Working in a Vineyard: Shoot Thinning, Bud Rubbing, Wire Lifting

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I was so happy to be given a chance to work in a vineyard!

Well, it wasn’t in my bucket list (cause I don’t have any) but I do enjoy drinking wine and it sounds really cool to be working in a vineyard. It’s kind of like my second coolest job (after the ski resort stint). That was before I ‘googled’ about my job scope and found this article saying that it was possibly the ‘toughest job’ in the vineyard;.

After my 3-weeks apricot thinning job ended, I kind of wanted to take a break before the cherry season started. I applied the vineyard job (which was 30 mins drive away from the place I stayed) for fun because it seemed like a really premium and atas company. Somehow, I got lucky and got offered (but not my friends who were supposedly car sharing with me) and decide to do the daily solo drive commuting, at least for the first day, to check out what a vineyard job entails.

As of yesterday, I worked a total of 16 days in the vineyard across 4 weeks. There were missing days due to the rain and I was unemployed for 3 days as my car broke down. As I was living pretty far away, no car = no work = no money. Such is life.

 

Before I share about my experience, let me give you a brief summary of the entire workflow of the vineyard. It may differ across the vineyards but more or less, it should be the same.

The seasonal work begins about Jun – July (winter season) where workers will have to do vine pruning and tying. You will have to twist and tie two long branches down to the wire and cut off the excess. As the weather is pretty cold (I believe it ranges from 2 to 10 degrees), this job is pretty tough as it will require a lot of arm and strength. Furthermore, the branches could be rather low and you will have to bend your back often. This is on top of the cold and wind.

After the pruning is done, time is given for the new shoots to grow and some time in end October – early November, it will be time for bud rubbing, shoot thinning and wire lifting. This was the part where I joined in the workforce and contributed to the lifecycle of the grapes.

Bud Rubbing

We are given gloves (with a rough surface) to wear. We have to walk down the rows of grape branches, using our hand to rub the lower part of the branch, removing any new buds or shoots. This is done so to prevent nutrients being wasted on new growth/shoots which will be removed anyway. This is one of my least favourite jobs as I will have to bend/half squat at every vine which puts strains to my knees and thighs. It was one of the cause of muscle ache the next day. The good thing about this company is that they allow us to pair or group together, giving us a chance to ‘bunny hop’ between ‘pole to pole’, in order to give us time for a walking breather to the next pole.

Another plus point for this company is that they will try to give us different tasks throughout the day in order not to bore us and also not to put too much strain on any particular muscle.

Wire Lifting

As grapes are ‘climbing’ plants, there are wires present which will assist them in their growth to get tall. This is done.. very manually. Each pole will contain about 3 to 4 clips which will allow us to position the wires (usually 2 to 3) at varying height to help the plants grow. For a start, we need to bring down the wires (from the tall position) to the lower clip as the shoots are just about to grow (20 to 30cm) and we need to ensure that they are growing upright and within the boundary of the wires. The actions required for this is to use your fingers/palm to push out the wire and pull the wire back to allow for the shoots to fall within the wires and then push the wire in back to the clip of the correct height. How I wish I have taken videos of this task but it is a pretty ‘fast’ task that time lapse videos is not possible. In fact, I couldn’t take any time lapse in this vineyard cause it had been too windy and my phone would not have balanced well anyway.

We usually spend the first 2 to 3 hours in the morning doing bud rubbing and/or wire lifting as this is considered as the ‘toughest’ job. The second half of the day will usually be spent doing shoot thinning.

Shoot Thinning

This is one of my more preferred job scope as it is the least intensive job for me. However, it is a job that you kind of need to use your brain to do some counting; and also QC. What we do here is that we will need to pick and choose the unwanted shoots – the doubles/triples, ones that grow sideways instead of upwards and also the unlucky shoots below the wire that are beyond the count of 5. As this is a brain job, you will kind of be slower and walk lesser. If I’m doing wire-lifting/bud-rubbing, I will usually hit 8,000 steps count before our first break between 9 to 10am. For shoot thinning, I don’t usually walk that much. The muscles that will hurt will usually be your back muscles as you are always looking down. Also, some people will have the strain on the knees and thighs as they prefer to squat while counting the 5 shoots under the wire. For myself, I prefer to stoop low rather than squatting as my knee was kind of injured from ladder climbing.

Weeding

This is my least favourite job scope of it all. Then again, I only did it for one morning for about 2 hours or less. They will give you a garden hoe and you need to whack all the weeds surrounding the grape vine; without hurting the grape vine. The weeds are a hell lot of annoyance. A lot of them have very deep roots and you need to spend a huge amount of strength and accuracy to whack the life out of them. To be honest, if I were made to do this ‘weeding’ on a daily basis, I probably won’t have the tenacity to last for 4 weeks. Right.

