use to me, but Trevor was very thorough and patient and nothing was a bother to him.
Three quarters of an hour later we rejoined the others.
The rain was getting steadily heavier and it was quite cold. It didn't seem to matter now that I missed my shower last night.
I was very patiently shown how to shoot thin, which is ridding the vines of unnecessary new growth. Apparently you just didn't thin the vine by pulling off any old shoots. You had to be very particular as to which shoots to snip off using a pair of secateurs. A bit more tricky than I originally thought but still not rocket science.
Just as I got the hang of this bit of viticulture I was applauded by the sky lighting up with crazy streaks of blue light followed by the sounds of clashing cymbals and reverberating drum-rolls. Torrents of water were literally dumped upon us. Amidst cheers and laughter we all dashed for the ute. This time I was quite happy to get in the front seat.
It was only about 10.30am and that was the end of my first day in the vineyard.
- The Gurdies Winery Phillip Island - Our Wines
The Importance of Shoot Thinning
As it was extremely wet and very cold I would have to be confined to my campervan and as it was still so early in the day this was a formidable thought. After some enquiries I booked into a cabin just one kilometre down the road from the vineyard.
I had only spent two nights in my campervan and now I was paying good money to stay in a cabin that had lights, hot water, heating and a television. Not quite my intentions so early into my road trip. Much like being at home really.
It rained solidly for the next three days which meant we couldn't work. It was Friday before we got back to the vineyard. Nearly a week since I'd left the security and comforts of my Gold Coast home behind me and I'd only worked for 4.5 hours.
In hindsight I would have embraced that rain and time off because it never rained again the whole time I was in St George and I was there for nearly five months. And the temperatures were always in the high 30 degree Celsius and often over 40 degrees C. The whole of Australia was in a severe drought.
When we arrived for work Friday we were to work in pairs shoot thinning. One person on either side of the grapevine. Being the odd one out, as nearly all seasonal workers travelled in pairs, I was teamed up with Trevor. Now Trevor was about my age and single so of course he received a ribbing from everyone.
We were about half way through an enjoyable peaceful day when I asked Trevor if the others always worked so fast as he and I were just cruising along whilst conversing about all sorts of things. He explained to me that we (but not him) were all on contract rates not an hourly rate so it was up to me how fast I worked as to many vines I thinned and got paid for. Huh! So far I have only worked in total about 8 hours since I arrived and I have paid out for cabin accommodation for the past four nights. Now I find out I've probably only earnt about $5 per hour!
Did this man think that just because I came from an administration background in the city I wouldn't be able to cut it? As it turned out this was exactly what he thought and that attitude was continually reflected throughout my travels. I definately had to earn my stripes wherever I worked.
Once I knew the low down I was off and running. At the end of each week David, the owner of Riversands Vineyard, put up our tallies on the noticeboard. Consistently I came in the second highest earner only beaten by Mark the Scotsman. It didn't matter if we were shoot thinning, leaf plucking, bunch trimming or picking grapes the only person who was faster than me was Mark. And boy did I manage to surprise a lot of people around Australia.
Since the rain had stopped I no longer need to stay in the cabin but I didn't want to camp by myself at the vineyard with just the frogs in the toilet for excitement. At Trevor's suggestion I moved my campervan into his back yard for $60 per week rent. He also had a large bus in his yard that he let out to seasonal workers and backpackers.
The good thing about summers in Australia is that there are lots of BBQ's.
And the good thing about staying at Trevor's is that he likes to host lots of BBQ's for the workers. They were great for getting to know the backpackers who came from such diverse backgrounds and for just relaxing after a long hot day in the paddocks.
The bad thing about the summer of 2002 was the severity of the drought. The Beardmore Dam was empty and so too the Balonne River. Fortunately the towns water supply came from an underground bore.
January 2003 was scorchingly hot. By this time I was no longer working at Riversands Vineyard but at another one 5km out of St George. I was still camped at Trevor's and we were very close friends by now.
I had had episodes of heat stress and singularly kept the Panadol company in business. I'd come home from work and plonk myself down on a chair under the Leopard tree and swill down three stubbies of Hahn's Light before I even took my boots off. The truth was it hurt to take my boots off. The sweating inside my boots made the skin of my feet soft and the heat made my feet swollen and red. Not to mention just being on my feet all day. After three stubbies of beer the pain was bearable.
There was no such thing as cold showers now due to the water coming from an underground bore. The water was unbearably hot. Trevor ended up putting a roll of poly pipe (about 50m if I remember) coiled up under his house and diverted the water through that. That way whatever water was lying in the pipe under the house was cool. But you had to take it in turns to have the first shower, as there was only about 3-5 minutes of cool water before you were getting the hot stuff directly from the bore again.
Usually, unless the weather dictated otherwise, we had weekends off. This was the case at both of the vineyards I worked at in St George. Wherever I went after St George and whatever work I did we were required to work weekends and maybe have another day off during the week. There were many good things about St George and the two vineyards where I worked.
Most weekends I was too bone tired to do anything apart from the laundry or the grocery shop.
I did get to visit nearby Hebel with its population of 10 as well as Nindigully where the movie Paperback Hero starring Hugh Jackman was made.
I took photos of the empty Beardmore Dam and the nearly dry Balonne River where even the kangaroos struggled to find water.
Farewell to St George
On Australia Day, 26 January 2003, I said farewell to St George and the friends I had made there.
Trevor was in love with me and I cared very much for him too but this was still the first leg of my Australian Outback adventure and I couldn't be deterred. It broke Trevor's heart to see me go but the kind hearted man that he was he wished me well and said he would always be there for me. I don't think my heart was broken but nonetheless it was a very sad sunrise for me when I left St George and Trevor behind me.
My experiences and friendshiips in St George strengthened my spirit and soul in such a way that I left there with more confidence in myself and with newly acquired skills which stood me in good stead to tackle the road ahead.
I also left there about 5kg heavier due to all the good red wines produced by Riversands Vineyard and Winery as well as Trevor's hearty cooking and the thirst quenching beers.
My First Lesson
So what did I learn from this first leg of my new life?
Mostly I learnt to appreciate the joy, tears, sweat, laughter and prayers that went into producing succulent table grapes or a fine wine. Up until this point I had taken it for granted that the grapes or wine were just there on the shop shelves. I had never considered the efforts of the hot, tired but happy workers who were the driving force behind bringing a product to life.
So the next time you reach for those grapes or that bottle of wine take the time to reflect and consider the love, perseverance and comradeship of the toiling workers as well as the elements of a fickle Mother Nature that came together to deliver you a product full of their body, heart and soul.
Raise your glass and toast to Mother Nature, the Farmer and the Workers.
- How Wine Is Made by Hubber darkside
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