Monday, 22 February 2016

Our first (and great) work experience mixed with WWOOFING - Judge Rock Pinot Noir Vineyard!

Our main reason for coming to New Zealand on a working holiday visa, was to not only travel, but to work. And so it became apparent that halfway through the south island, we may have to top up our funds a little to keep us going until we had finished traveling the south. So when an opportunity arose after a few emails to local Vineyards and Orchards, we took it without hesitation. Initially we were looking for fulltime work, but once we realised that after paying for accommodation and food we really wouldn't make any more money than partime work while we WWOOFed. So therefore, after a bit of thought we contacted back Angela at Judge Rock Vineyard and accepted her offer of 20 hours paid work a week each, and the rest WWOOFING for our food and accommodation. And boy were we glad we did as it was a fantastic experience!

Paul, Angela's husband, picked us up from the Alexandra i-site at 3pm on Sunday 7th February and we were to start work on the Monday. The Vineyard is around 5mins drive or 30-40mins walk from the centre of town so on evenings or days off it was easy to get into town when we wanted, and even Paul kindly picked us up after he finished work. So a little background on the Vineyard and it's wines;

Judge Rock are a family run Vineyard that employs two regular vineyard workers, regional sales/distribution members, a farmers market sales person and occasionally when the work is demanding, people like us - backpackers! Their write up is: Elegant - Sensuous - Intimate. Award Winning Pinot Noir wines from the Jacobson-Chiaroni family boutique vineyard. The wines produced from this vineyard have received many awards, showcasing the premium quality of Judge Rock wines. A romance not a blockbuster, feminine not masculine, balance not power, family not corporate, and love not lust.(Quote-their website). And after working here and sampling all their wines every night (at least two glasses a night), I can honestly say it's some of the best wine I've ever tasted!

The unique location in Central Otago, with cold winters, long, hot, dry summers and crisp evenings, makes for a completely different tasting wine to those grown in other climates. The soil is rich glacial land, and it is a fantastic place to make wine. Cromwell, Alexandra, and Queenstown area are all prime areas for wine cultivation in a unique, beautiful location. The area is best known for it's red wines, whereas Hawkes Bay and Marlborough regions are better known for their whites, mainly because of the climates - warm and rainy in the north all year - best for white wine, cold but hot in the summers down south - best for red wine.

They offer wine tastings at the Vineyard and they also have a holiday cottage they rent during the year, with stunning views of the vineyard and surrounding mountains. Angela and Paul are trying very hard to market their wine and to get the business booming, and they take pride in everything they produce and sell, including being very active in food and wine festivals/events, farmers markets, local sales and international sales. If anyone is interested, they sell wine on their website, and they also have UK distributor in Wimbledon, London, as well as Australia/New Zealand, Singapore, China.

The family run Vineyard is smaller than most larger, commercialized vineyards at 4 hectares and I think this is far better. It means much care goes into the vineyard, into the wine, into the character of the place. It is planted with 12,000 Pinot Noir vines since 1998, along with some St Laurent vines (a French variety), from these they also produce a Rose wine. They also bottle Riesling under their name, but get these grapes from a specially selected vineyard elsewhere, to fit with their unique taste. I can honestly say that it's very hard to decide which is my favourite, but I love the Riesling, Pinot Noir and St Laurent the best. Because of the unique climate the taste is intense with many different notes to each wine, and they smell divine! I never really understood the smelling and tasting of wine until I came here, but these wines are outstanding and you really can smell and taste the hint of fruits and wood and everything else.

Our stay came during an important time before the harvest of the wine which is in April - leaf thinning, tucking and putting the nets on so the birds can't get to the grapes! I had always wanted to learn about vineyards, the process of wine growing and making and actually work on one. Even though it can be tough and hard work at times, it's very rewarding work, both for the look of the vineyard, the wine, and also for your body! haha, you definately don't need a gym membership while working on a vineyard! Pierrick wasn't keen at first because his last experience of a vineyard was in Australia where they never paid him, and it was horrible work pruning, there were no grapes and no rewards for the effort he put in. But luckily he was willing to give it another try and hope that it created a better memory for him - and it did! We both came away from this wonderful experience with great memories, better knowledge about vineyards and wine, and with a little money for our efforts.