Okay, so all the above job will last between 4 to 8 weeks, depending on the speed and size of team available. Our contract says it will somewhat end about mid December and they will probably downsize the team and most of the seasonal workers will hop over to do the cherries anyway.

The jobs in the vineyard after those above would be.. continual of wire lifting – to help the vines grow all the way up, branch thinning (they will get rid of unwanted branches from the shoots; not sure what is the optimal number), leaf thinning (the removal of leaves around the vine area surrounding the grape clusters), cluster thinning (removal of grapes to achieve optimal crop load in order to maintain high quality).

Come March-April, it will be time for harvest!

The richer vineyards will usually place nets surrounding their grapes, in order to prevent the birds from feasting on the sweet and juicy grapes. I’m not sure if seasonal workers will be hired for harvest as it seems like a really important job. Some countries even do harvesting in the night but I can’t seem to remember the reason.

After harvest, the grapes will be thrown into the machines where they will squeeze the juices and start the fermentation process. Just for extra knowledge, the making of red wine is a lot more complex compared to white wine (at least for the brand that I’m working for). There’s something about the colour of the grape skin and blah which gives the wine its colour. Also, red wine is also takes a longer fermentation process (18 months) which means that I will have to wait till 2022 to try the wine that I have helped to grow. Right.

After that, there will be bottling jobs, sticker-ing jobs and perhaps packing jobs? Not sure when is the hiring season but according to the staff, a job in a vineyards is all year round!

For the vineyards I was working in, they hire quite a number of full-timers; I think the number ranges at around 20. The fact that there are so many locals working for them, I kind of concluded that it must be a really good company since the locals get so many options for jobs; plus a vineyard job isn’t exactly the easiest job available. Well, I guess it’s kind of true that this company is awesome.

There’s a free company BBQ lunch every thursday (I think it only starts in Summer) and the full-time staff will assist in the preparation of grilled meat (we had beef patties, chicken patties, sausages and even beef steak!) and also salad (there was even potato and egg salad once) which comes with bread loafs and hamburger bread; together with grilled onions, butter/margarine and even sauces including aioli and mayonnaise. They even give us soda water (350ml bottle) which whoops, up my sugar intake but once a week is fine right.? Alright, I’m kind of ‘bought over’ by the awesome food spread. The previous time I had a BBQ party for the last day in my previous job, we were only given hotdogs, bread and BBQ sauce and urm beer.

That’s not it! Among all my friends that are in vineyard jobs, I was the only one to have gone for a winery tour! I know this was like a random bonus for us because they were probably just doing an induction for their full-time office staff but the fact that they invited us (seasonal workers who may stay less than one month) to join the tour, speaks a lot about the company. They didn’t have to give us the winery tour as we are not going to be spokesperson for the brand. Yet, we were still invited.

We were given a brief introduction of the winery and the processes involved (well, some of my knowledge above came from the winery tour explanation) and they even let us have some wine tasting too! I’m really impressed with the taste of the $49.99 Pinot Noir. I’ve tasted bad red wine before so I can truly appreciate the smoothness of a good glass of red wine. Then again, I’m also no connoisseur so.. you got to try for your own to judge for yourselves!

 

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Completed 4-weeks at possibly my harshest working environment to date. Working in a vineyard is not easy as you are exposed to the weather elements of the hot sun, cold wind, hail, rain and the worse of it all – all of the above in the span of a single day. The only shelter/shade you can get is in your car. Nevertheless, I enjoyed and overstayed my supposedly only-can-survive-for-one-day job as it was a great company with our welfare at heart, worked with awesome people and I thank the weather for not being too much of a killer. I will have to wait till 2022 to try the pinot noir that I assisted in ‘growing’ as it takes 18 months for the wine to be ready. Read up a lot on the wine making process and now I can fully appreciate the premium I have to pay for expensive wine 🍷 cause it’s part of my wages 😂 My working holiday seems to be a lot of ‘work’ and not much of a ‘holiday’ but oh wells, I’ll just continue to move with the flow and see where I end up eventually cause I somehow spent more than 5 months in South Island already 😅 Moving on to the next chapter of my ‘adventure’ in my ever complicated journey. #flyhoneystarsNZ

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To work in a vineyard, you will kind of need to have your own form of transport as you drive your own car around the blocks. We will return back to our cars during the breaks and lunch; and that’s kind of the only place you can seek shelter from. Apart from that, you will be exposed to the sun and weather elements. Thankfully, there were only 2-3 super hot days where I feel like I could quit immediately. Apart from that, I was battling more with the cold and the wind.

There are two main areas for vineyards – Blenheim (Marlborough) and Central Otago. If you get the chance, do give the vineyard a try and do come prepared with the correct clothing and weather for the job! I’m permanently in long sleeves/pants, cap/hat and/or hoodie with sunnies.

Good Luck!

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