How do you produce a vintage in lockdown?

For New Zealand winemaker Oliver Styles, it was a question that came to dominate his life over a testing – and testy – two months during harvest

Words by Oliver Styles

Hawke's Bay New Zealand
Hawke's Bay in New Zealand

Harvest was already well under way when we were cornered into lockdown. My days were relentless. The grapes for mine and my wife’s own natural winemaking project were harvested and fermenting. But at my day job, at a 2,800-ton facility, I would finish late at the winery, drive 25 minutes to a lightless home and a sleeping family, slip into bed, wake up with the family more or less as they were when I had arrived, drive to work by the glow of headlights, passing machine harvesters and tractor-towed gondolas on the roads, and do the things winemakers do in New Zealand in March.

When our youngest came down with a chest infection at the start of lockdown, we decided it was best that I stay at the winery (there was accommodation on site) and ride it out. For a month, I didn’t go within two metres of my family. They would drop food boxes at the gate and we would wave at each other. I lived like a student: cooking in communal facilities, sleeping on a single bed, reading poetry – stripped-down words for a stripped-down time. If I felt lonely, I hugged a veranda beam outside the staff kitchen.

As it became clear that only “essential businesses” would remain in operation, more than a few people began to question whether wine production qualified. In France, such a question would be heresy, but the New World doesn’t have the cultural history of wine production to fall back on in these scenarios. No matter how “Burgundian” your Pinot, or “Côte-Rôtie” your Syrah, you’re still Cromwell or, in our case, Hawke’s Bay.

Olly Styles
While the rest of the country went into lockdown, Oliver Styles and the wine industry got stuck in

There were social and economic factors at play too. Some people employed by wineries and on a salary are, by-and-large, remarkably exploited during vintage (doing longer hours for the same pay as a standard nine-to-fiver because it is considered simply ‘part of the job’). As a harvest intern several years ago, I once moaned about the pay gap, only for the assistant winemaker to point out – with no small level of vitriol – that I was, in terms of my hourly rate, better paid than he was. As such, among several permanent staff in the region, there was the hope that we were not essential. But that was wishful thinking. It was out of the question to close a major exporter and revenue driver just as its once-a-year production came round. It’s the economy, stupid – and fruit was coming in. So as the country went into lockdown, the wine industry got stuck in.

Cellarhands rarely need to get closer than 2m unless they’re flirting or fighting

We did, though, begin to ask the odd question: was it really necessary to hand harvest this part of the vineyard? If so, how did we partition the team? How did we ensure staff observed 2m-distancing rules? Most wineries run lean, so cellarhands are generally used to working autonomously – they rarely need to get closer than 2m unless they’re flirting or fighting. Morning briefings were held outside and every cellarhand was equipped with a bottle of dilute peracetic acid to spray down anything they touched. And I mean anything. I don’t think the old stereo, which had seen more vintages than anyone on site, ever worked the same again.

In less than 24 hours, a co-worker and I came up with a full clean-down protocol for the winery. We divided the kitchen and the lab into zones, allowing only one person into those areas at any one time. We produced a weekly, rotating cleaning roster and a wellbeing questionnaire that tracked staff sentiment on a weekly basis, on top of daily health checks. It was a thing of beauty, despite the rolling eyes of the more cynical (every winery has its share of naysayers).

Our biggest challenge, though, wasn’t the staff or the industrial level of cleaning – it was the visitors. Wineries depend on suppliers: truck drivers, goods deliveries, electricians, mechanics, plumbers, consultants, cleaners, even cooks. How does one keep them, and their goods, at arms’ length? How does one sanitise a cardboard box containing yeast?

One local supplier described turning up at a larger winery where he was instructed to drive into a compound-like area with his goods on a trailer. He would stop and, from nowhere, like a gang of street urchins, cellarhands would appear, strip the trailer of its load, and, delivery accomplished, he would drive out. He seemed impressed and perturbed in equal measure.

Those apparently unaffected by the Zombieland atmosphere fell into one – remarkably broad – category: male truck drivers of a certain age and political persuasion. I would approach in a pair of nitrile gloves and a scarf, holding a clipboard, and they would pantomime-sigh like four-year-olds as I ran them through the site protocol. In a few cases they would, unbidden, approach me, well within the 2m radius. I would back away. They would come on. I would back away some more. And still they would come. Even in the winery – where cellarhands and winemakers are constantly on the move – we would rock, sway, sidle and shimmy around doorways and the like. Our head winemaker dubbed it the ‘two-metre tango’.

In spite of the obstacles, 2020 is shaping up to be a fine harvest in Hawke's Bay

With visitors, though, it could get infuriating. Is it really necessary to expound on the nature of political decision-making in this country to someone you barely know and who doesn’t – should you care to ask – share your political outlook? There were exceptions, though, in the form of the heartwarming consideration that, coming from gruff, middle-aged men, has a particular resonance.

And then there were the rumours of what was happening elsewhere. Did you hear about the winery that harvested all its red grapes – from Merlot to Syrah and beyond – in one fell swoop, in just two days? The winemaker who was told by his winery to stay at home? The cellarhand sharing a house with someone who’s got Covid-19 (not “believed to have” but definitely “got”?). People who might rail against the negativity of the media took almost palpable glee in spreading bad news to all who cared to listen. And a lot of it was rubbish that only served to put people more on edge. So much of the fascination of lockdown was the human reactions to it. It was like Sartre’s Huis Clos – the claustrophobic play that contains the immortal line “Hell is other people” –  only with a mountain of grapes. “I need my liberty!” one cellarhand shouted at me, after we found out he’d broken lockdown rules. Didn’t we all.

Ironically, 2020 is turning out to be a tremendous vintage. There was a touch of chagrin that we had to have such a great vintage across the board (the weather was glorious throughout) while dealing with the external restrictions. It will be a memorable talking point, but there is the feeling we didn’t really have the wherewithal to appreciate it at the time. Covid hadn’t got into the winery physically, but its impact altered our appreciation of the vintage. When people give you a sideways look every time you cough, it’s not easy to bask in the glory of your Cabernet. But one day, years hence, I’ll look back on it with pride.