By Aaron C. Bardo
Every bottle of wine has a story to tell. From vibrant fairy tales to confounding mysteries to swooning romances, the right glass of wine says it all. Some grapes, like New Zealand’s beloved Sauvignon Blanc, grow happily ever after into refreshing, crisp wines quite naturally. Other grapes, like the delicate Pinot Noir or the tabula rasa Chardonnay, take to the page on a whim, in search of a bold voice for guidance. On the Churton Vineyards, Sam, Mandy, and Ben Weaver are that collective voice; together, they write stories too good to be fiction. For vintage 2013, I flew down to Marlborough to experience their wines from the ground up.
From Wellington to Blenheim, I took a six-shooter plane over the Marlborough Sounds for just over one hundred Kiwi dollars. I boarded the plane with one other passenger; our captain cordially loaded our luggage and closed the hobbit-?sized cabin door. I shuddered to think of taking off on a “Windy Wellington” day, but on this fine April afternoon Wellington’s winds behaved themselves. We took off into blue skies, rolling sounds and brazen clouds. In a half hour, Wellington’s steel-green cityscape brightened into the sepia-?toned patchwork of wine-country. Hectares upon hectares of pinot noir, chardonnay, viognier, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc, riesling, etc. swept towards the horizon.
Twin pistons touched down. The other passenger on the plane offered to give me a lift. I declined with a thank you; a few minutes later Sam Weaver arrived in his vineyard-weathered Outback. He brought me to the supermarket and then to his son’s house, where I would live for the next two weeks.
Waking before the sun. Nectarine lights peer through shades of gray. I’m up. Breakfast with a coffee dark as the country night. Leftovers packed for lunch. Bed made, teeth brushed. I step into a morning ripe with dew and air cold enough to see.
The Weavers had given me keys to a vineyard Ute for my daily commute. Green, a truck-bed made of 2x4s and steel, and black and blue all over, it was the perfect farmhand. By 6:30 A.M., I’ve got it warmed up to hit the road with the rest of the morning workforce. I pass vans sardined with pickers and trucks heavy as their drivers’ eyelids. Like wildfire, the sunrise consumes everything I pass, leaving a blinding glow in my rearview mirrors.
I drive from Blenheim to Renwick, learning the road’s curves like my hometown. A lava of fog covers the Waihopai Valley; dew clings to the air as it does the grass. I pull to the side of the road, headlights on. I open the door and take a few steps towards a beat fence, admiring the scene. Nectarine beams shimmer through a shadow of trees. A spider-web hangs from the fence, heavy with sweat. A few sheep stir, bathing in the warmth of day on the rise.
I roll to a stop just before 7 A.M. outside a three-door open garage known as The Shed. Dawn’s all-consuming orange has ebbed into a soft peach. Rows upon rows of vines rustle beneath the light, hungry for nutrients. To the north, a mountainous green rises from Blenheim all the way to the coast, where it falls into the Marlborough Sounds. To the south, the Kaikoura Range rises up in arid glory. The last of the dawn fog recedes from Churton’s glistening blocks.
I step into the wet grass, covered all the way from my gumboots to my winter hat. A pair of shorts and a jersey huddle against my packed lunch just in case. I’m told that these frigid nights turn into pristine days—aiding the Marlborough region to become a “crown jewel” of the New Zealand wine industry.
Brief introductions lead to work. I load a trailer with crates higher than my six feet. They are black, rigid things that clench down on bare fingers. I hop on to keep the crates in place, a pair of gloves in my back pocket. Kevin, the vineyard’s handyman, sits at the helm of “Smokey”. In a few days’ time, I learn how to lumber through the vines on the hardy old-timer of a tractor, but not today. Today I am fresh legs, arms and back; something that this four-man crew, made up of Kevin, Chris, Lynsey and Kelly, need.
I let the first crate fly. It hits the ground with a soft clunk before sliding to a stop in the wet grass. Every crate lands differently. As Kevin makes a wide turn towards the next untouched row, I look back. A spattering of black crates follows the hill’s curvature towards the pallid southern range. The skies above inundate with morning blues. Light purple Pinot Noir cascades from each row; the vines are ready to be plucked.
The pickers arrive just after 7:30 A.M. in a parade of cars. Two vans, one station wagon and a pair of sedans complete the entourage. From open doors, out pour pickers of all shapes and sizes. Layered from head to toe, Germans, South Koreans, French, Americans, Maoris, and Vietnamese step into their own breath. The “gang” of pickers circles around its leader, anticipating another day of back-bending labor and hand-rolled cigarettes.
