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Vintage 2012 and the crazies who worked it

Note from the Editor: This blog was handcrafted by Chief Gibbston Valley Winemaker Christopher Keys after the 2012 harvest to vintage season.

Frequently we peered north whilst deep set rain patterns wrought ruin to some vineyards and, to use a term my family invented, lunted (means, got afraid).

Stories filtered down of North Island vineyards being destroyed by rot in matters of days; and of picking at 16 Brix… And, as our weather then teetered on the brink in late February and fruit started to look fragile, we wondered: after this great warm summer, would we be cruelly ruined as well? Surely not after this great summer!

Then, all of a sudden, the weather restored its pattern of continued still warmth. After a while, after the continual fine weather became entrenched, I could not even imagine a cloudy day, let alone rain – it was that consistently fine. Soon small bunches of perfection were being delivered to our eager, thankful hands. These hands in 2012 are the very same that looked after 2011’s harvest, with our vintage crew all returning for another appearance, bless them.

Normally vintage workers scour the world like nomads, living and working equally hard, tasting, digging skins out of tanks, eating, breathing wine, swearing as they drop things or bang their head or suffer the extreme cold early in the morning, throwing countless thousands of tennis balls or Frisbees to Sheeba and our other dog whose name I forget, pumping, cleaning, hosing and washing. They are usually exhausted and exhilarated by the end, and wind up bearing the contrasting thoughts of “I’m pleased I did that” and “Never again!” But Scott Lewis Clarkson and Terence Valelunga came back, forming with Susan, Matt, Sascha and me our team for 2012.

Terence did everything again, whilst Scott talked to everyone. Actually Terence did talk whilst doing everything. His voice, trained for the stage, carries its booming New York cheer across the valley that he is doing his best to marry into and own (his wife is Alan Brady’s daughter, Susan, who was part of our lab crew). He has a knack of being very reliable, very hard working, very efficient, and it’s quite alright to assume that in some way he is actually running the whole thing. He fixes things, finds things, and has skills like being able to break into buildings and drawers that makes you wonder about his background without wanting to ask. Terence brings confidence that is not simply born from being a New Yorker, rather from having been a successful one – he has made it there, so he can make it anywhere.

Every single barrel in the place, the cave, the winery, everywhere, has been filled by Scott. He is the barrel filler, mover, and whisperer. His love of wine is infectious– we had a memorable Condrieu that he kindly brought in that inspired a lot of awed messy mouth open with food in it chat over bacon and egg pie one day. He is a believer in wine, wine makers and their philosophies. Scott speaks in a South African drawl that is as mysterious as it is curious.

Sometimes I wonder what he says; the dogs seem to understand him and worship him; as do the women who are drawn to his wild man rock star looks. He has given us one word – awful – that is thrown about whenever possible. It denotes something really good. That wine is awful, means, it is the next thing to perfection. Why? Because last year he denounced a Pinot from one of our fermenters as being …..awful. Really? Awful? Yes, he was adamant, awful!

For everyone else it certainly wasn’t at all awful, so now awful means great. It is amazing how often you find yourself saying it outside work to the bewilderment of unsuspecting normal speaking people: “How was your meal sir?”.....”AWFUL!”

The other vintage staff are full timers, Matt Swirtz and Sascha Herbert. Both are indispensible. Matt digs all the red fermenters out. This is back breaking work that he relishes. He relaxes by being the goalie for the Southern StampedeIce Hockey team. So you see he likes pain. That is why he is so cheerful. Sascha…well she is unforgettable to all who meet her. As my partner in the winemaking here for the last six years she has been there through thick, thin, sticky, stuck, and bubbly. Her talents are incredible. Her passion for people, things, life and wine is obvious – her family is in the wine business in Australia and they are all wonderful loons. Once you see Sascha and her dad together you understand Sascha. Pack of Galas they are. Her management of everything and everyone this year was exceptional.

A vintage group has disparate personalities, and yet over months of constant gruesome work form a team. The binding force can be anything. Simple pleasures join people – steaming hot flat breads from the Cheesery that we huddle around on a frosty cold morning pretending to share; fudge that we glug back from someone caring (thanks Ashling); an end of the day beer; a middle of the day beer. And the dogs… they are the fools who prance around our court for humour. Their antics demonstrate there is a meaning of life outside vintage. A whole world of canine hope is invested in one thing…the Frisbee toss; that is worth remembering.

Vintage can be hard on a person. See the grey hair on winemakers; witness the imbalance it causes on normal family life; somehow it brands you. Over vintage nothing else really matters but winemaking – not the news, not a social life, not the issues of others (petty). This is our one chance to get it right, and the destiny of your place for years depends on you and your crew. With this workplace condition it is important to have a crew that is like family so that when someone is getting stressed or tired or losing the plot, no one takes it personally. You soon read the behavioural cues. Quite rapidly as it happens. Before they have even spoken. Keep distance!

Normally, what they need is some balance: a good burn out in Queenstown is best. An early night can be the worst. There is so much going on that the ordered melody of one’s mind is churned into cacophonic primary school medley. At the start you know the tune, know the words, but with tonnes of fruit pouring in the verses madly drown one another out. Chaos. So, once you are home, you can have a bath, lie back, relax, shut the mind off…..go to bed early. Leave the vintage behind for a blissful few hours. No such luck! It all comes flooding back in hysterical dreams , in which tank doors burst open, wine spills everywhere, numbers start flying through the roof, people are really disappointed, and BANG, you’re awake again and its only 2am and good luck to you clearing your brain now.

But overall, this is why winemakers care about their product. They invest so much into it that it becomes very personal to them that things go well, that all the variables stack up and go their way. Most are not in winemaking for the money. It is because it gives them for a few months a chance to be in a team whose collective effort will one day be splendidly resonant in a glass.

This liquid, no matter where and when it is revealed, will return all involved in its making to a time and place: to the sticky destemmer, the whirring presses, the frosty mornings; the plunges, additions, temperature monitoring, the barrelling, digging, driving, stacking, the autumnal shades and the sweetness of the warm late afternoon breeze. We remember the smiles, the silliness, the people, friendships and the year.

I hope in future years this crew will have opportunity to stare into a glass, smell its perfume and think with a smile, 2012, you were awful. Awful!

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