Conflict and Context
Edited by Maija Utriainen
With over 250 million hectoliters of wine produced globally in 2022, wineries all over the world open their cellar doors to interns each fall to lend a necessary hand to the whirlwind of winemaking (Broadbent). From the misty Californian Russian River Valley to China’s mountain-lined Shandong region, temporary harvest interns come and go as swiftly as the grapes on the vines. On the “Travelling Winemakers” Facebook group alone, there are over 65,000 members (Facebook). After working three wine harvests in two hemispheres, I have had the privilege to share this unique experience with peers from all over the world. Although harvest is the busiest time of the year in the winery and chaos goes hand-in-hand with the season, making wine also comes with plenty of pensive moments. Some of these still instants include topping barrels by hand, walking up and down dew-covered vineyards for entire mornings, and punching down tannin-deriving skins into juice four times a day as it ferments. During these more pensive moments, I found myself comparing the journeys of harvest interns to that of the grape itself.
Russian River Valley, California USA (https://www.russianrivervineyards.com/)
Often in their twenties, some with Enology degrees and many without, harvest interns seem to all share three things – a love for wine, an aptitude for hard work, and an unsure future ahead of them. Like many of our peers in a plethora of industries, finding one’s niche in this world can be daunting. And while it could be the twelve-hour work days or perhaps a bit too much CO2 floating in the air, I started to compare the characteristics of a grape’s short existence to that of our own.
Growing on the vine, rooted in terroir – rocky bits, jagged slopes, and varying climates – the soil we are raised in influences our future wine-bound selves. During budburst, the first stage of a grape’s life, potential and excitement abound, as winemakers and vineyard managers look on to the beginnings of a vintage like proud parents into a crib. As pure and delicate as the white petals that decorate the vines, our canvas is blank and unweathered.
Eventually growing into mature berries, our characteristics and aromas begin to develop. It’s here where our fruity, peppered, and “barnyard” personalities emerge, sticking with us characteristically throughout our lives and surprising the unfamiliar taster of our kind. It feels as if some grapes, like an oaky cabernet or a full-bodied merlot, know their destination from the beginning. These are old souls who keep to themselves, guarded for future opening, and enjoy the finer things in life. Others, like sauvignon blanc, fresh and tropical, seem to know they will enjoy life fully as a youth, content in non-fussy backyards with grass-stained jeans, and love their “Sauvy B” nickname. A block away, in the same vineyard, might be a grenache or a cabernet franc. While fully aware that they can be enjoyed on their own, they find ease in company. Perhaps they’ll end up in a red blend or become the best friend of the more outgoing mourvedre rose. Wanting to be drinkable, they may dim their personality in the endless search for acceptance. For certain flavours to develop in wine, like the passions we foster, others become diminished.
This decision, seemingly as crazy as unsure as the vintage itself, is to leave one’s comfort to join a cellar for a single season. Adhering to the nature of harvest itself, interns come in quickly and are full of life– teeming to get to know one another, savouring the few hours outside of the winery to the fullest. It’s here that brewers joke that beer fuels the grape harvest, shared over stories of vintage’s past. After a twelve hour days, six days a week, an intimate world is quickly built around the team. Three months can quickly form what feels like a family, quarrels and inside jokes included. But when the last bins are dumped and fermentation stops, harvest hoppers also feel the quick end of harvest, as the final grapes come in. The chorus we hear from tractors, crush equipment, and ourselves fade out like the autumnal sky transitioning into winter. Grapes still hanging on the vine shrivel away to return to the soil that raised it. As winter creeps in, the calm of the end of harvest can be felt like frost blanketing over the vineyard. Cold noses and shorter days replace sweat-filled waking hours. With the adrenaline gone and goodbyes as full as the barrels laying down for malolactic fermentation, harvest interns leave to return to their calmer life at home or to another hempisphere entirely in search of the next season. While it can be jarring to leave an airport fighting a blizzard and land in one in sweltering heat, the excitement and hope of the next vintage propels this entire industry.
They say the best vintage is the one yet to come, reinforcing that an outlook filled with hope, hard work, and camaraderie should be celebrated.
Broadbent, J. (2023) Global wine sales in 2022 in six graphs, Just Drinks. Available at: https://www.just-drinks.com/features/global-wine-sales-2022-oiv-in-six-graphs/ (Accessed: 18 December 2023).
Facebook. (2023) Travelling Winekakers – Living the Dream!!. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2883325456 (Accessed: 18 December 2023).