After the pickers take a row, we follow. Every shade, shadow, color, taste, feel and movement is new to me. Kevin tractors along as Chris and I stack crates of grapes bulging opaque with nectar. Everyone on the vineyard uses gloves except for Chris. She’s got hard, Kiwi hands.
The pickers work quickly. We start up the second tractor to match them. As we catch their pace, I turn to one of the pickers in the row next to me. “It’s a good workout.” Through puffs of his cigarette, he replies, “Nah, mate, I was built for this.” He bends, snips, carries, bends, snips, carries, all morning long, low and sweet between grapes, a durry dangling eternally from his crooked smile. The bees hum, the fantails play, the vineyard dog, Coco Chanel, pursues.
We break for a “Smoke-O” by mid-morning. Cigarettes, coffee and sustenance. I pull out my shorts and snack. A few of the local boys pull out a ball. They don’t need a break to change clothes or smoke durries; what they need are a few precious moments to play rugby between vines.
The crates take our day. From rows to blocks, vineyard to winery, we load up the Utes and their trailers a handful of times. Although the pickers stay behind, the rest of us vineyard beasts end our days at the winery. Coco Chanel, the loveliest of all the beasts, is too tired to make it. By mid-afternoon, I’ve got the last of the day’s harvest in my rearview mirror driving up Route 6.
Although Coco does not make the trip, her bees, birds, spiders, caterpillars and stinkbugs certainly do. The assembly line writhes with movement. It’s our job to separate the living from the dying. Besides the friendly insects—being one of the more peaceful nations on this planet, not even New Zealand insects are poisonous— we discard leaves, stems, under-developed, botrytis and bird-pecked berries. Most clumps are fit for Bacchus, but when we do find a cluster of small grapes, we test them for tartness the old fashioned way: by eating them. We separate like madmen, sorting, tasting, and chucking in an incohesive rhythm before the assembly line steals the rest. It’s a delicious duty, but by the time tons have been reduced to nothing, I am drenched from the inside out in grape juice; my fingers woven into gloves, I peel them from the assembly line.
The sun leans heavy on the horizon. The eastern sky begins to wither as the west blossoms. The air cools, juice coagulates, but my day tramps on. The stubborn, empty crates need their bath before the sun loses its balance completely. Hundreds of crates stacked ten feet high lie in wait, complacently mocking our next hour of tribulation.
Lynsey takes to the fireman’s hose with the ferocity of a woman who wants a sizzling shower and warm meal. I follow her lead, toppling three towers of sticky terror. They hit the ground with a slam. Chris, Lynsey, Kelly and I rotate between unstacking, hosing, organizing and restacking. We soak with the crates.
Back to the Glass
Wet, tired, hungry, cold. I get back in my Ute and drive the half hour back to Ben Weaver’s place. A hot shower, a hardy meal (with leftovers for lunch) and a welcoming bed compel me to speeds over 100 km/h through autumn-?leaf air. The cloudless day turns to a starry night.
City-life seems distant. Country-life makes sense: it’s burning and true. It’s sore and simple and refreshing. It’s fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, legs and feet from dawn till the day is done.
I don’t spend enough time in wine country –and if you are reading this, then you probably don’t either. A city is all hustle and bustle. It’s got no patience to admire changes in light or marvel at the way things work. It expects everything right now, rarely respecting the time it takes to get there.
As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” From country to city, ground to glass, a bottle of wine epitomizes that journey. Every bottle has a story to tell, so the next time you open one, make sure to get yourself a nice glass, even better company, and a quiet place to listen. Let the journey decant. Let wine country flow.
About the Author: Aaron Caleb Bardo is a writer/photographer wandering the world. After graduating from Elon University with a B.A. in Professional Writing & Rhetoric in 2009, Aaron moved to Santiago, Chile, where he taught English in a private Opus Dei school. After two and a half years of learning the language, immersing himself in the culture, and travelling parts of South and Central America, he moved on. From South America to the South Pacific, he ended up in Wellington, New Zealand, where he currently resides.
Aaron is a regular contributor and editor with What’s Happening w/ Original Artists (WHOA) Magazine. He has also written for other publications such as Thought Catalog and JaxFax Travel Marketing Magazine.