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Working at the Winery

Diesel Picking Grapes

Diesel Picking Grapes

We are finally the masters of our destinies! After spending a few days in Sydney with Tim’s friends Rachel and Terry and then heading to Brisbane, where I was reunited with my Ozzy friend Tanya, whom I met 10 years ago in Germany (!), we got our camper van and started heading west into the Granite Belt region in the state of Queensland. We’ve been driving through beautiful country roads, cutting through endless green fields where cattle grazes freely, sugarcane fields and orchards, always followed by big, big blue skies that go on as far as the eye can see. Never in my life have I seen such vast amounts of land and clouds. Most of the Ozzy population is concentrated in the biggest cities (Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, etc.) while the rest of the country is sparsely populated. The Granite Belt is known for growing cattle, crops (apples, pears, sugarcane, etc) and it’s boutique wineries. Though the wine producers here do not share the same notoriety with their southern counterparts (the famous regions in the South around Adeleine, etc), the region has about 50 boutique wineries, small, mom-and-pop type places that remind me of the Zillah region of Eastern Washington, where the wineries are still quite young and the producers still experimenting. Diesel and I decided to drive around the town of Stanthorpe visiting the wineries around it. We stopped at a few wineries, until we reached Lucas Estates, where, in talking to the lady behind the counter, Diesel found out that they were going to be picking up the last of their vines the following day. A few minutes later, Diesel returns from the back room with a grin: “We are going to be working tomorrow! Not sure what we’re doing, could be hard work, could be just watching, but they told us to be here at 7am!” Great. Four months of no work at all, and now we have to get up at 7am. But at 7 on the dot, there we were. As we pulled into the parking lot, we saw our fellow workers. Hmm, these people did not seem like what I imagine farm workers to be. An older couple in their 70s, a chatty German transplant, a burly man named Alan, the owner’s brother. Judging from the people that showed up, this couldn’t be hard work! Shortly after our arrival, Louise invited us for a tea/coffee hour before we got our hands dirty. Louise is the chief of the whole operation, a short-haired, vivacious, petite woman wearing her Wranglers and a cowboy hat, just what I pictured an Australian outback woman to be like. I must confess that I was quite crushed when I found out that she is actually English. Anyhow, we were all served coffee/tea and brownies. This was starting to look pretty good. No work and free treats! But then, something happened. Bertha, the German woman, started opening her tupperware and at closer inspection, I saw that she was eating chicken and rice. And then I looked over and realized that the couple, Pat and Paul, had ham and cheese sandwiches. What the hell was happening here??? What kind of manual labor requires CHICKEN, HAM and other hardy foods for breakfast? Excuse me, but Diesel and I just had yogurt and muesli for breakfast and no, we didn’t bring our tupperware pyramid filled with chicken and ham. And then, I noticed something else. They all had thick brimmed hats, water belts, gloves, all this gear! This was going downhill. After coffee/tea, we all headed over to the cabernet plot. Armed with a big bucket and clippers, we started cutting off the grapes. Surprisingly, grapes do not require gentle care when picking. You cut it and plop them into the big buckets. Then you dump all of the contents of the bucket into this huge bin at the back of a tractor. And so that’s what we did. For one, two, three, hours. What was amazing to me is that all those people had what you call “experience” in what they were doing. The older couple was doing a row of grapes by themselves while the rest of us could barely keep up with them. Bertha talked a bunch, but was a fast picker as well. After a few hours we were joined by more pickers, including a Taiwanese girl named Joyce, a former English teacher that had been working and traveling across Australia and New Zealand for the past two years. The tiny girl worked on shrimping boats, apple farms, you name it. She was efficiently picking grapes here and there, untangling them from the vines, filling buckets right and left and there I was, my back aching, thirsty, hungry. It was 12:40pm when I looked at my watch. We had been working for almost six hours straight and I was hungry. I looked to my right. Then to my left. No signs of mutiny of any sort. The people were moving swiftly from vine to vine, and I saw no signs that any rebellion of hungry workers was going to happen. And since I didn’t want to be THAT girl, I whispered to Joyce who was dilligently pruning one of the vines across from me: “Pssst, Joyce. What time is lunch?” And Joyce, being Asian and all, repeats the question aloud so everybody can hear her: “WHAT? LUNCH? YOU WANT FOOD?” And it was then that we were told that people had “voted” to eat lunch only after we finished the Cabernet grapes AND the Shiraz grapes. I looked over. There were still several rows of vines full with grapes, ready to be picked. My heart sank, but much to Diesel’s amazement, I stuck it out. And yes, I’m being dramatic. The work was actually fun, and we met some cool people while doing it. I talked to Bertha some more. She moved to Australia some 15 years ago, extending her backpacking trip and then later, deciding to live here. She lived in the area and owned a design company with her husband. She did odd jobs picking grapes, apples, etc (she told us she does NOT do tomatoes, which are hard to pick). When I asked Bertha if there were a lot of people like Tim and I, who did this “for fun,” she was stunned: “Fun? What? You mean you’re not getting paid?” When I told her it was really for fun, she looked at me in disbelief. Despite my inexperience and unpreparedness, I survived the work and at 2:3o, we broke out for lunch. Louise and her crew made sure that Dies and I got one of their homemade lunches made with organic veggies picked from their own gardens and they sent us off with a couple of free bottles of wine. They also let us watch them as they crushed all the grapes (the 6 or so pickers picked over 2 tons of grapes!), fermented them and moved them to the vats. We watched Louise, her brother Alan, Penny and the rest of the crew busily move from machine to tractor to forklift, taking care of everything. Louise, in particular, did everything with a smile on her face, a determination that can only stem from the passion she had for both the vines and the wine she produced. We said our good-byes and thank-yous and got in our van, ready to head north.

All the Other Grape Pickers

All the Other Grape Pickers

Alan, me and Louise

Alan, me and Louise

Jim on a Tractor

Jim on a Tractor

 

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One Response

  1. Do you now belong to the “experienced pickers”? At least you know you could get some cash and maybe extend your trip by a few months! Was this “fun” just for one day?

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