A most atypical vintage – wine in the time of Covid
Unless you have been living under a rock on Mars, you will be well aware of the havoc wreaked on the world by the Covid 19 pandemic. Global financial markets crashing to a halt, unprecedented limitations on freedom of travel and movement, and a long overdue discussion of the role humans play as part of a wider ecosystem.
New Zealand led the world in its response to Covid 19 – after watching it’s explosion in populations around the world our Government moved fast and hard to implement a strategy of eradication rather than suppression, and stamp out the virus completely. This drastic action worked – daily reports from around the world show viral outbreaks and flare – ups occurring with alarming regularly, with lockdowns being re-imposed just as communities get back on their feet. Meanwhile in New Zealand, we can watch the rugby in packed stadiums, shop, travel and work as usual, or grind on each other in sweaty nightclubs. Oh sweet normality!
Rewind the clock to that lockdown period however, and life was anything but normal. For us in the wine industry the Government announcement fell right in the midst of harvest, and an already challenging time turned into a waking nightmare. The first 48 hours were probably some of the most stressful ever experienced, as we all tried to understand the special exemption status granted to agricultural workers. Would this apply to us – or would wine be deemed a luxury item and our workers also forced to stay at home? The message from the Government was clear – stopping the spread was the priority, and anything else was secondary to this. If there was any indication that the wine industry was vectoring this disease then our exemption would be revoked and our crop left to rot. A whole years work gone, and a whole years production missing – this was an existential crisis like no other.
The response from the members of the wine fraternity was truly inspirational. Immediately the phone started ringing as neighbours pooled knowledge and resources, offered guidance and support, and put industry guidelines in place to ensure the safety of our community. We split our staff into bubbles of people completely separate from each other – even moving some out of their homes and bunking them in together. Strict sanitary and distancing protocols, one person per vehicle, constant cleaning and checking of equipment – the team effort was monumental.
Now, this is far from the norm when it comes to the vintage period. This is a time of celebration – shared laughter and meals with friends new and old, and a real feeling of community togetherness is normally the mood in the air. It’s the time when all parts of the wine company come together as one cohesive whole, crossing over the vineyard, winery and sales team, with a palpable excitement about the quality of the harvest and the wines to come.
Contrast this with harvest in a pandemic – our winemaker moved his entire family into the winery, unable to mingle with the harvest crew for fear of transmission between areas, he saw fruit samples and grapes arriving by truck, but without any contact with the pickers or the vines. ‘Winemaking in a bubble’ is an apt description – grapes in, wine out. Long days with high pressure and without the relief valve of a shared experience and an after work beer.
Finally, after 8 weeks, the lockdown was lifted and ‘the new normal’ resumed. The first thing we did as a team? Massive hugs and a glass of wine! Pats on the back for a job well done, and a long leisurely lunch – making up for all those shared meals we had missed.
The question on everyones lips is of course – ‘how is the wine?’ Was all of the sacrifice and stress worth it? Well, we can comprehensively say yes, the quality of the 2020 vintage was unprecedented. A vintage we would rather forget has at least made wines that are truly memorable. Twenty years from now we will be opening these wines with our friends and family and reminiscing on this most bizarre of harvests.
And then curling up into a fetal ball to cry as the PTSD kicks in…