Grape Harvest in the Waitaki Valley

Behind the scenes of the Valli Wine harvest

Q. Where do you get your picking crews from?

A. It is a trade secret! Unsuspecting, well-intentioned victims!

On picking days we take on whoever is willing to give up a warm sunny autumn day and break their back with manual labor, all for a higher cause. Grant’s first Valli vintages were made up of mostly family and a few close friends, many who have smartened up and have not set foot on the vineyard again. We still have family come from near and far: from the Catlins to Hong Kong. Friends come from Christchurch, Napier, Auckland, Invercargill and even Australia just to pick grapes! The hefty makeup of the crew comes from the best and brightest of the hospitality industry in Queenstown and surrounds. This sort can work hard, play hard and are always looking to expand their knowledge of wine, vintage and vineyard. Picking days are perfect for that!

Q. Why do you organise picking yourselves and not just hire a contract crew, which would certainly be easier?

A. If we did that, I would be out of a job! It may not always be the most time and energy efficient way (my crews know I do love efficiency!) to approach a grape harvest but the benefits outweigh the effort every time. Spending time with friends, sharing a home cooked meal and a glass of wine, building relationships, can never be efficient. It is creating memories and enjoying the romance of warm autumn days outside in the vineyard. It is a yearly event that so many people look forward to and look back on and really treasure that time when we were all on a team, working together.

Q. What does a typical picking day look like in one of your Central Otago vineyards?

A. OK, I’ll break it down. This is where precision efficiency comes in!

8:20 Pickers roll up with chattering teeth, stamping feet and clutching coffees that are still warm. Greetings are muffled through well wrapped scarves but only smiling eyes can tell they are glad to be there. It is frosty, and cold and well before the sun peaks over the mountain. The morning is crisp and a hazy blue. We are ready to start!

8:25 It will be a long day if we don’t stretch out the muscles we are going to rely on for the next 8 hours, mandatory calisthenics. We jump, we twist, we bend and we stretch! The blood is flowing and everyone is now fully awake… for the health and safety talk. Also mandatory. Clip the grapes with your snips, not your neighbour. Wear gloves because I am not stopping to find you a band-aid. Don’t fall into the rabbit holes. All the usual! Most of them know the routine, and most usually comply.

8:30 As a happy band of pickers we walk to the vineyard. The nets have been lifted and baskets laid out by Tim and Grant, tasks that require even earlier rising. We must be ready for the pickers. Everyone grabs a buddy and works facing each other, one either side of the vine. No bunch will be missed this way, and great conversations will be had throughout the day. Directions are given on the process: “Pick the grapes, put them in the basket. Repeat.” Then the nuance is added, “But….. make sure you snip them exactly here, and place them lovingly there and ensure that the basket is just so.” When all these details are followed, there is a flow in the process, a synergy. Some pickers even believe that you can taste it in the wine and I tend to agree.

10:30 Litres of coffee distributed and mounds of croissants celebrate a short and sweet break. The first chance to stand up and greet the warm sun that has finally made it onto the vineyard not that long ago. Gumboots are exchanged for trainers, outer layers are shed as it is warming up, but no hope for a tan. In a habit particular to harvest, I have more coffee than a human should. I share that energy with 35 other people and with luck, we are able to make it to the end of the day.

10:45 Back into the vines caffeinated, energised, picking, picking, picking. Laughing and meeting new people. The sound of snipping and clipping and a volley of interviews: “So, where did you come from originally? Where do you work in town? Where in Italy did you visit? What is your favourite musical? You did this last year and still came back?” I am in the special position of eavesdropping, learning exciting things about so many people. Our crews are diverse in age and origin, views, experiences and abilities. The one thing that they do all have in common is the unquenchable thirst for being involved with wine.

1:00 Tummies are rumbling. It is now time for the soup buffet! Bowls of home cooked soups, fresh baked bread are taken up and enjoyed. A bottle or two of Valli is passed around and shared, top ups not refused. Hollis and I toil in the kitchen brewing up vegetarian delights, making sure to tick all dietary requirements. Though there has never been any official complaints as to the lack of carnivorous offerings, my Mum who visits for harvest has taken to brewing a lamb shank stew. Hollis and I sigh when that is the first one to disappear.

1:30 Back to the vines! One of my favourite parts of harvest is getting to see people that you haven’t seen since grape picking the year prior. Perhaps you only live 20 minutes away but your paths never cross. Seeing people year after year, learning about changes in their life and wondering about upcoming plans is quite a humbling experience. Some years we may not see someone as there has been a tragedy or unavoidable circumstances. Making it back into the vineyard, so much of the outside world subsides. There is a steady dedicated task, repetition, zen. You fit right back in. Pick in silence and reflect. Commiserate or be excited with others. Concentrating on the task at hand you are both alone and part of a big community. One that is understanding, fun loving, hard-working, interested, passionate, and ready to take life as it comes. This is the community of the Valli pickers.

3:30 By the next break, our numbers have dwindled. The local hospitality have to go to their real jobs! After picking grapes for more than half the day, they will work till the wee hours of the morning ensuring that people of Queenstown, visitors and locals alike, have an amazing experience. They are the face of what we all stand for, outstanding quality, friendliness, and wanting to share the pleasure of what we produce.

As the day winds down we balance how much space we need to fill the grey bins and how tired the crew is. As tired as I am at this point - having scrambled over last minute picking decisions, weather threats, aiming to get a full compliment of pickers, and that they know where to go and that they are prepared, ensuring there is enough food for all and it is as delicious as it could possibly be, I know that I am not the hardest worker on the team. Cousin Tim Valli, who will not utter more than a few sentences all day takes the top title. Over the course of one day of picking, I have seen him lift 17 tonnes of grapes: pick them up, stack them on the trailer, take them off the trailer and into the grey bins. I don’t care what sort of competition you enter for endurance, for me, that takes the cake.

The last vine is picked in the last row for the day, there is a collective sigh and tired smiles congratulating each other on a job well done. There is an air of accomplishment of a long tiring honest day's work. The results are seen easily by the piles of fruit heaped in the bins quietly waiting to be taken away to the winery. For some of us, today is the end of a journey of growing the best grapes possible, and for others just the beginning of the winemaking process. The end of our day will be marked with tiny sounds, the crack of a wine bottle opened, a wince of the pain in the back, and the woof of the couch as it is settled into for a well-deserved rest. But, if you have signed up for another day of picking expect to spend the rest of the evening in good company. Along with your new circle of old and new friends, you will be seen cooking dinner around a campfire, swapping wines, listening to the strum of impromptu music and watching the stars slowly appear in the sky.

And that, dear friends, is how the harvest season goes year after year in our Central Otago vineyards. Hard work, but the reward is much higher!