Saturday, May 9, 2009

Power to the People

Recently I read a short article about the unsung heroes of the wine industry. To me it seems apparent that much of what is written about the wine industry is catered to the white collared wine club members who subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast and can afford to attend various ‘Grand Tastings’ on their own buck. I’ll be perfectly honest in saying that their perspective on wine might be ‘informed’ to an extent, but is largely superficial and overly ignorant and privileged. We rarely hear about the people who actually make the wine: the hearty vineyard workers who reek from spraying fish oil on the entire vineyard before winter sets in, the seasoned winemaker who has taken on the lifestyle as part of the next generation and knows nothing else, the full-time cellar-hands who work 80 hours a week for two months during harvest even though their salary doesn’t REALLY account for it, or the temporary harvest staff who travel the world soaking up knowledge and experience to channel into their own venture somewhere down the line. From my experiences, the people in the industry are as interesting as the wines themselves. A while back I took a class on community organizing and learned about the power of ‘getting to know’ one-another. As a result, I’m a firm believer in the idea that one’s life is made fuller by the people with whom he/she surrounds themselves, and makes an effort to get-to know. What follows is a BRIEF documentation of some of the notable personalities I’ve encountered during my voyage here to NZ as a worker in the wine industry. Some of them are insiders, some have loose ties to the craft, and some have nothing more to do with wine than being able to drink it, but they all in their own right have a damn good story to tell. Enjoy.

C- Old second generation apple farmer. He sold the orchard property inherited from his father that now sits under vine as most of the estate grown fruit surrounding the winery where I work. He lives in a little shack at the top of the hill in his old ‘picker’s’ quarters. Aside from being the first man in Nelson to own state of the art scuba gear, being an avid sailor, and cooking a mean steak, he’s heavily weary of organic farming and biodynamics and thinks they’re only a hippie idealistic marketing tool that produces rotten shit fruit.

S- A hard, tanned, seasoned field worker. He came to Nelson to visit his daughter nearly a year ago and has stayed indefinitely, working in the vineyard here to support his simple lifestyle. Over the years he’s done surf and ski trips around both islands solely by motorcycle, served in the air-force, and made an honest living working every imaginable blue collar job in between. His scronny figure and ‘pack-a-day’ smoking habit are a disguise to his brute strength and huge healthy heart.

R- I met this fellow a few weeks back while visiting the ‘intern house’ of a neighbor winery. As the owner of a funky wine bar in Chicago that specializes in comfort food and a stellar wine list, as well as choice entertainment (see: this man came to NZ for two weeks to see how exactly the wine was made and meet the people who made it. He strolled in with his big hair and thick rimmed glasses, instantly filling the room with a surge of positive Midwest energy. After getting over my immediate impression that he might be a ‘neo-black-Ginsberg’ we spent the next few hours talking about the Midwest wine industry, traveling, sox vs cubs vs brewers (and how Cubs fans are the worst in all of baseball), and agreed how pleasant it is to meet a fellow Midwesterner amidst the soothed chaos of world traveling. I hope to someday re-connect with this dynamic fellow.

JB- There is a micro brewery on the ‘historic’ wharf in the closest town to me, Mapua. It was started less than two years ago by an American who after visiting the region many years back found that there was a severe lack of good beer being brewed here. He was a cabinetmaker by trade, home-brewer by passion, and decided to throw all his chips in and move to Nelson to live out his dream. Though much has changed on the beer front in recent times, his brewery is producing some stellar favorites and innovative craft brew creations. The authentic Tex Mex fodder that they offer from the dismal kitchen is as close as I can possibly get to authentic Mexican food here in NZ, AND they have REAL hot sauce like Tapatio, etc. JB has done a great job of rooting himself into the local community with live local music every weekend and making the place welcoming to families with children as well as beer-ies and food-ies alike. If he’s not smiling behind the bar, JB is running around making sure everyone’s pint is full, or chatting with the random traveler.

J- Oddly like myself in certain ways, the current vineyard manager of our estate vineyard is a kiwi bloke who got his undergrad in psychology. He spent some time working harvests in different wineries before sticking to vineyard work. He eventually ended up here at Woollaston where he now oversees all vineyard operations, pushing heavily for organic and biodynamic principles to be practiced and accepted as standard. His connection to the vines is literal, as he lives at the bottom of the vineyard with his wife and three children.

