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Our Story: This is how we pick it

“Bucket!” The call rings out like an expletive over the distorted Pearl Jam emanating from an old boombox roped to a macgyvered lighting rig on the back of the tractor. Triple G FM out of Gunnedah provides the anthem to most of our night harvests. Occasionally, I manage to sneak the dial to Triple J, but it’s never too long before outrage ensues and Brian Adams is back.

black sky, sparkly stars

This is how we pick our grapes. Everyone does it a little differently. In Australia the convention is to machine harvest. A grape harvester can blitz through a vineyard far quicker than a team of 20-30 crack pickers. This is the economically sensible way to pick. But we are BLOWFLY—we are neither sensible nor economical. We do it by hand at night. Why such lunacy? Because a machine doesn’t differentiate between a ripe grape and a rotten grape… a leaf, a twig, a lizard. When a human accidentally mistakes a frill neck for a bunch of grapes at 4am, everybody knows about it!

A night in late Feb, the alarm is set for 2am. With a bit of luck and a lot of preparation, one can make it to bed by 9pm and get a few broken hours of sleep before being jolted conscious by the alarm.

At 2am it’s cold and dark. And Coonabarabran was chosen as the sight of the (then) biggest observatory in the southern hemisphere (Siding Springs) specifically because its sky is a distinctly dark shade of dark—resulting in stars that are preposterously bright. So much so that during a new moon one can just about make out words on a page. But the light does little to illuminate black bunches of grapes in the shadows of the vine canopy. So we use headlamps… and floodlights on the macgyvered rig.

At 3am the tractor rolls into the first block of vines. Macgyver directs quality control from the cabin of the tractor and periodically offloads bins with the bobcat. I pick and roam… and eat a lot of grapes. We have a core group of seasoned pickers including a couple of trusted bucket runners. These guys can move. The pickers receive a headlamp and a pair of fruit snips. These snips are unforgivingly sharp and I wear a first aid kit of rapidly depleting band-aids.

As the pickers move up the rows, their hands duck into the canopy to snip and retrieve bunches that are then dropped into a bucket. The canopy is often thick, so a picker is on either side of the vine row. Most wounds are actually self inflicted, but you can understand how sharp implements jabbing towards each other in the dark leads to a bit of nervousness and hesitation. No cuts are serious, but they sting and bleed like hell.

no MOG

When the bucket is almost full, the picker yells (or sighs) “Bucket!”. The bucket runner swoops with an empty (everyone demands the red buckets of course—they go faster), and carries off the full bucket. Runners endure sustained ridicule throughout the night. First, for being lazy do-nothings where fruit is light on the vines, and then where the vines are heavy and they have to carry three or for buckets at a time, they are abused for being weak and slow. The runners give as good as they get… mostly.

It is actually this banter (even more than Cold Chisel) that gets us through the night. A school of thought would have you believe that smarts is measured by academic prowess. But here is an alternative kind of smarts. One in which individuals whose access to and engagement with academia has been minimal, participate in the thrust and parry of insults and deflection with such precision and dizzying speed it would make a creative genius’s head spin… and blush.

This back and forth of barbs and counter-barbs carries on much of the night. It takes guts, lightning wits and a nimble tongue to join the fray. I think I know a few words and even how to use some of them, but I hide in the vines when the jibes fly, sniggering in the dark… and inhaling the occasional grape. I sorely wish I had recorded some of these exchanges, but they would have been much too colourful to print.

All the while the bins slowly fill up with bunches of grapes. Everyone knows and is occasionally reminded that we’re only interested in grapes. We can’t make wine out of MOG (material other than grapes). I venture ahead of the pickers at times, tasting berries. And if I don’t like the taste—too watery, excessive bird damage—we skip those vines. We call it paddock selection.

Quality control

Friend and (blind) winemaker CP Lin taught me the value of tasting the fruit. He once asked me “When your customers sit down to dinner and drink wine, do they assess its quality by sticking probes in it?” The answer is of course no, they stick it in their mouth. So it is with grapes. A lab can churn out a lot of numbers from a sample of grapes, but only the tongue will tell how it tastes. So I never go hungry during a pick. But by dawn my teeth ache from all the sugar and acid.

A renowned attribute of Coonabarabran weather is the night chill. The sub 10ºC temperatures are perfect for the grapes and ensuring they reach the winery in pristine condition. For humans it’s a different story. Around 6am, a severe jet lag-like weariness descends, legs stiffen and the cold seeps through to one’s marrow no matter the layers. Voices dwindle and it gets quiet. There’s just the rustle of leaves punctuated with snips… and the Tinks in the background—did someone switch back to Triple J?

After 6:30, the sky appears to lift. Birds come alive, and there’s a sense of having partied all night with all the resulting hollow fuzziness and vertigo… yet no recollection of any actual party. It’s only after 7am that the sun creeps above the tree-line and hits the recharge button. There’s an acceleration in activity, and not just because hands are thawing. Now we can actually see what we’re doing… and what the snips opposite us are doing. There’s also a sense of urgency. This is a night harvest, and day is coming.

The light reveals Poppy Pete looking down on us from next to the stereo. Poppy Pete is a soft toy with a big smile and a floppy hat who joins us in memory of Peter our previous farm manager. At over 60 years of age, he would out-pick any 20 year old, then go tend to cattle and repair a broken water pipe while he was at it. He was tough, tenacious and an absolute gentleman. A gentle man who one day casually took off his boots at the door of the bank to avoid muddying their carpet. Under his gaze we stride on through dawn and race the sun.

By 10 am everyone is running on their last reserves of energy. The sun is high and it’s warm. Picking is over. There’s no celebration but a huge sense of relief to have this one in the bag. It took a full year of seasonal, logistical, and weather related variables and accompanying stress to get to this point, and now we’ve literally reaped the fruit of our endeavour. But no time to dwell—we still have to turn this stuff into wine and this is only the merlot block. A few beers and it’s off to bed.

This episode of pain, hypothermia and tears, resulted in a delightful little enigma known as bluebottle.

10:30am beer o'clock


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