Working a Vintage in Australia

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One of my childhood destinations I’ve always wanted to visit even before my addiction with travelling the world took hold. I had finally arrived, but with no money and no solidified plans on how to get some. I knew what I had to do to get the ball rolling though. I was visiting one of my mates in Adelaide while I got my shit together. A SIM card, bank accounts and a tax file number. All that good stuff to somewhat integrate myself into society for the time being.

I was emailing farms in the region with very little response. No one is interested much until the worker is at their doorstep in person. I guess it makes sense. Backpackers can be indecisive at times with a non-committal attitude. If something comes up that sounds like a ‘can’t miss’ opportunity, well why not right? This unfortunately had left farmers in the lurch before now not reserving positions for anybody. I was trying to figure out my next move so a pint seemed in order. Drink and think, thinking and drinking. Goes hand in hand. Anyways, enjoying a couple brews with my friend’s workmate, everything fell into place. Her brother was a winemaker and a couple positions may still be available. A couple messages later and it was determined. In a couple days I was heading to Mildura, Victoria to start as a Vintage Cellar Hand.

The Murray River in Mildura, Victoria

I had no idea what this entitled at the time, but ideally I did want to work with wine and this fell at my feet. I pictured a cellar in my mind. Stacked barrels in a large cool room, pulling samples and tasting. This though is what I saw in commercials and television shows. Reality, not so much. As I arrived on my first day I was shocked. An outdoor factory with multiple tanks holding hundreds of thousands of litres of this happy juice. This was mass produced wine on a he scale and not even the biggest of operations. In total approximately 60,000 tons were produced this vintage. I can’t even fathom how many bottles that would add up to.

The job itself was constant for the 6 weeks it lasted. 39 days straight of shift work on a rotating schedule of days, nights and afternoons. I was working in the ‘red’ section starting a couple weeks after the operation for the ‘whites’ was in full swing. The first few days was a bit slow while we waited for the crushers to load up the 28 tanks with juice which we then had to maintain. This was a good buffer period to get the lay of the land and grasp the concepts of all the tasks we would have to perform.

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Winery from ground level

Each shift began the same. All pumps were switched on to rotate the liquid drawing from the bottom and sending it over the top. Secondly, temperatures of the tanks were taken to ensure they are being maintained correctly. If the juice was too hot, on a priority basis it would be hooked up to an industrial chiller where the thousands of litres were slowly cooled to the ideal temp. Samples were drawn from tanks regularly each shift as well and brought to the lab. Different test were done which were used to determine what was needed to refine the product. Once this daily routine was finished, it was time to tackle the winemaker’s notes made up from the lab test and tasting. This could include transfers from one tank to another to spread a ‘bug’ (fermenting agent), to blend or simply lower a tanks level.


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An overflown tank

The most common notes I had to deal with were the variety of different additions that went into the fermenting juice. Natural tartaric acid was the main addition we would make connecting industrial hoses through the hundreds of feet of pipelines and pumping it through a flow meter to accurately add the required amount. Di-ammonium phosphate and tannins would be poured over the top from the catwalk connecting all the tanks. The only addition no one is a fan of is the sulphur dioxide. A toxic gas that turns to acid when coming in contact with a liquid and if accidentally inhaled nearly chokes you out burning your throat and nostrils. Not the most pleasant of experiences.

After a week of fermenting and additions the wine is pressed. This is done by draining the tanks into a ‘hopper’ which is then sent through a press and sieve to remove the seeds, skins and anything else in the wine to be. It is pumped to a fresh tank which concludes the part I played in the production process. From there in would be sent through a centrifuge to remove fine particles and then finishing touches would be performed to ready it for bottles.

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As the vintage came to a close and the tanks became vacant yet again for another year they received a heavy duty clean. Setting up a pump system, diluted caustic would be pumped through showering the tank for an hour or so. This would kill any bacteria that may be present and give a fresh Mr.Clean shine.

This whole experience gave me a new perspective on this product beloved around the world. I knew it was an art form creating a palatable wine from grape to bottle, but never put much thought into the effort it took to complete the process. Not only did this job help my pocket book, but it taught me a lot about the product I take advantage of when in a liquor store or reducing a bottle in the kitchen. A new outlook was gained giving me a greater appreciation of this sweet nectar as I savour every mouth full. I hope to return to see what else there is to learn in 2017’s vintage.

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