Monday, April 25, 2011

Update from the Southern Hemisphere: College Is In Session?

By:  Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team Member from afar

Vintages are a rite of passage in the wine industry; each one survived is another notch on the belt of the winemaker.  Most of the time these notches are accumulated one at a time as each fall approaches, but for those entering the industry it is now common to "chase" the vintage from hemisphere to hemisphere to get in two per calendar year.  Chasing vintages is certainly far easier than the hobby of those who can be found chasing tornados any evening on cable TV, but it often feels just as wild and tiring by the end of it.

Writing from the middle of our vintage in Tasmania, I'm surprised that what strikes me most is not the seasonal difference between where I currently reside and where my body feels like it should be (living through fall-winter fall-winter is counterintuitive to say the least).  Rather, the most interesting thing is the fact that chasing the vintage bears a close resemblance to only one other thing in life: starting at college.  Sound far-fetched?  I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking as much, but the parallels are hard to dismiss once you've gone through both.

I remember leaving for college and all the apprehension and activities surrounding it.  The anxiety of leaving home, a fair bit of travel, unfamiliar terrain and shops, meeting an entirely new group of people, having to settle in for a long haul of work (or not, I suppose, depending on the college experience you choose), not knowing what was next, etc.  Was I excited for whatever would come next?  Absolutely.  But the learning and life skills were just as unknown as anything else.

Leaving for a vintage is not all that different.  You have to leave home, whether that be a wine region or where you live in the interim.  By definition of having to switch from one hemisphere to another, the travel component is certainly there in an extreme iteration.  When you arrive you invariably have to fill out mountains of paperwork for everyone from the winery to visa services to establishing a bank account - just walk through any college town when the freshmen are moving in and the similar urgency to set up banking is apparent.  Depending on far you traveled from home, there may be local-knowledge barriers that you have no way of knowing in advance.  Last year in New Zealand I spent a week going to every large store I could think of to purchase contact lens solution without luck, until someone directed me to the only places you could purchase it in New Zealand - pharmacies.

Beyond all the nuts-and-bolts similarities (I would list accents/language as well, but I had a harder time understanding the Boston accent than I ever have hearing the Australian 'twang'), the way that vintage most closely mirrors beginning college has everything to do with the people.  You are instantly thrown into a group of people from all over who you don't know, yet are close to you in age and motivation - and you are expected to move in together.  I've heard many people debate whether living together or traveling together is more difficult for a relationship; imagine having to do both with people you've never met while simultaneously working with them.

When you start working, the beginning-of-college feel is once again driven home.  The first two weeks tend to include a very basic training program and an extremely light workload before the vintage starts, so everyone hangs out in flip-flops and tosses frisbees or takes trips to the beach.  You might think that the only thing missing are frat houses and toga parties, but I've seen and heard of vintage parties far crazier and more akin to frats than you might ever guess (wineries can be crazy places, especially when a bunch of 20-30 year olds show up).  There is even a distinct phenomenon known as "vintage love," the haphazard and chance combinations of people who just happened to end up at the same place at the same time.  We may not technically be moving into dorms and signing up for meal plans, but if we had to do that as well it wouldn't feel out of place.

Despite all this (or perhaps because of it) there is an unspoken knowledge that all this fun and relaxation are very definitely the calm before the storm of vintage wipes outs all vestiges of relaxation, short workdays, weekends, and anything resembling a sleep schedule.  Where I am this year, we have a vintage crew of seven people from around the globe, and everyone has prior vintage experience.  This is a blessing.  Not only does it mean we all know how to get around a winery very well, it also means we know what to expect in terms of the strain of vintage.  Does that mean we have been immune to the above?  Hardly.  But at least it means we haven't had to worry about anyone cracking under the first time work and personal stress of a vintage.

Those who start meeting folks in the wine industry, especially the viticulture or winemaking sides, often comment on how unique all the people are that they meet.  It seems like everyone has a fascinating backstory of how they got to the wine industry or what they did beforehand.  I used to think this was because the path to the wine industry was still so hidden in post-Prohibition America that it required an interesting path just to find it.  When I think about what those of us entering the industry willingly put ourselves through and eagerly anticipate twice a year, however, I now think that it might simply be that those of us who make it and enjoy it must be a bit cracked to start with.

There's nothing wrong with that, so far as I'm concerned.  Especially when the diploma is a bottle of wine.

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  1. Hey Kelby!
    Love the analogy. As parents who experienced "starting at college" with each of 4 children, we remember that anxiety for not only them, but us as well. I remember thinking that they were going to come home different people (which they did), and also remember hoping that maybe some of what they learned might rub off on us. On that note, we'd love to adopt you for a short time on your return to the states! Continued success to you.

  2. Hey Todd;

    Thanks a lot for your comments and best wishes! It had certainly occurred to me that my parents/family feel like I'm going to college again, although some of the concerns are different now (more related to work, less about whether I'll be able to cook for myself!). Especially as I have traveled further away these past two years than I ever did for college, the anxieties for them are probably quite similar.