D- A Hawaiian who I recently met (today) at the local brewery/bar. He came to New Zealand seven months ago with nothing and bought a bicycle. In the time since then, he has seen most of the North and South Islands on bike, working as a WOOFFER along the way, with his ‘normal’ daily meals being porridge and honey for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly for lunch, tuna and rice for dinner, and of course plenty of local beer to top it off.

S - Although he’s not someone I met here in New Zealand, S is still a rather mysterious yet iconic character in my books. My current boss worked for him when he spent a harvest in Oregon. S has been around for quite some time in the Oregon wine industry. From the little I know of him and the short interactions I’ve had with him, he’s a ‘straight up no bullshit’ kind of winemaker who’s learned from experience and isn’t afraid to take risks. His knowledge and success are un-apparent from his simple and welcoming demeanor. What I find most striking though is that when killing time during ‘harvest’ between the end of a work day and ‘midnight punchdowns’ he’s quite keen on watching Cohen Brothers movies and bowling.

F- Though it wasn’t on my trip to New Zealand, I met a French winemaker last year at a winemaker’s dinner when I was working for a wine importer. He was the son of an established Rhone ‘vigneron’ and had gone to school for business before taking over operations for his father. The passion for the land and the crop that had been instilled in him from a young age by his father was readily evident in his stories about how he would literally talk to his vines on occasion in hopes it would add to their health and vigor. I just happened to get these stories out of him as I was ‘forced’ to sit with the group of French winemakers at a winemaker dinner in Minneapolis and there were no seats left with the Anglophones. What better an opportunity than to exercise my French speaking?

A- A few weeks back when I went to the ‘Hop-Harvest’ party I got to spend the evening with a fellow American traveler. She was from Massachusetts originally, but had most recently come from the Caribbean. There she had worked as a dive-master taking tourists and private yachts on scuba-diving expeditions. She made bank though on a ship salvage job which paid her trip here to NZ for a whole year. It was crazy to hear the stories of another fellow traveler doing amazing things in another part of the world, and her descriptions of the music and welcoming culture of the people down in that part of the world pushed it up on my list of places to visit SOON. I’m pretty sure she picked grapes here in the Nelson region after I suggested it as a work-possibility and has probably stayed unless the recent cool temperatures have sent her packing.

Mussel Inn- When I traveled over the infamous Takaka hill to Golden Bay a few weeks back (a drive that should by the way of the crow take less than an hour, but so much more thanks to endless switchbacks and tricky navigation) I spent my Saturday night at a local watering hole called the Mussel Inn, which was also coincidentally listed by my Lonely Planet guide as a ‘Favorite.’ It’s a small brewpub in the woods, mildly reminiscent of a bayou-esque shack, but filled with soul and endless stories. After sharing a pint around the fire with a local Nelsonian Glenn and his wife (who were quick to invite me to dinner anytime I wished when we got back home) I had a stellar pork pie before settling back down by the fire with some travelers I’d warmed up to from the hostel I was staying at (a gnarly mix of Canadians, Kiwis, a Brazilian, and an American). In the mix were two young kiwi blokes who I learned were nephews of the pub’s owners. They shared stories of growing up in the area, coming to the shack before it was even a commercial venture, and proved their prowess by snagging a few free rounds from the random employees they ran into throughout the night.

M- A poignant character in my collective recent memory, M is a young German winemaker, no older than myself, whose family owns a wine estate back home. He’s in New Zealand to soak up all that is beautiful and share his overwhelming knowledge and experience of ‘aromatic’ grapes like Riesling with the ‘cowboy’ kiwi winemakers he’s working with here. I found it striking to hear that he has his life virtually graphed out, that his 20’s will consist of traveling the world and learning as much as he can about wine-making, his 30’s shall be a time filled with long and strenuous hours building upon that acquired knowledge and working for the family winery, his 40’s refining the business and taking on leadership from his father, and his 50’s a wealthy retirement where he can start to relax and bask in the pleasant stories, wealth, and experience he’s acquired over the years. Idealistic but admirable.

I hope you enjoyed the reading. My time here in New Zealand is ticking to a close. Please offer suggestions on topics you would like to read about, and I hope to carry on with my posting beyond my time here in this lovely land.