We weren't working alone either, we met Sandrina on our first day, a German 19 year old who has become a wonderful friend. She was here for two weeks like us, but on a voluntary work exchange before heading back to study. She had been at a language school in Auckland for a bit then had a rep finding her placements throughout New Zealand, her next placement is on a dairy farm in the north, but she's decided to do Stray around the South Island like us to see a little of the place. There was then two workers, Helen and Barb, who are lovely women and helped us learn about the vineyard and taught us everything we now know about the stages we were helping with. Of course there was also Paul and Angela, our wonderful hosts. Paul enjoyed filling our wine glasses every night and taught us alot about the wines and industry. Angela has Italian in her blood and is a wonderful cook - her meals every evening were amazing, unique, homemade and homegrown mostly (she has a veggie garden) and plenty to go around. We ate recipes that we had never heard of or tried before and it was great - I've come away with some ideas from her cooking! They are both just wonderful company and made us feel so welcome in their business and home. They not only employed us but they took great care of us and that's very rare to find.

Our accommodation was in a private sleepout just beside the house and opposite the vineyard, very cosy and comfy, and we shared the facilities in the house like the bathroom, kitchen, living room. Every night was movie night and we watched a fair few, and we helped to prepare the evening food and wash up every night as a thanks for the wonderful cooking, Angela provided us lunch. Our hours were 8 hours a day (but during the netting period we worked extra - around 10 hours a day), so 4 hours a day WWOOFing, and 4 hours a day paid (we were also paid for the extra hours we did the first week which was really nice of them). On weekends we just did our WWOOfing hours in one day so we had sunday off, but as it turns out the first weekend we worked extra to get the nets on as it was important, so we just had the one day off, but this didn't bother us - we were here to work and that's what we did, there was plenty of time to have time off once we started traveling again! But we definitely appreciated that one Sunday - just to lie in bed with no alarm!

So our first week we spent our time lifting the wires on the vines to avoid growth drooping in the way of the grapes, and then we helped thin the leaves - so this means removing around 80% of the leaves around the grape bunches to expose them to enough sunlight to ripen them. At this time of year the grapes are going through a stage called 'Veraison', the term used when the grapes turn from green to red/violet/purple and begin to plump and ripen. Because of this, they become very tasty for birds, so the next step was to put the nets on so that the birds can't get to the much sacred grapes that would produce the wine! The first few days were great, they weren't too hard, but the days were very hot, so we decided to start early in the morning (7am); which allowed us tickets to some spectacular sunrises across the mountains, so that we could finish at 3.30pm so we weren't working too long during the heat of the day. The great thing was that they have a swimming pool, so after work we could just jump in there to cool down and it was sooooooo nice! Especially as I got heat rash a few times so this was perfect to cool the skin down. We also had to make sure we applied suncream regularly (luckily Angela kindly provided this for us all otherwise we would have finished our bottle in 2 days haha) as the New Zealand sun is super super strong (strongest in the world) due to no Ozone layer, so you burn quickly and fiercely.

It took us until Friday to finish the section we were working on which was the last of the Pinot Noir and the St Laurent area. Pierrick spent Friday biking the whole vineyard taking down all the water sprinklers so it was ready for the nets. Then on Saturday Paul and Angela came out to help us and we started putting the nets on. It was the first time they had their own machine to do it, kind of a spinning rod at the back of the tractor which we put the bails of nets on to then take them over 5 rows while we pulled them on. So it was all trial and error, however we encountered a few problems, mainly because the people they had hired last year to take the nets off, (a contractor with a group of men from Vanuatu) hadn't taken them off and wound them up properly, so we had knots, twists and strings getting stuck in the rod etc which made putting them on way more difficult - when it did work well, it was so much easier and went so much quicker, but the first few we had a lot of twists so we ended up having to just place them on the ground in a row and then come back over the next couple of days to put them on by hand - 'We'll have to walk them through' became a phrase we never wanted to hear again haha. It was very physical work putting on the nets and very tough on the arms and hands. We quickly realised on the first day that we were going to need extra hands so Angela contacted the local backpackers looking for two more workers - we stipulated they must be tall and strong, haha. The next day, two tall, strong lads from Germany who had experience with putting on nets arrived and helped us for the next two days and my god were we grateful for their help! It went so much faster and they had so much more strength to pull the nets down and to put the bails on the spindle, and also managed to help us walk the ones through that had twisted as they were tall enough to get the nets over the tall branches and posts of the vines! On the saturday it would seem good luck wasn't on our side as we also had a sand twister, of all the days! So because we hadn't yet secured the nets we'd just put on, the twister ripped through and threw them all off onto other rows, twisting them and basically meaning we had to start from scratch and WALK THEM THROUGH - but we did this with Phillip and Francesco! It was an awesome sight though, seeing all these heavy nets thrown into the air and then a twister follow behind, it was like...did that actually just happen?! And then we assessed the damage and yep, that actually did just happen - mass groan! During putting on the nets we were allowed to swear as many times as we liked haha.

There was then the last day of nets - we had almost finished our shift - half an hour left and I was helping to hold tension on the spindle so it didn't spin too fast and release the net too quickly, when I first got my arm trapped in a loose string, and then almost fatally got my hand trapped 5 mins later. Needless to say, I went down immediately and the outcome looked like I had at first dislocated my knuckle, but after applying ice and having anti-inflammatory medication the swelling and pain went down a little and it just was very badly bruised and I was able to move my hand again. I got my name in the accident book! lol Luckily I didn't need any time off work and was back working the next day - the final day of nets! We finished them on Monday but we had to continue sorting them out until Tuesday/Wednesday WALKING THEM THROUGH. The guys unfortunately had to leave us for another job so we said goodbye to them. It was then time to start tying them up and securing them. So every 5 rows we had to criss-cross the string closing all the gaps and tying each net to each other/the wire on the vines so there was no way for birds to get in. Again, great for the arms! We had a few problems with there not being enough net to pull over and tie so again we had to walk a few through. We also had to secure the outsides of the vineyard down with rocks/bricks, and tie the fronts of every 5th row into gates for entry. This took us until Thursday, and then Pierrick had to go back around the vineyard, this time walking it (it works out around 14km in total!) putting back all the sprinklers, and sewing the holes around them. He also almost got put in the accident book, as during this, he managed to hit himself on the forehead with the monkey wrench, while putting up a difficult sprinkler, cutting his head and almost passing out! I laughed when he told me this, bad I know!

Me, Sandrina and Helen and Barb then went through the whole vineyard sewing up any holes in the nets so that no birds could get through these to the grapes, which was work for the neck and arms as you were constantly looking up and sewing above you. But it was very satisfying work when we finished on Monday (yesterday) and could look back at the vineyard at our great work knowing the grapes were safe! There were a few birds in the net after we put them on so Paul went round in the tractor making noise and opening a few gaps in the nets to get them out which was successful. It's just getting the dogs Tui, and Barbs dog Jay, to chase the rabbits in there now.

When we leave, Barb and Helen then spend the next couple of weeks going through the whole vineyard again, removing the shoulder grape bunches off the main bunches to allow the main energy to be focused on ripening the main fruit bunch, taking more leaves off if it's too heavy and not enough sun coming through, and then they spend a few weeks off, just waiting for the fruit to fully ripen, then in April - it's harvest time! From harvest to bottle it takes almost a year, last years wine from their April harvest is bottled in March this year and so forth. They send their harvest down to Vinepro in Cromwell who make the wine for them, and it takes the roughly the full fruit of two vines to make one bottle! I would love to do a harvest one day, just to see how that part works and then also see how they make the wine and bottle it - maybe one day either here or in France or somewhere!

I have to say though, one of the best things about having the opportunity to work abroad and have visas in different countries, is being able to do something new, experience a new field of work, learn new things and broaden your horizons. I don't think I will ever be a girl who settles for just one job, one career - there are far too many opportunities out there to settle for just one. Even though people with high flying careers may look down on a cleaner, a vineyard worker, a hospitality worker etc, not many people can say they have done those jobs (or worked in more than one profession that probably doesn't even make them happy) and have experienced how rewarding they are, how exciting learning something new is, and how much you can push yourself. If I could ever pass on some knowledge from these experiences it's to seize every opportunity you can, there is nothing too low or too high that you can ever do, every job is as good as the rest, money doesn't matter as long as you enjoy what they inspire in you. They may be hard work and not very well paid, but I love knowing that I have worked in different countries, worked in something new every time, learnt something new either on the job or about myself, made new friends, and most of all, have lasting memories to cherish.

Our experience here at Judge Rock has been a great one, and we even came away with some pocket money. Our hosts were wonderful, their wine exquisite and their workers a pleasure to work with. I couldn't reccommend them highly enough and I will definitely be buying their wine in the future, knowing that we once helped them and remembering fond memories and I will definitely recommend their wines to others. I really hope the vineyard continues to flourish and wish them all the best for the future, maybe one day we will be back, who knows!

From here we have booked onward travel to Queenstown on Wednesday, where we will be back on the backpacker Stray bus and ready for some more adventures! We have a tandem Canyon Swing (70m freefall drop and a 300m arc swing over a canyon) booked for Thursday, a night on the town with $50 of drinks vouchers courtesy of Peter Pans Travel Agency and then onto Milford Sound and Te Anau where we will hopefully meet with Ivana and her boyfriend again. We are hoping to do some stunning treks through the Southlands/Fiordlands over the next week and then headed down to Stewart Island. We will be sad to leave Judge Rock, but we are looking forward to another New Zealand Chapter!

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